January 2, 2023
The year 2022 was “annus horribilis” for Europe and to a lesser degree for the world. And its final few weeks did not augur well for 2023.
China witnessed an incredible upsurge in Covid infections overwhelming hospitals. On December 26, in response to Washington’s increased security cooperation with Taiwan, seventy-one Chinese air force aircraft including fighter jets and drones entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in the largest reported incursion to date.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban are dragging their country back to the darkest depths of the Middle Age. In Iran, the theocracy is sending protestors to the gallows. North Korea is becoming increasingly assertive. In Israel, the wily Benjamin Netanyahu who suffers from acute power addiction is back in power heading a right-religious coalition. Sad news for the Middle East and Israel.
On December 5, Kyiv carried out drone attacks on three Russian airfields, two of them hundreds of miles from Ukraine. One of them hit an Engels airbase that houses the Tu-95 and Tu-160 nuclear-capable strategic bombers that have been involved in launching strikes on Ukraine. The base is located outside the city of Ryazan, around 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow. On December 26, the base was hit again killing three servicemen by the debris of the drones shot down.
In his year-end interview with TASS news agency on December 27, 2022, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that victory over Russia “on the battlefield” is the strategic goal of the United States and its NATO allies; that they see it as a mechanism to significantly degrade or even destroy Russia; that NATO members have de facto become parties to the conflict.[i] On the same day, Russia announced that it would ban oil sales to countries that abide by a price cap imposed this month by the West. A day earlier Mr. Lavrov had said, “Rest assured that in the near future, we will see a serious drop in the West’s ability to “steer” the global economy the way it pleases. Whether it wants it or not, it will have to sit down and talk.”
By all indications, the early months of the new year would witness a flare-up in the war.
Looking at the future some Western analysts say, “Ukraine will win back its land”, and “no other outcome except Russian defeat”. More realistic others say, “there is no end in sight”.
In a recent article titled “The Push for Peace: How to Avoid Another World War”, Henry Kissinger said, “A peace process should link Ukraine to Nato, however expressed. The alternative of neutrality is no longer meaningful, especially after Finland and Sweden joined Nato. This is why, last May, I recommended establishing a ceasefire line along the borders existing where the war started on 24 February. Russia would disgorge its conquests thence, but not the territory it occupied nearly a decade ago, including Crimea. That territory could be the subject of a negotiation after a ceasefire.” [ii]
He then added that if the pre-war dividing line between Ukraine and Russia cannot be achieved by combat or by negotiation, recourse to the principle of self-determination could be explored. The goal of a peace process would be twofold: to confirm the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, especially for Central and Eastern Europe. Eventually, Russia should find a place in such an order.
As for the place Russia should find in such an order he said:
“The preferred outcome for some is a Russia rendered impotent by the war. I disagree. For all its propensity to violence, Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium. Its historical role should not be degraded. Russia’s military setbacks have not eliminated its global nuclear reach, enabling it to threaten escalation in Ukraine. Even if this capability is diminished, the dissolution of Russia or destroying its ability for strategic policy could turn its territory encompassing 11 time zones into a contested vacuum. Its competing societies might decide to settle their disputes by violence. Other countries might seek to expand their claims by force. All these dangers would be compounded by the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons which make Russia one of the world’s two largest nuclear powers.”
I believe a lot would depend on the Kremlin’s perception of the “threat posed by the West”. Western observers agree that NATO was never a threat to Russia and that a military assault on Russia, a nuclear power, has never been in the cards. That indeed is the case but a weakening of Russia as a result of the war in Ukraine can somehow transform the Kremlin’s threat perception. As Mr. Kissinger rightly points out, Russia covers a territory encompassing 11 time zones. It covers 17,098,242 square kilometers making it the world’s largest country.
Canada, China, and the US, the world’s second, third, and fourth largest countries, have less than 10,000,000 square kilometers of land. China’s and America’s populations are 1,439,323,776 and 331,002,651 respectively.
Russia’s population is 145,934,462. Its population density stands at 9 people per square kilometer. Moreover, looking at Russia’s imperial past and the countries which were part of the USSR, it is difficult to say that Russia has many friends in Europe and Asia.
On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed an agreement to form the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (CIS). The three were subsequently joined by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and by Moldova. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia declined to join the new organization. The CIS formally came into being on December 21, 1991. Minsk became its administrative center. Following the war with Russia in 2008, Georgia withdrew from the organization. In May 2018 Ukraine also left the CIS.
Former republics of the USSR declaring their independence could not possibly mark the end of whatever cooperation they had with Russia. Despite lessening interdependence, their political, economic, and cultural cooperation had to continue to some extent. The founding of the CIS represented, more than anything else, Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence. But the weakening of Russia as a result of the war in Ukraine could call that claim into doubt, leading the Kremlin to rewrite its threat perception and take a tougher attitude toward peace in Ukraine.
On December 26, the CIS heads of state met in Moscow. In remarks to the media before the meeting, President Putin avoided mentioning the war in Ukraine. He did the same in his teleconference with President Xi Jinping. The Chinese readout of the call, however, while stressing the strategic cooperation between the two countries said:
“The two presidents exchanged views on the Ukraine crisis. President Xi stressed that China has noted Russia’s statement that it has never refused to resolve the conflict through diplomatic negotiations and China commends that. The path of peace talks will not be a smooth one, but as long as parties do not give up, there will always be prospect for peace. China will continue to hold an objective and impartial position, work to build synergy in the international community and play a constructive role toward the peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis.” [iii]
The majority of EU countries would share Mr. Kissinger’s view that eventually, Russia should find a place in a new European security order. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen during President Putin’s years in office. What happens thereafter is anybody’s guess. The demise of the USSR was an opportunity to achieve that. Russia and the West share the blame for the failure to turn that opportunity into a lasting European security order.
In his Christmas Day address, Pope Francis said, “Our time is experiencing a grave famine of peace also in other regions and other theatres of this third world war. Let us think of Syria, still scarred by a conflict that has receded into the background but has not ended.” [iv]
As I tried to underline in a recent post, “to confront Russia or China, perhaps both as they keep moving closer to one another, the West needs to write a success story, a peacemaking one. Yes, the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War. Germany was reunified. NATO and the EU embraced new members. These were Western accomplishments but they essentially served Western interests. And then came the misguided interventions in the broad Middle East leading to the erosion of confidence in the West. Therefore, this success story has to be written in the Middle East where there are many opportunities for the West to make up for past mistakes. Reaching an understanding with Moscow to end the decade-long suffering and devastation in Syria should be less of a challenge than ending the war in Ukraine.”
The suffering people of Syria and others in the Middle East should be grateful to His Holiness Pope Francis for reminding the world of their tragedy.
Hopefully, the unrest in Iran, the failure to put the JCPOA back on track, and the power games would not open yet another page for catastrophe in the Middle East.
October 29, 2023 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic under the enlightened leadership of Ataturk, the hero of our War of Independence. With the Taliban’s Turkish brethren getting increasingly vocal, it remains to be seen whether this year’s Republic Day would be a day of celebration or mourning.