The Middle East settles in for a long, hot, and dangerous summer
Faced by the human and economic ravages of COVID-19 and enduring—if precarious—stalemates in myriad conflict zones, including the Gulf, Yemen, Syria, and Libya, the region’s leaders are likely to keep well back from the brink.
As the hot, virus-ridden summer of 2020 unfolds, it seems that the Middle East is a tinderbox that, at any time, could be set ablaze by the actions or miscalculations of any number of rivals. Still, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is unlikely to fall off the precipice of uncontained military confrontations. Faced by the human and economic ravages of COVID-19 and enduring—if precarious—stalemates in myriad conflict zones, including the Gulf, Yemen, Syria, and Libya, the region’s leaders are likely to keep well back from the brink. The upcoming US elections are adding to their grudging prudence. With the twin upheavals of the pandemic and nationwide protests against racial injustice—not to mention President Donald Trump’s missteps—Middle East leaders must now contend with the possibility that Joe Biden will prevail in the presidential election on November 3. In light of so much uncertainty, waiting the summer out rather than looking for trouble seems to be the far better option.
A Gathering Storm?
The Middle East appears to be facing a gathering storm. The Trump Administration’s efforts to push the UN Security Council to reimpose an arms embargo on Iran attests to the White House’s resolve to sustain “maximum pressure.” Tehran has responded with its own form of “maximum resistance.” The policy is manifest on many fronts, from the recent harassment of US warships in the Gulf by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats to Iran’s continued support for regional non-state allies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. The internal conflicts in these three countries are at a boiling point: a toxic brew of sectarian tension, economic crisis, and COVID-19 could bring down the governments of Lebanon and Iraq. In Yemen, efforts to forge a cease-fire and Saudi-Houthi negotiations have both collapsed.
Hopes for some kind of peaceful settlement in Syria remain remote. Despite speculation about being forced out, Bashar al-Assad is firmly in place, with Moscow and Tehran in no hurry to push for a political solution that might usher in a different regime. After Turkey’s bid to challenge these realities provoked military retaliation from Russia in February, Ankara settled for a precarious cease-fire in Idlib. At the same time, it shifted some military weight to Libya, where it is now engaged in defending the officially recognized Libyan government against an alliance supported by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and indirectly, Israel.
As for Israel, its fragile government has forged closer links with Iran’s Gulf adversaries. Whatever their declared misgivings about Israel’s impending annexation plans, the leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia seem more interested in deepening relations with Israel and the United States than in backing the Palestinians. Under these unstable conditions, the prospects for another round of bloodletting, especially along the Gaza-Israel frontier, will surely grow. Once that fuse is lit, others could follow.
US-Iranian Tensions in a Holding Pattern
Still, a closer look would suggest that the region’s leaders are unlikely to overturn a perilous status quo that for them could be far preferable to the black hole of unleashed military confrontations. Take, for example, the intersecting conflicts generated by the continued tensions between the United States and Iran, on the one side, and their respective state and non-state friends on the other. The Trump Administration shows no readiness to bend in its effort to bury what is left of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or to relent in a policy of maximum pressure that helped upend Iran’s entire economy. But on neither of these two related fronts is it meeting with success; on the contrary, the administration has elicited opposition from the Europeans and the Iranians that underscores the limits of a US approach dominated by tactics rather than clear strategy.
The Trump Administration shows no readiness to bend in its effort to bury what is left of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or to relent in a policy of maximum pressure that helped upend Iran’s entire economy.
This much was evinced by the following statement, issued by Britain, France, and Germany on June 19: “[W]e have stated unequivocally our regret … at the decision by the United States to withdraw from the JCPoA and to re-impose sanctions on Iran … As E3, we have fully upheld our JCPoA commitments, including sanctions-lifting as foreseen under the terms of the agreement.” This statement signals that European leaders will not back the White House’s effort to push the UN Security Council to produce a new resolution designed to reimpose (or extend) an arms embargo on Iran. The Europeans share Washington’s concerns regarding Iran’s ballistic missile capacity and the need to address this critical issue, one left unaddressed by the JCPOA. However, they are ready to do so only by reestablishing the JCPOA as the diplomatic starting point.
Thus it is not only Russia and China that will heed Iran’s call to resist Washington. Absent a genuine effort by the White House to consider a real diplomatic process—and despite the Europeans’ clear misgivings about Iran’s decision to violate limits on enrichment set out in the JCPOA—European leaders will continue to practically side with Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing. Moreover, they will do so knowing that Washington has few, if any, good military options. Indeed, with American elections just on the horizon and a US president who has demonstrated in words and deeds that despite the incoherence of his policies, he prefers talking over fighting, world leaders are calling Trump’s obvious diplomatic bluff. To be sure, a desperate president might suddenly back an attack on Iran—especially if Tehran and its allies provide the pretext—but the odds favor US restraint.
The odds also favor a policy of Iranian strategic restraint, though such an approach would not preclude force. On the contrary, as Iranian military leaders have emphasized—and attacks by Iran-supported groups in the Gulf attest—that despite the challenges posed by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices, Tehran is committed to maintaining support for pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iranian leaders’ devotion to this policy of resistance rests on their belief, with good reason, that those non-state forces provide an effective deterrent to possible US or Israeli attacks.
However self-serving, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems convinced that by revealing what he calls the “true nature and character” of the US government, the situation in the United States is working to Iran’s diplomatic advantage.
Moreover, Iranian leaders sense that the recent tide of global protests against racism provides a possible bridge of solidarity with Iran and its resistance to western governments. It is noteworthy that the repression by Iranian security forces of domestic resistance in Iran in November 2019 underscores the hypocrisy of such claims. But however self-serving, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems convinced that by revealing what he calls the “true nature and character” of the US government, the situation in the United States is working to Iran’s diplomatic advantage. “When,” as he recently put it, “the people chant …. ‘We can’t breathe’ … this is in fact what all nations—which have fallen victim to America’s oppressive presence, usurpation and actions—want to say from the bottom of their hearts.” For Khamenei, such sentiments illustrate Trump’s domestic isolation for the entire world. In light of these statements, it is hardly surprising that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently asserted that Trump’s reelection chances “have seriously decreased compared to four to five months ago.” With the possibility of a Joe Biden victory, Tehran has an incentive to signal its desire to keep diplomacy alive. The December 2019 exchange of two prisoners—and even more so, Tehran’s May 20 statement that it is ready for a full prisoner exchange “with no preconditions”—offer a glimpse of gains that both sides might secure from favoring diplomatic channels over direct confrontation.
Containing Regional Conflict and US-Iran Escalation in the Gulf
June 6, 2020 marked the third anniversary of the air, land, and sea embargo imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. One goal of the embargo was to punish Qatar for sustaining diplomatic and trade relations with Iran. By trying to bring Doha to heal, Saudi Arabia and the UAE signaled Tehran—and of course the United States—their determination to counter Iranian influence. This may explain why Trump initially backed the embargo, only to shift ground when his advisors reminded him of the critical role that Qatar plays in Washington’s Gulf security strategy. Indeed, US concerns about Qatar’s financial support for Muslim groups in Egypt and Libya were not sufficient to deter the United States and Qatar from reinforcing their security cooperation during the first months of the embargo. Qatar, which hosts—free of charge—the largest US air base in the Middle East, further mitigated its potential isolation by supporting the creation, in 2018, of an annual Qatar-US strategic dialogue. On the economic side, it took measures to circumvent the trade embargo. Indeed, in 2019 Qatar imported $32.69 billion worth of goods; it also maintained a positive trade balance and a current account trade balance equivalent to 5 percent of economic output. While the global recessionary impact of COVID-19 has cut the gas and oil income, Qatar’s central bank has put in place a $20.5 billion stimulus package to support the private sector.
US concerns about Qatar’s financial support for Muslim groups in Egypt and Libya were not sufficient to deter the United States and Qatar from reinforcing their security cooperation during the first months of the embargo.
This response speaks to a wider reality, namely that Doha has used the blockade to galvanize national pride and support. To the consternation of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Qatar has played its cards deftly by offering to mediate the conflict between the Trump Administration and Iran, even as it has sustained its natural gas joint ventures with Iran and, with a boost from Oman, has moved to increase non-oil and gas trade relations with Iran. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Tehran in January 2020 where he declared that Iran’s provision of “good aid to the Qatari nation … cannot be forgotten”; his words underscored Doha’s success in maintaining close ties with both the United States and Iran, Washington’s chief regional adversary. Having quit OPEC and suspended talks to end the Gulf crisis, Doha’s next step might be to leave the Gulf Cooperation Council. While this move would probably feed the resolve of the UAE and Saudi Arabia to maintain the embargo, Doha’s ability to “roll with the punches”—as one expert notes—gives Washington and Tehran another reason to avoid a major military confrontation in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Conflict
Yemen provides an additional arena for a US-Iran proxy conflict, one whose economic aftershocks have been felt across the globe. Backed by Iran, Houthi forces have sustained their military assaults, thus depriving Saudi Arabia and the UAE of any hope of using military force—and air power, especially—to impose order on Yemen’s fractious land. The September 2019 Houthi drone strikes on Saudi oil fields show that Iran will continue to view the Houthis as a vital, if undisciplined, asset in a wider policy of directed deterrence. So long as the US-Iran conflict endures, outside powers in general—and Iran in particular—will have little incentive to push the key protagonists to end Yemen’s civil war.
Hopes for bringing the key forces together around the negotiating table were momentarily buoyed in September 2019. The push for talks came from Saudi Arabia which, apart from smarting from the Houthi drone attack on its oil facilities, was now facing an increasingly unfavorable geostrategic map due to the UAE’s moves to draw down its forces in Yemen. In addition, the Houthis’ use of long-range ballistic missiles, not to mention their precise drones, posed further dangerous threats. Vice Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman’s April 8, 2020 tweet that the kingdom “has always been committed to reaching a comprehensive political settlement in Yemen” underscored Riyadh’s growing concerns. Indeed, the ensuing unilateral declaration of a two-week cease-fire by the coalition forces seemed to reinforce the apparent desire of the UAE and Saudi Arabia not only to merely halt the bloodletting but also to search for a permanent political settlement.
Faced by a precipitous decline in oil income, Saudi Arabia can no longer afford the Yemeni war bill, which in 2019 averaged some $5-6 billion a month.
Faced by a precipitous decline in oil income, Saudi Arabia can no longer afford the Yemeni war bill, which in 2019 averaged some $5-6 billion a month. Moreover, with COVID-19 cases reaching some 70,000 by mid-April, Riyadh desperately needed a reprieve from the fighting. As for the Houthi forces, their April 8 ballistic missile attack on Marib signaled their resolve to continue military operations. It is hard to tell whether this attack was driven by a perception of Saudi weakness and/or by the desire of the Houthis’ Iranian allies to ensure that Yemen continues to play a key role in Tehran’s deterrence strategy. What is clear is that while the Yemen conflict will endure, it will probably do so without necessarily inviting the kind of major military escalation that none of the key local and regional parties—including Iran—are seeking.
The UAE Looks West to Libya
As the UAE has moved to attenuate its military involvement in Yemen, it has expanded military operations in Libya. While it has declared its desire for a political settlement, the UAE’s expanding support for Libyan General Khalifa Haftar actually weakens what the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt view as their larger strategic enemy: political Islam. Turkey’s entrance into Libya has inflamed matters. With the conflict escalating, Libya’s neighbors face security threats along their borders and in their major population centers as well. The prospects for a wider destabilization in the Maghreb have prompted calls from the international community for a lasting cease-fire and serious negotiations. But the January 2020 Berlin conference provided little hope for progress since it was attended by many of the countries that have fueled the Libyan imbroglio.
Leaders’ Double Responsibility
The MENA region seizes with intersecting conflicts that have yet to reveal their full and lethal potential for conflagration. During this hot summer these conflicts will probably be kept at bay by a ruinous pandemic and the uncertainties of a US political scene whose dramas continue to grab global attention. But however potentially dangerous the summer may be, it remains the responsibility of the region’s leaders to work on two simultaneous tracks. First, they must boldly consider the calamities that will befall them if they simply continue to live with rather than address the dangers at their door. Second––and in that spirit––they must work assiduously toward finding workable compromises that preserve and protect the interests of their peoples in regional peace and stability.
This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Kyiv and missiles struck the capital city.
Contrary to initial predictions, Kyiv never fell, but the country today remains embroiled in conflict. The front line holds in the southeastern region of the country, with contested areas largely focused on the Russian-speaking Donbas and port cities around the Black Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, having recognized the Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent days before the invasion, has from the beginning declared the war a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. His goals have alternated, however, between existential — bringing all of Ukraine into the influence of Russia — and strategic — laying claim to only those Russian-speaking areas in the east and south of the country.
It is in the latter that Russia has been much more successful. Yet after two winters of brutal fighting and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, as of the end of 2023 Russia only laid claim to 18% of Ukraine’s territory, as compared to 7% on the eve of the war and 27% in the weeks after the invasion.
Meanwhile, the West’s coffers have been opened — and, as some say, drained — to help Ukraine’s government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, defend itself against Moscow.
Regardless, Ukraine’s military forces have been wholly depleted as they compete with a much more resourced and populous Russia. While Ukraine’s military campaign was able to take advantage of Russian tactical mistakes in the first year, its much-heralded counteroffensive in 2023 failed to provide the boost needed not only to rid the country of the Russian occupation, but also to put Kyiv in the best position to call for terms.
If anything, as Quincy Institute experts Anatol Lieven and George Beebe point out in their new brief, “there is now little realistic prospect of further Ukrainian territorial gains on the battlefield, and there is a significant risk that Ukraine might exhaust its manpower and munitions and lay itself open to a devastating Russian counterattack.”
The only and best solution, they say, is to drive all sides to the negotiating table before Ukraine is destroyed.
The narrative of the war — how it began, where it is today — is well documented. On the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, RS thought it might be instructive to look at the numbers — weapons, aid, polling, population, and more — that illustrate the cost and the contours of the conflict over 24 months, and counting.
The U.S. Congress has allocated a total of $113 billion in funding related to the war. The vast majority of this money went directly to defending Ukraine ($45.2 billion in military aid) and keeping its government and society functioning ($46 billion in economic and humanitarian aid). Other funds went to rearming allies ($4.7 billion) and expanding U.S. military operations in Europe ($15.2 billion).
After two years of war, that funding has dried up. The Biden administration, which once shipped two or three new weapons packages each month, has not sent Ukraine a major arms shipment since Dec. 27, 2023. As Congress struggles to pass an additional $60 billion in Ukraine-related funding, observers increasingly believe that aid package may have been the last.
The Pentagon has sent at least 3,097,000 rounds of artillery to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Most of those (2,000,000) have been 155 mm shells, the standard size used by the U.S. and its NATO allies. For perspective, that’s about 95,000 tons of 155 mm ammunition alone.
Despite ramping up military manufacturing, the U.S. still only produces about 340,000 155 mm shells per year, meaning that Ukraine has been firing rounds at three times the rate of American production.
Washington has also given Kyiv 76 tanks, including 31 Abrams tanks and 45 Soviet-era T-72Bs. Ukraine has received 3,631 American armored vehicles of various types, from infantry fighting vehicles to personnel carriers and medical trucks.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has made use of 39 American-made HIMARS, a mobile rocket launcher that has become famous for its utility in the war. As for smaller arms, the U.S. has sent at least 400,000,000 grenades and bullets in the past 24 months.
The war has killed at least 10,378 civilians and injured an additional 19,632, according to the UN. More than three in four non-combatant casualties occurred in areas held by the Ukrainian government, indicating that Moscow is responsible for the lion’s share of civilian harm.
When it comes to military casualties, good data still remains hard to come by and estimates are sometimes wildly different. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have offered detailed, public indications of the war’s impact on their soldiers.
The U.S. estimated in August that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died and an additional 100,000 to 120,000 had been injured, putting the number of total casualties at over 170,000. Russia, for its part, claimed in November that 383,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded.
On the other side, the United Kingdom estimates that Russia has suffered at least 320,000 casualties, with 50,000 deaths among Russian soldiers and 20,000 deaths among Wagner Group mercenaries. Washington said in December that Moscow had suffered 315,000 casualties, though American officials did not provide a breakdown of deaths and injuries.
The United Nations estimates that the Ukrainian population (the entire country within internationally recognized borders), which totaled 43.5 million people in 2021, dropped to 39.7 million in 2022 as war swept through the country’s east. This trend continued into 2023, as the population dropped to 36.7 million — the lowest level since Ukraine became independent in 1990.
As of January, 6.3 million Ukrainians have become refugees abroad, with another 3.7 million displaced internally. As the frontlines have settled, Ukraine’s population has slowly started to grow again, reaching 37.9 million in early 2024. Meanwhile, demographer Elena Libanova estimates that only 28 million of those people live within areas currently under Ukrainian government control (outside of Crimea and the Donbas).
Two new polls that came out within the last week illustrate the complexities of Americans’ feelings toward the war in Ukraine and the U.S. role in it.
First, a Pew poll published February 16 found that a large majority of Americans (74%) see the war between Russia and Ukraine as somewhat (30%) or very important (43%) to U.S. interests. And another survey, from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, found that Americans broadly support a U.S.-led negotiated end to the conflict.
But the past few months in Washington have been largely focused on U.S. aid to Ukraine, specifically whether Congress will pass President Biden’s request for roughly $60 billion for Kyiv’s fight against Russia.
According to Pew, in March 2022, 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “just right” or “not enough.” In December 2023, that same survey found that just 47% said the same. The biggest change came from Republicans: 49% said in March, 2022 that U.S. aid was “not enough,” while just 13% said the same in December.
Meanwhile, Gallup found in August 2022 that 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “about right” (36%) or “not enough” (38%). Those numbers came down slightly in Gallup’s latest track on this question in October, 2023, with 58% saying U.S. aid was about right (33%) or not enough (25%).
There have been several attempts to bring nations together to outline talks to end the war. Russia and Ukraine engaged in five rounds of talks in Belarus and Turkey shortly after the invasion, but the talks collapsed amid allegations of Russian war crimes and Western pressure on Kyiv to keep fighting.
Since then, the belligerents have spoken directly about secondary issues, like Black Sea shipping and prisoner swaps. Ukraine, meanwhile, laid out a “10-point peace plan” that has formed the basis for five international summits, none of which included Russia. These took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2023; in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August 2023; in Malta in October, 2023; in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2023; and Davos, Switzerland, in January of this year.
Since the start of the war, Congress has passed four aid packages for Ukraine, totaling $113 billion. While none of the four packages were identical and aid for Ukraine was sometimes bundled with other spending, the trends for support for Kyiv in Congress are similar to those we see in polling, particularly among congressional Republicans.
The 2022 supplemental, which became law in May 2022 and provided Ukraine with $39.34 billion in aid passed the House 368-57 and the Senate by a vote of 86-11. By September 2023, when the House voted on the Ukraine Security Assistance and Oversight Supplemental Appropriations Act, which provided Kyiv with $300 million in security assistance, it passed by a vote of 311-117, with a majority of Republican members opposing the legislation.
On February 12 of this year, the Senate voted 70-29 to pass a national security supplemental, which would provide approximately $60 billion in aid for Kyiv alongside money for Israel and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The bill has not yet been voted on in the House.
Ben Armbruster, Blaise Malley, Connor Echols and Kelley Vlahos contributed reporting. Graphics by Khody Akhavi.
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A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
President Biden was entirely correct in the first part of his judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny: “Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in.” Even if Navalny eventually died of “natural causes,” his previous poisoning, and the circumstances of his imprisonment, must obviously be considered as critical factors in his death.
For his tremendous courage in returning to Russia after his medical treatment in the West — knowing well the dangers that he faced — the memory of Navalny should be held in great honor. He joins the immense list of Russians who have died for their beliefs at the hands of the state. Public expressions of anger and disgust at the manner of his death are justified and correct.
The problem comes with the other part of Biden’s statement, that “[Navalny’s death] is a reflection of who [Putin] is. And it just cannot be tolerated.” If he had said “approved,” “justified,” or “defended,” that would have been absolutely right. But “tolerated”? What can Biden do in response, that he has not done already?
The U.S. president has promised major new sanctions intended to “cut Russia off from the world economy” — but that requires Washington to control the world economy. Economic sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine have failed, and even strengthened the Russian economy and the state’s grip on it. They cannot be significantly extended, because this would damage and infuriate countries that are dependent on Russian energy exports, including India, a key U.S. partner. As to sanctions against Russian individuals part of or linked to the Russian regime, there are already thousands of them, and they have had no effect whatsoever.
Statements like Biden’s are both pointless and dangerous. For the spoken or unspoken implication is that it is impossible to deal with Putin. But like it or not, Putin is the president of Russia. To all appearances, he will remain so for a considerable time to come, and will hand over to a successor of his own choosing. The Biden administration has said that it wants Ukrainian victory (whatever that now means), but it has also said that it believes that the war will end in negotiations, and following the failure of last year’s Ukrainian offensive, is now reported to be moving in this direction.
Who does Biden think that he will negotiate with, if not Putin? Seeking talks on an end to the Ukraine war does not imply approval of Putin’s crimes or his invasion of Ukraine, any more than the Eisenhower administration’s negotiation of an end to the Korean War implied approval of the North Korean regime and its invasion of South Korea.
By its own account, the Biden administration has supposedly made the promotion of democracy around the world a central part of its diplomacy, with the clear implication that only democratic governments that respect human rights are truly legitimate. Actual U.S. diplomacy does not work like this and never has; not because of American imperialist or capitalist wickedness, but because the world does not work like this.
Nobody should be required to like or admire the governments of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Mohammed Bin Salman or Narendra Modi (though we might well wish that U.S. officials had been less effusive in their praise of them). Like Putin, they are however the heads of their countries’ governments, and likely to remain so. You deal with Saudi Arabia and India — and you have to deal with Saudi Arabia and India — you deal with MBS and Modi.
The other thing to be wary of in the outpouring of outrage at the death of Navalny, is that this is already being used to build a strategy of greatly increased Western official support for the Russian opposition. Many (not all) people and groups in the Russian liberal opposition are personally and politically admirable. Some, like Navalny, have shown tremendous courage. To say this is quite different from believing that they are ever likely to form the government of Russia, and that the U.S. should base its policy towards Russia on the hope that this will be so.
The sad truth is that the Ukraine war has placed the Russian liberal opposition in a politically impossible position. Having been largely chased into exile by Putin, they are dependent on Western support. This means however that their principled opposition to the Russian invasion can be portrayed by the Russian government — and is seen by many ordinary Russians — as treason in time of war. As with the Iranian, Chinese, and other oppositions, official support from Washington only allows the ruling regimes to paint the name “traitor” in brighter colors.
A combination (differing from individual to individual) of idealism, dependence on the West and hatred of Putin means that instead of advocating a compromise peace in Ukraine, many Russian oppositionists have — willingly or unwillingly — identified themselves with Ukrainian and Western positions that explicitly demand complete Russian defeat.
And while not many Russians wanted the war, not many Russians want to see Russia defeated. As I have remarked before, even many Americans who strongly opposed the war in Vietnam were outraged when Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. If she stood a chance of being elected to any office in the U.S. before that trip, she certainly didn’t afterwards.
Any hope of rebuilding liberalism in Russia (and indeed Ukraine, albeit to a much lesser extent) therefore requires an end to the war. For some degree of authoritarianism is a natural accompaniment to every war, and regimes all over the world have exploited this to increase their own power. Equally importantly, mass support for Putin is critically dependent on the general belief that the West intends not just to defeat Russia but to cripple it as a state, and that to prevent this it is essential to support the government.
For the moment at least, this has eclipsed previously widespread resentments —which Navalny channeled — at regime corruption. No amount of Western or Russian opposition propaganda can change this Russian picture. Peace might, if it is given a chance.
For the third year in a row, globally, the number of investors in nuclear weapons producers has fallen but the overall amount invested in these companies has increased, largely thanks to some of the biggest investment banks and funds in the U.S.
“As for the U.S., while there is, like past years, indeed a dominance, and total financing from U.S.-based institutions has increased, the total number of U.S. investors has dropped for the third year in a row (similar to our global findings), and we hope to see this number will continue to fall in the coming years,” Alejandar Munoz, the report’s primary author, told Responsible Statecraft.
In 2023, the top 10 share and bondholders of nuclear weapons producing companies are all American firms. The firms — Vanguard, Capital Group, State Street, BlackRock, Wellington Management, Fidelity Investments, Newport Group, Geode Capital Holdings, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley — held $327 billion in investments in nuclear weapons producing companies in 2023, an $18 billion increase from 2022.
These companies are also profiting from the enormous government contracts they receive for developing and modernizing nuclear weapons.
“All nuclear-armed states are currently modernizing their nuclear weapon systems,” says the annual “Don’t Bank on the Bomb” report from PAX and ICAN. “In 2022, the nine nuclear-armed states together spent $82.9 billion on their nuclear weapons arsenals, an increase of $2.5 billion compared to the previous year, and with the United States spending more than all other nuclear powers combined.”
American weapons companies are some of the biggest recipients of contracts for nuclear weapons. Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics are “the biggest nuclear weapons profiteers,” according to the report. Combined, the two American weapons manufacturers have outstanding nuclear weapons related contracts with a combined potential value of at least $44.9 billion.
Those enormous government contracts for nuclear weapons, alongside contracts for conventional weapons, have helped make nuclear weapons producers an attractive investment for American investment banks and funds.
“Altogether, 287 financial institutions were identified for having substantial financing or investment relations with 24 companies involved in nuclear weapon production,” says the report. “$477 billion was held in bonds and shares, and $343 billion was provided in loans and underwriting.”
The report notes that while the total amount invested in nuclear weapons has increased, the number of investors has fallen and trends toward firms in countries with nuclear weapons.
ICAN and PAX suggest that concentration may be a result of prohibitions on nuclear weapons development for signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a 93 signatory treaty committing to the ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The report says:
The TPNW comprehensively prohibits the development, manufacturing, testing, possession, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance with those acts. For companies that build the key components needed to maintain and expand countries’ nuclear arsenals, access to private funding is crucial. As such, the banks, pension funds, asset managers and other financiers that continue to invest in or grant credit to these companies allow for the production of inhumane and indiscriminate weapons to proceed. By divesting from their business relationships with these companies, financial institutions can reduce available capital for nuclear weapon related activities and thereby be instrumental in supporting the fulfilment of the TPNW’s objectives.
Susi Snyder, managing director of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb Project, told Responsible Statecraft that even U.S. banks, like Pittsburgh based PNC Bank, are facing shareholder pressure to divest from nuclear weapons and that the tide may be shifting as shareholders in U.S. companies grow increasingly sensitive to investments in nuclear weapons.
“For three years shareholder resolutions have been put forward at PNC bank raising concerns that their investments in nuclear weapon producers are a violation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and that they are not in line with the bank's overall human rights policy guidelines,” she said.