As featured in Edition 40, available here.
BY ZACH ROBERTS (2nd year - Law and PAIS - Aylesbury, UK)
On the 24th of February, Europe fell into stunned silence, as the largest concentration of firepower on European soil since the Cold War marched into Ukraine from neighbouring Russia. Just 3 days later President Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on the highest possible alert, as NATO countries and the EU continue their escalation of economic sanctions and financial support for the Ukrainian military.
This invasion followed over a month of Russian military presence on the Ukrainian border, something Russia insisted was on grounds of national security, a rationale that no one bought.
This tension has been brewing ever since the reunification of Germany in 1990. In the 90s, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic all joined NATO, much to Russian protest, which was only worsened by the acceptance of seven more countries, including some former Soviet states, into the organisation (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) in 2004.
Putin’s obsession with NATO’s ‘Eastern Expansion’ as a security threat to Russia is thus by no means valid. This expansion ended over 15 years ago, why now is it suddenly an issue? The answer, many currently believe, is it never was. Simply, the weeks of propaganda and excuses leading up to the invasion of Ukraine were a smoke-and-mirrors campaign in a feeble attempt to justify the conflict.
While Putin continued to deny any plans to invade, he conveniently published a list of demands for Ukraine and NATO, as if some sort of classic Soviet villain from a James Bond film. They included that NATO must deny membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries, and rollback its military deployment across Central and Eastern Europe. Putin also stated that the current NATO arrangement and any planned expansions present a ‘serious threat’ to Russian domestic security. Finally, Ukraine, Putin says, has to address its failure to rectify the ‘genocide’ of separatists in the Donbas region
Putin reiterated later, claiming Western powers were “ignoring Moscow’s security concerns” and “using Ukraine as a tool to contain Russia”. Conversely Ukraine felt ‘used’ in what appeared to be an issue that had little to do with them as a sovereign state, and far more to do with the fact that Ukraine is politically supported by NATO, which recognises them as an ‘aspiring member’.
Since the invasion, Putin’s demands have only increased and evolved, with further threats made to Sweden and Finland, ominously warning them that any attempt to join NATO themselves would be met by ‘swift’ Russian retaliation.
Putin continues to speak ‘on behalf of Russia’ but the protests of citizens across the country, and the concerned, if not petrified, looks of his senior military officers in security briefings say otherwise. It is far more likely that the motivation behind the attempted occupation of Ukraine is purely down to Putin – and to understand why it is important to consider and understand the more personal contextual details.
Vladimir Putin is a former KGB (Russian Security Service) agent, serving for 16 years and reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring in 1991 in pursuit of a political career. Born in 1952, this will have meant he lived and served through the peak years of the Cold War and will have seen it fall apart around him. For an individual as blatantly deranged as him, it is likely that, sadly, the invasion of Ukraine boils down to a psychotic vanity project. President Biden said himself that he believes Putin’s overall aspiration is to restore the Soviet Union, and by starting with Europe’s largest country, it would send a huge message of his, and Russia’s, intent around the world.
Other factors also work in Putin’s favour. Ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine has been no stranger to conflict, with the fighting between Ukraine and Russian Separatists having seen over 14,000 deaths in 8 years. This gives Russia an excuse to latch onto, as he said on state television, citing the need to protect the lives of ‘Russian citizens’ in Ukraine.
Additionally, without formally joining NATO, Ukraine is not entitled to the membership perk of its ‘attack one, attack all’ policy. If a country were to attack the UK for example, the rest of NATO would be obliged to engage in a war with the invading nation.
As the rest of the world watches on, there is an overwhelming fear that little more can be done to help Ukraine with the looming threat of either full-out European war for the first time in 75 years, or worse, a nuclear fallout that would kill millions.
One nation that will certainly be paying close attention is China. 5000 miles away in Eastern Asia, a similar scenario has been ticking away for decades, with China staking a claim to Taiwan and refusing to accept its sovereignty ever since members of soldiers of the former Chinese Republic, who were defeated in the Chinese Civil War, sought refuge on the island in 1949.
Again, there is a difficult web of international state relations to unpack in this region as well as in Ukraine. Taiwan has long been supported by the West, particularly, by the USA as part of its ongoing war of passive aggression against China. The added difficulty to Taiwan is that they are only recognised as a sovereign country by 14 other countries, and thus there is plenty of suggestion that China is keeping a close eye on the developments in Europe.
Ever since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian-Chinese relations have grown ever stronger, as it was the Chinese that singlehandedly supported Russia economically and diplomatically whilst the rest of the world froze the nation out of the global order. In the last year, trade between the nations hit a new high of £108bn, with China being Russia’s biggest trading partner for years now. So it is perhaps a surprise, albeit also reassuring, to see China openly call out Russia’s actions and push for a diplomatic solution with Ukraine.
The more pessimistic, however, fear that this could simply be a selfish action from China to disassociate from Russia, and potentially hope that if Europe is overly occupied with Ukraine, then a swift operation could mean that Taiwan falls under Chinese control before Western leaders can even get up to react.
What will surely be reassuring to Taiwan, however, is the impact of what Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calls the ‘anti-war coalition’, with stronger sanctions on Russia than expected, more extensive military support, and the Western-trained army fighting better than expected. The response of NATO and others to Russia because of this crisis is likely to be a decisive factor in China’s decision to occupy Taiwan.
The threat to Taiwan is at least great enough to trigger a response from the island, with their President, Tsai Ing-wen, ordering the creation of a task force specifically assigned to study how the tensions 5000 miles away in Ukraine could impact the security and sovereignty of Taiwan, adding in a public statement that she ‘empathises’ with Ukraine’s current predicament.
This all comes at a time when the global hegemony appears at its most vulnerable. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the USA was quick to swoop into the power vacuum and assume a position at the top of the global hierarchy, a move that has led to several foreign policy efforts to expand both its politics and economics globally, particularly in volatile regions. This led to a 1990s-2000s era of military interventions, notably in the Middle East and Bosnia.
However, with countries like China’s and Russia’s ever-growing wealth and global status, this hegemony continues to be questioned. Despite their economic partnership, these two nations will no doubt be in direct competition to fill the power void if there ever was one.
China will be looking over their shoulder at Kazakhstan, a country that separates China from Russia and is only a partner with, and not a member of NATO. If Putin were to continue his hypothetical expansion and hostile takeover of neighbouring states, many deem Kazakhstan a viably next target.
On a national security basis, there is no way China would accept that move, as it would give Russia an additional border with China, something that would very likely be deemed an act of aggression directly against China.
IF Russia wishes to continue its rampage and expansion, or China decides to follow suit, economically they need each other – but it would be unwise to categorise this relationship as anything more intimate, and thus we can remain optimistic that the West’s worst fear – a war against an allegiance of China and Russia – is still far from happening.
Putin’s actions are abhorrent, and while the rest of the world prays for Ukraine, on a grander scale, it seems incredibly unlikely that Russia will be able to go any further, let alone shake the global power structure. But what remains consistent it seems, is growing doubt over the longevity of American hegemony.
The continual growth of Russia, and especially China, cannot be stopped. While we cannot predict how long it will be before the global order is properly challenged, it is moments like these that make it feel like the beginning of the end of this current era of world politics. This new Cold War shows little sign of going away just yet.
Image 1: Unsplash (Artur Voznenko)
Image 2: Flickr (Becker 1999)
Image 3: Unsplash (Jordhan Madec)