Voices from the Arab press: Accidental US-Russia confrontation possible

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 INTERRUPTED SIGNAL glitch obscures footage during an intercept by a Russian Su-27 military aircraft, recorded by a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea, March 14, in this still from a video released by the Pentagon.  (photo credit: US EUROPEAN COMMAND/THE PENTAGON/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
INTERRUPTED SIGNAL glitch obscures footage during an intercept by a Russian Su-27 military aircraft, recorded by a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea, March 14, in this still from a video released by the Pentagon.

Accidental Washington-Moscow confrontation possible

Al-Ittihad, United Arab Emirates, March 18

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Relations between Washington and Moscow are intensifying, especially after the downing of an American drone in the Black Sea. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reaffirmed that the US will continue conducting reconnaissance flights in the region, wherever international law permits. Moscow, in response, has called on the US to stay away from its borders. 

This marks the first direct confrontation between the two forces since Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, and signals all of the increased tensions that will be reflected in both bilateral and multilateral relations. The American aircraft, an MQ-9 Reaper, was unarmed and flying in international airspace on a routine monitoring mission. Russian warships and submarines are abundant in the Black Sea. 

Meanwhile, the UK is planning to double the number of troops stationed in Estonia as part of its NATO mission. This will likely lead to a variety of consequences, following Germany’s decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, paralleled by similar moves from the US and the UK. French President Emmanuel Macron has stated that any decisions regarding security arrangements must take into account Russia’s security concerns. 

Critics have continued to accuse France and Germany of failing to offer Ukraine clear support, which has damaged their credibility in the eyes of Eastern European leaders. As a result, Poland and the Baltic countries are looking to the US for real guarantees of security. 

 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin’s motorcade drives past St. Basil’s Cathedral in central Moscow, March 20.  (credit: EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/REUTERS) RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin’s motorcade drives past St. Basil’s Cathedral in central Moscow, March 20. (credit: EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/REUTERS)

In this context, it is expected that Russia will act in accordance with its existing policy toward NATO, given that the United States is still viewed as an adversary. Any escalatory policies will be met with more sternness, as evidenced by Russia’s focus on a specific demand that Washington take steps to withdraw its NATO forces and equipment, stop its anti-Russian activities, and even renegotiate the idea of a European security system. This includes demanding that Ukraine maintains a neutral status, an idea that has been rejected by the US before. 

The US is intensifying its confrontation with Russia in all arenas. This could have counterproductive consequences, causing Russia to act rashly. This is evidenced by the fact that the Black Sea also borders NATO member states, such as Turkey and Romania. This is why American drones are able to operate there legally. 

For months, Russia has been trying to gain control of Bakhmut, with towns and infrastructure in the Belgorod region regularly being targeted by missiles. This confirms that the confrontation is ongoing and is unlikely to end soon. The US and NATO countries are providing Ukraine with weapons of a higher quality, but they are avoiding any direct intervention at the operational level. There is a fear that this bilateral conflict could turn into a multilateral conflict with long-term international repercussions. – Tarek Fahmy 

National strategy for higher education 2030

Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, March 16

At the invitation of Dr. Ayman Ashour, minister of higher education and scientific research, I had the pleasure of attending a conference unveiling Egypt’s national strategy for higher education, titled “Egypt’s Vision 2030.” A large number of ministers from the ministries of education, planning, health and others were present. 

I commend Ashour’s work on this front. It is a successful start for the minister as he embarks on his new role in this ministry. Promoting the state of Egypt’s education system is in line with the country’s comprehensive development plan, initiated by the Planning Ministry in order to serve as a framework for the work of other ministries and state agencies by 2030. 

My studies in the US, where I obtained a one-year diploma in business administration, taught me the importance of having a comprehensive development plan or strategy for the work of one’s ministry, authority or governorate. As such, I personally implemented this approach when I began serving as governor of Luxor, where I created a comprehensive development plan for the governorate. It was the foundation upon which I set out to develop Luxor during my time there, especially as it was linked to the comprehensive development plan of the state. 

My American professors emphasized that any comprehensive development plan or strategy should not exceed 25 years, as there are many variables that shift and change on a regular basis. Studies in the US have confirmed that this plan or strategy must be reviewed every five years, in order to account for new variables that arise, and be in line with the general plan of the state. 

For example, a comprehensive development plan of a given ministry must be congruent with the ideas, goals and outcomes of the state plan itself, and it must begin and end at the same time. The Education Ministry’s strategy revealed last week is fully in line with the government’s 2030 plan. 

Upon assuming his role at the Ministry of Education and Scientific Research, Dr. Ayman Ashour wisely prepared a strategic plan for higher education and research that would guide the ministry over the coming years. His idea was indeed smart. The ministry’s new strategy aims to ensure that Egyptian university graduates have the qualifications required in the Egyptian and Arab labor markets. 

The second axis of this strategy revolves around building a clearer relationship between higher education, scientific research and the comprehensive development plan. This will help address questions raised among the Egyptian public. For instance, what have been the results of scientific research in Egypt? Why has there been a lack of new scientific research in certain fields? 

This strategy aims to ensure that the Egyptian people can benefit from the knowledge and expertise of their universities. The goal is to bridge the gap between educational programs and the needs of each region of Egypt according to its economic activities, as well as to solve complex problems within society through the development of education programs. Ultimately, this strategy aims to increase production rates and achieve the goals of Egypt’s Vision 2030. 

The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for us to explore distance education, which has been beneficial to students, particularly those in rural areas. The strategy also includes the effective participation of university hospitals in serving the community, as well as universities’ engagement in dialogue with society and international communities to create an advanced educational environment. 

Today, regulations and laws must be established to support and reward innovation, while providing human and material resources to support these advancements. The ministry recently highlighted the importance of connecting the academic scientific path of universities with research and innovation, as well as developing new methods of education and teaching. 

Knowledge exchange and transfer between universities and the business sector can also be achieved through collaborations between academic institutions and the business sector in Egypt. I am pleased that Dr. Ayman Ashour has this remarkable initiative, and I believe that this should be the basis and methodology for all ministries in Egypt. Only through this approach will we be able to move toward the development of a modern society. – Samir Faraj, former governor of Luxor 

Uncalculated repercussions of Putin’s arrest warrant

Asharq Al-Awsat, London, March 18

Last week’s arrest warrant issued by the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, is a significant development in the Ukraine war. It may be even more significant in terms of setting boundaries in an era considered to be the waning years of American “unipolarity.” 

The charges against Putin and the presidential commissioner relate to their alleged direct involvement in the unlawful deportation of thousands of children from Ukrainian territory to Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claims that the actual number of children removed from orphanages and care homes since February 24, 2022 could be much more than 16,000. Reports suggest that these children have been offered for adoption or subjected to “rehabilitation.” 

It is worth highlighting a few matters. First, Russia does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court nor does it consider its decisions valid or legally acceptable. This was evidenced by the remarks from Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, and Russian delegate to the UN Vassily Nebenzia. Nebenzia further declared that the court is “biased, politicized, incompetent and ready to practice false justice,” and condemned it for failing to hold those responsible for the illegal US invasion of Iraq accountable. 

Second, legal battles – regardless of whether the International Criminal Court is truly politically independent or not – remain a form of political pressure closely linked to military escalation and economic blockade. Presently, the Russian leadership feels that it is engaged in a war with NATO, which involves extending its area of operation close to Russia’s borders after incorporating Ukraine into it. This is the national justification for the preemptive “defensive” war that the Kremlin is presenting to the Russian people, especially those Russians who do not accept the existence of ethnic, linguistic or cultural differences between Russia and Ukraine. 

Third, the issue of threatening and harming children is an affront to the human conscience. Taking action to protect them from those who are perpetrating harm, or to hold the party responsible for this harm accountable, is a necessary step in any political conflict. 

However, the current approach to international judicial action in defense of the children of Ukraine is not mirrored in the defense of the rights of the children of Syria. Despite the world having seen the tragedies of hundreds, or even thousands, of children dying from gas attacks, bombing and drowning in the sea, those responsible for these atrocities, such as Putin and his diplomats and officers, have not been held accountable.

Similarly, there has been no international justice for those involved in other crimes against children, including murder, exploitation and forced recruitment. Is justice fragmented when right becomes selective and the application of penalties is temperamental and self-interested? 

The court that issued an arrest warrant against Putin and his commissioner for children’s affairs undoubtedly fulfilled its duty, but is it in a position to practically implement its will and achieve what it considers to be right? Putin’s position and ability to influence the global security climate is not comparable with other politicians, such as the late Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi, former Sudanese president Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, former Chadian president Hissen Habré, and former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. Putin’s Russia faces a unique situation in the current international system, marked by rising tensions ranging all the way from Ukraine in the West, to Taiwan in the East. 

The major European countries are facing complications: French President Emmanuel Macron is in an uncomfortable position with his citizens’ vehement objections; the Conservative government in Britain is paying the price for its dogmatism daily; Germany’s coalition government is far from ideal; and Italy is getting a taste of a neo-fascist government. 

Unilateral action against Moscow may not yield the desired results, and it is uncertain what impact it may have. The two most influential nations, China and the US, are engaging in a power struggle. Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to meet with Putin in Moscow to discuss the matter. Meanwhile, Washington is intensifying its rivalry with Beijing by extending the scope of its nuclear capabilities to include Australia. It is uncertain how Putin will respond to this situation. Is it possible that he is being underestimated? – Eyad Abu Shakra 

Ukraine: Between war and love

An-Nahar, Lebanon, March 16

I will not use this column to write about political philosophy or geo-strategy. My words are from the heart, eyes and tremors of my hands, writing from the land of Ukraine, following my first visit there. 

All of those I mentioned my trip to – in honor of the first anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian war – responded with disbelief. Many tried to dissuade me from traveling to Kyiv, believing that danger was inevitable. I felt fear, but it was mixed with love of life, concern for safety, motivation for work and a passion for my trip’s success. It was a beautiful kind of fear. 

Love was the first thing that struck me in this beautiful country. Its architecture, history and people all made a lasting impression. When I crossed the final border between peace and war, the Polish-Ukrainian border, I was taken aback by the darkness that had descended over the country due to the Russian attacks on the Ukrainian infrastructure. 

The journey was long and arduous, taking more than 20 hours, and included a train, a car and a shelter from the relentless missile strikes. All of this made me feel as if I was in some sort of endless tunnel. Eventually, I arrived in Kyiv after traveling from Warsaw to Lviv and then to the capital, even though all of the airports were closed due to the war. 

Between the tragedy and the horrors of destruction, Ukrainians are striving to reclaim their identity, culture and language. One out of every three Ukrainians speaks Russian, yet many are trying hard to rid themselves of it in the wake of Russia’s invasion of their country. Without waiting for laws or regulations to be passed by their government, they recognize that part of the cause of the military offense is an attempt to mentally invade, culturally marginalize and intellectually subjugate all that is Ukrainian. 

Russia has long denied the existence of Ukraine and has considered it a part of its own geographical, political and cultural space. Thus, Ukrainians are determined to reclaim their identity and language in the face of tragedy and destruction. I recall a woman I met at a local café. She was speaking in a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. When I asked her why she spoke both, she replied: “I’m Ukrainian, but I grew up speaking both languages. And I can’t help it. But I’m trying my best to forget Russian. I want to be free from the Russian government and its language.” Another example is a driver I encountered in Poland, who was determined to communicate only in Ukrainian. 

These stories demonstrate the passionate identity and language struggle taking place in Ukraine. These forgotten facts demonstrate the strong sense of unity many Ukrainians feel. Surprisingly, and perhaps most dangerously, many Ukrainians believe that Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and the West is backed by the entire Russian people, who have been brainwashed into no longer recognizing their family ties in Ukraine. This conviction has only strengthened the Ukrainians’ determination to remain steadfast and to win at all costs. 

The people of Ukraine are willing to do anything it takes to guarantee their final and eternal freedom, even if it means living in a temporary prison. The faces of the young men bear a great deal of sadness and hope for a better future for their country. The courage of the women who donned the olive-hued uniform of the military is astounding. Their tender features and beautiful faces melted into a fierce determination to do anything for their country, no matter the cost. In their eyes, one could see the secret of this small nation’s steadfastness in the face of a much larger military force, before the West provided support. 

In the early days of my Ukrainian visit, I would shudder when air raid sirens sounded, warning of incoming shelling in the capital. I would run to hide and urge those around me to take cover. I was shocked when people laughed and continued on with their lives, repeating: “We were not afraid when Russia was at the gates of Kyiv. How can they frighten us now?” 

It is the will of freedom and life that no tanks or missiles can suppress. Now, the war sirens are silent, and people go out to cafes, restaurants and shops before the curfew begins, as if their lives have become synchronized with the rhythm of comprehensive resistance. 

On the other side, in the corridors of the Presidential Palace, the Council of Ministers, the House of Representatives and all government institutions, the hive of activity never ceases. You pass the many checkpoints and security barriers, then traverse the corridors strewn with sandbags. Reaching the darkened offices, their windows sealed in anticipation of any security incident, you find employees there working around the clock with a determined sense of patriotism. Not a word of complaint is uttered, not a hint of restlessness can be detected; the faces of those present are stoic. 

Yet, when the soldiers return from the front lines, including the besieged city of Bakhmut, tears often stream down their faces. They express their experience in a single sentence: “We did not want to fight our Russian brothers and people. But the confrontation was thrust upon us. Engaging in battle with a brother is difficult and heartbreaking. But far worse is the usurpation of our land and people.” 

After about 10 days that were filled with a mix of joy and fear, I packed my bags to return to Dubai. I sincerely hope that I will be able to come back again, and that Ukraine will have managed to shake off the remnants of shrapnel, missiles and bombs. Life has returned to Kyiv, and Kyiv has returned to the heart of life. 

Ukraine, you are beautiful. You captivate with your charm, roses and fragrant perfume; your freedom and resistance. Your families, churches and buildings make you a sight to behold. And Kyiv, you are wonderful, with your icy skies that penetrate the heart with a feeling of endless warmth and love. – Layal Al-Ikhtiyal

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.