February 7, 2022
The Russia-West standoff over Ukraine continues. The US and its European allies are warning of a serious risk of a Russian offensive against Ukraine. Moscow is claiming that the US is trying to pull Russia into an armed conflict over Ukraine that Russia does not want. The US is sending troops to Germany, Poland, and Romania. The West is waiting for the Russian response to its written proposals which Moscow says focus only on secondary issues. Lines of argument and underlying rationale are getting increasingly blurred and confusing.
While Western commentary mostly refers to “European security”, one cannot overlook the fact that article 4 of the “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees” proposed by Moscow reads:
“The United States of America shall not establish military bases in the territory of the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.”
In other words, Russia’s security demands from the West are not just about Ukraine or European security. They are about Eurasia. Would anyone be surprised if Beijing were to come up with a similar treaty proposal to the US? Hardly, especially after President Putin’s visit to Beijing. Unfortunately for Kyiv, this conflict is not only about Ukraine. It is more about strategic competition.
Last Friday Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping held talks in Beijing. The “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development” was issued after their meeting.[i] Here are a few lead-ins from this Statement:
• “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order”,
• “re-distribution of power in the world”,
• “genuine multipolarity”,
• “no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy”,
• “attempts to impose their own ‘democratic standards’ on other countries”.
Moreover, the Joint Statement says:
“The Russian side reaffirms its support for the One-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.
“The sides oppose further enlargement of NATO…
“The sides are seriously concerned about the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom (AUKUS)… danger of an arms race in the region and serious risks of nuclear proliferation.
“The Chinese side is sympathetic to and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe.
“Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”
In brief, in what proved a landmark visit, Beijing and Moscow have met the West’s imperfect unity with China-Russia solidarity. Some would find arguments to downgrade the importance of the solidarity between Russia and China, highlight their differences, not overlapping economic interests, but the Joint Statement speaks for itself. This is not an alliance with an “Article 5” like the North Atlantic Treaty, but it is a major display of cohesion, a challenge to the West. This is a major win for President Putin and sad news for those aspiring to democracy. Western countries need to hear the calls for multilateralism.
With the Ukraine conflict once again ascending, everything else on the international agenda has taken a back seat. Nonetheless, conflicts with global and regional implications are still with us, some with greater urgency than others because of time constraints.
Last week, speaking to reporters, a senior US State Department official said that the negotiations with Iran in Vienna have reached the final stretch because, given the pace of Iran’s advances, only a few weeks are left to get a deal, after which point it may no longer be possible to return to the JCPOA and recapture the nonproliferation benefits that the deal provided. He also said that the negotiations have made progress and now is the time for Iran to decide whether it is ready for a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
The 2015 nuclear deal represented a sea change for Iran’s future. Tehran came out of the negotiation process as a successful interlocutor for the P5+1 giving a boost to the regime’s legitimacy. For the West, it moved from being an adversary to a potential partner. The gradual removal of the sanctions was to bring dynamism to Iran’s economy. Today, it is a disappointing picture for all.
Since it was the Trump administration that withdrew from the JCPOA, Tehran has so far rejected talking directly to the American delegation in Vienna. It remains to be seen whether a new agreement will secure only a return to compliance with the deal or include some understanding about Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its extending overreach across the Middle East. It is clear that the failure of the negotiations in Vienna would only signal more trouble for the Middle East.
Last Wednesday, the Times of Israel reported that a US official attended a classified Israel Air Force drill simulating a “massive attack” on Iran’s nuclear program.
Also, last Wednesday, Germany, the UK, and France expressed their deep concern over the continued testing of ballistic missiles by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including the recent intermediate-range ballistic missile launch of 29 January. Earlier in January, Washington had sanctioned six North Koreans, one Russian and a Russian firm in connection with these tests.
The recent battle over Syria’s largest prison of Islamic State detainees has confirmed that the IS remains a threat. Last Thursday, the US carried out a counterterrorism operation in Idlib killing the leader of the IS. President Biden said his death “removed a major terrorist threat to the world”. Unfortunately, the threat is much more complicated than the elimination of a single criminal.
As the recent missile attack on UAE has shown that the Yemen conflict remains a regional challenge. Two weeks ago, dozens were killed in a Saudi air raid on a prison in the war-torn country.
Moreover, thousands of Afghans are fleeing into Iran and Pakistan raising fears of additional refugee problems.
The reporting from the snow-stricken Idlib in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan only shows that regional humanitarian disasters in the form of hunger, disease, lack of medical services, lack of education, and lack of respect for gender equality are affecting millions of innocent civilians, especially children. If allowed to continue, this would only result in tsunamis of radicalism in the years ahead.
The only positive development in the Middle East is the normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab countries. Hopefully, Turkey and Israel would also resume relations at the ambassadorial level soon.
Last week, Omani Foreign Minister, Al-Busaidi visited Damascus. He said that he will hold talks with Syrian officials “to further consolidate bilateral relations and Arab cooperation.” Oman had returned its ambassador to Damascus in 2020. In view of Oman’s tradition of successful behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the visit is a positive development. Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Bahrain have also taken steps towards normalizing relations with Syria, thus making the latter’s return to the Arab League more likely. Ankara should not be the last capital to take a similar step.
Not only the standoff at the Russian-Ukrainian border, but also the conflicts in the Middle East, the future of the JCPOA, North Korea’s nuclear program, the pandemic, and climate change call for an agreement on the lowest common denominators between the three major powers and multilateral approaches to such challenges. But as Monday’s Security Council debate on Ukraine and the Chinese-Russian Joint Statement show, they are far from that.
This broad picture makes it imperative for Middle East countries to seek their own solutions to their own disputes and avoid remaining trapped like pawns in others’ power games. The Middle East failures offer valuable lessons to the African countries. Because, with their rich natural resources, they may soon become another battleground in big power strategic competition.