How Covid shaped the Ukraine flare up

Natalia Antelava

 

THE HUMANITARIAN DISASTER 

Covid-19 is affecting the current crisis in Ukraine in significant ways. As Russian troops massed at the Ukrainian border, journalists descended on Kyiv, Twitter pundits took out their crystal balls, and the news machine grew louder. Will Putin invade? Will there be a war? No one had the actual answer. 

Meantime, the war, in fact, has been going on for eight years, since Putin invaded in 2014. “It is frustrating,” Mirella Hodeib, from the International Committee for Red Cross, told me on a line from Kyiv. “Suddenly the spotlight is on, but so much human suffering has been happening here for so long.” 

Thousands of people have died since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and manufactured a war in the east of the country. Today 2.9 million people in Europe live amid fighting, mindfields, bombed out infrastructure, unheated hospitals and collapsed schools. All of it is now compounded by the pandemic. 

Ukraine is home to Europe’s only active warzone and the continent’s worst humanitarian crisis. And yet appeals for humanitarian aid go underfunded. The UN managed to raise just over 50% of its $168 million appeal in 2021. I spoke to several aid workers in Ukraine, all of whom shared Hodeib’s frustration by just how little attention the existing side of this crisis has received compared to a hypothetical war that’s generating all the noise.

“These people need help now. Not in two months’ time,” the head of UN’s humanitarian operations in Ukraine, Ignacio Leon-Garcia, told me. “The longer this protracted conflict goes on, the worse it gets,” he said.

COVID’S LARGER IMPACT

The role Covid-19 has played in the crisis goes beyond its devastating effects on the humanitarian situation. Michael Bociurkiw, global affairs analyst and author of Digital Pandemic believes that Covid-19 shaped the current flare up in some significant ways. 

The last time Bociurkiw and I spoke he was a representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and we were both standing in the middle of a sunflower field in eastern Ukraine surrounded by the bodies of passengers of MH-17.

The civilian flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by Russia over eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014. 298 people were killed, including many children.

The majority of them were European, and following Europe’s meek response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, many (myself included) assumed that MH-17 would finally force the EU to come up with a strong, unified position on Ukraine. That assumption was wrong even then. In the post-Covid world a unified position seems impossible.

“Any illusion we had about European unity crumbled during the pandemic,” Bociurkiw said. “You had for the first time ever countries closing borders to each other, fighting with each other over vaccines and travel restrictions. It does not surprise me that (when it comes to Ukraine) Europeans are now going in their divergent ways.”

The economic burden of the pandemic is taking the toll too, as is the fact that “the pandemic made Western societies more inward looking, less caring,” Bociurkiw said and perhaps angrier with their governments. The “United States got weapons to Ukraine faster than Covid tests to its citizens,” read a tweet by a self-described anti-war account that was liked and shared tens of thousands of times this week. None of the anti-war commentators who jumped into the discussion mentioned the massive Russian military build up or Moscow’s history of violent interventions.

CLOSER TO CHINA 

Russia’s relationship with China is another way in which the pandemic shaped the current flare up. It brought the two countries closer together, Bociurkiw argues, giving Moscow confidence to escalate.

“As most of the world’s diplomats were isolated at home by strict lockdowns, Russian and Chinese senior officials held many bilateral meetings. In fact in 2020 Russia was the most visited country by high-level Chinese delegations,” Bociukiw said. 

The Chinese-Russian rapprochement is currently being covered extensively, enthusiastically and proudly by the Russian state-affiliated media. An influential Russian military analyst Sergey Karaganov even warned (link in Russian) that Washington’s behavior over Ukraine could push China and Russia into a military alliance. 

“Russia is increasing pressure on the West to show the West just how seriously we treat Ukraine. If Ukraine does not become a neutral, de-militarized country, Europe will have problems,” Karaganov said.

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