Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and possible future incursions into eastern Europe could change the geopolitical map of Europe and abolish cooperation between Moscow and the West.
The war impacts the global security challenges. For that reason, The International Asia Today takes an interview Dr. Ulrich Speck is a visiting senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
The invasion of Ukraine and the threat posed by Russian troops are bringing what had been considered a thing of the past back to Europe: blood war and the change of borders by military actions.
Europe has a long history of great-power competition and conflict. In the east, borders have been weak and unstable for centuries. Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, Central and Eastern European countries were pushed around, and their populations abused by great powers with unprecedented brutality.
With the rebuilding of Western Europe after 1945 and the reunification of the continent after 1989, Europeans thought they had overcome this type of power politics. Embedded in NATO and the EU, they were convinced that they had entered a new postmodern era where soft power replaced hard power and international law created the foundation of a mutually beneficial order—at least on their continent. Now all these assumptions are ruined totally. Hard style power politics are back.
Europeans need to ask themselves hard questions. Are they willing to confront Russia? Is Russia going to challenge the borders of NATO? And how should Europe respond?
Europeans conveniently delegated questions of hard power and strategy to the United States. While America remains a security partner and NATO seems to somehow have come back into the game, Europeans must take on a more active role in the transatlantic security alliance and shoulder more of the burden of their own security.
This is a more complicated question than one might assume at first impression. Ukraine’s geopolitical significance was widely recognized in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse. But over time, the imperatives associated with that geopolitical importance seemed to ebb as the outside world began to take the country’s independence and territorial integrity for granted.
Still, Putin’s Ukraine gambit basically resets the country’s overall significance. And further escalation of the war could trigger a more serious regional crisis.
U.S. and European policy toward Russia, its immediate neighbourhood, and the continent has until now been premised on respect for several basic principles, including peaceful resolution of disputes and mutual respect of each other’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Now that Russia has challenged these norms head-on, it appears that a new strategy will be required.
The immediate question is how to diminish Russia’s ability to threaten its neighbours. That will not be easy by any means, and the West’s political, economic, and military posture toward Russia is obviously in a state of flux now.
Russia does not have decisive leverage in the Iranian contest. Identifying leverage is key because Putin’s first instinct is always to see where he can press and exert his will without risk.
But even if Russia had a lot of leverage over the Iran contest, Moscow’s objectives are not as divergent with the West’s as they are regarding Ukraine and Syria. Russia really does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Putin would prefer that somehow Iran would live up to its commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons and at the same time would continue to have terrible relations with the United States and the West. These preferences give Russia plenty of room to allow diplomacy with Iran to proceed.
In terms of leverage, Moscow could undermine enforcement of existing sanctions and thereby relieve economic pressure on Iran. But the Iranian government wants a breakthrough in relations with the United States, the relief of banking and other financial sanctions, and an end to isolation.
Russia could have more leverage when diplomacy with Iran breaks down. Then, Russia could block the imposition of new UN sanctions. This would add to the general rupture in Russia’s relations with the West. Depending on where things are with Ukraine, the West could then feel added impetus to ratchet up sanctions on Russia. Conversely, if Russia wanted, it could quietly make its cooperation in tightening sanctions on Iran depend on the West not tightening sanctions on Russia.
Beijing has a difficult time justifying Moscow’s interference in Ukraine, but China also defines the imposition of international sanctions as a form of interference and in principle opposes these, except in very limited cases, such as on Iran and North Korea.
On the other hand, like Russia and Crimea, China has a claim on Taiwan and islands in the South and East China Seas that it would like to see realized and eventually legitimated. As China continues to deploy paramilitary maritime surveillance vessels and fishing fleets, it is trying to create facts in the disputed areas that will strengthen its claims. So, one can expect there is a certain unexpressed admiration in Beijing for Putin’s bold moves to assert control.
Beijing condemned all violent acts, called for maintenance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and urged international financial institutions to support Ukraine’s struggling economy. This places China neither on Russia’s side nor on the West’s.
Nevertheless, China stands to gain from the posture it has struck over the crisis.