Endless War

It is impossible to contextualize the war in the Ukraine without understanding the country’s history.

Or, for that matter, to see these seismic events solely through Western eyes. I asked some African friends for their analysis and found them unsympathetic to the Ukrainian plight. Why? Because images of black students being pulled to one side and refused travel while Ukrainian refugees were welcomed in other European nations rammed home the quintessential horrors of racism.

In African eyes, the whole issue turned into a ‘first world problem’—the immediate reaction was why the West didn’t express similar concerns about malaria—although in fairness, a lot of effort has gone into development of a malarial vaccine, distribution of mosquito nets to remote villages, and social awareness and education.

A further issue was the enormous sympathy Ukrainian refugees were generating in Western Europe when compared to the intake of African refugees crossing the Mediterranean by way of Libya and Ceuta—here too, there is a counterargument because the Ukrainians vehemently declare their wish to return home when the war ends, and cannot therefore be classified as economic migrants.

One of many derelict properties along the Alexandria corniche—what was once an emblematic coastal promenade is now a cacophony of chaos.

These discussions took place in Cairo and Alexandria—Egypt is a proud ambassador of Arab culture and tradition, but I was stunned by how little it cares for its people. Perhaps due to its remarkable history—my heart longed to spot Pero da Covilhã, the handsome spy from The India Road—I expected Alexandria to reflect past glory, or at least to curate it, but I found nothing of the sort.

Instead, Alexandria manages to resemble Beirut, despite never having been bombed. The corniche, wending its way along the waterfront, is a melee of carts, trucks, and bikes engaged in a contest to out-honk and out-pong each other.

The taxi ‘fleet’ largely consists of yellow and black Ladas that pre-date the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I saw cars limping their way through the streets that transported me to another era—Peugeot 504, Fiat 127, the boxy Mirafiori clones, Simca, and dozens of VW pop-tops, tail flap open to help cool the little four-cylinder engine.

Arabs are as a rule extremely prejudiced against kuffar, particularly against the black peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, and Egypt is a supremely macho society—it was egregious to hear street vendors addressing female black tourists with a rude “Hey, brown sugar,” followed by a lewd grin.

All in all, I found many reasons not to be in Egypt, and none at all to return—the country seems hell-bent on making itself unattractive. When you see the lack of basic living conditions in Cairo or Alexandria, the whole Arab Spring revolution becomes immediately obvious, and the trappings of a police state ruled with an iron fist are everywhere.

An armored car machine gun post at the highway toll station between Cairo and Alexandria.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat—thirteen million metric tonnes—and has therefore been crucified by the war in Ukraine. The whole food issue related to the Ukrainian conflict is remarkable, and it affects both direct human consumption and animal feeds—in the aquaculture sector, which now produces around eighty million tonnes of fish per year, feed prices are soaring—wheat is used as a binding agent for pelleted feed.

The history of war in the Ukraine is also the history of food. In Anne Applebaum’s superb book, Red Famine, she takes the reader through the history of Little Russia—as the Russians patronizingly called Ukraine—with a particular focus on the heady days of the Russian revolution, when Lenin, Molotov, and the other champions of Bolshevism raped the Ukraine of grain, and on the follow-on war led by Stalin.

As in the present day, the Ukrainians didn’t give anything up without a fight—in 1919 Kyiv changed hands twelve times. The Kremlin understood that without food the proletariat would not be on its side.

In 1921, when an American relief mission was negotiating to enter the Soviet Union, one of its representatives told the Soviet negotiator Maksim Litvinov that ‘we do not come to fight Russia, we come to feed.’ Litvinov responded very succintly, in English: ‘Yes, but food is a veppon…’

There is an old military adage that an army marches on its stomach—Lenin took this to heart, understanding that the only path to a successful revolution in Russia was to obtain food from the world’s breadbasket through the use of extreme violence. After Lenin, Stalin, and after him Putin.

Egyptians are huge consumers of wheat products—bread is sold everywhere, from street hawkers to swank hotels.

The difference this time is that Russia is paying too high a cost. Its oligarchs have watched their assets—their whole way of life—disappear overnight. And the military-intelligence complex, known as the siloviki—names like Bortnikov and Patrushev—is supremely unhappy.

As the days go by, it is increasingly likely that Putin will have an ‘accident.’ In 1921, Lenin set up a research lab called the ‘Special Office’—the USSR had created a laboratory to develop and manufacture poisons, a favorite means of dealing with enemies from the days of the ancient Greeks to the Borgias of the Italian renaissance.

In recent years, Russian poisons have been used on the Skripals in the UK, Navalny in Russia, and most recently in an alleged incident involving Abramovich and Ukrainian negotiators in Kyiv. Some time before, ex-FSB agent Litvinenko was turned into agent orange in a London hotel when polonium was added to his tea, along with the cream and sugar.

The oligarchs are straining at the leash—they don’t see a way out of this without removing the Russian president. They may not have the means, but the siloviki certainly do.

And Novichok means recently arrived.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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