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

 

A global run for life!

Refugees from DRC waiting in line at the Nyakabande Transit Center in Kisoro, Uganda. BADRU KATUMBA / AFP (7 June 2022)

Refugees, conflicts, DRC, Ukraine, NATO, wheat, BRICS, humanitarian action!

130 days of war in Ukraine has already resulted in 5.5 million refugees and 6.28 million internally displaced people (IDP) out of a total population of 44 million. And the fighting is raging in the Donbass, driving people out of the frontline areas.

On June 20th , for the “World Refugee Day”, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) announced that there were 89.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world at the end of 2021, but this number had risen to 100 million by May 2022. At the same time, in a positive development, 5.7 million displaced people returned to their country of origin in 2021.

Note that more than two-thirds of all refugees, not counting IDPs, come from just five countries: Syria (6.8 million), Venezuela (4.6 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.4 million) and Myanmar (1.2 million). All five countries are experiencing civil wars or serious unrest.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, more than 700,000 people have had to flee their homes since the beginning of the year, and there are 5.9 million internally displaced people in the country. But these raw figures need to be supplemented to better understand the human toll.

The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in DRC, Philippe Lemarquis, denounces the 11 IDP sites attacked in Ituri by armed groups, in North and South Kivu, and the 15 health structures and schools targeted since the beginning of the year. In Ituri alone, 128 health structures have been put out of action. And what can be said about the 116 security incidents that have targeted humanitarians and their equipment!

In the DRC, as elsewhere, if we know that humanitarian work is never without risk, it is essential to constantly remind ourselves with strength and conviction that civilians must be protected and that humanitarians are not targets!

To put the figures into perspective, as Humanitarian Challenges suggests to its readers, in order to anticipate future crises and the humanitarian capacities needed to deal with them, let us stress that the number of refugees and displaced persons has more than doubled in ten years (2010-2020) and that conflicts and demography in Africa will further increase the number of people to be helped in the years to come if crisis prevention and political solutions are absent or ineffective!

 

Will we experience the “hurricane of famine” that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres fears?

Annia Ciezadio writes in The Washington Post (1) that 28% of the world’s wheat exports come from Ukraine and Russia, but that in total, exports only account for 30% of world production! Meanwhile, 22 million tonnes of grain are still blocked in Ukraine. And if Russian wheat is not subject to sanctions, these apply to the logistical and financial chains needed to sell and transport it.

When you consider that a third of the wheat imported by the Middle East and Africa comes from Russia and that half of the wheat of the WFP (World Food Programme of the United Nations) was coming from Ukraine and Russia in 2021, there is reason to be concerned. Since our last edition of Humanitarian Challenges, concerning the concept of “humanitarian corridors” or “wheat corridors”, nothing has really materialised yet in early July. While Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and Rebecca Grynspan, Secretary-General of UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), are preparing a comprehensive agreement including “safe export of Ukrainian grain by sea and access to Russian food and fertiliser on world markets, particularly for developing countries”, the countdown to hunger is already well underway in July.

The Covid-19 pandemic had already caused serious disruption to supply chains and an increase in prices. For the record, hunger threatened 811 million people in 2005, 607 million in 2014 and 811 million in 2020. How many will there be this year?

Already in Egypt, the world’s largest importer of cereals, which covers 80% of its needs, General Al-Sissi is calling for a national dialogue to anticipate the dangerous consequences of galloping inflation and bread shortages.

In Kenya, according to the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg, the price of a 2kg bag of wheat has increased by 25% and the price of cooking oil by 42% since April 2021.

Even more seriously, according to The Guardian, the global food system is in danger of collapse. A complex system 90% owned by four large global groups with a constant flow logic, the food system has developed along the lines of the banks that prevailed during the 2008 crisis and, as was the case then, “a disruption can topple the whole thing”.

While it is becoming urgent to diversify global production and to strengthen “the factors likely to prevent a systemic collapse”, it is also necessary, first of all, to supply wheat to the countries and populations that urgently need it today.

NATO Summit in Madrid during which Turkey signed an agreement with Sweden and Finland for them to join NATO. ©NATO (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Military escalation in Ukraine.

Since the end of June, it seems that we have entered a new phase of escalation of the war in Ukraine. The G7 meeting with its reinforced sanctions, the NATO summit with the membership applications of Finland and Sweden, the tensions around the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the delivery of long-range heavy artillery and, soon, of American medium- and long-range NASAMS surface-to-air missiles demonstrate this. This is undoubtedly a case of reinforced military support in the face of the Ukrainian army’s difficulties in the Donbass.

Russia’s response was not long in coming when Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that the war against Ukraine “could be over in a day, if Ukrainian forces lay down their arms and comply with Russia’s conditions”. Nothing less.

On the ground, the Russians have seized the city of Severodonesk and Lyssychansk. Already strikes are being carried out on the new targets in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. The Ukrainians are increasing their firepower, notably with the help of French Caesar guns and American M771 howitzers and, soon, HIMARS rocket launchers with a range of 80 km.

French César canons delivered in Ukraine. June 2022

In other words, the priority on both sides is the war and it will last at least until the winter, which freezes the fighting and the positions. This represents more than a doubling of the war’s duration, from 4 to 9 months and, consequently, of the destruction of the population and the infrastructure. The Ukrainian army is in a difficult situation in the Donbass, but it can hope to wear down the Russian military machine as it is fighting at home and can mobilise large numbers of motivated soldiers. The next front line will be established during the summer in front of the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and we will experience new displacements of populations, injuries, deaths and demolished cities, not to mention war crimes. Therefore, humanitarians should increase their emergency and long-term relief efforts.

A changing world

The rupture now seems to have been made, and for a long time to come, between Russia and what can be described as the Western world, with Europe in the front line. Seen from Paris, Washington, Brussels or Berlin, we can think that Russia is isolated, with a few exceptions, and as the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, says, that it has committed a major strategic error that some would like to make it pay for at the highest price through defeat.

But seen from Beijing, Delhi, Pretoria or Dakar, it is quite different. As proof, at the same time as the G7 and NATO were meeting, the BRICS Group was meeting in Beijing. This group brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, representing 41% of the world’s population, 24% of GDP and 13% of international trade. Among the topics discussed was the reform of the multilateral system. Chinese President Xi Jimping denounced the “expansion of military alliances” on the podium and said that sanctions were a double-edged sword that would come back like a “boomerang”. This makes some commentators say that China has clearly chosen its side!

14thBRICS Summit in Pékin 24/06/2022. Jairus Mmutle/GCIS (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wong Yi, has also called on a number of countries to join the BRICS, particularly Indonesia, where the next G20 meeting will take place in November, which Vladimir Putin is expected to attend.

At the same time, China has increased its crude oil imports by 55% between May 2021 and May 2022. And India has multiplied its crude oil imports by 9, even though it is seeking to diversify its purchases of mainly Russian military equipment.

Russia is therefore less isolated, and other alliances are being forged that will shape international relations, if not crystallise them into competing alliances. We are witnessing a change in the world, with Ukraine as a trigger, or rather as an accelerator!

And humanitarian action in all this ?

The world is becoming antagonistic, more uncertain and conflictual. The rules that were once commonly accepted are being challenged. The period that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR, some thirty years ago, is turning the page and we are entering the unknown of new international power relations.

Are we not already in a world war for hydrocarbons and gas, for grain and fertiliser supplies and between opposing political models, a war of memories and ambitions?

Will the war in Ukraine last, escalate, spill over or will it lead to a negotiated solution? Is a new cold war beginning when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Labrov declares that a new iron curtain is coming down on Europe? In any case, Vladimir Putin will have succeeded in strengthening NATO and the European Union, in stimulating their spirit of defence.

It is in this context that a conference bringing together 40 countries and numerous international organisations mobilised to define the conditions for the reconstruction of Ukraine opened in Lugano, Switzerland, in early July. This may seem to come at a bad time, but reconstruction will be long and costly. So we might as well start preparing for it now.

In any case, humanitarian action will have a lot to do with a less globalised, less multilateralist world, with more sovereignty and a desire for independence and recognition. If humanitarian action is not to emerge exhausted from the great laundry of history at a time when the need for relief has never been so urgent, we will have to apply our principles without compromising on the substance, while adapting a great deal on the form, so as not to leave victims alone in the face of adversity and cruelty, to save lives, to rebuild and to promote a future of hope and the right of peoples to be free and to develop.

I hope this article will be useful to you, and I would like to thank you personally for the support you can give us (makeadonation) to enable the regular publication of Humanitarian Challenges.

Thank you and see you in early August for the next edition.

Alain Boinet.