• Monday, October 02, 2023
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One year on, Russia-Ukraine war is still searching for meaning  


The assault on Mariupol, a city in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, was textbook savagery — a savagery that’s uniquely Russian, where children’s hospitals, music theatres, and places of worship morph into targets; a savagery so brutal and raw, so unhinged and unbothered by either morality or reason, that it makes the wildest of animals look benign.

Countries whose soldiers make a sport of shooting women and children, at the very least, pretend there is an accounting, but Russia’s commanders get a medal. Its foreign affairs minister called a pregnant woman, whose planned delivery had been disrupted by the cackle of rockets, a crisis actor. While war, as they say, does not determine who is right but only who is left; it does reveal who are cowards in Mariupol.

Mariupol, once Ukraine’s more vibrant cities only weeks before February 24, 2022, had cafes packed with young people smoking Shisha on cold evenings, nearby are ice rinks where teenagers slip and slide, bars where women dance to folk music while their husbands and admirers nod along in the company of tall beer glasses.

Read also: One year later, Russia’s pointless war is still searching for meaning

Today, Mariupol is only blood and gore. Apartment buildings look like ruins in archeological excavations, with smoldering fire from where movie theatres used to sit, emergency graves dug from playgrounds with only numbers as markers because the bodies pile up too fast to determine who was killed, every wall pockmarked with bullet holes and shrapnel damage, and large craters from rockets and grenades passing for roads.

The devastation of Mariupol is a fitting metaphor for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, in a pointless assault where the threat of it could have achieved its objective of halting Ukraine’s alliance with the West. Now, Russia has pushed Ukraine closer to Europe and America than it could have gone on its own.

Months after its destruction, Russia’s leaders said they would rebuild the city. They printed glossy brochures of a picturesque city they say Mariupol would be, after its operation was over. Now they can’t even pay the Asian workers hired to reconstruct the city.

Analysis of global events when the war started led to the conclusion that Russian aggression is unlikely to devolve into a world war, as some have feared. Some of the precursors of a global conflict are missing, even if the mad impulses that drove the world into a global war are still animating the hearts of men.

Analysts cite the restraint of global powers employing sanctions rather than retaliatory action, the influence of NATO, the major powers’ capacity to cause nuclear destruction, and the economic consequence of a global war as possible restraints.

“In the realm of possibility, there could be a miscalculation on the part of the actors that could lead to a broader war; you may not have a world war, but it could lead to Europe and interested parties engaged in prolonged skirmishes,” said Onyekachi Adekoya, a fellow at the Nigeria Institute of Industrial Security.

This analysis, like many others, has largely proven true. Western nations have only resorted to supplying Ukraine with military hardware to defend itself, bucking at requests to assist with weapons and warplanes that can take the war to Russia.

Russia has also refrained from attacking NATO countries, despite provocation from countries such as Poland, which is used as a supply route for weapons. It had also made a point of showing up at negotiations mediated by Turkey to find an end to the war, even if there was no serious intention to honour any agreement reached. It routinely violated ceasefire agreements and proposed a truce only when it suited the objectives of replenishing boots and bayonets.

Economic consequences

But this is not to say the war has not come with consequences. Russia’s war on Ukraine has roiled global markets due to massive re-pricing of commodities as a result of supply chain disruptions and the effects of harsh sanctions.

This is taking a toll on many economies, including Nigeria’s. The prices of commodities such as crude oil, natural gas, aluminum, nickel, wheat, and other commodities have soared to record levels, leaving markets in disarray.

The price of a litre of diesel skyrocketed to a record high of N600, two weeks into the war, from around N420-N450, as oil prices climbed above $120 a barrel, worsening the inflation outlook in Africa’s biggest economy. Diesel prices have since risen to above N800 per litre, and Nigeria has had to take a wrecking ball to its finances to keep up subsidies on petrol.

Manufacturers, retail outlets, and small businesses that rely on diesel to power their machines have had to raise the prices of manufactured goods and services, even as consumers grapple with lower purchasing power.

“The immediate implication of the price of diesel is the increase in the cost of production and logistics, which can translate to higher prices of products,” Chinyere Almona, director general of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told BusinessDay.

Western countries have responded to Russia’s aggression by imposing bruising sanctions on the Kremlin. The economic sanctions are designed to hurt. It targeted financial institutions, members of Russia’s government and political class, assets, and even the Nord Stream II gas pipeline.  These include travel restrictions, asset freezes, restrictions on accessing financial markets in the West, and trade restrictions.

Russia’s economy has taken a beating. According to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2022 was a bad year for the Russian economy. It is estimated that in 2022, Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) will drop by at least 2.2 percent in the best-case scenario and by up to 3.9 percent in the worst-case scenario.

Russia’s economy shrank further in 2023. According to the World Bank, its GDP will fall by 5.6 percent in the worst-case scenario (OECD) or by 3.3 percent. Since February, Moscow Exchange’s main index has fallen by more than one third. Imports, especially of high-tech goods, have contracted. Russia has stopped publishing international trade statistics altogether.

Russia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of key raw materials, from crude oil and gas to wheat and aluminum. Russia accounts for around six percent of global aluminum supply and exports around 35 MT of wheat, or 17 percent of global export supply.

Russia’s buffer of $630 billion in foreign reserves, huge reserves of oil and gas, and access to the Chinese market have kept the world’s second-largest economy afloat, but it is now flailing. Sanctions have also affected Western countries, as they sent Europe scrambling for energy alternatives from Russia’s supply. China and India continue to trade with Russia, and mostly African countries have chosen to let the Super Powers fight their proxy battle.

Dark nostalgia 

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it stretched from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Pacific Ocean and, in its final years, consisted of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics.

December 2021 marked 30 years since the Soviet Union was dissolved, and President Putin still bears a grudge.  He once described that as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” He is deeply resentful that the Cold War ended with Moscow losing territory, influence, and an empire.

But the cost of Putin’s nostalgia for a new Soviet Union has come at a cost too high. His armies’ fumbles in Ukraine have exposed their vulnerability; they have lost so many bodies that they are recruiting prisoners and turning to mercenaries who are looking better at waging war than their four-star generals. It has lost experienced generals and a flagship Black Sea missile cruiser, the Moskva. Russia may have leveled most of Ukraine, but its victory is largely pyrrhic.

Though Russia has been careful against plunging head-on into a conflict with NATO, its misadventure in Ukraine has made the group more relevant, with countries that were previously uninterested like Finland now actively applying for membership, a development that means that the country’s 1,340 kilometer border with Russia will become the new NATO-Russia border.

NATO is an intergovernmental military alliance between 28 European countries and two North American countries. Formed after the Second World War in 1949, its central role is to keep global peace, as members agree to come to one another’s aid in the event of an armed attack against any other member state.

Seven former communist countries that were part of the Soviet Union or under its influence, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, formerly part of the former Yugoslavia, are NATO members. An attack on any of them by Russia will drag the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and the rest of NATO into war with Russia. 

Countries on the Russian flanks like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Albania are all NATO members, and Russia would need their cooperation to wage a massive war. That corporation would not come at a time when everyone among them is suspicious of Putin.

Nuclear rush 

“I am not sure a war pays anyone, especially over a matter that can potentially be resolved in a few minutes,” said Zeal Arakaiwe, a Lagos-based financial advisor.

It hasn’t served Russia or the rest of the world, as perhaps the biggest consequence of Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine is the hardening of the resolve of vulnerable countries to arm themselves with nukes.

Countries like South Korea, which were compelled to dismantle their covert nuclear programmes in the 1970s by the United States, are openly discussing the possibility of restarting nuclear programmes especially as they share a border with a country run by ‘Rocket Man,’ which measures virility by the speed of its ballistic missiles.

Following former President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran deal signed by his predecessor, Iran has amassed enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon, according to a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The immediate reaction to a nuclear-armed Iran is the inevitable quest by its neigbours Saudi Arabia and others, to get their own nukes.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has delivered a blueprint to China on how to invade Taiwan, but unlike Russia, the Chinese economy is stronger and better able to withstand Western sanctions. China’s economic pacts in Africa and Asia and investments in the West will complicate attempts at sanctions.

China, a nuclear power that once maintained a few hundred warheads as a deterrent to maintain an ability to respond if attacked, is now just amassing warheads in volumes that show it is gearing up for a brawl.

Worse still, the quest for nuclear arms is happening at a time when the restraints that prevented nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War have all but frayed. The United States and Russia abandoned the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, which banned missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.

In 2019, the US and NATO accused Russia of violating the pact by deploying a new type of cruise missile, which Moscow denied. Now the only treaty left in place, New START, which limits both sides to 1,550 deployed strategic weapons, has unraveled.

Since the war began, the Biden administration and the US Congress have directed nearly more than $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine, which includes humanitarian, financial, and military support, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research institute. And the US President is not relenting, this will only prolong the war. The alternative of watching Putin reduce Ukraine to roubles does not appear humane either.

“President Putin chose this war.  Every day that the war continues is his choice.  He could end the war with a word. It’s simple. If Russia stopped invading Ukraine, it would end the war.  If Ukraine stopped defending itself against Russia, it would be the end of Ukraine,” said Biden in a speech in Poland marking the first anniversary of the war.

This is how things get complicated. Unless a compromise is reached, the world continues to stare at a food crisis, an upsurge of refugees, and an increasingly belligerent, hostile world, which could wreak some of the havoc of a global war without the mess of war, blood, and gore.