Opinion column by Pierre Brunet – The construction of disaster?

A woman mourns during a ceremony for the fallen soldiers of Ukraine at the Lychakiv Cemetery in western Ukrainian city of Lviv on August 24, 2022. © YURIY DYACHYSHYN / AFP

It is sometimes said that, in order to understand certain events, it is necessary to observe them ‘from the point of view of Sirius’… Strive for the greatest possible distance, far from legitimate but often misleading emotions, cultivate a global, objective, lucid vision, devoid of bias or prejudice, and link, without ideology, all the causes and consequences…

With regard to the Ukrainian crisis, what would an inhabitant of Sirius think of the decisions taken by the West, the USA, Europe? What conclusions would he draw? Would he not note, perplexed, the methodical construction of a disaster of global proportions? The question that this inhabitant of Sirius would ask himself would be: “But did they build this planetary disaster in consciousness, or by a form of blindness? He couldn’t answer it… But we can try to.

Before going any further, I would like to reaffirm, as I did in a previous article, that it is in no way a question of clearing the Russian power of its crushing responsibility in the triggering of this crisis of 2022, i.e. this large-scale military aggression, this invasion of a sovereign country violating all international laws, such as the European continent had not known since the end of the Second World War. This is clear and indisputable, even if the roots of this irresponsible decision do not leave the West free of any form of co-responsibility, for having considered and treated the Russians, for the past thirty years, as the losers of history with negligible security imperatives. Nor does the question of whether Ukraine should be helped to defend itself, which it is doing with a patriotism, determination and heroism that commands respect and admiration, arise in my view. Of course, it is necessary, that is to say to help the Ukrainians to stop the Russians, to put it clearly. But in a responsible way, and by trying not to get drawn into something else, and to avoid building a disaster.

When speaking of a (possibly global) disaster, what am I referring to? First of all, of course, to the direct humanitarian consequences of the war in Ukraine: 6.6 million internally displaced persons and 6.7 million refugees, needs in the areas affected by the fighting covering all areas of humanitarian assistance, while nearly 17.7 million Ukrainians need help, and a titanic reconstruction project to come, commensurate with the massive destruction that this high-intensity war is causing every day. But beyond Ukraine, other disasters have been triggered: some humanitarian funding intended for countries in great vulnerability has been reduced or reallocated to Ukraine. However, acute crises do not replace each other, they add up… and sometimes combine for the worse. The war in Ukraine, with its consequences on access to energy and food, and the worldwide rise in inflation in a global economy already impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic, is having a dramatic impact on already vulnerable countries. The scissor effect will strangle these fragile populations if nothing is done.

Urgent food aid in South Soudan from UNICEF and WFP. ONU/Tim McKulka. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The “hurricane of famine” feared by UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres is not a virtual one. Ukraine and Russia produce almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley and half of the world’s sunflower oil. Russia and Belarus are the world’s second and third largest producers of potash, a key ingredient in fertiliser. The price of wheat has risen by about 40-45% since the beginning of the year. In total, 27 countries are more than 50% dependent on Russia and Ukraine for their wheat needs, including many African countries. Last May, the UN said the number of severely food-insecure people had doubled in just two years, from 135 million before the pandemic to 276 million today, with more than half a million people experiencing famine conditions – an increase of more than 500% since 2016. The year 2023 looks even bleaker…

The emerging food crisis is closely linked to the energy-economic-inflationary crisis, which is largely a consequence of the Ukrainian crisis. In Europe (EU), for example, at the time of the invasion of Ukraine, we were on average 48.4% dependent on Russian gas, and 25.4% on Russian oil. What will happen if the Russians turn off the gas tap in retaliation for the sanctions against them, having already, on 25 July, reduced gas exports to Europe to 20% of the normal volume? An unprecedented energy crisis in Europe, as in the world… Explosion of the cost of daily energy, transport, industrial and agri-food costs… Moreover, let’s not forget the dependence on gas (and Russian potash…) of fertilizer factories to produce these inputs that are essential to agriculture… At a time when famines are threatening in the world, was it reasonable to move towards a voluntary or involuntary “cut-off” of Russian gas? Not to mention the fact that the Russians were prevented from simply selling their wheat and fertilisers on the world market via the SWIFT system (a global interbank platform used for international trade). Finally, the scarcity and rising price of gas in the world will push highly populated developing countries, such as India for example, to return to carbon-based electricity production, such as coal… Thus accelerating global warming and its dramatic impact on climate change and fragile agriculture… A perfect vicious circle, a guaranteed crisis.

In parallel with this policy of sanctions with incalculable consequences, the Western countries, with the United States at the initiative, are pushing ever more intensively for war. To the point that one may wonder, as Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, former Secretary General of the Quai d’Orsay, has done, whether we have not moved from legitimate aid to a sovereign country invaded by Russia – in order to make it clear to the latter that not everything is acceptable, and to allow Ukraine to sit down at a negotiating table as something other than a defeated party – to a war between the Americans and Russians. With Ukrainian blood, and a Europe aligned with American goals.

On 24 August in Kiev, Ukrainian Independence Day, destroyed or captured Russian tanks displayed on Khreschatyk Avenue. @UNDP (CC BY-ND 2.0)

In this regard, was it not disturbing to hear the US leadership openly explain that their goal was to render the Russian military ineffective for the next thirty years (i.e. destroy it, if possible), and to bring the Russian economy to its knees? Could it be that this was almost as big a mistake and error as Putin’s strategic error, which is now facing the opposite result to the one he sought: the enlargement and strengthening of NATO on his borders? The Russians, whether or not they are pro-Putin, are, like the Ukrainians, patriotic and do not want to see their army or their economy destroyed. Wouldn’t this be a way of strengthening Russian patriotism “against the West, which is waging war against them and wants to destroy them”?

And the recent proposal by some European countries to refuse all visas to Russian citizens, as if to collectively “punish” the Russian people for Vladimir Putin’s decision, can only reinforce this feeling…

This war against Russia in Ukraine, once again, is not being waged with American or European blood (not yet…), but with Ukrainian blood: at the height of the fighting, the losses on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides were between 200 and 250 soldiers killed per day… Haven’t the Ukrainians been “sold” a lie, according to which they would be able, thanks to Western aid, to win the war and recover all of the territories under the control of the Russian army, including Crimea? This encourages Ukraine not to enter into negotiations with Russia. Yet it is likely that Ukraine will not be able to crush the Russian army, and will have to negotiate at some point. By then, could tens of thousands of deaths not have been avoided?

Finally, and most alarmingly, how can we forget that this encouragement to escalate the war in Ukraine is taking place in a country that has 15 active nuclear reactors? Once again, this war is unprecedented, because it is being played out for the first time in history on a land dotted with atomic power plants… It is not the USA that will be affected if a major nuclear accident occurs… Have the Russians not stationed military units inside the compound of the Zaporijia power plant (the largest in Europe), including missile launchers? The UN, the USA and the major European countries are calling for the demilitarisation of the nuclear power plants and are trying to reach an agreement for the IAEA to inspect and take charge of the operation and safety of the facilities. This is fortunate, but a little late… Doing everything possible to negotiate a halt to the conflict in the first few weeks would probably have prevented this terrifying situation, rather than realising afterwards that intensifying this war even further could have apocalyptic consequences…

At the time of writing, the Zaporijia power plant, following a fire at a neighbouring coal-fired power plant, was disconnected from the electricity grid in an emergency (a situation that could not continue) before finally being reconnected, but there is now talk, following strikes on the site, of risks of hydrogen leakage and spraying of radioactive substances and a high risk of fire…

The former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, has said nothing other than this common-sense call for responsibility from leaders, whoever they may be, suggesting that the logic of escalation be replaced by a demand for diplomacy. When Kissinger calls on Western leaders not to “be carried away by their current feelings” and to put all their energy into obtaining a cease-fire and then negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, is he not drawing the only sensible path, the one that would keep away the spectre of a third world conflict, which could only be cataclysmic, and which is becoming less unimaginable every day? Is it scandalous to think that the obsession of the world’s leading power (the USA) should be, today, to do everything possible to obtain a ceasefire in Ukraine as quickly as possible?

Simple observation, moreover, shows us that the USA is a ‘winner’ in this crisis: the USA is practically self-sufficient in food and energy, and can even sell at good prices. By taking advantage of the unexpected weakness of the Russian army to try to destroy it for at least thirty years, the US has given itself the means to deal with its strategic challenge, China. Finally, the relegitimisation, strengthening and enlargement of NATO gives them even more political weight in the West, and allows the American arms industry to have overflowing order books. But beware, an alternative political and economic world order is also being put in place by the Ukrainian crisis and the sanctions against Russia, and could eventually weaken the West’s power, its political and economic influence, and its “democratic values”.

To conclude, with regard to this notion of responsibility for the war in Ukraine and Western aid, can we bear in mind that Ukraine, whatever the admirable courage and determination of its people and leaders, is also, as geopolitologist Anne Pouvreau, a specialist in the region, recently pointed out, the victim of systemic corruption benefiting a handful of oligarchs whose political commitments have varied according to their interests, and that the Ukrainian mafia specialises in the illegal arms trade? Is it not naive to think that the colossal financial and military aid poured into this country (“as if into a black hole”, according to the confession of an American official…) is not partly diverted, recovered, and possibly sold to the wrong hands in the more or less long term? Interpol’s Director General, Jürgen Stock, recently expressed his concerns on this point. When will we see an armoured car heist with a Javelin, or a Stinger attack on an airliner?

Ukrainian soldiers inspect the charred remains of a Russian military convoy in Bucha, April 2022. @The Nez York Times/Daniel Berehulak (CC BY 2.0)

At the time this article is published, the situation on the ground is back on the offensive in both the Donbass and the Kherson area, after long weeks without progress, during which Ukraine rested and prepared its forces, while Russia reconstituted its own, and each of the belligerents continued to strike the other as deeply as possible, following the example of the audacious Ukrainian strikes in Crimea… Russia did not hesitate to aim at targets such as the Chaplyne railway station, near Dnipro, on 24 August, the day of Ukraine’s independence, killing at least 25 people and injuring many more… In this context, we must of course continue to support the admirable Ukrainian resistance, but without giving in to the ambition from across the Atlantic to strike the Russian army to death, and without forgetting that Russia is a major nuclear power, which would make us co-belligerents dragging the whole continent into a generalised war. Is it beneath us to set the sole objective of stopping the Russians, and to create the conditions for negotiations between Ukraine and Russia?

In addition to the military dimension, the avoidance of a “built disaster” requires, and this is a vital issue for millions of people around the world, a thoughtful adjustment of the sanctions imposed on Russia, rather than, again, a logic of escalation with devastating consequences. In this respect, the agreement on the export of Ukrainian and Russian grain (and fertiliser) from Black Sea ports, signed in Istanbul by Russia and Ukraine on 22 July, thanks to the good offices of Turkey and under the aegis of the UN (also signatories to the agreement), opens up prospects for sanity at the heart of the conflict…. So far, the will to implement this agreement seems to be real and shared, and ships loaded with cargo are leaving the ports continuously…

In conclusion, still from the point of view of a Sirius observer, is it not clear that a continuation, in the name of virtuous principles, of the logic of escalation (i.e. the intensification and widening of the conflict and indiscriminate sanctions), can only lead to more deaths in Ukraine, a “hurricane of famine” in the world, an uncontrolled spread of armaments, perhaps a nuclear accident, and who knows a third world conflict? What is at stake today around the war in Ukraine goes beyond our feelings. It is much more serious. Teilhard de Chardin, who had experienced the maelstrom of 14-18, wrote in his “Writings from the time of the war”: “It would be useless to close our eyes – on the contrary, we must open them wide in order to look squarely into the face of this Shadow of a collective Death that is rising on the Horizon”…


Pierre Brunet

Writer and humanitarian


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