A Critical Year

A Critical Year

A Critical Year

The anxiety reflected in the major headlines of the past week has confirmed that 2024 is going to be a critical year for the West.

It seems that a growing number of Americans are not happy with the looming Biden-Trump rematch. The latter’s threatening remarks to European allies about their inadequate defense spending have added to worries in European capitals on the future of their relations with Washington.

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949. Since then, European members of the Alliance have achieved great prosperity under the US security umbrella, spending less and less on defense. Joseph Borrel is the EU’s  High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. He and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, with her background as Germany’s Defense Minister, often address questions of security. However, the EU does not have a High Representative for Defense. In other words, US Defense Secretary Austin does not have an EU equivalent. Soon the EU may need one but even defining his terms of reference would not be an easy task. In the meantime, regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election, pressure on Europe, from both outside and within, to do more for its defense will continue.

In 2014, NATO member states agreed to commit 2% of their national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defense spending, to help ensure the Alliance’s continued military readiness. So far, only 11 NATO countries have met this guideline. The figure is supposed to go up to 18 by the end of the year.

Ten days ago, Ukraine marked the second anniversary of the Russian invasion. Throughout the past two years, the people of Ukraine, from children to the elderly, have displayed remarkable poise and serenity in the face of the devastation they have suffered. Ukrainian armed forces denied Russia the victory it hoped for. But the third year of the war could prove the critical one.

Since the Russian invasion, the West’s maxim has been that they will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”. The expression “unprecedented solidarity” has also come to characterize the Western response to the war. However, in the US, the principal supporter of Kyiv, the Congress is yet to approve the new aid package raising doubts over Washington’s commitment to continued support for Ukraine. And the EU is yet to make good on its pledge to provide Kyiv with a million artillery rounds.

President Macron’s remarks against ruling out the possibility of sending Western troops to Ukraine were somewhat of a surprise to NATO allies. “Somewhat” because he has made such far-reaching comments also in the past. Nonetheless, Chancellor Scholz felt compelled to say that participants of the conference in Paris discussed the matter but had agreed “that there will be no ground troops, no soldiers on Ukrainian soil who are sent there by European states or NATO states”. He was supported by some other European leaders. Yesterday, a Guardian editorial started with the following: “Confusion, indecision and bickering characterize current Western policy towards the Ukraine war and the threat to Europe from Russia.”[i]

In response to the suggestions by European Commission President von der Leyen and US Treasury Secretary Yellen to seize the frozen assets of Russia’s Central Bank in the West to support Ukraine, French Finance Minister Bruno LeMaire said that this would be a violation of international law. Clearly, remarks by President Macron and Mr. LeMaire did not rhyme.

After the Hamas onslaught of October 7, the West stood firmly behind Israel. Looking at the past wars Israel fought, the West may have assumed that this would also be a short one. On the contrary, it has already proven to be the longest and the most controversial. An International Crisis Group commentary has said that while Israel’s assault on the Strip persists, the risks of all-out war or other growing instability remain high.[ii] Thus, the mood has started to change as the war in Gaza became a second major conflict involving the West.

Mr. Netanyahu’s declared prerequisites for peace are the total destruction of Hamas, the demilitarization of Gaza, and the deradicalization of the whole of Palestinian society. His vision of the future rejects the two-state solution. Thus, he must ardently be hoping for a Trump victory in November to ensure Washington’s unwavering support to Israel.

On February 20, the US once again vetoed a draft resolution calling for an “immediate ceasefire”. However, last Friday, in remarks to the press with Italian Prime Minister Meloni,    President Biden said: 

“We’re trying to work out a deal between Israel and Hamas on the hostages being returned and — and immediate ceasefire in Gaza for at least the next six weeks and — and to allow the surge of aid through the entire Gaza Strip — not just the south but the entire Gaza Strip.” And he announced that the US would start providing airdrops of food and supplies into Gaza which began the next day. Obviously, airdrops are a more limited and much costlier way of sending humanitarian assistance than by land but there seems to be no other way.

As for Russia, the presidential election that would give President Putin another six years in power will be held on 15–17 March 2024, two years after the invasion of Ukraine.

In January last year, Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of President Vladimir Putin and President of Russia from 2008-2012, had made Moscow’s clearest threat to use nuclear weapons if it loses in Ukraine. “The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war,” Medvedev had said. “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

Last Thursday, President Putin, in his address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, stated that the strategic nuclear forces are on full combat alert and the ability to use them is assured.

In the same address, President Putin sought to assure the people of Russia that the war in Ukraine is going well. In what appeared to be a call for unity, he referred to the Russian army of soldiers and officers – Christians and Muslims, Buddhists and followers of Judaism, people representing different ethnicities, cultures, and regions – constituting a formidable and invincible force.

He expressed confidence in the flexibility and the resilience of the Russian economy. In this connection, he said that more and more countries have been proactive in seeking to be part of the activities of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and BRICS. And he drew attention to BRICS’s rising economic power. In brief, in light of recent battlefield developments in Ukraine, he sounded confident and defiant.

The next day, opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s funeral took place in Moscow under heavy police surveillance. It was a very sad occasion for the people of Russia who have contributed so much to world literature, arts, science, and technology but yet have to enjoy a day of democracy.

As for China, there is no doubt that Beijing is pleased to see Washington bogged down in Ukraine and Gaza, giving it a greater opportunity to project itself as a power of stability advocating multilateralism.

The theme chosen by the organizers of the Munich Security Conference this year was “Lose-Lose?”

Recently, when asked about the theme, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the risk of “lose-lose” arises from three main factors: First, engaging in zero-sum, “I win-you lose” games. Second, the decoupling and severing of industrial and supply chains. And third, creating bloc confrontation.

The wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the question of defense commitments, and the uncertainty in transatlantic relations show that NATO has a lot of work to do ahead of the Washington summit of July 2024 where leaders will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

As for Türkiye, the outcome of the US presidential election would bring no fundamental change to Ankara’s troubled relationship with Washington. After all, President Biden has been a leading adversary of Türkiye in the Congress throughout his political career, and his predecessor Mr. Trump had sent his Turkish counterpart the most undiplomatic letter of the century. The March municipal elections are a lot more than just “municipal” and more than likely to prove the current year a highly critical one for Türkiye as well.

Note: This post was first published in diplomaticopinion.com.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/mar/03/observer-view-on-emmanuel-macron-hawkish-ukraine-remarks-focus-minds-on-europes-future

[ii] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/east-mediterranean-mena/israelpalestine/danger-regional-war-middle-east?utm_source=mailchimp&utm_medium=email