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Fear Returns to the Old Continent

Fear Returns to the Old Continent

Monday, 6 June, 2022 - 07:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

A journalist sometimes falls in love with a city he visits in search of a story or to carry out an interview or write a report. Perhaps this love stems from the sense that the city sleeps on ageless poems, melodies and art. Or perhaps because they are heirs to a raucous history that has left deep wounds in its spirit.


Traveling the world, I was taken by Baghdad and Paris. History is the greatest and harshest teacher. Wrong are those who do not learn from it, whether they are rulers, the opposition or journalists.


I love Baghdad regardless of who is ruling it or what system governs it. It boasts a rich history and the pride of Al-Mutanabbi and Al-Jawahiri. I love Paris because its streets boast the names of poets and writers who, more than generals, helped shape its crown


The difference between the two cities is that when night sets on the Tigris, I sense the fear of coming days that is absent in Paris, which pretends to have completed its wars and left behind the days of bloodshed.


Envy is a bad feeling but it is natural among the people of the terrible Middle East. I used to feel it when I slept in Vienna, Paris or Berlin. I envied these cities that never thought to prepare their armies for a possible invasion or to prepare themselves for impending civil war.


I used to ask myself: "When will the capitals in our region shake off the fear of the outside and the inside?"


We used to say that we are a generation of lucky journalists. We witnessed the end of an empire, without the eruption of a major war. We witnessed successive technological and media revolutions. We listened as Mao Zedong's heir defended the benefits of capitalism at Davos. We watched as products and capital made their way throughout the "global village". We see governments that are preoccupied with the environment and global warming.


But the generation that thought itself lucky in wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall may yet witness a world that goes back to darkness and turn to missiles, drones and tanks.


It is evident that the clever and wounded Vladimir Putin has started to write a Russian novel that is more dangerous than those written by his predecessors.


A little over a hundred days ago, Putin dealt a painful blow to the post-Wall world. He has allowed alarm to creep back into European capitals that were hesitant about increasing their defense spending, as if they believed that the time of armies and general was over.


It is not odd for Poland to panic. History hasn't been kind to it. Foreign invaders have eaten up its map several times. The Russian war has reawakened old demands. It fears that the Ukrainian feast will not be enough to satiate the czar, who is waging the greatest coup since the suicide of the Soviet Union.


The same fear has pushed Sweden and Finland to abandon neutrality, reservations and hesitation to join NATO to protect themselves against the Russian army.


Stable and confident Germany used to welcome refugees from sick and sad countries. Days ago in Berlin I sensed Germany's fear that was translated into dedicating a massive budget to bolstering military capabilities that it thought it would not need.


When Germany becomes frightened, then Russia must take the situation seriously. This economically strong country has the ability to form a powerful army. The powerful Germany will return old envies and fears to Europe even though is committed to its democratic choices.


When the first shots were fired in the Russian war on Ukraine, Europe woke up to a new scene that almost made it forget its celebration of the fall of the notorious Wall. Fear has returned to the continent. As the war dragged on, it seemed that Europe, including France, would pay a hefty price for the conflict that would exceed the rise in costs of gas, oil and grain.


France spent decades befriending the US in NATO. The American shadow looming large over the continent bothers it and it is uncertain over Washington's long-term commitment to defend the "Old Continent".


European countries have no choice but to increase their defense spending and shoulder the impending economic crisis. Europe has no choice but to extend its stay under the wing of the American general. Putin has re-pushed the European continent into the American lap.


Only Joe Biden's country has the massive abilities that can alter the course of the major coup that was launched by Putin.


The master of the Elysee is trying to promote the idea of refraining from humiliating Russia. But as it stands, it appears as though Putin is seeking a victory for his coup, not a way out from it.


Sitting under the American wing also means going along with Washington's stance on Taiwan. Any further tensions with China would likely lead to a major economic catastrophe.


Visiting Paris, I had to discuss some issues from Middle East and of course, Ukraine was the main topic at hand. I sat down with a former foreign minister who served in his post for nearly a decade. He believes that the West mishandled Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It did not realize how much Ukraine means to Putin, both in history and geography.


The former FM said the ruler sometimes feels that the fate of his country is tied to another. I paused at this. It reminded me of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, whom the minister had met dozens of times.


He said Assad believed that Syria would remain isolated and surrounded if Lebanon sailed off in a different direction or strayed too far away from it. That is why Assad was obsessed with Lebanon as a negotiations card with the West and regional countries. If you go back in history, you'll realize that Russia and Ukraine are more historically interconnected that Lebanon is with Syria.


It is a completely new stage. It is no simple feat for fear to visit European capitals and reserve a long-term stay. The world has indeed changed.


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