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Opinion: When Crises Compete - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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It may just be a coincidence that the world is witnessing all these transformations—with the maps of entire regions likely to be redrawn and entities disintegrating—in the same year that happens to mark the 100 anniversary of the start of the First World War. That war led to the redrawing of the maps of many regions, including the Middle East, and saw the collapse of European empires whose borders and spheres of influence intersected with geographical entities, such as Ukraine, which now also seem to be under threat of disintegration.

In 2011, amid the storm of change that hit several Arab countries one after another, there was a state of international and regional eagerness to monitor these unexpected crises, with each country competing to be top of the agenda. Now, in 2014, no one can argue that Ukraine has been thrust into the spotlight to become the main priority and the top of the international agenda as the Middle East retreats to the periphery. This comes despite the fact that the situation in the Middle East remains tense, particularly in Syria.

Many in the region are following the escalating around-the-clock developments between Russia on the one hand and the European Union and the US on the other. They are drawing comparisons between the two sides, particularly given that they are both involved as international actors in the crises ravaging the region, particularly in Syria. This is something that will reflect, in one way or another, on their positions, or even their coordination with regards to the resumption of the Geneva II peace talks.

The Ukrainian crisis is rapidly bringing back an atmosphere reminiscent of the Cold War period prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the effects of which extended throughout the Eastern European countries that had been under the influence of the Soviet Union before its collapse. This influence was subsequently inherited by the Russian Federation. The bellicosity of the statements issued by some world capitals reflects a worrisome return to the extreme decades-long state of polarization that was prevalent between the East and the West and which continued into the 1990s. During that period, small countries were mere pawns in the hands of the two superpowers, with crises being used as a means to exhaust the other. However, a direct confrontation between the two superpowers was a red line not to be crossed. At the time, the West won that round by presenting a richer and more dynamic economic and political model, which prompted the Warsaw Pact member states to look forward to joining it. This is very much similar to the current state of polarization underscoring the Ukrainian crisis, with the population split into pro-EU and pro-Russia camps.

Financial markets are the quickest to demonstrate signs of public anxiety in times of crisis. Financial markets across Europe and Asia have experienced losses in shares as oil and gold prices increase. However, it is difficult to imagine a repeat of the atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s unless irrationality comes to dominate the entire scene.

It appears that the most logical scenario is that there will be a certain cut-off point where the warring sides will retreat before things spiral out of control and into the abyss. These sides are carefully studying every step they take for fear of making any costly mistakes, particularly given the intersection of their interests over the past two decades. Part of these interests is Russian–EU commercial exchange, which amounts to 400 million US dollars per annum—this is not to mention the energy and gas sectors. What is more important, however, is the fact that new arrangements and a new international atmosphere have emerged since the end of the Cold War. It would be unfortunate for these arrangements to be obliterated, particularly since such a step would have significant repercussions on international security and peace.

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's deputy editor-in-chief. He is based in London.

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