The following interview with Omar Dahi and Firat Demir was conducted by Anita Fuentes as part of the upcoming episode on the "Ukraine Conflict: Perspectives from the Global South." In the interview, Dahi and Demir discuss the implications of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the Global South.
Anita Fuentes: This is Anita Fuentes, executive producer of the Security in Context podcast, and today I have the pleasure of talking to Omar Dahi and Firat Demir, co-founders of Security in Context. This conversation is part of an upcoming episode of the Security in Context podcast about the implications of the Russia-Ukraine conflict for the global South, featuring Counterpunch Radio host Eric Draitser, and scholars like Samar Al-Bulushi, Arlene Tickner, and Noha Aboueldahab.
Hi to both of you, I hope you're doing well. I'm going to go ahead and ask you the first question. Having listened to what our guests had to say on this matter, were there any specific points that resonated with you or that you think could be further developed? Or was there anything missing in the discussion that you would like to highlight? Particularly since a lot of your research covers south-south relations.
Omar Dahi: First of all, hi Anita, hi Firat. It's good to be chatting with you guys today.
I wanted to start off by talking a little bit about how we came up with the idea of this episode. I think a lot of us were shocked and horrified by the invasion, which really was horrific in all sorts of ways, and it took us a while to recover and start processing what was happening. I mean, the project Security in Context was founded rejecting the idea that any country should be destroyed preemptively because of the security concerns of another country. And so after we started recovering and thinking about the shock from the invasion, we started also considering other issues and implications that were happening beyond the day-to-day destruction and the tragedy of what was happening, both in terms of narratives that were emerging in Western debates that were happening about the origins of the conflict, to what extent is this something that the West can be condemned for things like the NATO expansion, versus sort of intrinsic factors that reflect Russia's own foreign policy ambitions, and the way it views itself and its relationship to Ukraine.
So there were a lot of debates happening in the West, but we also saw a lot of things that were missing that were not being discussed, particularly things that are important for Security in Context, such as the perspectives, implications, and dynamics that affect the global South. This is usually absent in Western media in the best of times, but particularly with the Ukraine conflict there was quite a bit of focus on perspectives emanating from the US national security establishment, of course European national security or the European security establishments as well. And so there was less attention to issues and implications from the global South, which particularly struck people as surprising when, for example, we saw votes in the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council where a significant number of global South countries abstained or didn't vote in the way that the US and Europe wanted them to vote. So there were lots of aspects that we wanted to untangle and process through the episode and with our guests. Some of it has to do with, and this has been commented on before but the heavy dose of Western exceptionalism that permeated the coverage of the crisis that seemed to basically place the Russian invasion beyond the norms of what Western countries, particularly the United States, has done and has been doing for the past decades. So there was this question of Western exceptionalism that was then countered by a non-Western exceptionalism which tried to, in my opinion, whitewash the actions of Russia and so forth. So how do we think about this dynamic or this binary? And how do we think through it from a perspective that is sympathetic to social justice, sympathetic to victims of the invasion, but that doesn't try to exceptionalize what's happening as part of wider global processes?
Lots of our guests invoked the issues related to the particular dynamics and concerns of different developing countries, and perhaps we can get into that in the discussion today.
Anita Fuentes: What are your thoughts, Firat?
Firat Demir: I do agree that the current situation is quite complicated, and the global South is not a monolithic, uniform group. It's not homogenous, definitely. And we need to talk about perspectives. The same with the global North. But one thing that struck me the most, given that I was quite close region-wise to the conflict during the first half of this 2022 as a Fullbright fellow in Lithuania, and I could follow very closely the reactions of the people, both in the run-up to the war, and also after the invasion. The general panic that people had and felt, for example, iodine tablets in the pharmacies ran out, and I had colleagues calling and telling me: “Firat, in case you need it, we have it.” But also there was this reaction in the news media in Europe, and particularly in the United States, that this, “How can such a thing happen in 2022?” that portrayed this as a new event that has never happened and definitely never happened as aggressors from the Western point of view. I'm particularly interested in following the developments from within Lithuania, which went through a Russian invasion together with the two other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia in 1945, so there are still very fresh memories of Russian invasion in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe. So there's that, on the one hand; the fresh feelings and memories of people that happened under the Russian invasion, and they could definitely connect with the experience Ukrainians were going through. But then, on the other hand, there was this denial of other invasions and aggressions done either through their country's involvement directly, for example, the Iraq war. Ukraine sent soldiers directly to the Iraq invasion. So did the three Baltic states. And when people were confronted with that experience, which was not perhaps that much different regarding aggression, and the justified claim that this is for preemptive strike to prevent another sovereign country from attacking and defending their own national interests. That was a disconnect. People really could not explain and justify... The closest that they could come up with was the historical experience and come and passed either under the Soviet Union or under the Warsaw Pact, because not all Central, Eeastern, and Northern Europe were under the Soviet Union, but they were satellites, like from Poland, for example.
And another thing, perhaps we can discuss later on more, was the treatment of the human cost, the human elements, because at the time I arrived in Lithuania there was a refugee crisis coming from mostly in Northern Iraq by people who were displaced from the invasion of Iraq but also following the Syrian civil war, and so on. And some are economic refugees, some are humanitarian refugees, and, if you remember the Syrian civil war and millions of refugees that were coming to Europe through Turkey, the reactions of countries such as Poland and others that were very negative, that did not want to share any of the burden the countries Italy and Greece were going through, or Turkey. But suddenly the refugees from Ukraine were welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately the reported news on the media were quite disappointing even on that account. The diverse reports that your skin color was a bigger factor in welcoming you, even from Ukraine, and not everybody were welcome to those neighboring countries or otherwise from Ukraine.
Anita Fuentes: Another question that I had for you is. Well, all four of our guests pointed out that most global South countries have preferred not to take sides in the conflict, or have tried to refrain from taking actions that could harm their relationship with Russia. But would you say that there have been any salient differences in the way that each region, so Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, etc., in the ways that they have responded to the conflict? And in which ways do you think that this war could reconfigure transnational solidarity dynamics?
Omar Dahi: This is something that came up in the different responses of our guests. And, as Firat said, the global South is not homogeneous. So in this episode we're trying sort of to tease out what are the different regional specific dynamics. And even within those regions there are differences across countries. I think professor Arlene Tickner mentioned Colombia, for example, which is a country that has historically had very close ties to the US national security state, and sort of long standing military and security ties. It has, under the previous administration, the Duque administration really gone out of its way to support the Western narrative. But even there they're viewing it through the regional lens of, for example, their opposition to the Venezuelan government. So there are always ways in which the global South countries, and this is something that's often misunderstood, are also responding to their priorities, their concerns. Whether these concerns are things that are global in nature, but different from Western security concerns. For example: food security, which is something that all of our guests talked about, and which is going to be a really serious issue moving forward. That's the priority of global South countries right now. For many Western countries that's not the priority. I mean, they might be lending lip service to it. So there's that element of it.
But I think, despite these differences, there are common denominators. And the common denominator that has come out is that quite simply most global South countries see this as a Western conflict against Russia. They don't view it necessarily through the lens of something that they have to condemn, or that they have to sign up fully to the Western agenda in isolating Russia, and in bankrupting Russia, which is increasingly what is coming out, especially with the sanctions and so on. And I think Noha Aboueldahab mentioned that, for example, many Middle Eastern states are reluctant to sign on to any political campaign that completely isolates any country, let alone a major country like Russia. Not just because of the current material interests that they have with Russia, but also they don't want this to happen to them in the future. So I think the dynamics that come out is very much an awareness and weariness to fully subscribing to the US-led response to the Russian invasion. And these dynamics come out particularly in Africa, for example. And we, actually, in the panel that we did on March 12th of this year with professor Michael Klare, Robert Vitalis, and Emily Meierding, we talked about the geopolitics of oil. And one of the things that Michael Klare brought out is the increasing way in which this conflict is going to be used through the lens of great power competition. And the US is going to instrumentalize the conflict to force global South countries to choose “you're either with us or you're with China and Russia.” And perhaps the China role is going to become more apparent, actually. The real target of the US national security state, eventually, is China, not Russia. And so, Samar Al-Bulushi brought up the Countering Russian Malign Activities in Africa Act, which is already being drafted and which can potentially force developing countries in Africa to choose sides if they want aid or if they want further cooperation with the West. So you can see how there's a real rejection of this conflict being instrumentalized to force global South countries to pick sides and to essentially be pawns in this great power competition conflict.
Anita Fuentes: Firat?
Firat Demir: To follow up on that, I'm definitely, even from within the same regions there are significant differences across countries. Right after the invasion one of the major Western European news agencies, for example, was portraying the conflict as “this is the first time since Second World War a major European city is being bombed.” Which was not correct. Belgrade was bombed. Sarajevo was bombed. If we just focus on Europe. And they are more Western European cities than Kiev. That doesn't change the fact of the brutality of the invasion. But, even within Europe, if you look at the Western and Eastern Balkans, they have significant differences, or even countries like Hungary have significant differences than Poland. And, within the global South, if we define it in very broad terms, which would include some European countries as well.
If you take Middle Eastern countries or Central and Western Asian countries, there are significant differences across the board. And some of them are trying to have this delicate balance. Take Turkey, for example. Turkey has significant trade relationships and security partnerships with both Ukraine and Russia. On the one hand they are selling unmanned airplanes, the so-called Bayraktar airplanes, to Ukraine, even donating some of them. And at the same time having significant trade relations with Russia and Ukraine; wheat and grain imports from both countries are significant, but also natural gas. Turkey is significantly dependent on Russian natural gas flows. As well as security concerns from the Turkish perspective in the Middle East that differ from the US perspectives regarding their own security priorities. Africa is not any different, Asia is not either.
And I think one major concern within the global South is bringing China into the equation. And my reading of it is that the Chinese leadership is trying to limit their involvement, and I don't think they are approving what Russia did. I think they were not expecting it as much as others. But the use of the Russian invasion and trying to create a new axis of evil including Russia and China in the equation is really worrisome and concerning for all countries, not just those in the South. A new Cold War is... I would like to say starting, but I think unfortunately it has already started with the expansion of NATO further to Sweden and Finland. Sweden stayed neutral for more than 100 years, and Finland had major wars and lost land to Russia, but other than that had peaceful relations with Russia. And that further expansion I think is not going to help with the situation, definitely. And we have other countries on the list, from Ukraine to Georgia, that might be a risk for further conflict.
On top of that you have the administration of Russia, which to me has really little control or understanding of the situation on the ground, like any other dictatorship. And Russia is what it is to me. The leadership of the country has little understanding of the problem and the top administration are stuffed with people who are not merit based but based on connections and yes men. And Putin's display of justification of the war was a really clear example of it. This is a country with thousands of warheads, nuclear warheads. So that's really scary. And the global South can play a balancing role here, including China. And I think the best thing that could happen would be for the West, Europe and the US, to find a way to bring China into a more neutral position, rather than demonizing and creating a new Cold War with Russia and China, on the one hand, and then “either you are with us or against us.”
And the invasion of Baghdad and the bombing of Baghdad is in none of the discussions here, right? If you look at the human cost of invasion of Ukraine it is humungous in terms of physical infrastructure but also human cost. And I don't like comparing human lives; one life is one too many. But we are talking about millions of lives that were lost in the invasion of Iraq, and then you are looking at a country like Syria where almost half if not more of the country has been displaced, either internally or externally. We are talking about the next fifty or sixty years of this country are lost. Iraq still doesn't have 24 hour electricity in a given day, and nobody is talking about rebuilding it. And Afghanistan is also there, where Western troops have withdrawn and women don't even have the right to go to school anymore, despite 20 years of promises. On top of that, now we have the Ukrainian invasion and the biggest concern people are raising is how can this happen today. But it has been happening for the last century. Almost every decade we have a major conflict.
Anita Fuentes: Yeah, it's all very true. I mean, we did a really good episode, our first episode of the Security in Context podcast was about Afghanistan, and I think it's always interesting to go back to that discussion as well from the perspective of you know what's happening now, especially with the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
I wanted to ask you both if there are any concluding remarks that you like to share. We're running out of time, so if there's any further issues that you'd like to bring up now's the time.
Omar Dahi: Thanks, Anita. We wanted to keep this short, but just to conclude I wanted to thank Firat and you for doing this today, and one thing I wanted to point out is, one of the common denominators is this question of nonalignment. Firat and I have done a lot of work... I mean, our book was about comparing the past and present of South-South relations and ways in which it was considered a positive alternative for North-South relations, how relations among developing countries can really bring about alternative and more positive economic, political, social outcomes. And I think this question is now returning to the fore, because, on the one hand, we see what the Western dynamic is pushing for, which is also something that we reject, and, as we talked about today, this sort of forcing countries into a corner. On the other hand, as we've shown, the rise of China and their economic influence has really ambiguous effects, to say the least. In some ways it can be positive, in some ways it can be highly negative and create highly uneven outcomes, in the same way that replicates North-South dynamics. So I think it's something to look out for and something we'll be revisiting more and more is lots of... The rest of the global South, if we take China as one of the big powers now, the rest of the global South really wants to be non-aligned and try to play off or benefit from both sides, rather than being forced into a corner. And the question is: to what extent will they be able to do that?
Firat Demir: I fully agree, but there's also the aspect of this playing the global North has been doing also. I think we should stop thinking that the security concerns, however legitimate it is for one country, or for one nation, or for one group of people at the expense of another, is not the way to go. The expansion of two additional NATO members, if that means losing the security promises given, for example, to a large ethnic group like Kurds to satisfy the security concerns of those in Finland and Sweden, that is really not following the principles that they claim to be following, if you look at the founding principles of European Union, at least on paper. And then in order to be able to join NATO so that these countries have security insurance against Russian expansionism, but then if that means we have to give up very legitimate concerns of another ethnic group, that really doesn't fix the problem. This is a zero sum game. And we need to be able to find a way of bringing this out of a zero sum game, so that it becomes a win-win for all sides. And a non-aligned movement, not just for the South but for the North, I think is the way to go.
And also start seeing that these are really complicated issues. And what global power competition does or what real politics at the nation-state level should be different than at the people's level. People on the ground, on the streets, should be able to understand and relate very legitimate concerns and experiences people are going through. And no less in Europe. Every country in Europe went through a refugee crisis, either from within themselves. Take Germany: a significant number of them have become refugees. Take the Baltic states: a significant number, up to a third of these countries were refugees, displaced after an invasion by Russia or other forces. And when another country goes through a similar experience, rather than saying this is not my problem, or demonize one group of people without addressing the real issues, is not going to make it right or better, but instead produce the same type of conflicts going forward.
Anita Fuentes: Thank you very much to both of you for sharing your thoughts on a very important issue. The full podcast will be released very soon on all podcasting platforms as well as on Youtube and Status Hours. Stay tuned and don't miss it!