International attention has shifted its focus from Ukraine to the conflict in Gaza and its potential impact on global governance. The Western front faces challenges in navigating peace efforts in both regions.
The war in Ukraine has all but disappeared from the international news stream since the brutal attack by Hamas terrorists on Israel on October 7, and this shift of attention is a concern for President Volodymyr Zelensky, who expressed unequivocal support for Israel.
The impact of the new war in the Middle East on the course of the European one, which has passed the 600 days mark, is set to be much stronger than just a temporary swing of political focus. This dynamic interplay between violent crises will not only involve high risks of escalation in both theatres of war, but also aggravate problems in global governance.
Little turmoil in the world order
In retrospect, it is striking that the Ukraine war in the first 500 days produced so little turmoil in the world order. Neither Georgia nor Moldova experienced new spasms of their old secessionist conflicts. The accession of Finland and Sweden (as yet, incomplete) to NATO encountered no “counter-measures” from Russia. Turkey, while going through bitterly contested elections, refrained from any power projection abroad.
The chain of military coups shook the Sahel region, but Russia didn’t try to take advantage. The violent conflict in Yemen was mitigated by a ceasefire deal, an uncertain rapprochement was registered in Iranian-Saudi Arabia relations, and normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia appeared to be in the making.
Derailing the latter could have been one of the aims of the Hamas attack, but before going into damage assessment, it is essential to underscore that it was the remarkable unity of the re-energized West that propelled positive trends in global affairs. The determination of the broad Western coalition in support of Ukraine was definitely much firmer than President Vladimir Putin had expected, and the cause for building an alliance of democracies gained momentum. This solidarity is now facing three distinct tests.
The challenge of burden sharing
The first one is thetraditional challenge of burden-sharing, which has acquired new intensity. Aid to Ukraine may amount to only a fraction of the GDP of its main sponsors, but public perceptions of these costs tend to exaggerate their scale. The issue of allocating funds for Ukraine has become one of the triggers of discord over the 2024 state budget in the US Congress, effectively paralyzed by the partisan squabbles. The EU leadership has stepped in for ensuring an uninterrupted flow of aid to Ukraine, but it felt obliged to reiterate the plain fact that Europe could not compensate for a protracted pause in US support.
The war in Gaza has added further complications, and Ukraine is concerned about possible cuts in the crucially important financial flows. The Biden administration has confirmed readiness to support both Ukraine and Israel, but the proposition to combine these programs in one package is yet to be approved by the disagreeable House of Representatives. The EU is struggling with discord over its traditional connections to Gaza, and the dilemma of empowering Hamas by providing humanitarian aid remains irresoluble.
The second test is the one of peace-making, and the war in Ukraine appeared to have a simple answer to it: a stable peace can come only after Ukraine’s victory and restoration of its territorial integrity. Western leaders subscribed to that answer unanimously, but left open the difficult question about how to engage with and minimize the risks emanating from a defeated Russia. The deadlock in the trench warfare hasn’t eroded this unanimity, even if the “as long as it takes” maxim begins to look very long indeed. Proposals for compromises and ceasefire have, nevertheless, proliferated, including from Turkey, which is supposed to host the third peace conference in late October.
The Gaza war has not only distorted practicalities but also sharpened the moral complexity of the search for peace. The US showed greater readiness than the Europeans to accept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument equaling Hamas with ISIS. The anti-Israeli shift in Moscow’s stance, for which Hamas has expressed gratitude, grants Ukraine an opportunity to advance its claim that Putin sides with terrorists and executes a campaign of terror, and so cannot possibly be a counter-part in any talks. This doesn’t stop such European outsiders as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban from shaking Putin’s hand and attempting to rehabilitate economic ties. The long-running divergence between the US and European approaches to Israel and the Palestinians threatens to become a split, which may extend to Ukraine.
Order-restoring or world-reordering
The third test can be defined as order-restoring, or perhaps world-reordering. Since the start of the Ukraine war, Putin has maintained the assertion that the old unfair US-dominated world order is destroyed beyond repair. His resolute rejection of all West-imposed rules and norms goes rather too far for China’s vision of a more orderly transition, as presented at the recent Belt and Road summit. The eruption of the Gaza war did cast a shadow over that ambitious event and sharpened the difference between Russia, always eager to manipulate conflicts, and China, preferring stabilityfor its investments and access to resources.
This difference doesn’t prevent both revisionist powers from depicting the new turmoil in the Middle East as a failure of US policy, but their attempts to position themselves as leaders of the Global South are too blatantly self-serving to be successful.
Countries of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia have dissimilar economic trajectories and vastly different security interests, so lumping them together under the notion of “Global South” is analytically incorrect and politically misleading. Ukraine needs to promote its cause among various “middle powers” and the poorest countries as well, but its desire to be a part of the West in shaping the global agenda cannot compromise its struggle in the eyes of those states that prefer to keep balancing their stakes.
Every war signifies a breakdown of the global order, and neither angry protests nor wishful pleas for ceasefire can restore normalcy.
Western unity remains the best hope for the world in ending the long war in Ukraine and the tragic high-intensity war in Gaza, and the interplay between those aggravates the challenges to this unity. Upholding this common front requires unwavering US leadership, but in equal measure it demands Europe to be up to its responsibility.
Every success Ukraine gains on the battlefield is a contribution to strengthening the unity of the Western alliance, and every restraint Israel shows in its operations in order to save innocent lives adds a bit of value to this enterprise.
- Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO
- This text was first published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies