From The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)
Europe is faced with yet another crisis that reminds of the horrors of the two world wars. The consequences of the war ravaging the Eastern part of the European continent, will not be limited only to the region, but will have ramifications on the rest of the world as well.
Russia started the war with Ukraine after a number of phases of oscillations and conflicts in their relations since the fall of the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1990. Relations between the two countries culminated at various levels and erupted with the Russian military intervention.
Russian tanks have reached the suburbs of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. The scenes remind of the developments in the sixties of the twentieth century, when the Soviet tanks entered Prague and crushed the “Prague spring.”
It is important to emphasize that this is not a traditional war, nor a conflict between two states over disputed territory, nor a pre-election propaganda, but a war of an entirely different kind. This war is a first step on the path to establishment of a new order in international relations, that is a new division of spheres of influence at the global level.
In fact, this war is not the first episode on that path, as it was preceded by similar episodes in Georgia- – Abkhazia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, Syria in 2015, Libya in 2019, Belarus in 2020, Kazakhstan in 2022, etc.
Russia tests the US and the West in Ukraine
Ukraine is a new episode. However, it will not be the first nor the last if the Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in this battle on the path to transformation of international relations, within which major geopolitical changes are expected to take place on the European continent, as well as in Asia and, even, the entire world. The developments in Ukraine represent the beginning of the end of the existing world order, which was a result of the victory of the US-led Western block over the USSR-led East-bloc in the early nineties of the twentieth century.
Put succinctly, the current developments are a prelude to the emergence of a new international order. It will seemingly have three poles (US – Russia – China), while practically only two poles, as was the case in the past. The US and its western allies are on one side, while Russia, China and their eastern allies on the other. Russia will not be satisfied just with the annexation of Ukraine, but will subsequently work on annexation of Moldova and directly put pressure on the Baltic states, as well as on the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, etc. Russia will strive to convince the former socialist states that NATO cannot protect them, as is evident in the case of Ukraine.
The true goals of this war transcend Ukraine. In other words, what is happening is not just a military invasion of another country, but a serious Russian military enterprise to retailor the Russian sphere of interest, which would be recognized by NATO, and establish a new security structure along the demarcation line between Russia and NATO based on written guarantees. Specifically, if Putin’s project succeeds, the world will be faced with a transition era of complete chaos and fierce conflicts at the international level, all until the new order is officially validated and verified by the West.
Is Ukraine paying a price for its wrong policy and excessive expectations from NATO and US?
Ukraine is paying the praise for naivety of the young President Volodymyr Zelensky (without diminishing his patriotic fervor and heroic resistance), who has fallen a victim of empty promises of the Western and US officials made prior to the breakout of military conflict. The Ukrainian leadership ignored some important facts in its relations with Russia. Specifically, the opinion of the Ukrainian population of which Russians amount to 17%, particularly in the East part of the country, as well as the effects of historic influence of the Soviet period in which Ukraine was a part of the USSR, the requirements and concerns of the neighboring Russia as a superpower and, finally, the imperial ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin with respect to revival of the USSR era.
The war is raging, polarization will occur, the divisions in international relations will become deeper, whereas it is very difficult and even impossible to go a step backward. Particularly as there are the factors and an ambience that facilitate establishment of a bipolar world order, one of the most important being the presence of strong president Putin with totalitarian tendencies, an imperial dream and security-intelligence background.
Gulf states neutral in Ukraine crisis
Traditional US allies in the Gulf and the Middle East generally aspire to maintain good energy and geopolitical relations with Russia.
Early this year the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. In the eve of the meeting of the UN Security Council dedicated to the Ukraine crises, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called his UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to underline “the importance of building a strong international response to support Ukrainian sovereignty through the UN Security Council.” However, on 27 February 2022, that is when the time to vote on Resolution 2623 came, the UAE ignored the appeals of Washington and sided with China and India, that is abstained from voting, as an expression of the frustration of the UAE over the US Policy .
The stance of the UAE was that the positioning could lead to an even bigger violence and that in the case of Ukraine crisis their priorities are to encourage the parties to resort to diplomacy and negotiate a political solution that would end the crisis.
Just like other Gulf states, the UAE also aspires to have a bigger political role in the regional and international arena, preserve important security, economic and military relations with Washington, but also its growing connections with Moscow. This forces the Gulf countries to establish a difficult balance in the relations between the US and Russia. While the world swiftly condemned the Russian military invasion of its smaller neighbor, Saudi Arabia, Bahrein and Oman predominantly remained silent on the issue, while Kuwait and Qatar refrained from direct criticism of Moscow and only condemned the violence. As the key stakeholders on energy markets, all countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) cultivate close relations with Russia in the area of energy. Furthermore, for years already Riyadh and Moscow have been leading the OPEC Plus alliance, where their jointly control the production quotas in order to achieve market and price stability.
On 28 February 2022, one day after the vote, Russia supported the UAE in the UN Security Council on adoption of Resolution 2624 , extending the arms embargo to the Yemen-based Houthi movement. This indicates a direct connection between the Russian support of Resolution 2624 and the decision of the UAE to abstain from voting the day before when the UN Security Council voted on the Resolution on Ukraine. In January 2021, Russia explicitly supported the Houthi movement in Yemen, which is at war with Saudi Arabia and the Emirate, and the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov stated in Riyadh that “designating the Houthi group as a terrorist organization would exclude it from the political solution in Yemen, and described such a move as an attempt to thwart the political process in Yemen.”
China’s strategic gains from the Russian war against Ukraine
On 24 February 1972, US President Richard Nixon visited China with an intent to create an alliance between the US and China with the aim of “surrounding” and weakening the Soviet Union in the process of the change of structure of the global order. Fifty years later to the day, on 24 February 2022, the Russian military attacked Ukraine with the silent support of China.
China has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In fact, it abstained from condemning the invasion in the UN Security Council, and subsequently at the vote in the UN General Assembly. China also did not welcome the economic sanctions of the West introduced against Russia because of its military invasion of Ukraine. These stances clearly show that China supports Russia in its current war policy. China is considered a winner in this war, now and in the future. China’s strategic gains from this ware include different levels:
Russia launched the war against Ukraine on 24 February 2022 under the pretext of defending its national security and stopping the enlargement of NATO. This war violates international conventions, particularly UN laws, as it does not fall under the concept of preemptive war. Lack of clear opposition of China to the war indicates that China has understanding for Russian national security concerns. Hence, in the future, China could find itself in a similar situation if it becomes necessary for it to intervene in neighboring countries for the sake of defense of its national security, that is to conduct a preemptive war.
One of the major requests regarding ending the current war is the insisting by Russia on recognition of the annexation of Crimea by Ukraine. In order words, the return of Russian territories, which under specific historic conditions were annexed to Ukraine in the fifties of the last century, as Crimea was considered Russian territory throughout the history. Such explanation is sufficient for China to put back, in the future, Taiwan under its constitutional-legal order, and if necessary use force in the process.
China realized that in the future it could become a target of NATO, just as is the case with Russia in the present times. The military doctrine of the Alliance designates Moscow as an adversary, not alleged by real adversary. That is why the Alliance spreads and relocates its advanced weapons, such as the rocket shield, from Spain to Rumania and Poland, for the purposes of interception of Russian ballistic and nuclear projectiles.
China reckons that in the future the Alliance could spread to Asia, if it finds an opportunity to do so. Countries such as Japan and Korea have the status of Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA) .
China looks with concern on the increasing presence of US military basis and cooperation between the US and these two countries.
Over time, relations between China and Russia evolved from relations of partners to relations of allies. In the past twenty years, the relations between Moscow and Beijing experiences an exceptional boom and the mistrust that prevailed in their relations during the period of the Soviet Union no longer exists. In the past ten years and particularly since China sided with Russia after the introduction of international sanctions in 2014 because of the annexation of Crimea, the relations recorded a major increase and gradual transition from a strong partnership to the “alliance” concept.
One of the most prominent testimonies of the alliance between Russia and China is that the Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have met 37 times in the past twenty years, which is a record in international relations, probably unparalleled among leaders of other countries. At the same time, the two countries take the same positions in international organizations, and particularly in the UN Security Council, where they have the right of veto. In such a way, the Russian-Chinese coordination has become a balance to the traditional US-British coordination, which has been in place ever since the inception of the United Nations.
China has a historic opportunity to deepen its economic relations and interests with Russia, as the largest country in the world that has significant agricultural and natural resources, mineral resources and energy. In case of introduction of an oil embargo on Russia, China has the capacity to import all the oil and gas that Russia exports to the EU and US. In 2021, the trade relations between Russia and China recorded growth of more than 35%, which amounts to 140 billion dollars. It is expected that the level of trade in goods will reach the level of 200 billion dollars in 2024. Hence, in the next two years China will become the biggest partner of Russia and replace the EU.
China is aware of the plans of the West. Hence, after the insisting on enlargement of NATO towards the East, Beijing managed to make its biggest strategic achievement, which is to win Russia to its side on the military plan, and then economically link it with China’s economy.
In general, China has realized that it will be the next target of the West, and particularly the US, because of the competition for global leadership. As a result, it sees the current war in Ukraine as a historic opportunity to achieve its strategic goals.
Where does Turkey stand in the new Cold War?
Although in the Turkish media there is broad support to the Ukrainian people, the anti-West sentiments are evident in the stances of all political parties, despite the fact that the country has been a NATO member since 1952.
There is a feeling of mistrust in the relations between Turkey and Russia. Turkey is not thrilled by the Russian policy. Namely, Russia has broadened its influence in the Caucasus and is now threating with the control of the northern part of the Black Sea. Historically, Turkey and Russia were rivals and even fought on opposite sides in the conflicts in Libya and Syria.
Turkey is aware that its actions in the northern part of Syria are subject to Putin’s approval. There are also the economic relations that include Russian gas, Russian tourism and Russian investments. The spokesperson of the Turkish President Ibrahim Kalin stated that Turkey does not plan to join the sanctions against Russia in order to preserve the close political and trade relations. “We have to act bearing in mind the priorities of our country,” Kalin said in a TV interview. “There has to be a side capable to negotiate with Russia. Who will talk with Russia if everyone is destroying the bridges? We do not plan to introduce sanctions so that this channel can remain open.”
EU surprised and unprepared
Prior to the Russian military invasion, the Ukraine crisis exposed major differences in the stances of Western countries with respect to relations with Russia and revealed a rift in the Western alliance at the time when the crisis culminated. The Ukraine crisis, which has been escalating in the heart Europe ever since the end of the Cold War and increasingly acutely since 2014, is a herald of a turning point in the history of the continent. Effects of the crisis, as it proceeds from one phase to another, indicate that it will have a role in the far-reaching changes in the structure of international relations, as it is the first major war in Europe since 1845. Truth be told, for the Europeans the war in Croatia (1991-1995), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995) and Kosovo (1999) was of local character. The Ukraine crisis is the first European war after 75 years in which one country attacks another country and strives to occupy it and remove its legally elected political leadership. Before 24 February 2022, the prevailing opinion was that things of the kind could happen only in the Middle East, or maybe in Asia and Africa, but definitely not in Europe. This has changed now and will probably have major reflections on the relations within the EU, and particularly between its two main pillars- Germany and France, the “defeated” and a “winner” in World War 2, respectively.
Maybe the most important change triggered by the Ukraine crisis is the decision of Germany to rearm itself. Namely, the German Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated in the Bundestag of 27 February 2022 that the country will appropriate 100 billion Euros for arming of the German military (Bundeswehr) and increase the defense appropriations to 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Germany, which implies that from this year Germany will spend around 85 billion dollars on defense. This means that Germany will be ranked third in the world, right after the US (770 billions), China (254 billions) and before Russia (61 billions). This decision constitutes a radical twist in the German and Western policy that had prevailed since the end of World War II and included restrictions on the arming of Germany, which had pushed Europe into three large wars in less than one century (war with France from 1870, World War I and World War II). This decision will have significant ramifications on the relations within the EU and broader area, because it changes the balance of forces on the “old continent” and threatens a return to policy of power, which had marked its modern history.
The Ukraine crisis has caused a major blow to the Russian-German partnership, which commenced during the tenure of the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (1998 – 2005) and developed during the rule of Angela Merkel (2005 -2021). In fact, this is one of the major consequences of the crisis. Nowadays, Germans believe that by refusing to talk about the requests of Moscow in relation to the membership of Ukraine in NATO and to give security guarantees, Washington did not leave Russia with any other option but to conduct a military invasion.
In fact, the German-Russian partnership is the main victim of the war. The partnership was based on import of Russian energy and export of German technology and goods. Over the past years, Washington tried to “break” this equation, which provides for development of closer relations between Moscow and Berlin at the cost of relations with Washington, but without major success. Over the past years, having decided to close its nuclear power plants and coal-based energy production within the framework of its obligations stemming from the Paris climate agreement from 2015, Germany increased its dependency on the Russian gas and resisted all the attempts by Washington to stop the construction of Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which supplies gas directly from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea.
The Ukraine crisis has changed all the plans made so far and gave a major blow not just to the pipeline, as Berlin has already announced freezing of the project despite the finalization of the 12-billion-dollar construction works, but also to the Moscow-Berlin axis.
Germany, which had agreed to introduce strongest sanctions to Russia after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, now embarks on a search for alternatives to the Russian gas. Paradoxically enough, the US gas, whose sale in Europe has already increased by 15% in the last two months, will be one of the possible alternatives.
Through the Ukraine crises, the US achieved one of its most important strategic goals in Europe, which was to turn Germany against Russia, and focus on opposing its most important threat in the Indo-Pacific region (China).
So far, the stance of the French government has been that it is necessary to focus on diplomatic methods to reduce the escalation and tensions regarding Ukraine, which the French president articulated by saying, “we have to preserve all diplomatic channels so that Russia would return to the negotiating table.” French President Emmanuel Macron is the only Western leader who is in regular contact with Putin. The stance of the French government is succinct and clear: “We stand by Ukraine, but do not want to enter into conflict with Russia.” The war on Ukraine has given new momentum to Emmanuel Macron’s push to make the European Union more autonomous. However, European leaders still have to clarify what that means in practice. French politician Pascal Lamy, former World Trade Organization Director-General and ex-European commissioner, said crises such as the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine have accelerated Europe’s path toward that goal, which has been a long-standing French aim.
What response does NATO have in case of escalation?
The war that Russia is waging against Ukraine reveals an important and very worrying fact. Specifically, the inability of the West to militarily confront Russia, except in case of use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, while the economic sanctions have yielded no significant influence on the Russian military and economic infrastructure, they have a reflexive effect on the political and economic circumstances within the alliance.
After four weeks of the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine, which is an illegal war and ever enters in the category of aggression on a sovereign state, despite all the justifications offered by Russia how it is defending its national security, it is becoming clear that advance weapons (i.e. military power) that dictate conduct in international relations.
NATO’s powerlessness and limited maneuver space became evident in front of the Russian military invasion. Firstly, there was talk about possible military intervention by NATO to protect a member that is a candidate for membership in the Alliance, and then such an option was rejected under the explanation that Ukraine is not a NATO member. In another attempt, there was talk of introduction of a no-fly zone, in order to prevent Russian aircrafts from attacking Ukrainian military forces, but this plan was also rejected under the pretext of avoiding a conflict with Russia, so that the third world war would not break out. The same explanation was used for the refusal to move Russian-made fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine.
In fact, this is not about ending a war. NATO has already waged many wars in the past. The list of wars includes the military intervention in Serbia in 1999, the war against terror in Afghanistan in 2002, the US military intervention in Iraq in 2003, the war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria in 2015, and then the intervention aimed to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. European forces led by France are present in Mali in Africa, which is thousands of kilometers away from Europe, under the pretext of protection of European security from terrorism.
This time, in the case of Ukraine, NATO currently does not have the strength to confront Russia in Europe, although it believes that the current war is a real threat to Europe because it is happening within the borders of Europe and directly threatens its security. With the exception of nuclear weapons, NATO currently does not have sufficient military power to confront Russian nonnuclear weapons, nor does it have sufficient weapons to confront Russia. Numerous military experts from the West admit that had NATO had sufficient military power to force Russia to withdraw from Ukraine it would have used it in the name of protection of international law in the Crimea crisis in 2014, and would not wait for the current war in Ukraine to do so.
NATO does not have enough military equipment, not at the level of national militaries nor at the level of presence of US military troops on the European continent. In example, despite the gravity of the situation on the European continent, there is still just one US aircraft carrier, Harry Truman, in the European waters. Specifically, in the vicinity of Italian waters in the Mediterranean Sea, and not in the Baltic Sea where the situation is very worrying. If the situation deteriorates and the war spills over to NATO member states, such as Poland or Rumania, NATO would settle with repelling the Russian forces, intercepting their aircrafts and projectiles, without attacking Russian forces on the Ukrainian territory.
NATO is not able to carry out a military siege of Russia for the purposes of ensuring compliance with the economic and financial sanctions imposed by the West. Russia is a large state that has three key elements for survival: energy, as it is among top global exporters of oil and gas, other mineral resources/raw materials and food. Namely, Russia is self-sustainable in this respect and can produce on its own food not just for its requirements but for export as well. In fact, Russia is considered an important element in the preservation of food stability in the world. The world is currently concerned by the increasingly high prices of grains, as well as the possible outbreak of famine and unrests in some African and Asian countries. Russia is self-sufficient in a number of industrial sector, starting from the defense sector to the medical and advanced technology sectors.
How to stop this war?
Currently, neither of the sides has an exit strategy. Putin cannot just return its military forces back home without a victory, and Zelensky cannot just hand over to Putin what he aspires to achieve by war. In the meantime, three strong mediators (presidents of France and Turkey, Macron and Erdogan, and the Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett) remain powerless.
There are wars in which both sides are losers. Nevertheless, Putin is convinced that the military invasion will reinstate Russia in the position of a major power. He is aware that he will have to pay a high for that at the national and international level because of the 5,532 sanctions introduced against Russia, half of them after the invasion on Ukraine. (Prior to 24 February 2022, 2,754 sanctions had been introduced against Russia, and in the days after the attack an additional 2,778 sanctions, bringing the total number of sanctions to 5.532). On the other side, Ukrainian President Zelensky believed that his path to the West is open, if not to NATO, then at least to the EU. However, the EU has told him that for the time being Ukraine does not meet the conditions for membership. Ukrainian leadership did not believe the warnings about the Russian military invasion and the enormous price that the Ukrainian people will pay.
Analysts believe that only an agreement under the auspices of the Unites States and China can stop the Russian advance. The question is whether the US can exert pressure on President Zelensky. An agreement would require a compromise, and a compromise would reveal that the West had forced a democratically elected government of Ukraine to yield to the dictate of a powerful state, specifically Russia -just like Arthur Neville Chamberlain did in Munich in 1938. However brutal it may sound, the history repeats itself?
- The views expressed in the article are of The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) and not that of PNI News