Since the outbreak of the war in Europe four months ago, the Russian military has been crushing cities in Ukraine and wiping entire communities off the map. It is already clear that the Russian war machine is changing the fate of the region for good, and the impact of the conflict reaches far beyond Europe’s borders. The war has turned the localized struggle against Ukraine and the Ukrainians into an intense geopolitical and ideological struggle that is reaching well past Europe’s borders.
It has morphed into a global, violent and uncompromising struggle between Russia and the West; between an authoritarian regime and democratic countries; between freedom and a dictatorship whose purpose is to alter the current world order. This brutal struggle is sharpening the enormous gaps that exist between conflicting values, and between Washington and Moscow’s opposing stances and interests.
While the struggle unites and consolidates NATO and the European Union countries, it also reinforces the laxity of the Biden administration and the weakness of American policy. This lax stance is undoubtedly the main catalyst influencing Putin’s aggressive policies, and one of the critical factors spurring him to carry out murderous actions to defeat Ukraine without fearing Western intervention.
And thus, even though it’s not easy to admit, the head of the Kremlin is the person currently directing events in Europe and influencing trends and processes taking place around the world. All of this is happening despite Russia’s international isolation, the shrinking of its economy and the Russian military’s strategic and logistical failures.
Putin is driven by a tremendous passion for power, dark desires, Russian sentiment and a megalomaniacal yearning to return to the days of the czars and the Russian Empire. He is sowing hatred and pushing to create divisiveness and polarization within Europe and across the globe. While the governments in Europe and around the world are condemning or flattering him, and showing signs of fatigue and indifference to his moves, the head of the Kremlin is redrawing the map of relations, interests and the balance of power in the international arena.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the strategic gaps, misjudgments and the destructive effects of the war, as well as its long-term geopolitical, security and economic consequences. The cold truth must be spoken out loud. The war in Europe is not a war of occupation, nor is it limited to the issue of security in Ukraine and the other countries in the region. It is a war of attrition that Putin is leading against American hegemony and its global domination and influence that is taking place simultaneously on several fronts.
This is a blatant violation of international law that is seriously undermining the foundation of democracy and aims to alter the status quo and existing world order on which the international community is based.
President of the European Commission Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen addressed this matter last month at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Moreover, she declared at the end of the session with the leaders of Germany, France and Italy, and with President Zelensky in Kyiv, that the EU would officially be providing support for Ukraine, as well as recognizing its candidacy for EU membership.
THE FACTS speak for themselves. As the war escalates and Russia continues to wipe out entire cities and provinces, and kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, millions of Ukrainian citizens have fled the country (so far, 6.5 million refugees and 7 million displaced persons have fled their homes indefinitely, totaling one-third of the country’s population). This shatters Ukraine’s neutral stance, which it has held since achieving independence in 1991.
This is a catastrophic geopolitical, security and humanitarian crisis of the highest proportion, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1945. It threatens the stability of international relations as defined by the UN. It has reached a historic point of no return, in which many European countries, including Georgia and Moldova, have applied to join the EU, and countries like Sweden and Finland are preparing to join NATO.
It’s important to explain that beyond the deep paradigm shift in the traditional perception of European countries, we’re dealing with an extremely strategic domino effect. This war has triggered an accelerated militarization and deployment of arms, which has led to increased defense budgets, which have risen to 2% of the GDP in all of these countries, totaling €200 billion in military expenditures.
Moreover, this military intensification is leaking outside of the continent’s borders and is leading to an escalation of the global nuclear arms race, as seen in the nuclear tests being conducted by North Korea in an effort to draw international attention.
Strong effects on world markets
The invasion of Ukraine and the intensification of international sanctions imposed on Russia are having a strong effect on world markets, and have inflicted significant harm on weaker countries in Europe and Central Asia.
According to data published by the World Bank in April, instead of recovering from the COVID-19 crisis and growing at a rate of 3%, these economies are expected to shrink at an average rate of 4.1% this year. This is in addition to the contraction of Ukraine’s economy, which is projected to fall 45% due to the extensive killing of its citizens, destruction of its cities, industrial centers and critical infrastructure.
In contrast, due to the important strategic role Russia plays in the global commodity markets, including oil, gas, metal and agricultural products coming out of Ukraine, the Russian economy has shrunk by 8.5% and entered a deep recession due to severe restrictions on energy sources, including a 60% reduction in the volume of oil exports to Europe.
Nonetheless, Russia is the world’s third-biggest oil producer and the dominant supplier of natural gas for all of Europe. Its revenue from these energy sources and from coal during the first one hundred days of the war, which according to a recent publication in Finland reached €93 billion, is enough to fund the continuation of Russia’s lethal war machine.
The vast tension and volatility in financial and commodity markets due to the war have led to soaring prices. Thus, while the stock market is reacting sharply to Putin’s aggressive policies, there is great volatility in the global energy market, and oil and natural gas prices are skyrocketing. The price of a barrel of oil in March rose to $139, a record high not seen since 2008. Moreover, because the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project was halted, gas prices are currently five times higher than normal levels.
It’s important to note that the disruption of the supply of oil and gas, along with changes in production quotas due to the tightening of sanctions, will not just have an effect in the short term or affect only the Russian economy. These raw materials are being used as a means of blackmail by Russia against European countries and the US, which is searching for alternative energy sources, including efforts to improve ties with the Persian Gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia.
It’s not for nothing that President Biden is scheduled to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who until recently was persona non grata in Washington.
Furthermore, the continuation and escalation of the war are leading to an increase in uncertainty and intense fear of a sharp global slowdown, which is in turn leading to a rise in prices, a jump in inflation rates and poverty around the globe. All of these factors will likely lead to a further decline in growth rates in countries in Europe and around the world, and to surges due to supply disruptions of Russian gas and the cessation of its flow to European countries, namely Germany, France and Italy.
AS FEARS of disruptions in energy supply and soaring prices amass, Putin continues to bomb and pulverize Ukraine. He’s now taken control of 20% of Ukrainian territory, and is blocking its strategically important ports on the Black Sea, which are integral for exporting grain, including wheat, corn and sunflower seeds.
Russia and Ukraine play a key role in the global food market. Russia is responsible for 17% of world wheat exports, and Ukraine supplies 80% of all cooking oils, such as corn and canola, as well as 17% of world corn exports. Ukraine is also the world leader in grain exports, with a market share of 12%. As a result, in addition to harming the region’s agricultural output, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is creating upheaval in global food markets, which could disrupt the supply of more than one-quarter of the wheat worldwide.
This turmoil, which is reflected in rising prices and logistical disruptions at ports, is also causing a spike in transportation costs, as well as affecting the global food chain and the distribution of grains throughout the world. As a result, poor countries in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, such as Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, which import 90% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, cannot afford to pay these inflated prices and are facing tangible food shortages, which could lead to country-wide hunger and food insecurity.
According to UN data, there has been an overall 30% price increase, which is mainly affecting developing countries and weakened communities. This will lead to an even wider gap and polarization between these and Western countries, and thus lead to further price increases and higher inflation rates.
Russia is winning and benefiting
The processes and trends discussed above leave no room for doubt. It’s not easy to admit, but on the question of which side is winning the war in Europe and benefiting from the fact that no end to the struggle is in sight, the answer is clearly Russia. And thus, as part of the discussions surrounding the Russians’ military invasion of Ukraine, the West must intensify and significantly increase the volume of resources it is allocating to the security and military fortification of Ukraine.
But – and this is a big but – we’re not talking about simple conventional arithmetic in which you can just calculate the number of tanks, cannons and artillery barrels, alongside advanced cyber capabilities that will be made available to the countries. Neither is this a history lesson examining the political moves and military maneuvers that have taken place over the last few decades, which could shed light on the current situation.
WHAT WE have is a new situation in the international arena that compels the West to amend its approach toward Russia and adopt a new, more pragmatic view that will provide an appropriate response to the new threats and opportunities, alongside the complex interests and relationships in the international arena. The US and the West must pay attention to and learn from Putin’s conduct. They must take action so that they no longer appear weak in comparison with Russia. They absolutely cannot ignore the existence and importance of Russia, or underestimate its capabilities.
Russia is an enormous country that is rich in resources and spread out over 11 time zones. It has the largest military in Europe, and the second largest in the world. It has the largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world, with 6,000 nuclear warheads. Moreover, it is one of the few countries that up until the breakout of the current war, had good relations with almost all of the countries in the Middle East, including Syria, Iran, the Gulf states and the Levant.
In recent years, Russia has amplified its military presence in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where it has deployed 60,000 troops, built military bases adjacent to ports, stationed fighter jets and missiles, and deployed air defense systems. Furthermore, it has developed military and diplomatic ties with countries throughout the region regardless of their ideological differences and disagreements between them.
Russia has also established relations with Israel and countries throughout Africa, including Egypt, Libya and Sudan. These connections have helped it position itself as a source of military power that is growing stronger, just as the US is reducing its presence and activity in the Middle East.
Therefore, from a broad geopolitical point of view, the time has come to wake up and understand that although Russia is located on the outskirts of Europe, and is experiencing powerful economic and military failures, Putin – who advocates a ruthless realpolitik – is the one who is setting the tone and pace of events in the international arena. He is taking a nihilistic and predatory approach, and is not seeking to wage a brutal war of attrition without a humane and rational price tag.
Meanwhile, the war, which highlights the huge gaps between the sides, the conflicts of interest, and the contradiction between their positions and values, is a wake-up call that sharpens the West’s need to recalculate a path and formulate a coherent, clear and flexible policy toward the Kremlin and its leaders.
On the one hand, this policy must take into account these gaps, as well as Russia and Putin’s strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, it must also take into consideration Russia’s global position, which has support from China, as well as the two countries’ joint struggle to overcome American hegemony. Neither can we ignore Russia’s status and importance in the Middle East, in light of the continuing withdrawal of the US from the region.
A combination of sober thinking, military skill and accurate intelligence will help the West formulate a sophisticated and appropriate policy, that is a mixture of avoidance of violent confrontation with the Moscow regime and a coming to terms with the spread of Russia’s influence across the globe. All this while projecting an image of authority and a strong cohesive front that has the power to weaken and even block Russia, and to prevent the situation from deteriorating and the war from having a destructive effect on Europe and the entire world.
The writer is an expert in international security, geopolitical crises and global terrorism.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.