Lebanon in the Middle of the Russia and Ukraine Conflict

Friday, March 4, 2022
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

It should come as no surprise that the Arabs and their leadership are divided on the issue of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Citing the expansion of NATO along Russia’s western borders,  friends of the Russian Federation claim that the cause of the problem was the unceasing pressure of NATO moving into countries adjacent to Mother Russia. Defenders of Russia further claim that Western pressure, for example, on the issue of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, displayed hostility towards Russia’s economic security.

On the other hand, 141 countries in a UN General Assembly voted to censure Russia for its belligerent behavior and for the mounting casualties during the week-long assault. Syria voted against the resolution and Algeria, Iraq, and Sudan abstained. Many reasons were given by speakers and commentators, most notably the breech of international law, the violation of territorial sovereignty, and the provocative behavior of President Vladimir Putin who has become a lightning rod of controversy among critics who have decried his use of force to resolve conflict.

As Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute noted, “Kuwait was the only Arab country on a list of more than 80 nations to co-sponsor a UN Security Council resolution to hold Russia accountable for its aggression against Ukraine.” Before any UN actions were taken though, Lebanon was the only Arab country that issued an official condemnation of Russian behavior. She further pointed out that “The UAE, the only Arab country to hold a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, abstained twice on votes at the Council — on Feb. 25 to hold Russia accountable for its aggression against Ukraine and demand Moscow withdraw its troops, and again on Feb. 27 to hold an emergency session of the General Assembly to discuss the situation in Ukraine.”

Reviewing the UAE’s mixed and tepid response, a retired US ambassador said that the US will be counting its friends in the coming months, taking note of those who have come up short in supporting Ukraine. The Emirati leadership, however, feels that the US’s response to the Houthi missiles launched against Abu Dhabi was inadequate and not as intense as it wanted, for example, in at least restoring the Houthis to the terrorist list.

Other Arab states as well as a number of social media posts highlighted a disproportionate Western reaction to Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine, considering the unmatched degree of outcry and effective response to the continued expansion of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and especially to its recent hostilities towards Gaza. Among the Arab governments, Syria was most vocal in its support of Russia. Assad’s Putin-friendly media heaped scorn on the West for its colonial and abusive treatment of Russia, which found very little support among Syrians unaffiliated with the regime, according to Axios.

The consequences of the conflict for Lebanon, however, go beyond diplomacy and are severe on two counts: rising costs for energy and wheat, and concern for citizens caught up in the conflict in Ukraine. As Amin Salam, the Minister of Economy and Trade indicated, “The war in Ukraine has forced the Lebanese state to consider stepping in for the first time in three decades to buy millions of dollars a month of wheat as they seek alternatives to Ukrainian and Russian markets given the ongoing crisis. There is no capacity at the central bank to pay higher prices. It’s now subsidizing wheat at a cost of $390 or $400 a ton, but if international prices increase to $500 a ton then the central bank’s costs increase because it subsidizes wheat 100%.”

This means that at current prices, Lebanon’s central bank is spending around $20 million a month. Customs figures show that in 2020, Lebanon imported 81 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine and 15 per cent from Russia. Salam said that he hoped that the US and others would provide up to $20 million to help Lebanon stockpile its wheat reserves. He said he hoped to reduce the price of bread if a foreign country stepped in to support Lebanon’s food security. “We want prices to go down or remain stable. If they go up, it’ll be a disaster.”

At the end of the civil war, responsibility over wheat imports was taken away from the private sector and became a government function. That change, alongside the destruction of the storage silos from the Beirut Port explosion, leave the Lebanese with great uncertainty in their near term. As Al-Monitor wrote, “Wheat is the only product that is still 100% subsidized by the Central Bank at 1,515 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, while the parallel market rate ranges between 20,000 and 21,000 pounds to the dollar. There are concerns about the Central Bank no longer subsidizing wheat in the event of an increase in wheat prices globally, which may raise the local price of bread even more.” This would be catastrophic for families who rely on subsidized wheat as their main staple.

This situation is similar to the scarcity caused by the loss of fuel subsidies. Caught between rising costs and hoarding, all types of fuels became so expensive that farmers cannot use their water pumps for irrigation, bakers have no gas for their ovens, and small industrial shops and buildings cannot operate their generators. Considering the impact of a compounded fuel and wheat shortage, a Fcrisis-ridden Lebanese could plunge even further into an already unfathomable poverty, not only in terms of their pocketbooks but their spirit as well.