Urgent Ukraine diplomacy needed

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Wednesday 5 Oct 2022

All indications are that, far from winding down, the seven-month-old war in Ukraine is heading for greater escalation, at least in the short term, with the nightmarish scenario of nuclear weapons on the cards.


Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex four border regions that are officially part of Ukraine, the United States and European allies said they would respond by imposing more sanctions on Russia and provide Ukraine with even more advanced weaponry.

Meanwhile, an unprecedented, mysterious act of sabotage targeted the huge underwater Nord Stream I and II pipelines, which carry gas from Russia to Germany. Nord Stream II had not started functioning despite huge, billion-dollar investments since its launch coincided with the buildup to the war which broke out on 24 February. To express anger at key European nations that supported the government in Kyiv and provided it with weapons, Moscow stopped pumping gas to Europe through Nord Stream I a few weeks ago, claiming that there were technical problems that needed to be fixed.

Both Russia and the United States traded accusations as to who was behind the attack. Washington claims Moscow wanted to blackmail Europe by depriving it of gas exports for a long time to come, particularly ahead of the approaching winter, when there is dire need for heating gas. Russian officials said such claims were ridiculous, claiming Ukraine, Poland and the United States wanted to terminate any European dependence on Russian gas and oil, insisting that it made no sense for Moscow to destroy an infrastructure it owned and spent billions to build.

According to European security experts, the real fear at present is that the attack against the Nord Stream pipelines might turn out to be the opening shot in possible future attacks on similar underwater infrastructure that is practically impossible to protect. This would not only threaten Europe, but the entire global economy as oil and gas prices would skyrocket. The Ukraine war’s global impact has been disastrous, particularly for poor and developing countries in Africa and Asia. The consequences will only become more pronounced the longer the war lasts.

Developing and poor nations are struggling not to go the way of Sri Lanka, which declared bankruptcy, after their import bills doubled or tripled. Shortages are reported not only in wheat and other basic commodities such as cooking oil and seeds, but also in fertilisers, which may bring about failing crops. Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly 18 per cent of global grain exports, providing most imported grain in Africa and the Middle East.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, an international agreement involving Ukraine and Russia that was mediated by Turkey and the United Nations and came in effect on 1 August, paved the way for a humanitarian maritime corridor for grain supplies through the Black Sea, allowing both Ukraine and Russia to resume food exports that had been discontinued because of the war. This helped alleviate food shortages around the world, but is far from enough to cover world demand.

Although escalation in the coming weeks is more likely, this should not mean disregarding hope for a diplomatic solution. Such a solution would not only bring stability back to Europe, but also save the entire world from a deteriorating economic crisis taking its toll on the developing world.

A diplomatic agreement to end, or even to reduce escalation in Ukraine is urgently needed. Turkey, along with the UN, previously led the mediation effort to put into effect the Black Sea Grain Initiative. More recently Saudi Arabia mediated a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine that included foreign nationals from the United States, Britain and Morocco.

For decades, it was the United States and Russia (or the former Soviet Union) that intervened to end flaring wars in the Middle East. Capitalising on good relations with both sides, perhaps key Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are in a position to help bring about some diplomatic solutions to help de-escalate the conflict and find ways to bring it to an end now that developments have brought it to a crossroads of sorts, with the risk of deterioration counterbalanced by readiness for a diplomatic solution.

Yet no diplomatic climb-down can be achieved if one party to the conflict insists on the other’s total defeat. Even judging by the experience of the last seven months, Ukraine is fully aware that the United States and its European allies will not take part in an open war against Russia to defend their country. They will provide generous support to the Ukrainian army to inflict maximum losses on the Russian army, but they will not even risk approving Kyiv’s recent request to join the NATO alliance.

Russia, on the other hand, might have its own grievances, dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and genuine security fears. However, the Russian leader will have heard the message even from his closest allies that the entire world is tired of its consequences. A compromise not intended to humiliate or crush one side is the only way forward for the whole world.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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