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Amal Attar-Guzman: Putin is isolated, but he still has friends in the Middle East

Commentary

While the international community is focusing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we must not forget the other geopolitical chess pieces on the global chessboard.

In my previous analysis of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I mentioned potential geopolitical impacts in terms of China and Taiwan and Latin America, but the Middle East is also being impacted by the situation in Ukraine. As the U.S. shifted its foreign policy to focus more on China, Russia stepped up in recent years to fill that regional gap: from economic alliances with Middle Eastern oil producers to increasing its ties with strongmen leaders in Libya and Syria, with Bashar Al-Assad supporting Putin’s actions. This reality should not be forgotten.

Now, while the West has strategic ties in the Arabian Peninsula and Israel, Saudi Arabia, a major player in the region, has a crucial alliance with Russia through the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—now known as OPEC+ with Russia’s inclusion in the intergovernmental organization in 2016.

Despite global outrage about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia reaffirmed its commitment to its OPEC+ agreement with Russia. This will be a major challenge that the Biden Administration will need to deal with moving forward.

Further, the situation in Ukraine has been impacting the Middle East in terms of food supply chains, with Russia and Ukraine being the top five wheat producers and exporters for the region. If this is not resolved, food insecurity will surely skyrocket and cause even more problems than the region is already facing.

Another area of the world that hasn’t really been mentioned but is extremely important is Central Asia—Afghanistan especially.

In the summer of 2021, we watched the fall of Kabul while the Canadian federal election kicked off. This was a sore point for Canadians, considering our military involvement and humanitarian aid contribution.

But as we shift focus six months later, it’s important to not let our attention wane while a new crisis unfolds. If we do, we will be missing signs of geopolitical moves that can be greater challenges later on.

Amid the crisis in Afghanistan, while Canada and its allies closed diplomatic offices and started the evacuation process, Russia had its diplomatic missions open and functioning. Russian Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov met a Taliban representative within 48 hours of Afghanistan’s takeover. Russia has been deepening its diplomatic relations with the Taliban since then and in its aftermath. This is crucial considering Afghanistan’s impact on Central Asia, where Russia has security interests in the region, especially military interests and ties with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

China has also been incrementally increasing ties with the Taliban. The country’s officials have met with Taliban officials to deepen economic ties between China and Afghanistan. China offered economic support and investment for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, further involving the Taliban in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Taliban promised that Afghanistan will not harbour any militant bases.

This latter point is of importance for China given the Uyghur population in Xianjing, a province that borders Afghanistan, and China’s fear that Uyghur separatists would take advantage of the situation. In fact, since the Taliban’s control, they have been removing Uyghur militants from the Afghanistan-China border.

While it has been argued that Afghanistan under Taliban rule will not be a major place for BRI investment, the narrative surrounding investment is quite strong, especially as a jab against U.S. involvement in the country. Besides, BRI investment is not without its conditions. A couple of months after China-Taliban talks in late summer, China stated that it will invest billions of dollars in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban can guarantee the security of their workers and assets.

Some media outlets are reporting that Afghanistan’s security situation has improved and corruption has declined in the last six months, which means there is a greater chance China will continue to invest in Afghanistan.

These geopolitical moves should not be observed lightly. As the world is primarily focusing on what’s occurring in Ukraine, and rightly so, that doesn’t mean we should not be monitoring what’s going on in other areas around the world, especially where there are potential direct and indirect impacts from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

One indicator that can highlight potential geopolitical moves and shifts can be reflected and analyzed with the result of the United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) resolution “Aggression Against Ukraine.” Now, even though UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, hence not enforceable, the way a country votes or abstains speak to its foreign policy positions and objectives on a particular issue

This UNGA resolution passed with 141 countries overwhelmingly denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Only five countries voted against the resolution: Russia itself, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria.

While China has been vocal against Russia’s actions, it’s not surprising that they abstained from the vote, especially with the resolution having language such as “reaffirms its commitment to sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity…within…internationally recognized borders, extending to…territorial waters.” Such language does not serve well with its interests regarding Taiwan.

Interestingly enough, Afghanistan voted in favour of the UNGA resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This may be because the international community’s scrutiny of Russia will not suit their interests to be deemed as legitimate actors on the global stage, especially with their diplomats not being recognized by other states. As a result, it would not be surprising if Afghanistan moves its ties closer to China.

A similar assessment can be made with regard to Russia’s usual Latin American allies, with Cuba and Nicaragua abstaining, and Venezuela not participating in the vote. Despite showing their support one week ago, they decided to not engage whatsoever due to international pressures, while also attempting to maintain their ties with Russia.

Despite a few countries supporting Russia, Putin’s country is now becoming isolated. And while Russia is receiving the ire of most of the international community, with others trying to distance themselves from the situation, China has the potential to take advantage of the situation to further its objectives. While keeping a pulse on Ukraine is important, we should not forget the broader geopolitical environment at play. Doing so will only be to our own detriment and disadvantage.

Patrick Luciani: Ukraine’s inspiring fight proves democracy isn’t dead yet

Commentary

When I planned this piece a few days ago, I intended to write about the fall of democracy worldwide and the difficulties it faced around the world. Is democracy over? Are we looking at a new world order driven by authoritarianism? Although there are over 100 countries that classify as some form of democracy—from complete, flawed, or hybrid—many are losing ground and losing it fast.

Until last week.

We now live in a new world, a world unintentionally created by Vladimir Putin when he decided to upend the old-world order and declare war on Ukraine.

We are witnessing a global political shift. More importantly, we are seeing a resurgence of democracy itself, a renewed loyalty to the principles of freedom and the right for people to determine their destinies. A bit romantic, but true nonetheless. Democracies around the world have found their voice. Every country in the EU supports Ukraine’s right to join the European community and choose its own future. The citizens of Ukraine show that they would rather die than live under Putin’s authoritarian regime and his band of sycophantic oligarchs. And free democracies are joining the fight. Germany has broken its longstanding commitment not to ship arms to conflict zones. They are now sending anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine’s army. That’s a head-spinning reversal in Germany’s defence policy that shifted in just 48 hours.

Democracy is not only not dead, it has found its voice, a voice many believed to have been buried under the weight of economic, political malaise, and indecision.

In their book, How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argued that authoritarian leaders like Trump had attacked the very foundation of trust that provides the glue holding democracies together. One of those principles is respect for the electoral process. Vote counts are never perfect, but Trump’s constant attack on the system’s integrity began to tear at the fabric of the Constitution that has lasted over two centuries. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the unwritten rules of forbearance and trust are the main principles that hold democracies together. They are the rivets that kept constitutions together. Trump was ripping away at those unwritten rules.

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder argues that democratic backsliding in young and old democracies, along with aggressive political extremes, are chipping away at the democratic norms and structures, not much different than what happened in Italy and Germany in the 20s and 30s. Throw in some modern social media and authoritarian rulers like Orban, Putin, Trump, and you begin to see a different future where democracy slowly fades away. Cambridge university political scientist David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends, sees modern democracy as going through a mid-life crisis, not knowing what to do with itself as it swings from one crisis to another. He may be right that all forms of government eventually disappear. But his speculations about what replaces democracy, including a form of “pragmatic authoritarianism” or something called “epistocracy,” rule by the best and brightest, are dead ends.

There’s little debate that democracy has many flaws because most political and social issues are complex. What isn’t under question is democracy itself as a popular form of government. Runciman reminds us that casting a ballot is still the only way to confer respect for the individual’s voice. As flawed as democracy is, Ukraine shows that people will fight hard to retain that voice.

Before the war in Ukraine, I intended to point out that history seems to produce leaders when we need them, but this time we were out of luck. I was wrong. Who could have imagined that an actor and unassuming comedian would become a symbol of courage and leadership worldwide, or that Angela Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, would surprise the world with a resolve to lead Europe against tyranny? Even Switzerland and Sweden have come out of their self-imposed shells of neutrality—that even Hitler couldn’t budge—to join the fight. Democracy has a way of surprising.