War in Ukraine — And Its Consequences By Ahmer Shehzad

Ostensibly, Russian President Vladimir Putin imposed a war on Ukraine because of her unheeded security concerns over NATO’s expansion around Russia and American-deployed nuclear forces in the Europe. In reality, Putin’s objectives eyed bigger gains, including design for Russia’s emergence as third power after USA and China. Ukraine’s large untapped energy reserves also tempted Putin towards absorbing its Eastern areas having an estimated natural gas reserves of 5.4 trillion cubic metres and world’s sixth largest coal deposits. Whereas, jeopardised European security and unhinged USA from the European continent were thought to be the dividends of this adventure. Historically, many in Russia, including Putin, never reconciled with independent Ukrainian existence which is perceived to be an indivisible part of the erstwhile Russian Empire.

In the three and half months of war, Russian forces have occupied almost 20% of the Ukrainian territory, and consolidated their grip on the Eastern Donbas region comprising Luhansk and Donets provinces, North Eastern Severodonetsk and port cities of Mariupol and Meltipol in the South. Ukraine which caters to a tenth of world’s wheat consumption is under sea blockade with complete halt on export of millions of tons of grain through Black Sea leading to the global food crisis.

Notwithstanding sizeable territorial gains and denying sea access, Russia could not overrun Ukraine in days, as claimed, and initially failed in seizing North East of Ukraine. Because of that, Russia modified its campaign by concentrating it in the East and South, for bringing effects on the ground. Whereas Ukrainian forces, which successfully repulsed Russian assaults at multiple fronts, have now been significantly degraded. However, they remain resilient for the country’s defence.

 

With Russia launching invasion on Ukraine and threatening European security, American leadership successfully healed the continent’s Trump era related dissonance to create unified response to the Russian aggression. USA also convinced EU on seeking alternatives to Russian energy supplies. NATO rediscovered justification for existence after decades of debate. Trans-Atlantic unity thus enabled Ukraine in braving Russian aggression with continuous flow of NATO trainers, European volunteers, anti-armour, anti-aircraft hardware, lethal artillery, surveillance drones, and calibrated intelligence. With American sanctions already strangling Russian economy, united Europe recently tightened bans on Russian gas and oil imports. However, this unity would remain major challenge for European endurance in outlasting Ukrainian conflict amid her burning energy needs in the global economy that is reeling with unseen peak inflations.

As Russia is already sitting on sizeable Ukrainian territory, ‘escalate to de-escalate’ may not come into play even in usage of tactical nuclear weapons; however, nuclear bellicosity would remain at high pitch. Emergent scenario thus appears a battle of calibrated proxies with exacerbating global energy and food crises, if the invasion continues. While Putin still enjoys sizeable domestic approval, proxies in play around Russia and the economy under stress, he would attempt legitimising occupation on areas under siege through diplomacy. Few seasoned policymakers of Europe and USA also support this convenient outcome to end war, much to the disapproval of Ukrainian and American leadership.

America on her part would not unwisely invest in Ukrainian compulsion of bringing pre-war territorial status, but would like Russia getting bogged down in a long-drawn war in her neighbourhood by continuously enhancing space for proxies. Such stratagem would economically and militarily wane Russia, fail her design of challenging USA and contain Putin much below the global stature – meaning strategic defeat for him. To counterbalance the much evident American strategy, Putin continues to play threat of nuclear usage in the entire spectrum of the conflict.

In American calculus, pinning down Putin would also deter China from the militarism over Taiwan. Recent congressional approval of a $40 billion aid package – which features $700 million earmarked for weaponry to Ukraine, including HIMARS lethal Multi Rocket Precision Artillery system – illustrates that American will to keep Russia embroiled in the war. Similarly, the UK is poised to reinforce Ukrainian struggle by providing tracked M 270 multiple launch rocket systems. As fighting capacity of Ukrainian forces is recouped, Western military support would always be measured to avoid antagonising Russia too far.

As the war progresses in its fourth month, Russian grinding assaults are pulverising Eastern Ukrainian cities and emptying them by inflicting deaths on the population. Putin has managed to grab energy-rich region of Ukraine and has acquired ability to create global food catastrophe potentially leading to famine, particularly for Africa, by chocking the Black Sea trade route.

Despite such destruction, Putin’s ambition of decimating regime, weakening European security and American influence, all failed. Because he could never employ overstated nuclear formidability as a factor in the conventional conflict, and misread America through the prism of lapsed Trump era. Eventually, his urge for reviving imperialist prestige and creating relevance vis-à-vis the rising China succumbed to the negativity he earned for Russia.

American leadership, while nudging Russia under economic sanctions, has domestic vulnerabilities related to impact of unprecedented high petrol cost, 40-year high inflation and much anticipated recession on the midterm polls in November this year. To offset such adverse impact on Democrats, there could be significant shift in US policies towards China and Iran, rather Russia, against what Putin would like to see. USA is contemplating lifting trade tariffs on China to bring commodities prices down in her market, and may bring Iranian oil in the global supply chain provided that the US-Iran negotiations on nuclear programme sail successfully.

To curtail adverse effects of punishing sanctions that may impact Putin’s militarism, Russia would employ much feared famine in Africa coupled with 22 million tons of wheat blocked at Ukrainian ports as leverage to compel the West to ease sanctions. Ukrainian wheat feeds roughly 400 million people per annum in Africa, Central America and the Middle East. The UN through Turkey is negotiating with Russia for shipping of stranded Ukrainian grains to the world market. Putin’s war is adding to the global food crisis, particularly in Africa; and if it is allowed to progress to catastrophe, it could trigger starvation, immigration and political instability. To forestall this global upheaval, USA has set aside $5 billion for helping crisis-hit countries other than initiating identification of alternate routes for Ukrainian grain export.

On the energy, which is the backbone of Russia’s market-based economy, realignment of oil trade with China, India, Africa and South Africa would carve out breathing space for Russian economy. Since the initiation of war, mutual trade with China, mainly oil export has surged by 28%. China has invested $50 billion for importing surplus daily Russian oil production. However, in the long run, China whose economy is interdependent with that of the US would be constrained to continue with it. India which is the 3rd largest oil consumer after USA and China has ramped up import of much discounted Russian oil. India has bought more than 40 million barrels of Russian oil since the invasion of Ukraine, with daily shipments having surpassed 740,000 barrels per day.

To deal in this complex world, Pakistan which is already burdened under enormity of economic challenges would need to pursue long-term sustainable policies free of political convenience. Availing Western and Russian concessions simultaneously may not be a possibility. However, shift in American policy approach towards Iran, if materialised, may afford multitude of energy related opportunities to reduce our economic predicaments.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th, 2022.​

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