Home / Opinion / Columns /  The Ukraine war’s trauma may not ease for a long time

With apparently no end in sight, the four-months-long war in Ukraine is getting messier by the day, with grim implications all round for the whole world. Here are just some of the events that occurred over the last week.

Ukraine president Vladimir Zelensky remains defiant, though he conceded early this month that Russia controls 20% of his country’s land area today. The European Commission has now granted Ukraine candidate status in the EU. Moscow would have been expecting this, but the move makes it clear that European governments are still officially united against Russia.

The West has stuck to its belligerent stance, with the UK leading the charge in the last few days. The BBC reported that General Sir Patrick Sanders, the new British army chief, circulated a memo on the day he took over that told troops they must “prepare to fight in Europe once again". British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in The Times: “We need to steel ourselves for a long war."

Meanwhile, many countries may soon face a food and fertilizer shortage crisis because of Western bans on Russian imports. A serious energy crisis is looming over Europe, and perhaps much of the world. Environmental concerns have gone out the window. Germany, which has been at the forefront of the green power movement and had shut down most of its coal-based plants, is trying to urgently re-open them. Of course, the coal it will need to generate electricity will come from Russia. The EU imports 70% of its thermal-power coal from Russia.

Berlin has also initiated the second “alarm" phase of its three-level gas crisis management plan—the other two stages are “early warning" and “emergency". Germany fears disruptions to gas supplies on account of reduced flows from Russia. Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant, has cut the amount of gas it delivers via Nord Stream 1, a critical pipeline serving Germany and other countries, by 60%.

In Poland, the EU’s most coal-dependent country—it relies on coal as a heat source for 79% of its energy needs—prices for heating coal have increased three times over the year from $225 to $680 per tonne as a result of banning Russian coal and dwindling domestic production. In Moldova, the government has asked residents to stock up on firewood. The International Energy Agency has warned that Europe must urgently prepare for the possibility that Russia, which supplies 40% of the EU’s needs, will shut down gas supplies this winter.

If Putin actually does so, he can spread misery and chaos across Europe, at least for some time, without hurting his own economy too badly. After all, Russia has found at least two eager buyers. China-Russia trade was up 29% year-on-year in the first five months of 2022. China’s crude oil imports from Russia in May reached an all-time high, up 55% since May 2021. India is importing six times more Russian coal and 31 times more Russian oil. Russia is now China’s largest oil supplier and for India, the second largest.

On 22 June, Putin announced that the five BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—are considering the creation of a new international reserve currency. If this is true, it could be a huge development and will certainly be opposed by the West. BRICS countries are also working on developing an international payment network that will cut reliance on the Western financial system.

For the past four months, the Western media has been carrying speculation that Putin has had a brain seizure, is suffering from some rare form of cancer, or has some form of dementia. The British media even quoted an unnamed spy that Putin was dead. Clearly, this spy was wrong; Putin appears to be fit and remains as pugnacious as ever.

But the Russian economy faces one interesting challenge. Last week, despite all the international sanctions and the Russian central bank lowering interest rates several times in the last two months to rein in a currency surge, the rouble rose to its strongest level against the US dollar in seven years. This rise, if it continues, may soon begin to erode Russia’s export competitiveness. The rouble has risen 35% this year, faster than any other currency. A fortnight after Russia invaded Ukraine, the rouble touched a record low of 121.5275 per dollar on 10 March. Since then, it has posted a 120% rally.

Elsewhere in Europe, Emmanuel Macron became the first French president in decades who failed to garner an absolute majority in the country’s parliament. He will now have a much harder time passing legislation, in the face of opposition from both the far left and the far right. To quote a Bloomberg report carried by Livemint.com, “The result pushes France into a situation that has become common across Europe with the emergence of new populists and environmental parties. Germany’s Olaf Scholz won last year’s election with the lowest share of the vote of any chancellor... Spain’s two-party system has broken down over recent elections leaving Pedro Sanchez governing with a minority coalition while Italy, long the most unstable of Europe’s major countries, is governed by the technocrat Mario Draghi after its previous coalition collapsed in the midst of the pandemic."

If a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war is not reached soon, and right now, neither side seems to be backing off, at least in their public utterances, the world is in for some very rough times.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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