The Centre for Arab Unity Studies (CAUS) held a webinar last week on the Russian-NATO confrontation in Ukraine and related international developments. Among the issues addressed first was how to frame the events that led to this point. Was this a Western devised scheme to wreak attrition on Russia by luring it into a protracted conflict, as occurred to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan? Or was the invasion a preemptive Russian strike to stop NATO expansion into Ukraine – a direct threat to Russian national security?
Many believe that the analogy with Afghanistan was part of Western propaganda intended to cast Moscow as the reactive player, a characterisation enhanced by the Western media emphasis on the slowness of the Russian military advance. Proponents of this view argue that the comparison between Ukraine and Afghanistan does not hold in terms of either scope or, more importantly, results. They predict that where Russia failed in Afghanistan, it would succeed in Ukraine. It would be only a matter of days before Russia’s specialised counter guerrilla forces prepared the ground for the Russian army’s entry into Kyiv to impose Moscow’s two main demands, the disarmament of Ukraine and the ouster of extreme right-wing political elites. Any delay in achieving these objectives would be primarily the product of Russian calculations, which are focused on targeting the adversary’s military capacities not on destroying Ukrainian infrastructure.
The opposing view, which subscribes to the theory of a conspiracy to ensnare Russia in a Ukrainian trap, held that the Western aim is to strengthen NATO by forcing Russia into such an international stranglehold that its leaders would be driven to go to war for geostrategic purposes regardless of the enormous economic cost. This invites debate on the extent to which Russia and its people have coped with economic sanctions since 2014.
The seminar also addressed the impact of the Ukrainian war on the world order. Much will be contingent on the outcome of the war, but that is not the only factor. Even supposing that Russia fails to accomplish its military and political objectives in Ukraine and NATO grows stronger as a result, Washington’s continued leadership of NATO is not a foregone conclusion especially in light of its allies’ experience with that leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is no accident that Germany has embarked on an ambitious programme to overhaul its military and radically upgrade its defence strategy, or that some European powers that have remained neutral, reconsidering their stance. To the east is the emergent Chinese giant. If the war in Ukraine has distracted Washington momentarily, ultimately the US – originally an imperialist project defended and advanced through a series of wars – will not tolerate rivalry at the international helm. One of the speakers put it this way: if the United States does not remain at the top of the world order, it will not remain united.
This invites questions about the relationship between history and change. One opinion holds that leaders who have made major changes in the world order were good readers of history. Another view voiced doubts over the extent to which history could be relied on as an agent of change in any particular direction. Global geopolitical realities were extremely complex. At the level of Eurasian-Atlantic interactions, alone, their trajectories and impacts on the future of the world order was too multifaceted a question to make solid forecasts.
The third issue was of a moral nature. How can one express sympathy with Russia’s legitimate need to safeguard its national security while simultaneously opposing recourse to force to realise its demands? Many participants observed that a large segment of Arab public opinion was inclined to support Russia’s grievance against NATO expansions into countries that had once been part of the Eastern Bloc and the larger Soviet Empire. More crucially, some asked how one can reconcile support for the Russian action in Ukraine while opposing the US behaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more importantly, Israel’s behaviour in Palestine under the rubric of defending national security? One view holds that if Russia had restricted its operation to the Donbas region with the aim of driving out Ukrainian forces to enable the Donetsk and Luhansk republics to hold a referendum on the right to self determination, the Russian stance would have greater legitimacy since the two republics have predominantly ethnically Russian populations. Others argue that this view does not resolve the legitimacy question since it encourages secessionist movements which, if left unchecked, would lead to a proliferation of small states. After all, no country is without minority populations.
Turning to the position of Arab states on the Ukraine question, it was observed how Syria was the only Arab country whose support for Russia went beyond the diplomatic level, as expressed in its vote against the recent UN Security Council resolution on Ukraine, to the logistic level. The facilities that Russia has in Syrian ports epitomise how intertwined Russia and Syria are. Just as the Russian intervention in Syria rescued that country from falling into the hands of terrorists, Syria is one of the regions that will be most affected by developments in the conflict in Ukraine.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.