How Russia's war in Ukraine threatens to the overthrow the world order
In the early phases of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “What we have heard today are not just missile blasts, fighting and the rumble of aircrafts. It is the sound of a new iron curtain which has come down and is closing Russia off from the civilised world.”
It was a symbolically powerful statement, hearkening back to the Cold War where Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain between “East” influenced by Russia, and “West” influenced by the United States through the NATO military alliance.
Although this is no longer the Cold War, both the US and Russia have seen their fortunes and credibility slide recently, with Washington now being snubbed by once-stable allies and Russia being humiliated by a spirited Ukrainian defence of their homeland.
History doesn't repeat itself, but it certainly has parallels. What the international community is now witnessing is the re-emergence of a multipolar world, with new players and blocs influencing the dynamics of a new world order to challenge American hegemony and exceptionalism.
"Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine last February did not occur in a vacuum; in fact, the ongoing war has been in the making for decades"
The threat of NATO expansion
Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine last February did not occur in a vacuum; in fact, the ongoing war has been in the making for decades.
At the end of the Cold War and the iconic destruction of the last Iron Curtain – including bringing down the Berlin Wall that divided Germany nation for almost three decades – a victorious West led by the United States emerged and stood supreme as the world’s sole superpower.
Seeing no opposition, the US proceeded to forge a new world order based on liberalism. This may have led to feelings of American invincibility, as the US had defeated Soviet Russia’s communist system all while containing the threat of its vast nuclear arsenal.
A key part of the American toolkit was the careful set of military alliances it had formed, formally known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which was premised on a mutual defence pact against the Red Army and a core principle of collective security: an attack on any one ally was to be considered an attack on all.
This mutual defence mechanism was never activated in the Cold War and therefore served its purpose as a deterrent, and with an ascendant liberal and capitalist ideology to carry them the West continued to expand NATO despite the fact that Moscow had been defeated.
Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined in 1999 followed by seven more eastern European countries in 2004, all of which had been in Russia’s orbit for decades and were now gravitating towards the West.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, NATO’s steady expansion eastwards, regardless of the end of the Cold War and Russia’s defeat, was provocative and threatened Russian national security interests.
To make matters worse, NATO had an “open door” policy for Ukraine – right on Russia’s border – to join the military alliance, which was a red line for Russia and was repeatedly expressed as such by the Kremlin.
Many analysts have therefore argued that in the current Ukraine crisis, NATO’s aggressive expansionism into Russia’s historical sphere of influence is what led President Vladimir Putin’s actions to ensure the Kremlin’s concerns were listened to.
While Russia may have been defeated, it still perceived itself as having all the trappings of a great power and would not be denied this status. Putin’s Kremlin was powerless to stop the first wave of “near-abroad” nations from joining NATO – such as Estonia right on Russia’s borders in 2004 – but it was determined not to allow more to join the fold.
Western failures in the lead up to Ukraine
Putin’s revival of Russian military adventures first began domestically with his successful attempts to get his own house in order by defeating the resistance of the Muslim rebels in Chechnya who had long yearned for independence from Moscow’s rule. By February 2000, the Chechen capital Grozny had been seized and was described as “the most destroyed city on earth”.
Chechnya was an early example of the lengths Putin was prepared to go to in order to establish Russian dominance in a new era in which his country had been repeatedly humiliated. The first signs of Putin’s willingness to resort to dreadful war crimes were revealed, but the international community did nothing and, although the West cannot be blamed for his actions, their inaction over Muslim blood spilled emboldened his aggression.
"Chechnya was an early example of the lengths Putin was prepared to go to in order to establish Russian dominance in a new era in which his country had been repeatedly humiliated"
As European powers allowed their military capabilities to atrophy and took part in dubious wars of their own in Afghanistan in 2001- the only time NATO’s mutual defence treaty was activated - and Iraq in 2003, Putin was busy planning the next phase of his country’s rebirth.
Claiming to want to protect Russian citizens in South Ossetia from Tblisi’s aggression, and almost immediately following the April 2008 Bucharest Summit in which it was decided that Georgia – again on Russia’s borders – could accede to NATO’s ranks, the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion of Georgia in August of that year, occupying large swathes of territory, and recognising the breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics.
Critically, however, the Russian move also halted Georgian accession to NATO with almost no retaliation from the international community apart from meagre sanctions. Putin therefore learnt that he could use violence against any proximate threat to Russia’s borders to stunt further NATO expansion in former Soviet republics.
Moscow’s success in Georgia emboldened Putin. In 2014, and in an attempt to replicate his success in Georgia while indicating to the West that they ought to back away from encouraging Ukraine to join their camp, Putin launched the invasion of Crimea in the Ukrainian south and annexed it, again claiming ethnic Russians wanted an intervention.
Once more, and aside from condemnation and some sanctions, which Russia shrugged off as its economy grew regardless, nothing happened. This simultaneously undermined Kiev’s confidence in its Western allies while encouraging Putin to increase his aggression to challenge American hegemony elsewhere. However, repeated promises of support from the White House kept the pro-Western Ukraine on the same trajectory.
Elsewhere, in what has been deemed to be a crushing blow against US deterrence capabilities, the Obama administration failed to enforce “red lines” regarding chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria in 2014 that killed almost 1,400 civilians, including 426 children.
Notably, that attack came after Russia had guaranteed that Assad would destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles. The fact he did not showed that both Moscow and Damascus viewed Washington as toothless.
The final blow to Western credibility came in 2015 when Turkey, a full-fledged NATO member since 1952, was abandoned repeatedly by its allies. Right after the US and other NATO members began to remove Patriot air defence missile batteries from Turkish soil, a Russian jet breached Turkey’s air sovereignty and was shot down. Rather than stand behind their ally, NATO countries instead said that Ankara was on its own in any conflict with Russia.
A catalyst for a new alliance
These incidents have resulted in NATO becoming viewed as unreliable by its own members, and a paper tiger by enemies such as Putin. While there is no doubt that NATO has enjoyed a certain resurgence in popularity due to the fact that many member states are supporting the Ukrainians, it is equally true that traditional US allies are now openly expressing disaffection.
France, a fellow UN Security Council member, continues to press for an EU-wide defence pact independent of US-led NATO, and even traditional GCC allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have chosen a middle ground, reportedly unwilling to take the US president’s calls. NATO’s fortunes may be slightly increasing in the West, although France’s position calls that into doubt, but they are suffering elsewhere.
Meanwhile, there is emerging evidence of alleged Russian war crimes in places like Bucha. Many have argued that, had the international community acted against Moscow’s brutal wars in Chechnya and Syria, these war crimes could have been avoided.
Perhaps most critically for the future of great power politics is how China will be keenly observing the West’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. China is accused of conducting its own genocide against Muslim minorities, and Beijing has long coveted control over Taiwan. As such, and to dissipate American threats to its ambitions, it has a vested interest in supporting Russia.
The strengthening of ties between Moscow and Beijing may create a new sphere of influence that has, in the near and medium-term, only one objective – to pull down Washington’s global hegemony once and for all.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues.
Follow him on Twitter: @DrTalAbdulrazaq