I lead today with Hungary’s refusal to ratify Sweden’s access to Nato, despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to go ahead with it.
I was saying yesterday that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is starting to look like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko by playing bad boy and he has continued in this vein. It gives him real leverage, something that Erdogan also understands by placing himself in the middle between Europe and Russia with enormous success.
Erdogan was playing a similar game after he called Hamas “liberators” yesterday, tearing up two years of diplomacy to improve ties with Israel, which will not take those words kindly.
Orban is also getting chummy with the new PM in waiting in Slovakia, Robert Fico, who campaigned on an anti-Ukraine platform. I don’t think you can read too much into that. Orban needs all the friends he can get but Slovakia is simply too small to make much difference and Fico’s party doesn’t dominate his coalition so actually he will have a lot less say in foreign policy. Slovakia is simply too dependent on EU grants, Brussels' main enforcement tool, which it is using on Orban by holding back €13bn of post-COVID relief money.
Erdogan’s decision to tear up relations with Israel is a dramatic move. He has thrown in his lot with the Arab world, his backyard. Queen Raina of Jordan gave a very eloquent interview to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (who is of Persian origin) yesterday calling out Western double standards. One of her most telling points was that the West was outraged by Hamas’ slaughter of Israeli children, but it has failed to condemn the death of over 2,500 children in Gaza in the last week with anything like the same passion.
Putting aside all the emotional arguments on the cause of the war and who is the real villain here, the point of the comments is that the Queen expressed very clearly how the Arab world sees this conflict and it clearly sees it in terms of Western double standards. Last week over 800 of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s staff complained about her partisan pro-Israel position, which is more grist for the mill.
US President Joe Biden’s comments addressed the need to defuse the Palestinian issue when he was in Israel last week, and there was a very good speech by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who said Hamas attacks “did not happen in a vacuum” and openly called Israel’s bombing of Gaza “collective punishment” but stopped short of calling that a war crime, which it is.
Biden’s efforts to smooth the waters with his necessary comments on the Palestinian woes will count for little with the Arab world. Erdogan will earn credits for coming out against Israel. The leverage the whole Arab world has is increased as the US’ unflagging support of Israel is only weaking it in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Taking all this in, now step back and consider how China and Russia view this. Chinese President Xi Jinping has yet to say the word “Hamas” and Putin is playing the statesman, condemning Hamas’ terrorism, but coming out very firmly for a Palestinian state. The difference here is the Arabs believe Putin is sincere, while dismissing Biden’s comments out of hand.
The strength of the Sino-Russia axis was very clearly on display at last week’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) anniversary in Beijing last week. I continue to think driving Moscow into the arms of Beijing was a major strategic blunder by the White House, especially as in my conversations with senior Kremlin officials in the years before made it very clear they wanted to move closer to the EU as Moscow is just as scared of Beijing dominating it as everyone says it should be.
But what was a bipolar axis has been developing. Iran has thrown in its lot with fellow sanctionee Russia and Putin has made deep inroads into the Middle East. One of the other emerging axes that is not much talked about is the rapidly growing cooperation between Russia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). This axis is significant as between them the BRICS+/OPEC+ groups control circa 80% of the world’s oil and gas production and reserves.
Riyadh used to have very close ties with Washington, but since the US went from net importer of oil to exporter following the shale revolution, Riyadh and Washington are now rivals to the extent that OPEC and Russia have cooperated to cut production and drive up prices to the point where the oil price cap sanctions on Russia cease to work. We recently described oil sanctions as a spent cannon.
And now the Middle East is splintering, which will benefit Russia. Turkey remains an ally and KSA will be driven back towards Moscow as an ally against the US' continued backing of Israel. KSA was a surprise addition to the BRICS+ in August, but two weeks later during the G20 summit it teamed up with India for a new transport corridor from KSA via India to Europe that was seen as an olive branch by Riyadh to Washington and an Indian-backed rival to the BRI. However, that route made heavy use of Israeli ports like Haifa to complete the last step into Europe. Seems that plan is now dead only a month after it was born.
Moscow and Beijing want to use the BRICS+ as a geopolitical weapon to challenge the G7. Indian managed to walk off with leadership of the G20, which New Delhi sees as a more benign tool for promoting global economic integration. Realising that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was going to dominate the G20 summit, neither Xi nor Putin attended the summit in August underling the divisions on how to deal with the US-led hegemony amongst the members of the non-aligned global south. The more aggressive Sino-Russian axis has many adherents, but it seems the majority of global south countries favour India’s approach and just want to get on with the business of developing their backward nations without getting sucked into the East-West clash.
The bottom line is the fractured world is looking a lot more broken up as the conflicts heighten an increasingly extreme and diverse set of national interests. Hungary, Turkey, Russia, KSA, China, the US and the EU are all increasingly butting heads and any solution to any of their problems will be international arbitration. The addition of the six new countries to BRICS with more set to join next year and the expansion of the G20 to include the African Union has seen the rapid growth of non-aligned institutions that hope to challenge the G7 in the long run. Even in the US, the election of Mike Johnson as speaker yesterday undermines America’s internal unity and he has voted against Ukraine in every vote bar the first one. Ukraine’s funding for the war is now in more doubt than ever.
And that is what Putin has been after all along. The US’ power to dictate to the rest of the world has been dramatically undermined. It clearly is no longer in charge. The unipolar setup is already giving way to a multipolar one.
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