Diplomacy rather than escalation in Ukraine

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Tuesday 20 Sep 2022

In the last few weeks, Russia has suffered a series of military setbacks in its “special military operation” against Ukraine.


For the US-European alliance seeking to defeat Russia, those setbacks were hailed as major victories, particularly as Ukraine has recaptured dozens of towns and cities in the east and northeast of the country, many seized by Russia at the start of the war seven months ago.

Ye, those military developments have also resulted in an escalation in rhetoric that brought up the unthinkable for the first time in decades: the threat of nuclear warfare, even in the form of small or so-called tactical weapons.

The post-World War II world order has been based on the belief that, notwithstanding ideological differences, world leaders will agree that the use of nuclear weapons cannot be an option. Seeing the disastrous, horrific losses that resulted from the use of US atomic bombs to force Japan to surrender had led to the acknowledgement that a nuclear between the world’s two superpowers at the time, the United States and the former Soviet Union, would amount to an Armageddon scenario, not just a passing war.  

Even in the worst Cold War years, Washington and Moscow signed many agreements, established a direct hotline between the White House and the Kremlin, and pledged to reduce their nuclear arsenals, all steps aimed at ensuring that no misunderstanding could escalate into a nuclear confrontation.

Decades later, however, the exchange of threats to resort to nuclear weapons is being debated like any other news story in the light of the Russia-Ukraine war. Western analysts have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin, eager to deny claims that his forces were being defeated in Ukraine, might resort to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

In statements on Sunday, US President Joe Biden minced no words when he warned his Russian counterpart against even considering the option of using nuclear or chemical weapons. Asked by a “60 Minutes” CBS reporter what he would say to Putin if he was considering using such weapons, Biden said: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”   

Russian government officials have dismissed Western suggestions that Moscow might be using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but it remains extremely worrisome for Western governments to read repeated statements by one of Putin’s closest allies, the president of Belarus, that the world “is on the verge of a nuclear war”.

Instead of listing the use of nuclear weapons as an option or possibility, leaders of the United States and Europe should work towards communicating with Russia in order to diminish the risks of a nuclear conflict. The erosion of such communication channels can only increase the chance of an accidental escalation into war.

During the Cold War, even the threat of using nuclear weapons was seen as a violation of understandings between the two superpowers. Instead the United States and the former Soviet Union opted for so-called proxy wars in several parts of the world, mostly in poor and developing nations that paid an extremely high price in terms of human loss and delayed development.

Needless to say, this irresponsible debate on nuclear weapons among major world powers is only making the world economic crisis worse, particularly for developing and low-income nations in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. And so those same countries are paying a hefty price, even when no wars are taking place on their own territories.

Even before the recent escalation of threats between the US and Russia, seven months of fighting between Russia and Ukraine – two farming powerhouses – had plunged a teetering global food system into catastrophe, leaving millions of people facing starvation.

The war is exacerbating a crisis already fuelled by climate change, soaring costs of living and a fertiliser price hike that is creating the most acute global food crisis in decades. A UN-brokered agreement to reopen the Black Sea for food ships may not be enough to bring relief to the millions of people struggling to eat across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Humanitarian agencies are scrambling to prepare for even more critical levels of hunger, as they face a $14 billion annual gap in food security spending. Humanitarian agencies were forced to slash food rations in countries like Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Across East Africa as a whole, some 50 million people are facing acute food crises, according to UN figures.

The rising prices of basic foods such as wheat and cooking oil have left many countries struggling to pay for food imports. High energy prices have also put extra pressure on cash-strapped developing nations.

In Lebanon, a large importer of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, real food inflation has been running at 122 per cent. Domestic food price inflation is high in almost all low-and middle-income countries, including Egypt, according to the World Bank.

That means it is difficult for people to afford food even in places where there is no shortage. People are paying more for necessities everywhere. Low foreign exchange reserves have made it difficult for many countries to import food, leaving them no option but to resort to world financial institutions for loans.

The last thing the world needs is to make this volatile and difficult situation worse by escalating the Russia-Ukraine war, openly discussing the possibility of nuclear warfare. This option should not even be on the table, if there is to remain any sanity in this world.

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

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