When the world was finally hoping for some respite from violent conflict with the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, and barely holding together only just about limping out of a spirit-crushing, two-year global pandemic, out comes another conflict out of nowhere between Russia and Ukraine. It is a brutal conflict between two neighbouring countries, and it is widely expected that Russia will eventually win the war, even if at a tremendous physical cost to herself.
The Russia-Ukraine episode offers multiple signals as to where the world stands on so many issues which remained salient in the last few years; giving these their due recognition may help us get a clue as to the way forward.
Firstly, sanctions against Russia will not work, not without exacting a severe cost on the rest of the world. Russia is the geopolitical equivalent of a major American bank, such as JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs. It is a country that is simply “too big to fail” or “too big to be allowed to fail”. Not only is it the largest country on earth, but it is also one of its leading economies, with a highly educated and extremely productive workforce, with some of the deepest and most competitive engineering, technical and scientific talent pools in the world.
Russia is also a natural resources behemoth, supplying Europe with nearly half its natural gas, and is a major producer and exporter of wheat, a staple which feeds most of the world that is not Asia. Taken together with Ukraine, which will soon be under Russian control, these two countries together make up for one in every four grains of wheat produced on the planet.
Cordoning Russian scientific and technical talent from the rest of the world would make the entire world poorer in the medium to long term, precisely at the point when as many hands on deck are needed to take the world through the multiple challenges confronting it. Global cooperation on matters such as climate change, carbon emissions and trade flow management would suffer mightily, were the largest terrestrial country on earth to be kept out of the conversation.
And it is not as if the United States and her allies in NATO+ have the wind of morality behind their sails in their opposition to the Russian action on Ukraine either. Let it be reminded that both the major wars of the first 20 years of the 21st century – in Iraq and Afghanistan – were waged by NATO on the flimsiest of pretexts, at least one of which turned out afterwards to be patent nonsense.
I am unsure if countries that have gained in economic heft in the interim, including China, India, those in the GCC region, Russia and Brazil, would be all too keen to blindly listen to NATO+, even when they are mindful of the military and economic heft of the NATO+ combine. In short, everyone stands to lose a lot from this incoming Great Schism.
As much as I empathise with the leadership and citizenry of Ukraine, the victory of the Russians is a matter of when and not if. It would be much more pragmatic for the rest of the world to try and hasten the end of the conflict by stopping military aid flows to Ukraine as opposed to prolonging the conflict out of a moral compulsion to play to the gallery of the fawning masses – that is, to be seen to be doing something. It is rather counter-intuitive of the West to, on the one hand, call for an immediate cessation of violence and, on the other, feed weapons to one party to prolong the same conflict. I say this as someone with no bone to pick in the tussle between Russia/CIS and NATO+.
Already, the stresses on the international system, brought about by the Russian war on Ukraine, have diverted much needed attention from other places of weakness across the world, which are just too many to mention at this point. The combined stress of accelerated desertification, changing climate patterns, stagnating societies, beleaguered social contracts, overpopulation, terrorism and outright civil war means that more people than ever are at risk of complete annihilation than ever before. Sanctions on a key world player at this juncture will merely increase the pressure faced by these hundreds of millions. Is it all worth it?
It is a great time for us to take stock of the past 30 years and see just how much progress has been made by the world; and more importantly, how this improvement has come about. The most important characteristics of the past 30 years that have allowed more people than ever before to climb out of material poverty at the fastest clip ever in human history have been a willingness to plumb to never-before-explored depths of one’s well of pragmatism and open-mindedness in order to accommodate people of violently differing views and opinions to come together and talk turkey.
This is a world where capitalist United States shook hands with communist China and decided to alter world trade patterns forever. It is a world where capitalist United States picked the phone call from socialist India and said, “Okay”. It is a world where the democratic world laid pipelines with authoritarian states such as Russia, slowly – but surely – egging them towards social reform and human rights.
The winners during this period, almost without exception, have been polities, such as the UAE, which have held their doors wide open for productive interactions from all over the world, and which have clung tenaciously to the promise of pragmatism and openness. If the 80 years since 1945 have taught us anything, it is that inward-lookers are on a road to ruin and perdition. We have all been winners of an environment of freedom and openness. And those continue to be the fuel for our hope as we face up to the challenges being thrown at us by the age, from financial crises to wars and from pandemics to irreversible climate change patterns.
As a member of that reviled generation, ‘the millennials’, I ask the powers that be, “Why in the world are you turning back on us?”
Krishnan Unni Madathil, Auditor, Bin Khadim, Radha & Co Chartered Accountants, writes a bi-monthly macro-analysis on geopolitics, incumbent political structures, global business and finance exclusively for Climate Control Middle East. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org