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The ‘New Normal’ of the Ukraine Invasion by Russia


In last week’s Wrap-Up, I noted that the war in Ukraine was entering a new phase, one in which the human costs of Russia’s brutal siege tactics will become more evident, even as whatever political objectives Russian President Vladimir Putin initially sought to accomplish through the invasion become increasingly unachievable. The course of the fighting in the week since then has only reinforced that conclusion. While both sides are engaged in negotiations to end the war, the prospects for a compromise agreement seem dim, and even if some deal is reached, it’s hard to see how it could be durable or lasting over time.

In other words, we will in all likelihood see a period of protracted conflict in Ukraine, one that might be punctuated by operational lulls and temporary cease-fires, but one that will nevertheless last, perhaps indefinitely.

In my experience as WPR’s editor-in-chief, I’ve seen variations of this theme play out in other conflicts over the years—Syria, Libya, Yemen and more recently Ethiopia come to mind, to say nothing of the insurgencies in West Africa’s Sahel region.

One consequence of the shift from emergent to protracted conflict in those cases was that the initial shock caused by a radical departure from a status quo many took for granted was replaced, more or less quickly in each case, by resignation and ultimately disinterest, among not only the general public, but also high-level policymaking circles. While debates continue to rage even today among regional experts over what can and should be done to intervene in those conflicts, those debates rarely influenced or changed policy in the Western capitals or within regional and international multilateral institutions that could most often have made a difference on the ground.

After months of monopolizing policymaking bandwidth in Washington and Europe, and dominating multilateral diplomacy and international news coverage, is the war in Ukraine ultimately destined to also be downgraded by this “new normal effect”? On one hand, that has already been the case when it comes to the war in eastern Ukraine, which has carried on virtually uninterrupted despite ostensible cease-fires since 2014.

But on the other, there are a number of characteristics of this war making that less likely. To begin with, as I explained in a previous newsletter, this conflict is taking place in a central political and economic node of the international order. The repercussions for what is still, even after a period of heightened appeals to national sovereignty, a globalized world are therefore more pronounced. That the war has also taken on almost existential qualities as a struggle between two incompatible visions of European and global order involving the world’s two leading nuclear powers is another reason for the greater attention.

But as I also mentioned in that earlier newsletter, part of the reason Europe and the U.S. are responding to the war in Ukraine with greater urgency compared to these other conflicts, and are likely to do so in a more prolonged and sustained manner, has to do with racism and the way in which violence against or suffered by some categories of people are considered to be, if not acceptable, than at least normal and part of the “cost of doing business” in the world.

These categories of people are almost always those who aren’t white or living in the West. And while these perceptions are always implicitly cooked into the discourse Western policymakers and media use to describe conflict elsewhere, as we’ve seen on multiple occasions in the past three weeks, they are frequently explicit as well.

One area where this has been perhaps most visibly and obviously on display in the war in Ukraine has to do with the European response to more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees that have already fled the fighting, compared to the smaller number that have fled conflicts in the Middle East and Africa in the past seven years, to say nothing of the African residents of Ukraine who were turned away at the Ukrainian border in the early weeks of the war. Whereas Ukrainians have been welcomed with generous hospitality, those fleeing violence in the Middle East and Africa have been viewed with suspicion and hostility, particularly by political constituencies long nurtured on xenophobic narratives framing immigration and asylum as threats to national identity.

For anyone familiar with the eroding norms in the wealthy countries of the Global North surrounding refugees and asylum seekers, the newfound openness to people fleeing violence is a welcome change, but a revealing one. Here are some recent WPR articles to put it into context:

This Week’s Highlights

Putin’s Friends in Latin America Are Abandoning Him. In a column Thursday, Frida Ghitis wrote about Russia’s failure to secure support for its invasion of Ukraine from Latin American leaders, despite years of efforts to cultivate ties with autocratic regimes in the region.

  • Over the past decade, Frida writes, the Kremlin has tried to exploit “Latin America’s internal divisions and its differences with the United States with the purpose of building a beachhead of diplomatic and strategic support in a region geographically close to the U.S.” This effort has included extensive propaganda and disinformation campaigns as well as arms shipments and loans to undercut U.S. influence and create “a zone of diplomatic and strategic support for Russia” in Latin America.
  • In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Frida notes, “it seemed as though the Latin American campaign would pay off for Putin.” When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visited Moscow in mid-February, he declared Brazil’s “solidarity” with Russia, while Argentinean President Alberto Fernandez, who also met with Putin in February, underscored Russia’s role in helping his country become more independent from the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund.
  • While Moscow’s diplomatic efforts in the region helped secure abstentions from Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador and Venezuela in the recent U.N. General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s attack of Ukraine, “not one Latin American country voted against it.” Furthermore, Frida explains, “one after the other, Latin American officials have spoken out against Putin’s campaign—with few exceptions.”  
  • Frida concludes that while many Latin American leftists have “maintained a soft spot for Russia” in keeping with their “viscerally anti-U.S. views,” overall, “Russia’s attempt to forge a zone of diplomatic support for the Kremlin in Latin America has fallen flat.”

West Africa’s Climate Nightmare Is Already Here. In an article Monday, WPR associate editor Chris Ogunmodede examined the serious consequences of climate change facing West Africa, as documented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report.

  • The report concluded that some of climate change’s impacts on the natural world and human societies are likely irreversible, and moving forward they will be most severe in warm regions, low-lying coastal areas and parts of the world considered to be the least developed. As Chris notes, this “defines most if not all of West Africa,” where average temperatures “have increased by 1-3 degrees Celsius since the 1970s.” 
  • In particular, the 4,000-mile coast of West Africa stretching from Cameroon to Mauritania is in grave peril from climate change-induced rises in sea levels, which threaten many of the capital cities and commercial hubs in the region. Moreover, climate change will likely increase deaths from extreme weather—already the cause of 35 percent of deaths on the continent—and rural-to-urban migration, with “as much as 60 percent of West Africa’s population projected to migrate internally within the continent by 2050 in the event of a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures.” 
  • Many countries—particularly those with large coastlines like Nigeria, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone—are already experiencing extensive impacts linked to climate change. Chris warns that these developments can lead to a “vicious cycle” in which climate change exacerbates low levels of economic growth and development, higher poverty rates, food insecurity, armed conflict and weak governance—all of which in turn worsen governments’ ability to address the effects of climate change through mitigation and adaptation.
  • International actors could mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change by addressing inequities in funding, research agendas and data collection. Currently, African countries receive just 4 percent of climate-related research funding globally, of which African researchers received less than 15 percent. Shifting that funding from Western actors to African local and regional partners, Chris concludes, would give them “direct control of research agendas that would provide more context-specific insights on climate risks and adaptation options for Africa.” 

The Global Food System Was Already Unsustainable Before the War in Ukraine. And in a briefing Wednesday, William G. Moseley explained how the Russia-Ukraine war has highlighted the precarity of an already unsustainable global food system and why a rethink of the conventional food security paradigm is in order.

  • Ukraine and Russia account for a combined 29 percent of global wheat exports and 19 percent of global corn exports. The skyrocketing prices of both in the aftermath of the invasion has hit grain-importing countries hard, particularly poorer ones. In Egypt, for instance, the unsubsidized price of bread immediately rose by 50 percent, and the government has indicated the subsidized price will rise soon also. That’s significant, given that “a third of Egyptians live on less than $1.50 a day, and bread accounts for a third of their calories and 45 percent of their protein.” 
  • While some are proposing trade-based solutions to the problem, “this approach ignores the need for more fundamental reform of the global food system.” As William explains, over the past half-century, approaches to food security have emphasized industrial food production coupled with trade in agricultural commodities, so food-deficient countries “could easily import grain from surplus-producing countries like Ukraine, Russia, the U.S., Canada and Australia.” 
  • But while this global food system provides an abundance of cheap food in good years, “it is wreaking environmental havoc and is highly vulnerable to trade disruptions.” Egypt, whose Nile delta has historically been one of the most productive agricultural regions on the planet, clearly illustrates the problems with this approach. The adoption of industrial agricultural practices, combined with urban expansion and soil depletion due to the effects of hydroelectric projects, has left Egypt dependent on imported grain.
  • Instead, William argues, vulnerable countries like Egypt should draw on more sustainable approaches, like agroecology, and make use of tariffs to protect domestic producers from cheap food imports in years when global supplies are plentiful. Such an approach, he concludes, would mean “fresher and healthier food for local populations, greater employment in the agricultural sector and less vulnerability to food trade disruptions.”

This Week’s Most-Read Story

South Africa Has Clearly Chosen a Side on the War in Ukraine. And in this week’s top story by pageviews, James Hamill explained why South Africa’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though shocking, shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the “long, downward ethical trajectory since the Mandela era” of Pretoria’s foreign policy:

The Ukraine crisis has also confirmed that the ANC government is no longer concerned about promoting democratic values. Given the close political and ideological ties outlined above, the fact that the ANC instinctively supported Russia, an authoritarian state, over Ukraine, a democracy fighting for its survival, no longer surprises. However, the broader South African response to the crisis has weakened some of the key pillars of the country’s own foreign policy, and this is likely to prove detrimental to its interests in the future.

What’s On Tap

And coming up next week, we’ve got:

  • A column by Erica Gaston on why fears over Russian mercenaries operating in Ukraine may be overblown.
  • A briefing by Layna Mosley on the need for a more sustainable approach to pandemic-related debt relief for low- and middle-income countries.
  • A briefing by an author writing anonymously for reasons of personal security on Russia’s media and information landscape in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine.
  • And an in-depth article by Daniel McDowell on the risks facing the global economy as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.


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