The Russia-Ukraine War underscores the intricacies of a fading global world order, in which several actors aspire to position themselves in the new order that has yet to take form. Complex international relations are not unprecedented, but matters as they are now have brought the world to a new tipping point. The balance of power between the main actors and superpowers is shifting, with interactions between them becoming increasingly intense. Current significant interdependencies between these actors also make them vulnerable to any potential disruption to the status quo, thereby complicating their decision-making processes. Upsetting this interdependence would likely exact a heavy toll on all parties, but this is where non-state actors such as international corporations surface as key players in this crisis. Production and consumption patterns dependent on transcontinental supply chains are now an essential determining factor in foreign policy. Trade, communication, media, and cryptocurrency have also expanded to the realm of cyberspace, a place where countries and banks have little power or supervision over transactions. Though the current situation requires developing new mechanisms to regulate this space, both corporations and tech giants continue to fight over how to best manage cyberspace.
Observers are now anticipating the shape of the new world order and balance of power between its key actors. Theories of transformation posit that unpredictable and highly influential developments often manifest between the collapse of an old system and the emergence of a new one. As such, many analysts have attached great importance to the impact that the Russia-Ukraine War will have on the current world order and its balance of power. While the war continues to unfold, with the possibility for more radical military and political developments to come, one could argue that the conflict will not result in a major shake-up to the present status quo. Rather, some believe that the war could lead to a stronger, more unified Western bloc in Europe without any major strategic gains for Russia. China and India’s support for Russia will likely prevent the tables from turning against the latter, even though economic and political sanctions have weakened it. Unsurprisingly, arms companies could be the biggest winner from these tensions in Europe due to fears of further Russian military interventions westward.
Geography vs. Globalization
Russian discourse on the justification for its military intervention focused solely on geopolitics and the extent to which the situation in Ukraine could affect Russia’s national security. Russian President Vladimir Putin does not favor direct confrontation with the US, despite his clear animosity towards the latter’s aggressive unilateral actions, as heard in his famous 2007 Munich Speech. However, it could be argued that the current intervention in Ukraine aligns with Russia’s historical policy of surrounding itself with buffer zones against Western threats, a strategy employed during both the imperial and Soviet eras. Russia would have reasonable concerns in this regard, as Eastern Europe’s flat terrain allows for armed forces to move swiftly from west to east, and vice versa.
Despite its independence from the Soviet bloc, Ukraine has always been important to Russia for several reasons. At the end of the Cold War, the former Soviet states and NATO attempted to arrive at some sort of agreement regarding Ukraine that would satisfy all parties. Russia understood that it had received guarantees from NATO that the latter would not expand eastward following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. As for Ukraine, it relied on assurances that NATO would preserve its independence and land after it had given up its nuclear weapons. Historians of this era noted that the agreement was limited to security cooperation with East European countries at the time, not NATO membership for those countries, which was acceptable to all parties, including Russia.
Then-US President Bill Clinton reneged on this agreement and added some Eastern Europe countries to NATO in a bid to bolster his domestic popularity. Ukraine was not included in this membership drive, but NATO promised to consider its potential membership status in the future. Its status, however, remained pending in the absence of any clear agreement that could allay Russian fears, satisfy Ukrainian aspirations, and ensure regional stability. Hence, analysts have expected to see the current conflict erupt sooner or later, as the West continuously ignored Russian concerns on the matter.
The "classical" military intervention in Ukraine was, according to Russia, part of a strategy to settle a chaotic situation in a neighboring country that threatened Russia’s national security. Actors in this geographical area were reluctant to reach agreement over these issues that gave Russia cause for concern, and thus conflict ensued. As the war rages, the current situation on the ground indicates that Russia is not ready to enter into a military confrontation outside of Ukraine. Military analyses noted that Russia apparently anticipated a swift and decisive military intervention and did not expect any resistance to prolong its intervention. Russia did not mobilize enough troops to take full control of Ukraine, hinting that it is also not prepared to engage in a larger confrontation.
Rather than military retaliation, the West has opted to use sanctions as a weapon. They have chosen to employ the economic interdependence of globalization, the dominance of the US dollar on international banking transactions, as well as Russia’s imports of Western technological products (such as spare parts for aircrafts) to raise the cost of war for Russia. NATO leaders have repeatedly stated, both before and after the onset of the war, that Ukraine is not a member of the alliance. Thus, NATO is not obligated to defend it, and will not engage with Russia militarily on its behalf, despite some pledges to help Ukraine defend itself. In light of this fact, the US has also refused Ukraine’s demands for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine and provide it with aircraft, which would ultimately set off a confrontation between Moscow and NATO forces. On the other hand, Western leaders constantly reiterate their commitment to defend member states near the conflict zone, such as the Baltic states and Poland. As such, if Russian forces move in their direction, then the situation would alter completely.
Implications for Europe
It is highly unlikely that the crisis in Ukraine will escalate to an all-out third world war that demolishes European regional security structures. The assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the complex net of alliances and counter-alliances dragged European powers into a full-fledged clash that led to the collapse of the entire world order. This occurred in spite of statements made by all leaders at the time that they were not willing to enter into any war with one another. While this scenario is again possible, analysts believe it more likely that the Russia-Ukraine War will further polarize Russia and the West, or that a new "Iron Curtain" will once again divide the continent.
Come what may, Russia will now face a more unified and wary Western bloc, as the Russia-Ukraine War has engendered enhanced cohesion among transatlantic allies, relations which had soured during the Trump administration. Russia’s actions have also revived a deteriorating NATO, which French President Emmanuel Macron recently described as "brain dead." Perhaps the biggest surprise was the rapid response and unity demonstrated by the European Union, which managed to balance the interests of its member states and craft a unified vision and stance against Russia. On the other hand, the war has prompted some Eastern European countries, such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, to fast-track their procedures for joining the EU.
As for the Baltic states, opinion polls show that more people in Norway and Sweden support the idea of joining NATO. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited several Baltic NATO members to assure them that the transatlantic alliance is committed to protecting them. These countries believe that Russia, given its history, will not stop at Ukraine, and will at least try to encircle the Baltic states and isolate them from the rest of Europe. Russia would likely do this through Belarus, given the latest agreement between the two countries. In that event, Baltic states would be held hostage much like West Berlin was during the Cold War.
Amid mounting fears towards Russia and waning trust in its promise to respect the borders of its European neighbors, the current war marks an end to the approach European countries have pursued since the Cold War. Europe’s policy vis-à-vis Russia focused on economic/trade relations and shared interests with Russia to avoid the threat of new confrontations. Germany was a pioneer in this regard, as former Chancellor Angela Merkel was always keen on communicating with Russia despite disagreements. Germany also increased its energy dependence on Russia by phasing out nuclear power and commissioning projects to transfer Russian natural gas directly to Germany. In this context, Germany’s reversal on its amicable position with Moscow was surprising and signaled the EU’s changing attitudes towards Russia. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the immediate halt of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline shortly after Russia’s invasion. This decision was then followed by allocating larger funds to military spending, citing the need for improved European capabilities to ensure peace and security on the continent.
No matter which way the war goes, Russia will still have to deal with future challenges related to its relations with Ukraine. Given its military superiority, Russia might be able to control Ukrainian leadership; however, the war will leave deep, lasting scars. The robust Ukrainian resistance has proved without a doubt that the Ukrainian people are determined to preserve their identity and autonomy under the banner of an independent, sovereign state and leaders of their choosing. As such, long-term stability is improbable without an agreement that takes these factors into account.
The longer the war continues, the higher the casualties and financial losses, and the harder it will be to reach an agreement. Russia will unlikely bear the costs of reconstruction, and so Ukraine will have to rely on the West for support after the war.
All of these dynamics can be seen reflected in Russia’s relations with neighboring Central Asian countries, which have not voiced any objection to the former’s intervention in Ukraine. It was noteworthy, however, to see that Kazakhstan reportedly rejected a request from Russia to send its troops into this war. As smaller countries on the border of a great power, Central Asian states dread the possibility of Russian expansion across their borders. They have their own economic and political pressures to contend with, which often break out in the form of protests as seen across Kazakhstan and Belarus, a powerful Russian ally near the West. In this regard, Russia needs to develop new approaches to ensure the stability of its long-term relations and national security with neighboring countries.
Russia has always branded itself as a European power, even though most of its lands stretch over a vast area of the Asian continent. Historically the Russian oligarchy has always been Western-oriented. This is still the case in modern times, as rich Russians like to travel to the West and own assets, properties, and luxury yachts in Europe, making them easy targets for sanctions. As such, Europe can deal a symbolic blow against Russia through a cultural boycott that could follow these various forms of sanctions.
Despite this, Russia has economic and political alternatives in Asia, chiefly its partnership with China. China will likely accommodate a large portion of Russian exports previously sent to Europe, thereby replacing the former’s imports from the West. Though alliance between Beijing and Moscow is still unclear, it should consolidate within the near term. China did not criticize Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and acknowledged that it understood the latter’s motives in doing so. However, it also did not explicitly support it, nor veto the UN Security Council’s resolution to condemn the intervention; instead, it abstained from voting. Official Chinese media outlets are banned from describing the military intervention in Ukraine as a war. On the other hand, during his meeting with Scholz and Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of de-escalation, putting an end to casualties, and supporting all efforts to reach a peaceful resolution through dialogue. It remains unclear whether China will play any part in this crisis behind the scenes. Though many would like to see China take a more active role, this is clearly something China does not want to consider.
One might surmise that the current state of affairs is not the crisis President Xi had wished to see dominating international headlines. On one hand, he does not want to weaken his ties with Russia, as he will need the latter to counter Western powers as they prepare to contain China and stifle its ascendence. On the other hand, he also does not want his country to appear supportive of any nation that violates state sovereignty, a core concept for China. While China weighs its options, sanctions will make Russia more reliant on it, allowing it to reap many strategic and economic benefits. However, if the world continues to isolate Russia further, then the returns of China’s alliance with it would certainly diminish as well.
Until European countries are able to scale up their own military capabilities, the US will direct a huge portion of its forces to Europe, thus spreading itself too thin to defend its interests in Asia. Western collaboration to counter Russia in Europe will not reinforce US capabilities in countering China in Asia. Politically speaking, the US did not successfully utilize its current Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) partnership against Russia. India, one member of QUAD, has taken a different stance on Russia from its new allies for several reasons, namely its historical relations with Russia and its great reliance on Russian weaponry. India still supports QUAD’s objectives of containing China, but its positions towards Russia will weaken trust among the other QUAD members (the US, Australia, and Japan). With China and India on Russia’s side in Asia, the global power balance will not turn against it. In any event, the renewed Western alliance will also not support the US in standing up to China in the near future.
In conclusion, commercial and economic interdependence have made the Russia-Ukraine War more consequential to global security and stability. While the precise impact of sanctions might be difficult to forecast, Russia will definitely be effected by them, as they will weaken its economy and thus its capabilities to project power beyond its borders. However, it is highly unlikely that these sanctions will lead to a collapse of the current Russian state similar to the downfall of the USSR. The main reason for this is because the Russian regime has already prepared for these sanctions by growing closer with its Asian allies. The war’s repercussions will heighten uncertainty, instability, and insecurity worldwide, as well as burden all the countries facing it head-on. But all of this cannot compare with the sheer humanitarian, financial, and moral losses suffered by the Ukrainian people, who will take several years to recover from this most tragic and painful event.