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The Ukrainian Earthquake… Kindly Fasten Your Seatbelts

The Ukrainian Earthquake… Kindly Fasten Your Seatbelts

Monday, 4 April, 2022 - 09:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

I felt anxious when Asharq Al-Awsat’s reporter, Fidaa Itani, sent photos and stories from the city of Irpin in the vicinity of Kyiv. The massive destruction was not surprising in a place that witnessed fierce battles between the two warring armies. The harshest images were those of burning Russian tanks or vehicles captured by the Ukrainian army.

I imagined the impact of the scenes on Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, sitting in his office, surrounded by his top generals. I imagined the extent of the anger that will overwhelm the master of the Kremlin when he learns that Russian tanks were ruined with weapons sent by NATO countries. Did Vladimir Putin launch a war that is difficult to stop or control, and from which he can only return victorious?

My Arab friend fell early into the trap of admiring Putin... A calm man who knows what he wants. He listens attentively and the conversation does not lure him to directions to which he does not want to go. He gives you the impression that he can keep promises if he makes them… that he marches steadily in a major program that begins with the restoration of the house, and to regaining his status on the international stage… A man of decision, who keeps an eye on his opponents and does not forget his friends. My friend had the opportunity to meet the man in the early years of his reign.

A strong man can determine when the war will start, but it is difficult for him to say when it will end. A quick and victorious return requires the surrender of the weak and political concessions that allow the one who launched the war to justify its costs.

Saddam ignited the war against Iran thinking that he would return quickly and victoriously because the Persian state was restless. His hopes were soon battered as the bleeding was long and bitter.

My friend said that despite the differences, he sometimes remembered scenes of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Saddam did not concede to Kuwait the right to be the master of its own decisions and the architect of its policies. He invaded the country and annexed it, but failed to find a Kuwaiti front that legitimizes his occupation.

On the other hand, Putin did not condone Ukraine’s right to throw itself in the arms of the NATO. He went so far as to deny its existence and consider it the result of a mistake made by his predecessors. After the invasion, he didn’t find any Ukrainian front that legitimizes the “special military operation”.

My friend went far with his thoughts. He said it was impossible for Sergey Lavrov to overlook the risks and political, military, and economic costs of an invasion of Ukraine. He added that Lavrov’s case may be similar to that of Tariq Aziz on the issue of Kuwait’s invasion. He could smell the earthquake, but didn’t dare demand not to release it.

I listened to him but did not share the analysis, as I am afraid of comparisons because of the different eras, circumstances and players.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Ukrainian earthquake was the most violent and dangerous since World War II, despite the proxy wars that the world of two camps has witnessed.

The most difficult thing about it is that its damages went beyond the European theater, to reach other neighborhoods of what we used to call the “cosmic village”.

The earthquake was felt across the globe… when a mother went to buy bread and daily necessities from a local merchant… when an employee went to fill the tank of his car at a gas station… when a father received the heating bill… Near and far governments have also felt it and feared that the hike of prices would ignite the streets.

How difficult it is to cope with the Ukrainian earthquake, especially if it persists for a long time. It is not an easy matter for Germany to seize the opportunity and get rid of some of the restrictions imposed on its right to armament. It is not simple for the NATO generals to dust off potential confrontation plans with Russia in order to update them and benefit from the lessons of the Ukrainian war.

Perhaps what is most dangerous is the escalating world polarization and countries having to choose between black and white, thus abandoning the gray area.

The best evidence of the difficulty of residing in neutral or semi-neutral areas is the American and European pressure on China to relinquish its short, general, vague and conservative policy in dealing with the earthquake.

The European-Chinese summit, which was held remotely, revealed the number of difficult and costly choices that countries face.

China will incur enormous economic damage for siding explicitly with Russia, because the volume of its trade exchanges with America and Europe is much greater than that with Russia.

But Russia, on the other hand, is a neighboring continent and a reliable ally, especially since the two countries’ leaders have set a record in the number of bilateral meetings.

Beijing cannot ignore the dream of restoring Taiwan, but also cannot risk the fate of the Belt and Road initiative.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, is in no less difficult position. His country is an old friend of Russia and more than sixty percent of its arsenal is Russian. It should keep its eyes fixed on the movements of its Chinese enemy, without forgetting the feud with Pakistan and the dormant dragon in Kashmir.

On the other hand, India needs the power of the United States to dispel its fears over the rise of China. For this reason, it has joined the QUAD alliance, which brings it together with the American godfather, Japan and Australia.

Thus, in order to circumvent the difficult choice, New Delhi is resorting to short phrases and avoiding condemnations.

The embarrassment is not limited to the two Asian giants. Israel escaped the obligation to make a choice by trying to assume a mediation role. It can neither compromise its alliance with the United States, nor disregard Putin’s gifts, in particular the freedom to target Iranian sites in Syria.

Oil and gas-producing countries are also under pressure to abandon their neutral stance and engage in the process of reducing Moscow’s influence on oil and gas markets.

Airplanes sometimes get into violent turbulence. The pilot urges passengers to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts.

There is no choice but to fasten the seat belts amid the Ukrainian earthquake, with its military, political and economic dimensions. This means making accurate and far-reaching calculations that preserve national interests and the arsenal of international relations, especially if the Ukrainian crisis leads to the emergence of two camps.

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