Vestiges of Empire
The World Around Us
February 25, 2022
Vestiges of Empire

Tensions in Europe continue to mount over the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. Last week, in a sign of possible de-escalation, Russia announced that it was withdrawing some troops from its border with Ukraine. However, not long after, the Russian lower chamber of parliament, the State Duma, voted for the recognition of Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. Russia subsequently ordered troops into the two breakaway regions which several observers see as a dramatic escalation in the conflict. This was then followed by an announcement by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, that he was open to diplomacy.

Mixed signals are coming from Russia, and it remains unclear whether, as many fear, it will carry out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Nonetheless, Western countries are already announcing sanctions on Russia with the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Germany and Japan introducing various measures in response to perceived Russian aggression.

Russia probably has legitimate security concerns about the expansion of the North Treaty Atlantic Organization (NATO) in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War. Prospects of Ukraine’s membership of NATO perhaps evoke reasonable anxieties from a Russian perspective. However, the conduct of international affairs in the 21st century should be done on the basis that all states are sovereign and their territorial integrity inviolable.

In commenting on the evolving situation in Ukraine at a session of the United Nations (UN) Security Council on Tuesday, 22nd February, the Kenyan Ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani made some telling remarks. Kimani compared Ukraine’s plight to colonial legacy in Africa and in this regard, warned about the perils of clinging to vestiges of empire.

Speaking about the challenges which confronted African countries after the artificial division of African territory by the then European colonial powers, Kimani stated that: “Rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.”

While affirming that it is normal for states with populations formed from empires which have collapsed or disintegrated to yearn for some form of integration with their neighbours, Kimani rejected the pursuit of such yearning by force.

However, Kimani’s concern was not only about the current situation unfolding between Russia and Ukraine. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that dangerous precedents have been set in the past by other world powers which bent international law to justify aggression. Similarly, the Kenyan diplomat strongly condemned the trend in the last few decades of powerful states, including members of the Security Council, breaching international law with little regard.

The situation unfolding on the Russia-Ukraine border is beyond taking sides. It is about more than just Ukraine and Russia.

Already, world markets have been shaken by the crisis. Oil prices have been rising over the last couple of months on concerns over supply, following tensions between Russia, the world’s second-largest oil producer, and Ukraine. An actual invasion of Ukraine would further disrupt oil supplies globally, dealing a hard blow to net oil importing countries.

The cost of energy has a huge impact on all areas of a country’s economy, including the cost of electricity for consumers, the cost of production and other business overhead costs, the price of transportation and the cost of goods on store shelves. Rising oil prices also places pressure on central banks’ foreign reserves. These can all lead to broader economic contagion, thereby amplifying the economic challenges currently being faced by many countries.

An all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine will also do near, or actual irreparable harm to multilateralism. One can only hope that diplomacy would prevail in the interest of the many lives which would be lost and the economic impact on the global economy.

Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.