The Revenge of History
For a brief moment in history, it seemed that Europe was stable once and for all. The West had won the second World War, and the US eventually asserted its position as a global hegemon, projecting influence in every corner of the Earth and redesigning international affairs in its own image. Setting the Middle East aside, the world was at peace, and Europe was secure. Now, it seems, it was all but a fleeting moment. All it took was a financial crisis- the depression of 2008 precisely- to bring Europe to its knees, and to deal a decisive blow to the United State’s unipolar moment. Suddenly, the US is questioned not just on the peripheries of the international system, but among core allies. Russia is seizing the opportunity to reassert itself with actions that echo a revenge of history. Europe is in a state of anxiety, internal division. Distant, yet not so far away, China is watching closely. Its moment will come sooner than anyone expected. In brief, the tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting once again, with a menace that will dwarf the Cold War in its entirety.
Let’s take a step back from all the drama on TV, and instead try to make sense of events in Ukraine within the context of the international order we live in.
The Magnitude on a Scale
Where are we from a historical perspective? Undoubtedly, we’re back to pre-1990, but more precisely pre-1945. Europe is once again taking center stage, and everyone is watching. What’s happening in Ukraine is a rejection of the security mechanism adopted post-World War 2. The West- the US mainly- has been slowly but inevitably making advances to absorb Ukraine into its own sphere of influence. Russia presented various warning signs to signal its disapproval. Could things have happened differently, could we have avoided the war? It’s irrelevant at this point. What’s happened has happened, and it is of game-changing magnitude. So much so as to push Germany to come out of the shadows and pledge that a full 2% of GDP would go to defense/military spending– a huge break with the Germany that vowed never again to go to war or militarize post-WW2. The sanctions regimes reserved for actors such as North Korea or Iran are now being employed against Russia, a country which ideally ought to be, whatever the circumstances, closer to being a partner, not a pariah, on international issues.
Events in Ukraine Coincide with a Delicate Global Financial Situation, and Inflation
On a macro level, we can’t talk about all things geopolitics without taking a step back and relating to the sensitive financial position that the world is facing. The world has been waiting- almost impatiently- for the US to tighten monetary policy. And finally, the Federal Reserve in the US had started to adopt rhetoric suggesting it would do what it takes to get inflation under control. Reminder: Inflation in the US reached around 7.5% for 2021, necessitating emergency urgent attention on the policy level.
However, just as the Fed acknowledged the need to address inflation, the events in Ukraine unfolded, and thus those roughly 10 rate hikes expected during 2022 now seem completely off the table- at least in that form. What we’ll probably see is a softer stance, with less tightening than should otherwise be enacted, and thus the Fed losing its control over the inflation narrative. Buckle your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a long ride, with a more serious inflation outlook befalling us as we muddle through this financial year- and the next. In short, stagflation is the name of the game.
Europe is Once Again In a Vulnerable Security Situation- Who’s Next?
As refugees flee war, Europe is scratching its head trying to figure the best way to maintain and guarantee its security against potential instability- oh the classical dilemma. But who is next after Ukraine, many are wondering? To be more accurate, is there a country next in line? Let’s dig deeper. It’s hard to think that a Poland or an Estonia may be next. First, Ukraine itself may prove to be a handful. It could become the center of an insurgency-like situation, as we’ve seen in Iraq after the US invaded. Take a look at Syria, a country ravaged by war since 2011 and unable to reach a settlement. Ukraine may well be a long affair, rather than a war that is settled in a couple weeks with clear winners and losers.
And before things are clearer in Ukraine, there can be no next move, not to mention one on a Nato, Article 5-triggering territory. Triggering Article 5 would be catastrophic, and would plunge the world into a global depression where hell would go loose. Article 5 states that, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”. In this sense, Poland is Germany, just as Estonia is France or the USA. Thus it is more plausible that the “next” episode occurs in Georgia or Moldova, for instance, rather than in Poland or Estonia.
The World is Watching, Nervous and Flustered
Events in Ukraine have taken many countries by surprise. Germany was reluctant to take material action initially, but eventually was cornered to make bold decisions reluctantly at the expense of its relations with Russia and at the expense of the chances Nordstream 2 ever comes into fruition. Turkey is in an unenviable position, since it can’t sever ties with any of Russia, Ukraine, the US or NATO. Certainly, the Ukraine crisis will affect US-Turkey relations, as well as US-Iran relations. Japan is scrambling to understand the repercussions for security in the East China Sea, specifically with regards to the islands dispute- China calls them the Diaoyu Islands, while Japan calls them Senkaku Islands. Poland fears the worst is yet to come. Moreover, the Chinese position is unclear, given the effect of the crisis on Chinese Belt and Road initiative via Ukraine, its relations with Europe, its eyes on Taiwan, as well as its relation with the US.
Putin is Not Irrational Nor Crazy
One has only to look at things from a Russian perspective to realize that Putin is no madman. In the eyes of Putin, the collapse of the soviet union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Post-1991, there is a lasting sentiment that the West had many choices in its dealing with Russia post-Soviet era, and that the approach adopted was one that isolated Russia rather than engage it and involve it in the restructuring of the global and European security infrastructure. The grudge is real, and it is all the more evident when Putin describes Ukraine as a “failed state”, or an artificial state. If we agree that Russia was treated unjustly, and that the US guaranteed a European security mechanism that is at odds with Russian security, then it’s really not hard to understand Putin’s call for a return to spheres of influence in February 2007. Bottom line, any future potential for European security should involve a deal that guarantees both EU security as well as Russian security. Anything else will come biting back with vengeance, as we see today.
Rather than be irrational, Putin was calculating and consistent. This was evident in Georgia in 2008, in Syria post-2011, in Ukraine after annexing Crimea, and today again in Ukraine. To put oneself in Putin’s shoes, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the US continues to experience the overextension and fatigue of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The West seems more and more fragmented. The EU is overextended (vs a core EU version that includes UK, Germany, France and Poland from a security-strict perspective), imploding from within. And the US is increasingly unreliable. The West has been declining, and the East rising. Putin actually chose a realistic and opportunistic moment to “shake” things up.
… But Russia was Not Always “Aggressive”
This is all a sequence of events rather than a one-off. Remember the Bucharest Summit of April 2008? The Summit’s Final Declaration stated that “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO”. In direct response, Russia’s foreign ministry replied that “Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which will have most serious consequences for pan-European security”. And it all played out via war in Georgia in 2008, and through annexing Crimea (Crimea was annexed after Ukrainian President Yanukovich rejected the EU Deal in 2013, after which there was a coup, pushing Ukraine away from Russia).
We’re Talking About Ukraine Here
We’re talking about Ukraine here. Ukraine is not Georgia; nor is it Syria. Losing Ukraine is a big issue for every Russian, in a way that can’t be compared to losing Poland or Lithuania or any other former Soviet state. In fact, Kievan Rus was the first East Slavic state, with Kyev at the center of its polity, reaching its peak in the early to mid-11th century. And it was in Kyev that Vladimir I (Volodymyr in Ukrainian), converted to Orthodox Christianity in 988 as part of a pact with Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who “promised his sister’s hand in marriage in exchange for military aid and the adoption of Christianity by the Kievan state”.
What Russia Wants in Ukraine- And Doesn’t Want
To reiterate, what Russia wants is a neutral, independent state that acts as a demilitarized buffer zone between the West and Russia. What it does not want is a Ukraine that is a military threat and acts as a vehicle for executing hostile Western foreign policy against Russia. What it also doesn’t intend to do is to destabilise Ukraine as the US had destabilized Iraq- as that would create problems on its own borders. Ukraine will incur heavy damage, it’ll be weak, but order will prevail once all is said and done- albeit in a weaker Ukraine.
.. and So, What to Expect from this Ukrainian War?
Russia will not invade Ukraine to occupy it. Russia itself was not long ago entangled in a costly, humiliating defeat in the unconquerable terrains of Afghanistan. The US, in a moment of foolishness, chose to suffer the same fate in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, and Iraq as well. So what Russia wants is to decapitate Ukraine, to neutralize it. It will take strategic areas, it will dispossess Ukraine of its nuclear capacities, it might annex areas populated by Russian-speaking people in resource-wealthy Donbass.. And it will certainly want to take Kyiv, the capital. Once it takes Kyiv, it will be ready to enter negotiations and impose terms whereby Ukraine accepts to be a neutral state away from the American sphere of influence. Thereby, Russia will achieve the goal of avoiding a scenario whereby Western missile systems are installed just miles away from Russian territory.
However, this is all easier said than done. It is true that the US could end the war today by just announcing that it will cease to attempt to suck Ukraine into NATO, and that Ukraine would be a neutral, independent state that acts as a demilitarized buffer zone between the EU and Russia. That is all that the Russian leadership wants, and would give them a resounding victory, bolstering Putin’s regime. And it’d probably be fair, since the West, in the author’s opinion, is primarily to blame for the crisis in Ukraine- of course without acquitting the Russians from any responsibility for the tragedy of death, displacement and casualties that continue to be incurred across Ukraine as we speak. Unfortunately, it won’t happen. The American stance has been to double down. And thus, maybe the key to resolution could be mediated by the Chinese, if not by a Russian military victory, albeit at enormous costs. After all, Putin’s regime seems increasingly dependent on China, especially given the expected crippling effect of heavy sanctions imposed on the Russian economy. Thus the keys to this crisis’ endgame may well lie in Beijing.
Why Can’t Europe and Russia Reach Friendly Terms and a Workable Relationship
The US has been pushing Ukraine to join NATO, against German, French and European will. And that is just unimaginable from a Russian perspective. The equivalent would be Russia establishing a military base in Mexico or Canada, to American disbelief. To not let the imagination run wild, just recall the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Khrushchev exerted influence in the direct backyard of the US. The US just wouldn’t have it. If the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 explicitly rejected the idea of any military forces planted on Western hemisphere territory, then why can’t the Russia’s have their own “Monroe Doctrine”?
Fundamentally, it all comes down to the fact that the US does not tolerate Euro-Russian cooperation, pitting one party against the other so as to prevent them from ever developing a partnership. After all, European history is a shared history. European culture is a shared culture. And Europe’s interests lie in a united Europe where countries complement one another and project a united influence on the global stage. Such a Europe would not only have security and energy independence; it would not need the US’ security guarantees. But the US thinks otherwise. And as such, while former German Chancellor Angela Merkel had clearly chosen Russia over the US on Nord Stream 2, the US decisively showed that it would not stomach any such partnership.
The American New Obsession- China and Nobody Else
China is rising fast. And given how things played out in the past 8 years, it is clear that the US is focused on reducing its commitments in the Middle East and Europe to free up mind-power and resources that could be used to engage Asia. Once China realizes its full power, the US will be fully occupied in East Asia. Europe will be a minute detail, of secondary importance. And while we’ve been, over years, rehearsing the narrative that the US keeps, unwillingly, being dragged back into the Middle East, or in this case Europe, the full pivot to Asia will be complete in the event that war breaks out in the China sea. At that point, nobody will care about what happens in the Middle East, and the US will be effectively detangled from commitments there and busy Eastward. The longer it takes for such a skirmish to occur in East Asia, the more this moment will resemble President Woodraw Wilson’s isolationist approach that embraced neutrality rather than get drawn into conflicts.
Moreover, to build a clearer picture of the international affairs landscape, it is essential to understand that the US needs Russia on the China issue. It needs it on the Iran issue too- negotiations are wrapping up in Vienna as we speak. Therefore, on the contrary to what many are now hyping as the new US-Russia cold war, the reality is that the US needs to “cooperate” with Russia on many issues. A wink of the eye on Ukraine invites the Russians (the US practically did nothing despite all the evidence that the Russians were preparing to strike). This is not to suggest in any way that the Ukrainian crisis was engineered, but rather that the US signaled clearly that it would not be involved directly. In return, the Russians may scratch the back of the US on Iran, with a deal seeing light in the coming weeks. And definitely requiring Russian approval. And the exchange goes on, one good gesture here returned generously elsewhere.
The Vultures are Circling above Europe- American, Russian, Chinese, Turkish
And Europe will have to live with that. European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and former Chancellor Angela Merkel are well aware of this new reality. They know a US-less NATO cannot survive. As such, the more powerful European “core” countries will have to unite to broker the best deals with the US, Russia and China to guarantee their security. In this context it’s hard to imagine positive outcomes for a once-promising project called the “European Union”.
In the words of President Macron himself in an interview with The Economist, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO”. NATO “only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States.”. President Macron further states that the US is showing signs of “turning its back on us,” with reference to developments in Syria. Macron’s wake-up call comes with sheer urgency, “If we don’t wake up […] there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny. I believe that very deeply”. He adds that Europe should start with regaining “military sovereignty”, and re-opening dialogue with Russia. In brief, Macron is calling on Europe to move fast to act not only as an economic bloc, but as a geopolitical power, in order to take control of its destiny. The alternative is a Europe in which each European country has to broker deals on its own with major powers to secure its interests. That surely won’t end well, with all sorts of vultures circling above- US, Russian, Chinese, Turkish(Turkish eyes on the balkans) ..
From Ukraine to Syria- One Vast Battlefield
Back to today’s crisis in Ukraine. And linking with the above picture we’ve illustrated, it is clear that the battlefields are all merging into one big battlefront. What happens in Ukraine is interrelated with what happens in Syria. Yes, it is one single battlefield. And the timing of the Ukraine crisis happens just as the major powers appear to be concluding a historic, major deal with Iran. Such a deal would have with far-reaching implications for the Middle East (from Syria to Lebanon to Iraq and Yemen), Europe (including related to European energy security), Russia (spheres of influence in the Middle East and Europe, as well as related to energy dynamics), China of course, and Iran itself (including Iran entering the energy market and supplying 1 million barrels of oil a day, and having a “legitimized” role in the global economy and international relations, as well as a defined sphere of influence in the Middle East and central Asia)..
From a macro-level view, the world order is restructuring itself, with regional and global powers reorganizing their priorities and adjusting their commitments in the process. Let’s call it a “Great Reshuffling”.
China the Mediator? China enters the Grand Stage as Peacemaker
As part of this grand reshuffling act, powers reposition and realign against new and changing priorities. China is a clear such example. China has made clear that it intends to play a potential role as mediator in the Ukraine crisis, having enjoyed good relations with Ukraine and Russia over the years. And this could well be the formal beginning of China’s assuming greater influence in international relations and international security.
Russia Is Cornered- Nowhere to Go But Beijing
Russia looks increasingly cornered. Its involvement in Ukraine caused an unexpected reaction that defies its strategic interests. Germany is militarizing, with significant return to defense spending. Also nearby is Turkey, who is in an unimaginable dilemma, and will have to reconsider a path towards acquiring nuclear capabilities so as to defend its security needs in the region. Therefore, Russia might have nowhere to go but Beijing. This Russian dependency on China, if it materializes, would be an outcome so detrimental to US engagement in East Asia- having seen Russia as a potential player in its efforts to “contain” China and tame the dragon’s rise.
Poland’s Orzeł Biały, the White Eagle, has been Soaring, and is Now Ready to Nest at the Heart of Europe
Watching from his apartment in Warsaw, my good old friend Pawel was taken by the horrors he saw on TV. “It felt like Warsaw itself was being bombarded”, he told me. In the next few days, Pawel drove his own car to the Eastern border with Ukraine, where he took a family of 3 and brought them back with him to stay in his apartment while things unravel. They were fleeing the war, as have 1.2 million other Ukrainian refugees done- of which 650,000 had entered Poland as of March 5, 2022. Pawel, like so many other Polish citizens felt the need to do something to help Ukrainians. It was more than just philanthropy. It was driven by a huge fear that Poland was next, that Warsaw the capital would soon witness the same fate as Kyiv did.
What we’re witnessing is the birth of a new geostrategic role that awaits Poland. Yes, indeed. Poland is an advanced industrial country, with a sizeable population of around 44 million people. It is Germany’s immediate backyard on the Eastern front with Russia, and thus it’s importance can’t be understated in any European security conversation. And it will inevitably be instrumental in forging the new European alliance, if any, to allow Europe to impose itself as a geostrategic superpower able to defend its interests internationally in the face of the other three powers- the US, Russia and China. The “European Core”, let’s call it, includes the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the new kid down the block- Poland.
Power shifts rarely happen peacefully. Rather, they bring forth violence and destruction before a new order can prevail, based on new power sharing dynamics and institutions to govern international relations. A new century awaits us, its center of gravity in the East, with its unique dynamics, complexities and history.
See our article about the privilege of living in advanced, democratic nations here.