The Ukrainian crisis is not going away; it’s here to stay. Despite official Russian emphatic withdrawal announcements, military maneuvers continue, new troops are pouring in. The Donbas region, where Ukrainians and the local Russian ethnic minority have fought for many months, is up in flames.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating tension proving that he doesn’t have what he wants yet.
Will he ever get it? If he retreats it’s a snub, if he invades, he would likely suffer heavy losses and could face a risky political backlash at home. Who is interested in helping him out of Russia by sacrificing Ukraine and EU interests? Some strategists believe Russia still tries to force Ukrainian peaceful surrender. But as Ukraine is now being backed in Europe and America will Putin ever get his way in Kyiv? And while waiting, without results, doesn’t he wear himself out?
Moscow looks painted against a wall.
Another option is on the table. Moscow basically declares victory and dampens the anxiety around Ukraine. This seems an unlikely scenario, but it would possibly be the most desirable for everybody.
Then, as in all crises, it is fitting that whoever steps back claims to be the winner. In an effective diplomatic move, there should be no losers, and everyone should go home thinking they are bringing home more.
In fact, Putin, could boast several feats from this crisis. He has destabilized Ukraine and put off the specter of Kyiv joining the insufferable NATO.
The increase in gas prices resulting from the crisis then brought nifty profit in his pockets, which, if it does not fully repay the costs of war exercises certainly does not leave him empty-handed.
Moreover, he left Europe frightened and proved that his blackmail on weak Western countries always works. So, he can beat his chest at home and return triumphant.
But even that, is it true glory? In America and Europe, many are not interested in bursting the balloon of Putinian pride. However, the Ukraine issue could be seen from other points of view as well.
A Kazak Twist
Before the crisis in early January in Kazakhstan, where Moscow seems to have hatched a coup d’état, the Americans and NATO seemed almost to want to turn a blind eye to Putin’s game and keep the Ukrainian issue quiet, willing to reach a compromise.
Without Russian military exercises, and without actually moving sufficient troops for an invasion, the Americans had already announced a state of alert. They ordered their nonessential diplomatic personnel to withdraw from the country, thus perhaps easing a Russian political offensive on Ukraine.
Washington maybe was wrong, didn’t pay keen attention, or had other priorities, and perhaps wanted to be conciliatory with Putin.
After Kazakhstan, however, American and European political rhetoric changed; Kazakhstan was an effectively neutral country with a government on good terms with Moscow, Beijing, and Washington. It was essential to American political and diplomatic efforts in the region partly because it prevented both Russia and China from breaking through seamlessly in Central Asia.
Its gas was a strategic resource in principle both for Europe, where it could be channeled through the Caspian Sea and then Turkey to Europe; and for China, where it could reach Beijing and Shanghai through the deserts of Xinjiang. Russia’s full control of Kazakhstan shifts the balance against China immediately after the pact of great friendship pronounced in Beijing just a couple of weeks ago. China doesn’t want a weak Russia, but perhaps it is not keen on a too strong Russia, either.
Kazakh gas could be a strategic alternative to Russian energy supplies. The lack of strategic alternatives to provisions coming from Siberia today is of course not pleasant news in China.
For Europe and America, the question is parallel. Suppose there is no alternative to Russian supplies even in the medium to long term. In that case, Russia holds excessive power of blackmail towards Europe. Its enlargement through Ukraine becomes dangerous news—almost attempts of unlimited westwards expansion against Europe, and the beginning of a second cold war in the old continent.
In this case, therefore, apart from the newfound peace that everyone wants in the short term, medium- to long-term preparation efforts are beginning on various fronts. NATO, which was, in fact, a moribund organization, has now been resurrected. Everyone understands and feels the need for it. Countries close to Russia, such as the Baltics, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, are considering reorganizing their defenses to cope with any future Russian aggression.
A few months ago, the same Ukraine looked like it could be sacrificed as the classic lamb to the Moscow wolf has now been filled with weapons and military advisers to prepare for possible aggression.
European countries such as Germany and France, which thought they were seeking their own political and defensive way against Russia and China compared to the US, now find themselves looking more to Washington. They objectively need political and military support to face Russia on one side and maybe tomorrow China as well. The path of buying and taming the Russian bear only with honey seems impossible. If it is with Moscow, perhaps it could be with China, too.
The logic has changed. So if Moscow uses the nineteenth-century mindset of power projection, military alliances, and flexing their muscles with coups successfully organized in half the world, then it is no longer enough to buy its favors with consumer goods. Nineteenth-century logic is also returning for Europe. A new space was opened in great style for America and NATO.
For gas and energy, if today 30% or 40% of energy supplies come from Russia and Russia is willing to use these supplies as political and strategic leverage, Europe must diversify.
All of this it’s old history. NATO was born at the end of the 1940s precisely to safeguard Western Europe from the projection of the Red Army. The search for oil and gas worldwide and even the use of Soviet energy itself began in the 1970s after the strategic blackmail of OPEC.
That is, today, historical forces beyond the will of governments in Berlin, Paris, or Washington have been set in motion. If Ukraine is lost to Moscow’s control, Russia gets closer to the European heartland. Germany has gained the most with the end of the Cold War. It recovered its unity, and it had two layers of buffers with Russia, one in NATO, like Poland, and one further east, like Ukraine. If Russia inches closer, its whole security outlook would change. Does it really want to give it up and bet on Putin? Besides easy emotional reactions to the idea of war in Ukraine, it is unlikely.
These movements extend from the Cold War that began in Asia to Europe as well. Of course, the term “second cold war” is improper, if not erroneous. The first cold war had different characteristics from today’s confrontation.
Now, there is an economic and commercial interconnection between Russia, China, and the rest of the world that was not there in the first cold war. Presently, there is an ideological vagueness, which was not there in the first cold war.
In the first Cold War, the communists wanted to export their ideological and economic system to the whole world, and so did the liberal countries. Today there is no such attempt to export their political and economic organization to the world. The current tensions are a mixture of nineteenth-century power issues and clashes in the full economic integration in a unitary yet delicate and not flawless commercial and financial system.
Above all, there is still significant confusion in the alliances. Even today, the European countries look at Washington with more interest than a couple of months ago, although they are certainly not bending to American logic.
Friends, not so
On the other hand, Russia and China are not fully aligned. In Kazakhstan, they had different goals.
Russia supplies weapons to India and Vietnam, a substantial part of a military alliance that America is strengthening in Asia in an anti-Chinese function. The Chinese do not want to be mixed up in a Ukrainian quagmire, and if they do not want a Russia that is too weak, they do not want a Russia that is too strong either.
The Europeans worry that America will decamp from the old Continent in its time of need or boss it to flounder in military quests with little meaning as it has in the Middle East over the past two decades.
But these differences in turn differ among themselves.
Russia and China historically fear being betrayed by one another, because both might expect to be sold out by the other to America in exchange for benefits large or small. On the other hand, the Europeans know that American “betrayal” will always be relatively minor, a bungling mistake, confusion, and beyond intention. But if it comes to fighting for Europe, America will somehow be there, even if it might leave more of a mess than it found.
It is difficult to compare differences, but indeed the Kazakh-Ukrainian experience on one side of the Atlantic thins out the differences. In contrast, on the Russian-Chinese side it deepens them.
Everything is in progress, there are no great certainties about how the situation will go.
In the old, cynical Europe the strength of rational Russian mind based on the ancient power principles is well known and has its appeal. Conversely, America split between the left, deep in political correctness woke, and the right, in love with its wacky trumpist supporters, seems incomprehensible. These differences between the dominant thought in America and the rest of the world are also proved by the split in the Catholic Church, cleaved in the US between right and left despite being the only unitary religion of the world.
That is, the logic that moves American domestic politics, be they right or wrong, become increasingly foreign to those of the rest of the world. Here Cold War 2 is a reality and moves according to ancient power logic, far from Trumpian demagogies or woke Cathar purity. Even before World War II and during the Cold War, America was divided, but the split reflected “European” divisions with or against fascism, with or against communism. These were global movements. Trump and woke are more American things that the world, especially Europe, has a hard time recognizing.
This still leads to new paradoxes. Internal American political logic isolates the USA from the rest of the world. But the world order, which pivots on the US, its “empire” needs America. On the other hand, US financial, commercial, technological and military projection makes the global empire essential to its very existence.
An Old Whiff
In this, Russia is also this for Europeans. It’s the charm of the old, although unpleasant, but understandable. And this could also apply to China, in its own surroundings. Japan, South Korea recognize the effort to order relations according to the old hierarchical system of Chinese centrality. Although maybe they really don’t want it, they understand it. Conversely, what does America really want besides saying no to China or Russia?
Still, to dig only superficially, with a fingernail, then one sees that this ancient order does not work because everything has changed, beyond easy comprehension. If America does not seem to know what to do today and in the medium term, its spasmodic, disordered projection towards the future appears more promising than the restoration of old spheres of influence.
Beyond thus the success or otherwise of the Ukraine campaign, Putin has set in motion mechanisms and forces that he had not perhaps budgeted for and could dominate global politics in the coming months and years. And it is unclear what impact this might have in Russian domestic politics itself.
All in all, like in the first Cold War the Eurasian continent is connected, and what happens on the west has reflexes on the east, and vice versa. The message for US partners in Asia is: Afghanistan was a tactical retreat, badly executed but it was no admission of defeat. The USA is not backing down.
The message for Beijing is: how can it avoid falling into a pitfall like Russia did? Short-term there is the easy old lesson of all bullies: do not threaten something that you can’t do or it will be too costly to do. This is especially true for authoritarian states, less so for democracies, like America.
The Chinese Connection
If a democracy fumbles a threat the president or prime minister will take the blame, step down and a new one will replace him. There will be damage, but it could not be the end of the world. If an authoritarian state muddles up then the autocrat will have to deny, lie and eventually might be forced to resign and then the whole system will go down. Open systems can afford mistakes, have resilience mechanisms for errors built it, autocracies only bet on positive results, setbacks are harder to digest.
Then the Russian mistake in Ukraine could have a unique Chinese spin. In August 1991, Soviet conservatives ousted then USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev. China, then fresh of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, met with soviet emissaries as both sides thought they would share a political path again, away from bad western influence.
On August 22, Deng Xiaoping’s 87th birthday, yet the coup failed. Gorbachev was flown in back to Moscow; the USSR fell apart. The political paths of the two countries diverged again but both moved back to the West. Yeltsin launched daring although partly ill-conceived changes; Deng revamped the policy of reforms and opening up with his January 1992 Southern tour.
Still, many things went astray over the past two decades, and Russia and China reconvened against America.
The easy lesson China learned from Gorbachev’s reforms was: you can’t reform or everything will fall apart. But actually, the failure of the 1991 coup in Moscow and the post-Tiananmen economic fiasco proved that lack of liberalization is a deathtrap. Now, the Russian botched bullying of Ukraine proved in a nutshell that ramming against a US-centered world is not too easy. The question is, what can China do to avoid, again, Russian blunders and fate? Possibly this will be a real issue at the next party congress in the fall.