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The Ukraine war will hurt people worldwide – no matter who wins

As the war crawls towards stalemate, the world’s poorest will suffer most from shortages of food and fuel, rising inflation and disrupted trade

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 March 2022, 3.22pm

The world needs this

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Andrii Tsynhariuk/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

As the Ukraine war enters its second month it is close to a very violent stalemate. It is doing damage, however, far beyond the borders of that country or even of Europe – and not just with bullets and bombs.

If Putin’s war aim was to convert Ukraine into a client state beholden to the Kremlin, then the war had to be brief and conclusive. Gaining air superiority and extending territorial control along the Crimea-Donetsk corridor were important but a lightning attack on Kyiv was vital in order to terminate the Ukraine government. That failed right at the start and the whole operation slowed right down to a crawl.

Putin’s forces have altered their whole strategy and are now engaged primarily in counter-city attacks designed to destroy Ukraine morale while forcing a refugee crisis on neighbouring NATO states.

But the Zelensky government shows no sign of surrender and is even recapturing small pockets of territory from the Russian army. Yet it cannot defeat the Russian forces without massive supplies of offensive weapons which NATO is deterred from providing.

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Unless there is an internal revolt or Putin experiences an uncharacteristic change of mind, what would bring him to the negotiating table is far from certain. One thing seems clear enough, though: we are not there yet and may still be months away.

That means we also have to recognise some of the much wider consequences of this war. Some that are already clear will endure for months and years, many with knock-on effects across the world.

One winner is the world’s multiple military-industrial complexes. Back in January I argued that in many countries across the northern hemisphere the arms industries would benefit: so it has proved.

Scarcely anyone is asking why NATO needs to spend more

Military budgets are going up, NATO is moving thousands of troops forward, many millions of dollars’ worth of weapons are pouring into Ukraine, arms factories are busy and their salespeople are ready to point to ‘successes’ of their weapons in the fields of war.

As the world’s arms industries are on a roll, investors win heavily, including some notable members of the British House of Lords. Meanwhile, the cost of the weapons being used is so high that Russia will not be able to ignore the increasing burden. With ship-launched Kaliber cruise missiles coming in at $1.5m a time and the Iskander ballistic missiles costing $10m each, the bills mount.

As for the West, scarcely anyone is asking why NATO needs to spend more when it collectively outspends Russia by 14:1 and Russia’s war is already failing. Nor is there any discussion of whether NATO taxpayers are getting value for money, given the abject failures of Western coalitions in their own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the supposed end of the lightning war in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush gave his State of the Union address in Washington DC in January 2002 convinced that the Taliban regime had been terminated. Nineteen years later the US and its allies were forced to admit defeat and withdrew amidst chaotic scenes.

The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq appeared to have collapsed in three weeks in April 2003 yet nearly a decade of war was to follow, leaving a wrecked country. Even now, conflicts with ISIS and al-Qaida continue in the Middle East, North and Central Africa, and South Asia.

If, with luck, the war ends without any use of nuclear weapons it may have at least one positive legacy. As Rebecca Johnson argues powerfully: “This war has finally stripped nuclear deterrence delusions bare. This is not a war game or a movie. This is real life, with real mistakes and terrible humanitarian consequences.”

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Despite leaders’ claims, nuclear weapons don’t prevent war or make life safer or more peaceful – they put the survival of the whole planet at risk

At the very least leaders would be wise to immediately de-alert nuclear systems and make further moves towards a nuclear-free world through the expansion of the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It came into force only 14 months ago but already has 83 states signed up.

Beyond the military repercussions, the Ukraine war will add a big load to much of the Global South, already struggling with the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent study by the UN’s main agency working on trade and development, UNCTAD, has expressed concern over “the two fundamental ‘Fs’ of commodity markets: food and fuels”, with Ukraine and Russia being global players. Russia’s huge role in the global energy market is well known and together the two countries account for 27% of all trade in wheat and 53% of trade in sunflower oil, widely used across the Global South in cooking.

UNCTAD further reports: “As many as 25 African countries, including many least developed countries, import more than one third of their wheat from the two countries, and 15 of them import over half.” According to the UNCTAD secretary-general, Rebeca Grynspan: “Soaring food and fuel prices will affect the most vulnerable in developing countries, putting pressure on the poorest households which spend the highest share of their income on food, resulting in hardship and hunger.”

Further complications will ensue if the war disrupts rail freight between China and Europe. That will force more goods onto ships travelling already crowded sea routes, leading to further delays in supply chains, while fuel costs will add even more to international inflationary pressures.

The war will lead to higher inflation worldwide but the poorest people will feel it most, whether in the Global North or Global South – hurts that are scarcely considered when looking at the impact of the war.

All this comes against the background of the wider issues of potential climate breakdown and a neoliberal economic system: as Mary Kaldor, professor of global governance at the London School of Economics, argues, market fundamentalism did so much to aid the rise of Putin.

Rising above these global challenges was a huge task before the war and is now made more difficult by its consequences. That is no excuse not to work for a more peaceful world, even if the accumulation of problems may seem so daunting. No one can take it all on, but individual roles are vital. Moreover, the work can be made easier if this wider picture is recognised, a clear role for the likes of openDemocracy.

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