Sept 2022

Crisis without borders

Tanya Vatsa highlights the ongoing costs of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and its far-reaching global ramifications

In 1962, a bipolar world averted a nuclear massacre, though narrowly. Following the withdrawal of nuclear arsenals by superpowers the US and the Soviet Unionfrom Turkey and Cuba respectively, the world vowed to avoid the devastation caused by wars. The development of nuclear weapons was essentially an attempt to create deterrence and prevent larger powers from bullying the rest of the world into submission.

America’s then arch rival, the USSR, had been created in 1922 and, over time, encompassed 15 republics, which came to be known as the Russian satellite nations. But under American super sovereignty and liberal-democratic ideology, all countries were recognised as equally independent and territorially secure. The global shift towards multipolarity and loss of Russian influence fuelled Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to bring the Russian satellites back into its larger fold, in order to resurrectits power dynamic over a vast geographical territory.

Unfortunately, the 21st century has now witnessed several conflicts, although a full-blown invasion in Eastern Europe was not envisaged by most geopolitical pundits till last year. Yet Moscow had made it clear that it viewed the Soviet disintegration as ‘a geopolitical catastrophe’ and Putin vowed to mend these wrongs in his very first term as president.

DANGER ZONE: A matter of global concern is the constant shelling of nuclear power plants such as the one in Zaporizhzhia

Less well known, however, is that post-Soviet break-up, until 1994, Ukraine had a huge chunk of the Soviet nuclear arsenal in its territory. The then politically relevant countries – the US, UK and Russia – managed to convince Kyiv to give up its armoury in return for guaranteed security. Kyiv submitted to this political pressure in order to channel most of its resources towards the well-being of its citizens, providing them with economic and social development. Little did the people of Ukraine know that they would face a brutal betrayal by their larger neighbour in the near future.

The Russian invasion is now in its sixth month. There has been a huge debate as to what led to it. Fingers have pointed at an ambitious leader, a disoriented NATO, territorial disputes over the Donbas region and an attempt by Moscow to bring about regime change in Kyiv. The tussle between the larger powers and the reluctance of the stake-holding leaders to take a step back has led to heavy civilian losses and catastrophe spilling across borders. Although the Russian military has withdrawn from Kharkiv and Kyiv, the Eastern and Southern states and ports are under heavy assault. A matter of global concern is the constant shelling of nuclear power plants such as the one in Zaporizhzhia.

Putin vowed to mend the wrongs of Soviet disintegration in his first term as president

But while the humanitarian toll this war has taken is all too evident in terms of deaths and displacement, a lesser known impact is an unprecedented augmentation of the global food crisis.

Ukraine exported about 6 million tonnes of Agri-commodities before the war. It accounted for 10% of global wheat exports, 15% of maize, 13% of barley and 61% of sunflower cakes. The bulk of this trade is carried out through the Black Sea ports. But Moscow has successfully choked the Black Sea route and fewer than 20% of the usual exports have been able to leave the besieged country. Most of these contingents have left via the Danube river, by road or by rail.

The markets for these exports are largely Middle Eastern, North African and Asian countries. These happen to be some of the most volatile regions of the world, economically and politically. To add to this issue, the preceding years have witnessed severe disruptions in the global supply chains due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, general economic slowdown and fragile political leadership in some of the world’s most prosperous countries. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia by NATO and the West have led to a hugeescalationin oil and fuel prices, which has added to the general woes of the public.

Another important product which has taken a serious hit is fertilisers, whose availability has been seriously affected. Russia and Belarus account for 20% of global fertiliser exports and the lack of access to the same islikely to impact the severely strained food production processes.

Before the war, Ukraine accounted for 10% of global wheat exports

With wheat making up the staple diet of over 35% of the world’s population, the stress on its price due to the export shortage from Ukraine has exacerbated the already existing food insecurity situation. According to a report by the Global Network Against Food Crises, in 2021around 193 million people in 53 countries or territories experienced acute food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3-5). The report also states that conflict is the key driver of this pervasive food insecurity, pushing 139 million people in 24 countries/territories into acute food insecurity, up from around 99 million in 23 countries/territories in 2020. It is significant to note that most of the import destinations of Kyiv include some of the worst affected regions of the world, including those rife with conflict in the Middle East and the African continent. While the West and the more prosperous regions of the East might find alternatives during the buffer period, the shift in trade dynamics will be extremely costly for the MENA countries.

On Aug. 1, the merchant ship Razoni, loaded with grains, left Odessaport for Lebanon, a first since the start of the invasion

In a world trying to get back on its feet after successive setbacks, the Russian invasion has only set the clock back further. Significant pressure from the most relevant nations, however, caused Moscow to allow for concessions in its choke-hold of the Black Sea trade route. As a result, Turkey and the UN were able to broker a grain and fertiliser export agreement, and consequently, on August 1, the merchant ship Razoni, loaded with grains, left Odessa port for Lebanon – a first since the beginning of the invasion.

This may be a feeble victory, yet it is a huge acknowledgment of our interconnectedness, and how the whole world as a whole is affected by a calamity in an Eastern European nation. As Moscow seems determined to alter the map of Eastern Europe and North Asia in pursuit of its aggressive sovereignty, neither it nor we can afford to ignore the larger economics.

Trade is the nexus which integrates all parts of the globe, divided by borders but united by the will to live beyond mere animal existence. Sooner or later, it is inevitable that Moscow will allow Kyiv to assume its rightful position in the world. It remains to be seen, however, the number of people and places that continue to be adversely affected by this war, and for how long.

Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti