Connecting the Dots Between Climate Devastation and Fossil Fuel Profits
As Pakistan drowns, as Puerto Rico is cast into darkness, and as Jacksonians remain thirsty, it’s past time for a climate tax on fossil fuel companies.
What do Pakistan, Puerto Rico, and Jackson, Mississippi, have in common? They’ve all recently experienced climate-related catastrophic rains and flooding, resulting in the loss of homes, electricity, and running water. But, even more importantly, they are all low-income regions inhabited by people of color—the prime victims of climate injustice. They face inaction from negligent governments and struggle to survive as fossil fuel companies reap massive profits—a status quo that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called a “moral and economic madness.”
Pakistan, which relies on yearly monsoons to enrich its agricultural industry, has had unprecedented floods since June, impacting 30 million people and killing more than 1,500—a third of them children.
Zulfiqar Kunbhar, a Karachi-based journalist with expertise in climate coverage, explains that “things are very critical” in the rain-affected areas of his nation. Kunbhar has been visiting impacted regions and has seen firsthand the massive “agricultural loss and livelihood loss” among Pakistan’s farming communities.
Sindh, a low-lying province of Pakistan, is not only one of the most populous in the nation (Sindh is home to about 47 million people), but it also produces about a third of the agricultural produce, according to Kunbhar. Twenty years ago, Sindh was stricken with extreme drought. In the summer of 2022, it was drowning in chest-deep water.
The UN is warning that the water could take months to recede and that this poses serious health risks, as deadly diseases like cerebral malaria are emerging. Kunbhar summarizes that provinces like Sindh are facing both “the curse of nature” and government “mismanagement.”
Climate change plus government inaction on mitigation and resilience equals deadly consequences for the poor. This same equation plagues Puerto Rico, long relegated to the status of a United States territory. In September 2022, on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 and killed nearly 3,000 people, another storm named Fiona knocked out powerfor the entire region.
Julio López Varona, chief of campaigns at Center for Popular Democracy Action, spoke to me from Puerto Rico, saying, “the storm was extremely slow, going at like 8 or 9 miles an hour,” and as a result, “it pounded the island for more than three days” with relentless rain. “Communities were completely flooded; people have been displaced,” he says. Eventually, the electrical grid completely failed.
Days after the storm passed, millions of people remained without power—some even lost running water—leading the White House to declare a major disaster in Puerto Rico.
Even on the U.S. mainland, it is poor communities of color who have been hit the hardest by the impacts of climate change. Mississippi’s capital of Jackson, with an 82 percent Black population and growing numbers of Latin American immigrants, struggles with adequate resources and has had problems with its water infrastructure for years.
Lorena Quiroz, founder of the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, a Jackson-based group doing multiracial grassroots organizing, told me how the city’s residents have been struggling without clean running water since major rains and resulting floods overwhelmed a water treatment plant this summer.
“It’s a matter of decades of disinvestment in this mostly Black, and now Brown, community,” says Quiroz. In a state run by white conservatives, Jackson is overseen by a Black progressive mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who is now suing the state government over inaction on the city’s water infrastructure.
Quiroz says it’s “painful to see how government is not doing what they should, how the state government is neglecting its most vulnerable populations.”
Over and over, the same pattern has emerged on a planet experiencing catastrophic climate change. Setting aside the fact that we are still spewing greenhouse gasesinto the atmosphere as the world burns and floods, the impacts of a warming climate are disproportionately borne by poor communities of color as evidenced in Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Jackson, and elsewhere.
The UN head, Guterres is doing what he can in using his position to lay blame precisely on the culprits, saying in his opening remarks to the UN General Assembly in New York recently, “It is high time to put fossil fuel producers, investors, and enablers on notice. Polluters must pay.” Guterres specifically touted the importance of taxing fossil fuel companies to cover the damage they are causing in places like Pakistan. According to the Associated Press, “Oil companies in July reported unprecedented profits of billions of dollars per month. ExxonMobil posted three months profits of $17.85 billion, Chevron of $11.62 billion, and Shell of $11.5 billion.”
Contrast this windfall with the countless numbers of people who lost their homes in Pakistan and are now living in shanties on roads where they have found some higher ground from the floods. “If you lose a crop, that’s seasonal damage, but if you lose a house, you have to pay for years to come,” says Kunbhar.
Kunbhar’s view of what is happening in Pakistan applies equally to Puerto Rico and Jackson: Society is “divided between the haves and have-nots,” he says. “The poorest of the poor who are already facing an economic crisis from generation to generation, they are the most vulnerable and the [worst] victims of this crisis.”
In Puerto Rico, Varona sees displaced communities losing their lands to wealthier communities. He says that the local government in Puerto Rico is “allowing millionaires and billionaires to come and pay no taxes and to actually take over many of the places that are safer for communities to be on.” This is an “almost intentional displacement of communities… that have historically lived here,” he says.
And in Jackson, Quiroz says she is aghast at the “mean-spiritedness” of Mississippi’s wealthier enclaves and state government. “It is so difficult to comprehend the way that our people are being treated.”
Although disparate and seemingly disconnected from one another, with many complicating factors, there are stark lines connecting climate victims to fossil fuel profits.
Pakistan’s poor communities are paying the price for ExxonMobil’s billions.
Puerto Rico remains in the dark so that Chevron may enjoy massive profits.
Jackson, Mississippi, has no clean drinking water so that Shell can enrich its shareholders.
When put in such terms, Guterres’s idea for taxing the perpetrators of climate devastation is a no-brainer. It’s “high time,” he said, “to put fossil fuel producers, investors and enablers on notice,” so that we can end our “suicidal war against nature.”
Independent Media Institute____________________
Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.
Violence Against Indigenous Women Grows in Vancouver Amid ‘Apathy and Injustice’
Indigenous women and girls in Canada continue to face disproportionate levels of violence and insecurity rooted in colonialism.
Violence against Indigenous women is “escalating like never before,” the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) has warned. A series of tragedies have rocked the city of Vancouver (unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh lands) in recent months, including the discovery of the body of a 14-year-old Indigenous child, Noelle O’Soup, in May.
“Apathy and injustice prevail among the authorities while the intersecting crises of MMIWG2S+ [missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, and others], the colonial child welfare system, homelessness, and the opioid crisis are literally killing our people,” said Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson, UBCIC secretary-treasurer, according to a press release by the organization.
Noelle O’Soup was found in an apartment approximately a year after she went missing from a group home in Port Coquitlam, while under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), British Columbia. Reports on the circumstances of her disappearance and the investigation into her death have revealed negligence by both the police and the government. “The major investigative oversight occurred despite multiple visits to, and apparent inspections of, the single room occupancy unit where Noelle O’Soup’s remains would finally be discovered,” stated Global News. Her case, unfortunately, is more the rule rather than the exception in Canada.
An Ongoing Genocide
In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (NIMMIWG) released its final report, declaring that the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual) people amounted to “genocide.”
The NIMMIWG emphasized that this genocide had been “empowered by colonial structures evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”
The inquiry found that “Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or [go] missing than any other women in Canada,” with the figure soaring to 16 times when compared to white women in the country.
A report by Statistics Canada released in April 2022 stated that 56 percent of Indigenous women have experienced physical assault, while 46 percent have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. Constituting approximately 5 percent of Canada’s population of women, Indigenous women accounted for 24 percent of all women homicide victims between 2015 and 2020, according to the Statistics Canada report.
The likelihood of experiencing violence seems to be higher in cases where Indigenous women live in rural and remote areas, if they have a disability, have experienced homelessness, or have been in government care—81 percent of Indigenous women who have been in the child welfare system have been physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime, according to Statistics Canada.
“Across multiple generations, Indigenous peoples were and continue to be subjected to the detrimental harms of colonialism,” acknowledged the report. Not only are Indigenous children disproportionately represented in Canada’s child welfare system (52.2 percent), but advocates have also found that more children have been forcibly separated from their families now than during the brutal Indian residential schools period.
Along with its final report, the NIMMIWG also made a key intervention in prevailing definitions of genocide, stating that “In actuality, genocide encompasses a variety of both lethal and non-lethal acts, including acts of ‘slow death,’ and all of these acts have very specific impacts on women and girls.”
“This reality must be acknowledged as a precursor to understanding genocide as a root cause of the violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada,” the NIMMIWG added, “[n]ot only because of the genocidal acts that were and still are perpetrated against them, but also because of all the societal vulnerabilities it fosters, which leads to deaths and disappearances.”
‘The Police Don’t Protect Us’
The remains of Noelle O’Soup were found in Downtown Eastside (DTES), a neighborhood referred to as “ground zero” for violence against Indigenous women. Residents face disproportionate levels of “manufactured and enforced violence, poverty, homelessness, child apprehension, criminalization, and fatal overdoses.”
Approximately 8,000 women live and work in DTES, where the rates of violence have been more than double compared to the rest of Vancouver, according to data provided by the police.
Indigenous women have an acute vulnerability to violence, and yet the institutional response has been to stigmatize the women in DTES for having “high-risk lifestyles.”
“Harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated against Indigenous women are used as an ongoing tool of colonization to enforce their vulnerability to violence,” stated Christine Wilson, director of Indigenous Advocacy at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center (DEWC), in an interview with Peoples Dispatch.
In 2019, the DEWC published “Red Women Rising,” a historic report produced in direct collaboration with 113 Indigenous survivors of violence and 15 non-Indigenous women in the DTES who knew Indigenous women who have experienced violence, have gone missing, or have overdosed. “Red Women Rising” was published in response to the final report of the NIMMIWG.
Echoing the argument put forth in “Red Women Rising,” Wilson reiterated that “the criminal justice system constructs Indigenous women as ‘risks’ that need to be contained, which leaves them unsafe and exacerbates inequalities.” Widespread bias within the policing system has not only influenced whether police take Indigenous women’s complaints seriously, Wilson explained, but also whether Indigenous women approach the police at all.
“The police don’t protect us; they harass us,” stated DJ Joe, a resident of DTES, in the report by DEWC. “Native women face so much violence but no one believes a Native woman when she reports violence.”
In cases involving missing or murdered women, there is a lack of proper investigation and adequate resources, Wilson stated, adding that family members of victims were subjected to insensitive and offensive treatment, alongside general jurisdictional confusion and lack of coordination among the police.
Police have also been actively hostile and abusive toward Indigenous women in Canada. They continue to be targets of sexual violence by police forces, particularly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which has been deployed on contract policing services in 600 Indigenous communities.
Lack of police and judicial protection also overlaps with criminalization, thereby exacerbating violence against Indigenous women and girls. Wilson added, “Indigenous women are more likely to be violently attacked by their abusers and then more likely to be counter-charged by the police, compared to non-Indigenous women.”
Colonial Patriarchy Poses the Highest Risk
As “Red Women Rising” outlined, “Settler-colonialism intentionally targets Indigenous women in order to destroy families, sever the connection to land-based practices and economies, and devastate relational governance of Indigenous nations.”
The report identified “[m]ultiplying socioeconomic oppressions within colonialism,” including loss of land, family violence, child apprehension, and inadequate services, which worked to displace Indigenous women and children from their home communities.
Forty-two percent of women living on reserves lived in houses requiring major repairs, according to the report, and nearly one-third of all on-reserve homes in Canada were food insecure, with the figure soaring to 90 percent in some areas. Meanwhile, 64 percent of Indigenous women lived off-reserve, in areas such as DTES.
Displacement is closely linked to housing insecurity, with all members of DEWC having experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
The violence that Indigenous women face is tied to poverty, which in turn “magnifies vulnerability to abusive relationships, sexual assault, child apprehension, exploitative work conditions, [and] unsafe housing,” stated the “Red Women Rising” report.
Not only are Indigenous women disproportionately criminalized for “poverty-related crimes,” but Indigenous families are also investigated for “poverty-related ‘neglect'” eight times more as compared to non-Indigenous families. “[H]igher stressors associated with living in systemic poverty such as drug dependence and participation in street economies are used against Indigenous women in order to apprehend Indigenous children, thus perpetuating the colonial cycle of trauma and impoverishment,” the report pointed out.
As a result, activists argue that what is needed is an “assertion of Indigenous laws and jurisdiction, and restoration of collective Indigenous women’s rights and governance,” and “individual support for survivors such as healing programs.”
“Red Women Rising” had made 200 recommendations to address violence against Indigenous women. Meanwhile, the NIMMIWG had issued 231 “Calls for Justice,” stressing that they were legal imperatives, not recommendations. However, in the three years since the release of both these reports, the Canadian government has made “little progress.”
“While there have been crucial acknowledgments on the subject of violence against Indigenous women,” Wilson told Peoples Dispatch, “now we need actions. We need funds for reparations, we need housing, and we need clean water on the reserves.”
Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi.
We Are in a Climate Emergency, No Solution is Too Novel
Did the Earth’s climate just cross the Rubicon? It certainly feels that way given all the extreme weather events taking place. Europe recorded its hottest summer on record. California remains in an unprecedented climate emergency that may result in rolling electricity blackouts. We don’t even know what challenges will take place in the Southern Hemisphere when summer sets in. The gravity of these climate-related events is having knock-on effects across societies around the world. From electricity generation to safe drinking water, extreme weather is forcing us to craft durable solutions for these problems. It’s time to think outside of the box.
In the arid climate of the Arabian Gulf, access to drinking water is a climate-related challenge that has long been a scourge to the rapidly growing economies in the region. With ample access to seawater, desalination efforts have been a tried and tested method of securing water supplies. The UAE is home to one of the world’s largest aquifers of desalinated water. The reserve sits under the Liwa desert and contains nearly 26 billion liters of water that can provide about 100 million liters of water per day in case of emergency. Desalination is effective but costly. Each plant costs more than $1 billion to build and uses an enormous amount of energy to maintain.
In recent years, cloud seeding has exploded in popularity across the Middle East. While the effectiveness of cloud seeding is still a matter of debate and some scientists are concerned about unforeseen complications, governments from Morocco to the UAE are investing heavily in cloud seeding programs to secure water resources. Ethiopia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have recently started large-scale cloud seeding operations. As the regional leader in the technology, the UAE has invested millions in extensive cloud seeding efforts.
In a land without water, artificially creating clouds is one way to create rain. Cloud seeding uses chemicals such as silver iodide as a seeding agent that quickly starts the rapid formation of ice crystals, which turn into clouds and produce rain. The chemicals are fired from specifically designed airplanes when the conditions are ripe for creating clouds.
Since the technology was created in 1946, scientists have noted instances where cloud seeding decreases the number of clouds in the sky. Some scientists worry that cloud seeding can cause severe weather events like hail or floods by increasing rainfall in regions that are adept for such weather. Others have discredited this claim by arguing that cloud seeding can be suspended if there is a danger of flooding. Israel, one of the original pioneers in cloud seeding, stopped its program in 2021. The country had been cloud seeding for nearly 50 years but only saw a marginal gain in rain precipitation. In 2019, cloud seeding was blamed for creating such heavy rains in the UAE that some residential neighborhoods flooded in Dubai.
While cloud seeding might not be as effective as desalination efforts, it’s much cheaper to run a successful cloud seeding campaign. That’s appealing for lower-income countries suffering from similar climate-related water shortages. In 2018, South Africa’s second-largest city and tourism hub came dangerously close to running out of water as a result of a prolonged drought. City officials rushed to put desalination contingency plans into place but the prohibitive cost became an insurmountable barrier. The city was able to commission emergency desalination plants but they have already been decommissioned for a lack of budget. Cape Town’s current plan for better water resiliency calls for an investment of $335 million but there is no clarity on where that money will come from.
A delicate dynamic is taking shape between wealthy and poor countries that experience water insecurity. Wealthy countries can shoulder the cost of desalination programs and add cloud seeding efforts to boost supplies while poorer countries need to rely on the cheapest options such as cloud seeding (which doesn’t require access to the ocean). In the Middle East, the spike in cloud seeding is leading to geopolitical tensions as Iran is rushing to seed more clouds than its neighbors.
Challenges aside, there is an economic calculus at work that could define more than just the future of climate change. China has the world’s most ambitious cloud seeding program with aims to stimulate half the country. Given the size of that goal, the Chinese might be able to refine the technology and make it more efficient. If that were to happen, Chinese cloud seeding technology will be quickly exported throughout emerging markets through Chinese infrastructure programs like the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing has a long track record of using infrastructure to establish geopolitical power. It might soon use water technology to the same end.
Given the size of the climate crisis we are facing, efforts to improve novel technologies like cloud seeding will certainly help societies face serious problems. While it’s important to be aware of how this technology (and any other) can be weaponized to achieve political goals, we can let politics intervene in finding solutions to the climate crisis. It’s a matter of life and death.
Joseph Dana is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact. Twitter: @ibnezra.
Humanitarianism Must Adapt to Climate Change, Too
Aid is finally reaching the millions of Pakistanis whose lives have been upended by devastating floods. The United Nations has launched a $160 million emergency plan; supplies are being flown in from the Middle East and Asia; and donors and publics across the world are responding to this most recent disaster appeal.
Pakistan’s tragedy is the latest in a series of global emergencies resulting from a rapidly changing climate. And while the floodwaters have not yet receded, it isn’t too early to assess what this crisis can teach us about the challenges of humanitarian response in an era of increasingly extreme weather.
Since the mid-20th century, humanitarian action has made a measurable impact on lives and communities. Disasters, especially famine, kill far fewer people today than they did before the 1960s. But the changes wrought by the climate emergency mean disasters will become deadlier unless the humanitarian aid sector adjusts its strategy. For all the good humanitarianism has done, it has also created dependency on a system that reacts to, rather than seeks to prevent, disasters from occurring.
Meeting the new challenges will require re-thinking some of the core tenets of humanitarianism and speeding up reforms and changes to create a more flexible, proactive system built on principles of prevention, resilience, and decentralized disaster governance.
First, risk analysis and modeling must become firmly baked into the heart of humanitarianism. Early warning systems that can detect impending droughts or floods have long been a feature of disaster prevention and mitigation (and may have helped limit the number killed in Pakistan’s floods, a tally that now exceeds 1,250). Models predicting the impact of changes in temperature, precipitation, disease outbreaks, and other variables are already helping communities prepare for the worst.
But current systems need more funding to maintain, and new systems must be decentralized across global regions to maximize their utility. Critically, data needs to be shared more widely between state and civil society organizations.
Second, disaster management must shift from a response mindset to one of reducing risk and building resilience before crises strike. In 1970, flooding triggered by a massive cyclone killed around 500,000 people in Bangladesh (then part of East Pakistan). A similar cyclone and flood in the same area two years ago killed 30, thanks to extensive flood-mitigation measures and policies. Meanwhile, governments in Pacific Island states like Kiribati and Vanuatu are investing in health infrastructure that will be better able to withstand floods and typhoons, as well as preparing community-based disaster preparedness plans to respond more rapidly and effectively.
It’s not only countries of the Global South that are focused on making systems, structures, and societies more resilient. The Californian state government recently allocated an additional $15 billion to reduce the risk and mitigate the impact of wildfires. Ensuring transport networks, health systems, and food systems can withstand shocks is vital for protecting the most vulnerable during a disaster.
Building resilience and preparedness is often seen as falling outside the humanitarian sector’s area of responsibility, acting as it does as the global first responder. Yet such activity is core to disaster management, and must be a core part of humanitarianism’s mandate.
The third change is shifting how the sector responds to disasters themselves. Here, reforms are needed to speed up and better integrate local solutions that ensure more resilient communities emerge when the emergency passes.
In the aftermath of the devastating 2010 Haitian earthquake, humanitarian organizations were criticized for failing to work with local, state, and non-governmental organizations in their responses, creating parallel and separate systems that increased aid dependency and made building back local capacity harder.
Reflecting on those failures and others, the humanitarian sector and donors have committed to delivering more aid and interventions through local organizations. To date, however, progress has been slow and limited. Embedding responses within local contexts, with active participation from affected communities, will enhance and improve those responses.
But localization also needs to be integrated more fully into global and regional infrastructures. The United Arab Emirates has played a critical role in coordinating support to Pakistan, while Dubai’s International Humanitarian City is the largest of a growing network of humanitarian hubs that can respond quickly to regional disasters. Such infrastructure can support the bridging of global and local responses.
Many humanitarian organizations view building more resilient systems as beyond their remit, concerned that anything that deals with social inequality and vulnerability risks becoming politicized in a way that might conflict with the humanitarian concept of neutrality. But failing to address this necessity will only perpetuate dependency on external responses and organizations and worsen the impact of disasters.
The devastating human toll of the floods in Pakistan is a warning to us all. As the impact of the climate emergency picks up pace, and as rich countries continue to evade their culpability in its creation, the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized are dying as a result. These issues are already being debated within the humanitarian sector, but as Pakistan’s horrific floods remind us, commitments and discussions alone will not prepare the humanitarian system for the challenges that await.
Michael Jennings is a professor in global development at SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development.
Russia’s War Shifts its Battleground to Africa
As the war in Ukraine enters its sixth month, with no signs of the conflict ending any time this year, the diplomatic war for hearts and minds has shifted to the African continent.
At the end of last month Russia’s foreign minister toured four African countries, followed swiftly by Emmanuel Macron last week, who visited three. Two US officials are due in the coming weeks, culminating in America’s secretary of state visiting three African countries later in August. It is quite the charm offensive, only slightly offset by no-one spelling out what all the charm is for.
On the surface, the reasons are obvious. Lavrov wanted to meet the Arab League, to lay the foundation for a nuclear power plant in Egypt and to prepare for an upcoming Russia-Africa summit in Ethiopia. The French president was in West Africa to chart a new relationship with former French colonies. Antony Blinken wants “partners” to tackle climate change and food insecurity.
Yet all of this comes against the background of the war in Ukraine, and when it comes to diplomacy, Ukraine is the war that dare not speak its name.
Both Russia and the West have focused on Africa ever since the March vote at the United Nations that condemned Russia’s invasion. Although the vote passed easily, half of all African states abstained, the largest such bloc. Since then, Russia has looked to African countries to reinforce its narrative about the war, while the West has sought to persuade them to change their minds: Countries that abstained on the day of the vote feature heavily on the itineraries of western leaders. The hot war in Europe has given way to a charm offensive in Africa.
This latest phase of the conflict started at the end of July, when Lavrov began his tour of African countries. Barely had he started, then Macron landed in Cameroon.
What has followed has been a war of narratives. From the start of the Ukraine war, Russia has sought to portray it as a local military operation, even going so far as to ban the use of “war” to describe the conflict on Russian television. The Ukrainian and Western response was to “internationalize” the conflict, describing the Russia invasion as a threat to the entire European continent and thereby galvanizing support across Europe. (Nor was this a mere description: It sufficiently tallied with the facts that Sweden and Finland dropped their longstanding ambivalence towards NATO and applied to join.)
Yet as Russia and western countries have gone to African leaders to seek support, this internationalizing of the conflict has worked against the West. In that regard, at least, Russia has been smart, talking up western interference and colonialism on the continent, in a way that resonates with many leaders (if not always their populations).
The arguments that Russia is no threat to African countries (unlike, wink, the West); that it has never sought to colonize African nations (unlike…); and that, just as Africans do not wish western countries to interfere in their domestic affairs, so Russia does not wish for outside interference in its “special military operation”, resonate powerfully.
Macron, arriving in Benin last week, waded directly into the argument, saying, “Here in Africa, a continent that has suffered from colonial imperialism, Russia is one of the last colonial, imperial powers – it decides to invade a neighboring country to defend its interests.” Given that Macron arrived in the country just as celebrations were beginning for the anniversary of Benin’s independence … from France, it’s safe to say that argument didn’t wash much.
These political arguments, and the desire of African leaders to show just enough solidarity to be left alone, collide with a visceral reality: The war in Ukraine is causing real hunger across the continent. Together, Ukraine and Russia provided 40 percent of Africa’s wheat supply pre-war. The conflict has been devastating. In Egypt, which relied on the two countries for three-quarters of its wheat, prices for the staple have soared almost 50 percent. In the Horn of Africa, the war has made a drought worse. Combine that with soaring oil prices and some of the most fragile countries are being hit the hardest.
The ugliest aspect of these competing tours is how little say Africa has in this war, even though it is paying some of the steepest prices. Promises of trade or partnerships don’t add up to genuine independence. As unedifying as it was to watch Lavrov talk about respecting the sovereignty of African nations even while Russia is slicing apart Ukraine’s territory, it was equally unpleasant to listen to Macron’s tone in Cameroon, where he chided African countries for “not calling it a war when it is one” – as if the label attached to a far-away European war mattered more to him than food and fuel crises across the continent.
Africa is forced to be part of this war, bearing consequences but not taking decisions, even as politicians from abroad appear to flatter, lecture or cajole. The African proverb that when elephants fight it is the grass that suffers comes to mind: a continent still paying for the sins of Europe.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
In Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Cold War Echoes Reverberate
A rivalry with Russia. A proxy battleground. Nuclear brinksmanship. For many generations of Americans, it’s just like old times.
The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. Bars have poured out their Russian vodka. McDonald’s, a symbol of the end of the Soviet Union when it first opened in Moscow, has shuttered its Russian locations. Once again, a U.S. president sees a pitched ideological battle. “We will save democracy,” President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address.
For an America where Russia never quite went out of style as an evergreen villain in film and television, revived tensions with the Kremlin have drawn from a well-worn geopolitical script. A familiar, chilly East-West wind is blowing again.
“It’s very much a Cold War echo,” says James Hershberg, professor of history and international affairs at Georgetown University and former director of the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Hershberg sees much that’s different about today’s inflamed tensions with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s aggressions, he says, don’t seem driven by ideology the way communism was for the Soviet Union. A transformed media landscape, too, has helped turn Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into a global protagonist.
But in a crisis that pits two nuclear superpowers on opposing sides, history is repeating in other ways. A Russian strategic overreach, Hershberg says, is again sparking a potentially perilous moment in international order.
“We are in a second Cuban Missile Crisis in many ways in terms of the danger of escalation,” says Hershberg, whose books include “Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam.” “Putin is acting so irrationally he makes Nikita Khrushchev appear like a rational actor in comparison.”
The largest land conflict in Europe since World War II, Russia’s two-plus weeks of war in Ukraine has rallied Western alliances like few events before it. In repudiating Putin’s invasion, the U.S. and its European allies have enacted crippling economic sanctions on Russia — which Biden on Tuesday extended to Russian crude oil — while still drawing the line on military engagement with Russia.
“If we’re talking about a capitalized Cold War, I don’t think I could call this Cold War II,” says Fredrik Logevall, professor of history and international affairs at Harvard and Pulitzer-Prize winning author most recently of “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.”
“But,” Logevall says, “if we’re talking more generally about a cold war, if we mean a titanic struggle that involves all aspects of national power waged between two incompatible systems but short of outright military conflict — then yeah, I guess this is a cold war.”
The Cold War is innately connected to the crisis in Ukraine partly because it so much informs Putin’s world view. A former KGB agent, he once called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. The invasion of Ukraine is intended to deter Western influence and NATO infringement from Russia’s sphere of influence, and potentially to restore a Texas-sized part of the former Soviet Union.
Barely two weeks in, the Cold War has often been invoked. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said “the threat to global security now is more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War, partly because there aren’t the same back channels of communication. A Russian Foreign Ministry official, Alexander Darchiyev, according to an Interfax report, recently suggested that “perhaps it would be worth recalling the well-forgotten principle that worked during the Cold War — peaceful coexistence.”
Even before war began in Ukraine, Americans had a historically dim view of Russia. According to Gallup poll conducted in February, 85% of Americans viewed Russia unfavorably, easily the country’s worst rating in more than three decades — a slide accelerated by Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections, its annexation of Crimea and the nerve agent attack on Putin’s leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who’s currently imprisoned.
And while former president Donald Trump has maintained his esteem for Putin, anti-Russian opinion has uncommon bipartisan support. Gallup found that 88% of both Republicans and Democrats have an unfavorable view of Russia. Nothing unites like a common enemy.
Nina Khrushcheva, a Moscow-born professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, maintains that the Cold War never really went away — that the West’s view of Russia remained stuck in the broad portrayals of villains Boris and Natasha in “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. To her, Putin’s invasion was devastating because it confirmed the worst about her native country. Now, she begins her classes by apologizing.
“Putin is the global villain he deserves to be, and Russia is finished for decades to come,” says Khrushcheva, whose great-grandfather was premier of the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. “My country just killed itself,” she says, and the U.S. “got their enemy back.”
“They got their enemy that has always been, always deserves to be and is always at the forefront of the American mind,” says Khrushcheva. “Russia has no excuse. But for America, it’s a field day. America is back and it’s on a white horse saving a white country in the middle of Europe against the horrible Russian Bear.”
Logevall, who co-authored the book “America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity,” doesn’t expect a Cold War rerun. The world isn’t as bipolar as it was decades ago. China, which signed a pact with Russia shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, looms much larger. And the interconnectedness of the global economy — where waves of corporations have severed ties with Russia — makes isolated coexistence harder to tolerate.
The conflict in Ukraine seems sure to be at least a coda to the Cold War, if not a new beginning.
“Putin feels great resentment about how the Cold War ended. The West declaring victory. Russia losing power and influence. I think he resents a certain Western triumphalism,” Logevall says. “In a way, I think history is what drives him.”
Russia Asks China for Military And Economic Aid to Help in Ukraine
The Kremlin has asked China’s government for military equipment and other assistance to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, per multiple reports citing U.S. officials on Sunday.
What to watch: American officials said there were indications that Russia’s military was running out of weaponry and one added that the U.S. was “preparing to warn its allies” due to signs that Beijing may be prepared to help Moscow, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the news.
- It was not immediately clear what types of arms Russian officials had requested, or whether U.S. officials they knew of how China’s government has responded, per the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, National security adviser Jake Sullivan is due to travel to Rome on Monday for a meeting with senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi to discuss Russia’s invasion.
What they’re saying: Sullivan told CNN earlier on Sunday that U.S. officials were “communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.”
- He added that the U.S. “will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world.”
- Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in D.C., said he hadn’t heard of any request from Russia officials, per the New York Times.
- “The current situation in Ukraine is indeed disconcerting,” he said, stressing Beijing wants to see a peaceful resolution. “The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control.”
The big picture: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir have forged closer ties, including military cooperation, Axios’ Zachary Basu notes.
Flashback: As Russia’s military was building the capacity to invade Ukraine last month, Putin and Xi issued a joint statement ahead of their meeting at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics that voiced opposition to the further enlargement of NATO.
- The Kremlin had repeatedly made comments previously over negotiations on NATO’s expansion, using the threat of military action to demand a legal guarantee that Ukraine would never join the alliance, Basu notes.
- Representatives for the Biden administration did not immediately return Axios’ request for comment.
Go deeper: Western sanctions tie Russia even tighter to China
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