2022 Yearender: All the world’s Ukraine

Nourhan Al-Sheikh
Monday 19 Dec 2022

Nourhan Al-Sheikh sums up the crisis that has affected the world like no other all through 2022


For two decades, since the Orange Revolution of 2004, Ukraine has been close to the centre of both Washington’s and Moscow’s chessboards. The US and EU have been manoeuvering to incorporate it into the Western security order, thereby achieving an unprecedented strategic edge over Russia. With bases in Ukraine, NATO missiles could strike Moscow in under five minutes, giving Russia no time to react. Russia has no intention of allowing NATO on its doorstep or letting Kyiv, the first capital of ancient Russia and an integral part of both the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union, to become the adversary’s spearhead.

After the war in the Donbas broke out in 2014, hopes were pinned on the Normandy Quartet (Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France) and the Minsk II accord that emerged from that format in 2015 to resolve the conflict. Nevertheless, Western backed Ukrainian forces continued to violate the ceasefire and renege on other terms of the Minsk Agreement. Tensions mounted until suddenly, at dawn on 24 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the Special Military Operation whereby Russian forces crossed into the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The operation had four main objectives: to destroy and neutralise the Ukrainian military, to gain control over Ukrainian nuclear facilities to prevent Kyiv from access to nuclear weapons (as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had hinted was his government’s aim in his address to the Munich Security Conference in mid February), to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the Donbas and support the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics against Kyiv, and to ensure that Ukraine does not become a member of NATO and remains neutral.

The moment war broke out, the US, EU, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea unleashed rafts of economic sanctions of a scale unprecedented even during the Cold War. Washington and its allies campaigned furiously to isolate Russia politically, economically and culturally. Their aim was to destroy the Russian economy, destabilise Russia and overthrow Putin. As painful as those sanctions were, Russia managed to weather the tsunami and keep its economy running, if at a slower pace than before the crisis.

As Putin pointed out: “It is impossible to isolate Russia. Just look at the map.” The Russian economy showed a high degree of resilience. Many Russian firms reoriented themselves towards new markets and engaged various means to avoid sanctions. It helped that Russia was already open to large economic spaces in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, where countries maintained a constructive neutrality that enabled them to pursue their national interests. China, India, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the countries of the South that most clearly articulated this stance. Moscow was thus able to find alternative markets for Russian energy and, with rising oil prices, Russian revenues from energy sales climbed to levels even higher than before the sanctions. It was this success that prompted the EU’s decision to impose a price cap on Russian oil, following suit with the US, Canada and Australia. The effects of the measure may go beyond its intended result, namely to inflict pain on Russia. Some analysts fear that it will destabilise the global oil market since the Kremlin’s decision not to sell oil to countries that apply the cap means that it might have to cut production, which would drive up prices.

Russia is not just rich in oil and gas, it is also rich in many other natural resources. It is self-sufficient in energy and grains and a main player in global supply chains. It is the largest exporter of grains and natural gas, the second largest exporter of oil, and a main exporter of fertilisers essential to the agricultural sectors of many developing world econmies. However, Moscow still had to contend with Western moves to freeze and possibly confiscate Russian hard currency assets. Accordingly, it continued to sell oil and gas to “unfriendly countries” but now insisted they should pay in rubles into Russian banks. It simultaneously expanded transactions using national currencies instead of dollars with many trading partners. The Russian Central Bank also cut interest rates, the last time being on 16 September to 7.5 per cent, and it required exporters in Russia to sell 80 per cent of their foreign exchange revenues on the Moscow Stock Exchange. The ruble has recovered remarkably due to such measures, setting records in exchange rates against the dollar and euro. Nor has production across the various sectors declined as much as many had predicted thanks to actions the government has taken to support Russian firms hit by sanctions, including allocating about 100 billion rubles to stabilise the national economy.

If the purpose of sanctions was to turn the Russian people against their government, that also appears not to have worked. Due to the war, the Russians have rallied behind their political leadership despite the economic difficulties. At the same time, the government acted swiftly and effectively to buffer the people against hardship, intervening to ensure the availability and price stability of basic commodities and increasing pensions by 10 per cent. Although the partial mobilisation the Russian Ministry of Defence launched in September triggered widespread dismay and a sizeable exodus of men of military service age, this did not affect political stability or significantly diminish popular support for President Putin. Moreover, the partial mobilisation was indeed limited, since it ended in a couple of months, and recruits were treated like pensioners and offered respectable monthly salaries. According to a survey conducted by one Russian public opinion research centre in Russia from 11 to 13 November, the majority of Russians (77 per cent) approved of President Putin’s job performance and 76 per cent said that they trusted him.

As for the war in Ukraine, Russia claims to have made progress towards achieving its main objectives. On 7 December, Putin acknowledged that the special military operation could be a long process, but stressed that it had already yielded significant results. Some results may only manifest themselves in a long while, he said. But new territories have emerged and the Sea of Azov has become a Russian inland sea. He was referring, of course, to the annexation of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, territories that cover 109,000 sq km or about 20 per cent of Ukraine, following referendums that were held in these regions on 23-27 September. The Donbas is of major strategic and economic value. It is crucial to protecting the Crimea and Russia’s access to the Black Sea. It is also an industrial heartland, a grain-producing centre and one of the largest mining regions in Europe, rich in both coal reserves and iron deposits. Zaporizhzhia is home to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.

The Russian withdrawal from the west bank of Kherson was tactical and did not diminish the gains. The purpose was to preserve troops in Kherson city that would have been left stranded and without supplies if Ukrainian forces managed to destroy the Kakhovka reservoir dam, flooding the southern Dnipro valley. In withdrawing from the west bank, Russia eliminated a major vulnerability and simultaneously freed thousands of troops for redeployment at the front in Donetsk where Russian forces have been making slow but steady advances.

Observers anticipate that fighting will intensify in the winter when navigating the terrain becomes easier. But many fear that, the longer the war continues, the greater the likelihood that it will slide into a world war and the higher the risks that one side or the other will use nuclear weapons, which is why alarm bells went off when Ukrainian missiles dropped in Poland last month. According to a policy statement issued on 2 June 2020, Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in retaliation against an attack by nuclear missiles or other weapons of mass destruction or in the event of an aggression using conventional weapons that presents an existential threat to itself. Western sources have voiced concerns that Russia might use limited tactical nuclear weapons while International Atomic Energy Agency experts fear a nuclear accident due to Ukrainian missile strikes close to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, operating under Russian control since April. President Putin, earlier this month, agreed that the threat of a nuclear war was rising but stressed that Russia “had not gone mad”. He stated that Russia would never strike first using a nuclear weapon, but reserved the right to retaliate if attacked.

While the nuclear threat looms, the fallout from the war in Ukraine is already wreaking immense harm around the world. According to the UN, 107 countries - more than 55 per cent of the UN’s member nations - suffer from the combined onslaught of crises of varying degrees of severity in food, energy, and liquidity. Two billion people face the threat of famine due to the disruptions in supply chains caused by the war and the sanctions against Russia. Food and energy prices are shooting up, currencies are losing value, and the global economy is on the verge of a major recession.

Repercussions from the crisis have rippled through the structure of the international order. There is no longer any doubt that Washington has lost its absolute hegemony over international affairs and that a multipolar order is coalescing. China and Russia are playing increasingly pivotal roles that restrain Washington’s previously unchecked freedom of movement. The dollar is losing its status as the dominant global currency, which will ultimately affect the US’ economic standing and deprive Washington of an important tool to assert its influence. It is equally clear that the world is headed for a period of polarisation, but not along rigid ideological divides as was the case during the Cold War. Rather, national interests will be the primary determinant. Evidence of that trend can be found in the fact that as hard as the US campaigned to muster a universal condemnation and boycott of Russia, many countries resisted pressures from Washington and other Western powers even as they reached the point of not so thinly veiled threats. China, India and others share vital mutual interests with Russia and they saw no reason to sacrifice these for the sake of one side or the other of the current geopolitical power struggle.

Although a degree of polarisation had existed before, it has crystallised more clearly than ever. On one side is the group of nations fighting to preserve a world order dominated by the US hegemon and bent on eliminating the threats to that hegemony starting with Russia. On the other side is the group of nations led by Russia and China, seeking to create a more just and equitable multipolar order. The division between the two camps expressed itself in votes on UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia. While the first group garnered the most votes, the second, made up of countries that either abstained or voted against the resolutions, represented the majority of the world’s population and a strategic, economic and demographic weight that can not be ignored.

The political, economic and geostrategic repercussions of the war in Ukraine will accumulate further in the next year. How precisely they will interact is difficult to predict, but they will most probably combine to go on shaping a new international order characterised by plurality and a fairer balance of interests and forces.


The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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