2022 – the year of the fanatics and the fed-up
2022 is going to be an interesting year. It should be the year when interest rates in the United States (US) start to rise, and, of course, COVID-19 is still with us. The following are the key flash points to watch out for:
Russia and Ukraine
According to most sources, Russia has about 170 000 troops near or on the border with Ukraine. With a lot of heavy equipment close to the border as well, invasion could happen at any time. US President Joe Biden has had two conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin on this issue, and issued stern warnings on the economic consequences for Russia if it invades, such is the nervousness in the West.
Why is Putin, the master chess player and strategist, ramping up tensions like this? There are many reasons. First, he likes to keep major Western countries off-balance. Escalating tensions on the Ukraine border and then de-escalating them when he gets the concessions he wants, achieves exactly this. No one in the West can afford to ignore Russia. More importantly, by forcing Biden to meet him and treat him like an equal, Putin ensures he’s seen as a world statesman and Russia as a world power. That plays very well to his audience back home and gets him much-needed support at a time when economic conditions aren’t good. Second, Putin generally wants some concession from the West on Ukraine. Any student of history knows that when Russia was invaded by Hitler, one of the main routes of invasion was through the Ukraine. Putin isn’t going to allow any repeat of that, unlikely as it might be. Russia sees this as an existential issue. He wants a neutral Ukraine, not part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), something the West won’t agree to. He therefore raises the temperature every so often to pressurise the West into making some concession in this regard. At the very least, Ukraine won’t be joining NATO in the foreseeable future.
Although full invasion is unlikely, with two armies facing each other across a very informal border, things can get out of control quickly. This will probably remain the most tense area in 2022.
The Economist recently ran a headline edition describing Taiwan potentially as the most dangerous place on earth. China claims that Taiwan belongs to it and sees it as a breakaway province that must “come back home”. The people of Taiwan want it to remain a sovereign state, although it isn’t recognised by most of the rest of the world. There’s little room for compromise, apart from the current tense status quo in which Taiwan doesn’t declare independence and China still talks about “one China”. Things have been getting more unstable recently, with many academics and even US generals starting to talk openly about a potential invasion.
While, again, invasion is highly unlikely this year, the temperature will remain hot, with the Chinese Air Force testing Taiwanese defences regularly by ramping up flights into its air-defence zone.
Israel and Iran
One must know the world is unstable when Israel and Iran are only item three on the flashpoint list! Things have been very tense here for a long time, with the two sides in a low level, behind-the-scenes shadow war. However, matters are now coming to a head with Iran now openly amassing a stockpile of enriched uranium that’s many times larger than permitted, including at least 17.7kg of material enriched to 60% purity – just below the level needed for a nuclear bomb.
This means that the clock is ticking, and at some point, if Iran doesn’t rejoin the JCPOA (the nuclear deal with the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), Israel will have to make a decision on taking more drastic action. Although crossing the nuclear threshold doesn’t mean Iran can immediately attack Israel as it still needs to obtain the technology to send the bomb on a missile, Israel is unlikely to take the chance and wait. As soon as that nuclear threshold is close to being crossed, it will probably act. It would prefer to act together with the US and not alone as an attack on Iran would stretch it to the limits of its capacity. That’s why it has delayed to this point. However, don’t expect it to last forever. As soon as Iran approaches the nuclear threshold, the tension will ratchet up dramatically.
There are some interesting elections scheduled this year. The French presidential elections take place in April, in which incumbent President Emmanuel Macron faces the traditional threat from the right wing in Marine Le Pen, but also this time from the far right in the form of Éric Zemmour. Things might go calmly, and Macron might have to run off against centrist Valérie Pécresse, but if Zemmour does well in the polls, it will portray a swing to the right in the heart of Europe. The election has the potential to increase tension in France if Zemmour does better than expected.
Then there’s an election in Hungary in April/May. Populist incumbent Viktor Orbán faces a real threat from a united opposition this time. It will be a close election for the first time in years in Hungary, and is unlikely to be a quiet affair.
Finally, Brazil faces an election in October. Current President Jair Bolsonaro, known by many as “the Trump of the tropics”, is lagging his main rival in the polls. If he loses, he might not go quietly and there might well be a Trump-style challenge to the election results. American democracy was shaken by Trump’s actions last January in refusing to concede defeat, and Brazil might face the same. The only difference is that the US’s democratic institutions (the courts, local governors, and electoral institutions) are vastly experienced and have been developed over hundreds of years. They were able to stand firm. Brazil’s institutions are less experienced as it is a far younger democracy. Things might get really uncertain in Brazil come October.
2022 promises to be an interesting year geopolitically. Overlay this with the fact that COVID-19 will soon have run for more than two years, mass exhaustion with all the restrictions – even if they are necessary for public health – and we have the scene set for an unpredictable, combustible year. A combination of unstable international politics and an angry population worldwide will make for some interesting developments in international affairs. The riots which broke out in the previously stable country of Kazakhstan as this story went to press, and which threatened the stability of the government, are a perfect example of this.
- Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.