Bringing an end to the Ukraine war will help bring back wheat, corn, and sunflower oil from Ukraine and Russia to the market. This will help lower inflation and, in turn, help US President Joe Biden’s re-election chances.
Even if Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Supreme Leader Xi Jinping were to attend the G20 meeting in Delhi and have a chance to hobnob with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines, such a meeting would not have produced an end to the ongoing war in Ukraine. But the weather phenomenon in the South Pacific near the South American coast called El Nino could do just that.
The Ukraine war is essentially about downgrading Russia as a global power. Russia has its all-season warm-water naval base in Crimea, historically a vital part of Russia and attached to Ukraine for the first time in 1954 by the then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and different parts of the Union became independent states, Crimea remained a part of Ukraine. Since Ukraine remained firmly within the Russian orbit, this did not matter. But when, in 2014, a pro-West government took office in Kiev following the Maidan Revolution, Russia annexed Crimea.
The West poured arms and money into Ukraine — the then-US vice president Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, got to become a director on a Ukrainian oil company board because of geopolitical manoeuvring, not his specialised knowledge of oil and energy markets. The US continued to arm Ukraine all through the Trump presidency as well. Now, the land route to Crimea for Russia runs through eastern Ukraine. If Kiev were to join the US-led military alliance NATO, Russia’s access to its warm-water naval base as well as warm-water ports would turn insecure. So Russia was dead against Ukraine joining the military bloc.
When these warnings went unheeded, Russian forces moved into Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The Ukrainian people are heirs to the heroic resistance of the Soviet people and their armed forces to the German invasion during World War II and were not prepared to meekly accept the foreign occupation of their land. They decided to fight back. This gave the US and its allies a golden opportunity to fight a war of attrition against Russia, in which the West was obliged only to deploy funds and weapons, while it fell to Ukraine to do the actual fighting and bear the inevitable casualties of war. So long as Ukrainians are willing to fight, the US and its Western allies have a free pass to force Russia to deplete its arsenal and suffer loss of soldiers and economic distress, by means of the simple expedience of plying Ukraine with weapons and political support.
The longer the war continues, the longer the drain of Russian resources will continue, and the greater will be its dependence on China and even on a country like North Korea or Iran for munitions or drones. This dependence would degrade Russia as a centre of global power — or so goes the West’s hope.
India would not like to see Russia degraded as a global power, leading to a bipolar world in which its northern neighbour, which promotes hostilities along India’s border and in its neighbourhood, becomes one pole of that bipolar global hegemony. Hence its refusal to condemn Russia or back NATO in its sanctions against Russia.
Russia is not going to end the war without Ukraine accepting neutrality vis-à-vis NATO and the world accepting its authority over Crimea and the land route through eastern Ukraine to Crimea. Ukrainian patriotism and resolve to defend their country remain unflagging. A few billion dollars of aid to sustain the war is small change, producing as loud a bang for every buck spent as any member of NATO could hope for. Sure, the war feeds global uncertainty and inflation, forces countries to keep interest rates elevated, and throttles global growth. But then, what is a little collateral damage when the excoriation of Russian power can be achieved merely by spending money without putting a single Western soldier at risk?
In this situation, how can a little jaw-jaw among G20 leaders end the war in Ukraine? If diplomacy cannot end the war, what could? Inflation could, especially in 2024, when Biden faces off against Trump for re-election. Enter El Nino.
In the normal course, trade winds from South America’s western coast move to Asia during the summer, which, in the southern hemisphere, peaks in December. That movement of the moisture-laden wind, pushing warm water towards Asia, causes cold water to rush into the space vacated by the warm water. El Nino disrupts this normal oscillation, retaining the warm water close to South America’s Pacific coast. This tends to cause drought in Asia and Africa, as well as in North America, and excess rain in the southern parts of the US.
This is a strong El Nino year. The sub-normal and uneven monsoon over India is a result of that. It has already hit the wheat crop and forced India to ban the export of rice. Right now, food prices are down across the world as compared to a year ago. However, El Nino is raising the expectation of higher cereal prices. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) expects cereal production to be on par with that in 2021 this year. However, if trade in cereals is disrupted, output from India is withheld because of domestic shortages, and the harvest of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil from Ukraine and Russia is taken out of global availability because of the Ukraine war and sanctions, food prices could go up.
The US economy refuses to slow down and continues to register strong growth, with unemployment at a historically low 3.5 percent. This means that any little supply disruption can trigger inflation. Energy prices are climbing thanks to sustained production cuts by Saudi Arabia and Russia, despite lower demand from a slowing China. The US strategic reserves were run down during the midterm elections in 2022. If, in 2024, energy prices spike and food prices also go up, the cost of living crisis would dominate the election campaign in the US.
Americans do not credit Biden with sound management of the economy, despite solid achievements in industrial policy that will make a difference to US manufacturing prospects in the medium term. So, it would be disastrous for the Biden campaign if inflation were to go up sharply next year.
The leader of the free world does not have much control over the southern oscillation and associated weather changes. But what he can do is put an end to the war in Ukraine simply by stopping the relentless arming and aiding of Ukrainian forces. That would take out one major source of inflation, easing the strain on his re-election campaign.
Will degrading Russia take precedence over getting re-elected for President Biden? Unlikely. Hence the peacemaking power of El Nino.