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The Ukrainian crisis and the long-range international repercussions

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Giancarlo Valori

The situation in Ukraine has suddenly changed. After the Security Council of the Russian Federation, the State Duma, the Council of the Russian Federation and the Russian Federal Security Service pushed President Putin to recognise the independence of the Doneck People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, on February 21, 2022 local time, he delivered a national video speech, announcing the recognition of the two places as independent countries and signing relevant Presidential agreements and decrees.

What is Russia’s reason for making this move? Since US President Biden took office, the geopolitical game between the United States and Russia has intensified in Ukraine: why should Ukraine be the pivot of the issue?

The Ukrainian crisis is actually a new round of adjustment in the post-Cold War international situation. Because of its unique geopolitical status, Ukraine is fostering long-term rivalry between major world powers with the so-called “butterfly effect”.

From the US perspective, the memory of the Cold War, hostility and bias against Russia do not want Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine or ease the crisis there. Ukraine must be used as a pawn to contain Russia. This contradiction has made the European Union more dependent on the United States for security, thus having the effect of weakening Russia and at the same time Europe as a continent. On the Russian side, its military situation in Ukraine is an act of defence to avoid finding itself with nuclear warheads south of Moscow. Russia does not tolerate the EU and US political interference in Ukraine, as it undermines the geopolitical space of the Russian-led “Eurasian Union”. It is a project designed to achieving market and resource integration of the CIS countries, which have reshaped the status of Russia as a regional power, and Ukraine – which has a very strong manufacturing and production base – is the most critical link.

The implications of the Ukrainian crisis also concern China. At a time when the United States intervenes everywhere but fails to solve problems – thus causing increasing chaos – China, too, feeling besieged by the United States, needs to devise a constructive strategy to change the existing international order that is unfavourable to it and to emerging market countries.

Since the beginning of 2014, Ukraine – a country hardly visible at the time – has become the focus of the global debate. In February 2014, Ukrainians overthrew the legitimately elected President, Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych, through an unconstitutional uprising. Later,, unrest developed quickly and reached a climax. Firstly, with the Russian military forces’ intervention, Crimea declared independence and joined the Russian Federation by a referendum. In Eastern Ukraine, a separatist movement began with the aim of withdrawing from the country (where the Russian minority accounts for 17.3% of the population), leading to the outbreak of civil war.

The country got out of control: not only did the Eastern part fall into a state of intermittent wars, but the State lost the ability to control its own destiny in the competition between the great powers, and became cannon fodder in their game.

Behind the conflict in Ukraine there is not only the relationship between Kiev and the Eastern region, as well as the escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but also the dispute between Russia and the United States of America. The Ukrainian civil war has not only resulted from internal divisions caused by the government’s policy of overthrowing the legitimately elected President, but has also been a proxy war between Russia and the United States.

The United States was the planner of the February 2014 “revolution” and the Ukrainian regime’s external supporting force in the civil war, while the referendum in Crimea and the separatist movement in the east had Russian influence behind them. Russia supplied weapons and equipment to the Russian separatists, and the United States and NATO supplied many weapons and war materials to the Ukrainian government forces. Western “mercenaries” were also in the Ukrainian government forces, but not making the same fuss as the European “volunteers” who fought in the ISIS ranks.

The United States – which is training the Ukrainian government’s troops – plans to send at least 300 soldiers to Ukraine.

The conflict between Russia and the USA in Ukraine has gradually moved from behind the scenes to the frontline. Not long ago, former President Obama admitted that the United States had a political involvement in the regime change in the February 2014 “revolution” in Ukraine and was considering the possibility of openly supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons.

The Ukrainian issue is the turning point in the long-term conflict between Russia and the US-led West. Behind the crisis there is the historical entanglement between the United States and Russia in the post-Cold War period. Without considering the above, it is hard to gain a deep understanding of the struggles taking place in that country. In the first twelve years after the Soviet Union’s implosion, Russia eagerly and naively wanted to integrate itself into the Western world dominated by the United States. Although Yeltsin’s policy of radical Westernization led to an unbearably bleak decade for Russia, Putin did not give up his efforts to forge close ties with the West in his first two terms. During Putin’s honeymoon with the George W. Bush Jr.’s Administration, Russia strongly supported the United States’ counterterrorism strategy and devoted many diplomatic resources to strengthening relations with the West. In a NATO speech, Putin said: “we have nothing to gain from confrontation with the world. Russia is back into the mainstream of civilised nations. It needs nothing but its voice to be heard; everyone’s national interests are respected’.

Nevertheless, a Russia with full self-sustaining diplomatic and military capabilities has always been a US concern. The Russian sphere of influence radiates to the surrounding CIS countries and has gradually become a dominant force. The United States did not tolerate it, although Russia did not challenge the White House’s global power.

Nevertheless, the memory of Cold War in the US strategic construct and the resulting hostility towards Russia made the USA miss the opportunity to incorporate Russia into the Western international system.

We have seen the United States ignore its commitment vis-à-vis Russia whereby NATO would not expand eastwards when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and gradually the USA eroded the former Soviet Union’s leeway and sphere of influence.

Eastern Europe and the Baltic States were later included in the EU and NATO. The Bush Administration announced its unilateral withdrawal from the US-Russian Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, and then set up anti-missile and radar monitoring systems covering the entire territory of Russia, from Poland to the Czech Republic, to the detriment of the strategic nuclear balance between the two countries.

At the same time, what was even more intolerable for Russia was that the United States was trying to control the CIS countries’ regimes through political infiltration and unconstitutional riots. In 2003, the USA supported the pro-Western Georgian Saakashvili in his rise to power. From 2004 to 2005 it followed suit in Ukraine, supporting Yushchenko’s government. Russia, which at the time was regaining its strength, adopted a more patient and moderate attitude, curbing protests and countermeasures against the aforementioned US offensive strategies.

In the eyes of Putin’s government and of most Russians, however, the US behaviour completely ignores the Russian security concerns and continues to compress and weaken the Russian strategic space for its survival and development. Before the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict, the basis of strategic trust in Russia-USA relations had long vanished over the years.

The Ukrainian crisis has become the trigger for the quick deterioration of Russia-USA relations, thus turning Russia’s defensive tactics towards the United States from a moderate resistance into a stern factual warning, as the United States has challenged the Putin government’s strategic bottom line in two ways.

Firstly, Russia cannot stand idle faced with the political situation in which the West controls its surrounding strategic buffer zone, thus enabling NATO to expand eastward to the CIS countries to threaten the security of its borders, and above all, it does not want to give the United States any opportunity to turn Ukraine into a military beachhead to contain and threaten – with the nuclear weapons on its borders – the Russian State. Although the apparent cause of the February 2014 “revolution” was that Yanukovich was obstructing Ukraine’s accession to the EU, NATO and the EU could not simply be mistaken, with the latter acting as a cover for entering the former, which is a military organisation. The historical experience of integration of the three Baltic countries (plus Georgia in fieri) into the Western system and Russia’s security anxiety over Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO are evident, because once the Ukrainian government has fully turned to the West and placed itself at the US service, it can no longer be as independent and non-aligned as before.

Secondly, from the Putin Administration’s viewpoint, Ukraine’s inclusion in the EU – by the US will – is intended to undermine the Russian-led “Eurasian Union”. The “Eurasian Union” is an important commitment of Putin’s third term, and hopes to achieve market and resource integration in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as reshape the status of Russia as a regional power. With a population of 45 million people and a good industrial base, Ukraine is the most crucial part of it. The United States and the West see the “Eurasian Union” as an expression of Russia’s ambition to geopolitically rebuild the Soviet-Russian empire. The US global hegemony – the so called “manifest destiny” – cannot accommodate the dream of a regional power that Russia is unwilling to give up. This, too, is a structural contradiction between the United States and Russia.

The Western world describes Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine as an aggressive expansion, but from Russia’s viewpoint it is a defensive measure: the country must face security threats as another power is about to intrude into its strategic zone.

Putin’s government has responded to Western economic sanctions with countermeasures. It has formulated new military guidelines to redefine national security threats. It has announced the suspension of the implementation of the Conventional Forces Treaty in Europe and has even rejected the deterrence of Russia as a nuclear power. Putin’s government and the Russian society seem to be prepared to face or endure long-term Western sanctions.

The United States does not want a gradual easing of the Ukrainian crisis, let alone a solution according to a political agreement favourable to Russia. The United States is using Ukraine to foster the contradiction between Russia and Europe. It is using the other-directed Europe – without an elected and therefore unambiguous leadership or even an army – to weaken Russia’s power and strength and make Russia and the EU (which has anyway an interest in good relations with the Kremlin) diplomatically confront and consume each other. The conflict in Ukraine has turned NATO-Russia relations from post-Cold War cooperation to a return to it.

At the NATO Summit of September 4, 2014, Russia was clearly identified as NATO’s “adversary” for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Later Russia revised its military guidelines to list NATO and the United States as the main threats to the country’s national security. The Crimea issue and the Ukrainian crisis have further undermined the already fragile strategic mutual trust between Russia and the United States, and this situation is unlikely to change substantially in the short term.

The Ukrainian conflict has also triggered significant changes in Russia-Europe and USA-Europe relations. The United States successfully used the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash (caused by Russian separatists on July 17, 2014) as an opportunity to force Europe, Japan and Australia to impose severe sanctions on Russia. This shows again that Europe has no ability to change or influence the US decision-making process in the relationship between great powers.

Putin has made Europe a top priority of his diplomacy for many years, especially during the Putin-Schröder-Chirac Troika era. He had established a tacit cooperative relationship with Germany and France in international affairs, which – to some extent – limited the unilateral US hegemony. This valuable interaction has continued in personal relations with the current leaders of Germany and France. But after the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, the EU – which, as stated earlier, lacks well-defined and legitimately elected political leadership and military autonomy – took NATO as its strategic priority, and chose a servile policy towards Russia in line with US interests.

The Ukrainian crisis, however, was not enough to shake the fundamental relationship between Russia and real Europe, not the Europe of politicians and institutions. There is no structural political contradiction between Russia and Europe. Quite the reverse. Economic ties are very close. The economic losses caused by Western sanctions against Russia are mainly borne by EU Member States and now most of these countries would not want sanctions.

EU countries have lost tens of billions of dollars due to the conflict in Ukraine, which is undoubtedly worse for the European economy that has been stagnating for two years, thus adding to the pandemic problems.

The Greek issue and religious extremism are currently the main problems facing Europe. Major European countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain are reluctant to carry the burden of Ukraine to bow to the US “manifest destiny”.

Russia has taken advantage of the differences within the EU on the Russia-Ukraine issue to try to loosen relations with European countries, differentiating them internally and showing the contradictions between these countries and US wishes. Through the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has successfully reshaped the former “Soviet Communist beast” with Russia as Europe’s “enemy”, strengthening the EU countries’ security dependence on the White House. The relationship of trust between the United States and Europe, however, is developing in the opposite direction, as the United States is trying to weaken Russia and – at the same time – the EU’s economic strength and “ethical” status.

Looking away from Europe, the continuation of the Ukrainian crisis and the deterioration of USA-Russia relations will certainly influence the positioning of US strategy in Asia-Pacific and China. If the Ukrainian conflict were to continue and turn into in a long-term tug-of-war, the USA could change its current “back to Asia” strategy, which focuses on containing China. From the Realpolitik perspective, the structural contradiction between China and the United States is based on changes in the balance of power, and is much more important than the strategic contradiction between the United States and Russia.

There is no misunderstanding about China’s and the United States’ strategic intentions. China, whose strength is steadily growing, is seeking a corresponding international status, trying to change the US unipolar international order in favour of a multipolar one, which is what the White House is most concerned about and cannot accept.

Therefore, the US policy of containing China in the Asia-Pacific region and Russia’s continued weakening in Europe would go hand in hand. In view of avoiding the weakening of its dominance in key strategic regions, the United States has done its utmost to prevent China and Japan from cooperating in Asia, while – in Europe – it has tried to prevent Russia and the EU from achieving strategic reconciliation and mutual trust – over and above the long-standing and fruitful trade relations. The United States, whose very costly relative power of expansion is declining – with the American people that, unlike the New England elites, have always preferred isolationism and non-intervention abroad – is pushing the international community and regional powers to confront China and Russia so as to maintain the legitimacy of its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and in Europe. This has proved to be destructive rather than inspiring: just think of the outcomes in Iraq and recently the flight from Afghanistan. Moreover, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the US-led NATO has continued to expand. This expansion, which has reached as far as Ukraine, is a warning to China that the USA has a deeply rooted realistic geopolitical thinking and mindset when dealing with major relations with countries with their own power and strength. The pressure of the international system led by the United States also against Russia is the reasons why China and Russia have come closer.

Both countries have worked hard to be recognised and accepted by the international community on equal terms and conditions, but the West – in the service of the United States – cannot tolerate the ideas advocated by nation-States with great power aspirations. They cannot accept them on the basis of their characteristics, development model and political way of managing society.

The United States and the EU are used to seeing China and Russia as a set of universally applicable stereotypes and a “we are good, they are bad” way of thinking, interfering in both countries’ internal affairs, using the power of international discourse to attack Chinese and Russian societies, and using all kinds of defamation and demonization at a high political level.

Although Russia had problems in the process of democratic transition, its basic social values and its political system are not fundamentally different from those of the West. Quite the reverse. They are much better than the political systems of US and EU well-known friends. Although China and Russia have different religions, cultures and political systems, they have established relations of mutual respect, equality and independence between major powers – the kind of real independence that is hard to find in the EU itself.

The nature of Sino-Russian relations is different from the unequal relations between the United States and its European, Japanese and oceanic allies: the two countries do not impose themselves, nor do they point the finger at each other, nor does one give orders to the other, as happens in Italy and in many Western countries. They respect each other’s independence and take the geopolitical core of mutual interests into account as reliable partners. At the same time, current Sino-Russian relations are also different from those of Sino-Soviet subordination, based on ideological “friendship” since the 1950s. They are relations of equality and mutual assistance based on the strategic interests of both countries, and not just one, as is the case in the West.

Preserving and deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination between China and Russia will be the trend and direction of efforts for a long time to come. This is not only in response to the Cold War mentality that is characterized by the arrogance and preconceived ideas typical of the West.

Sino-Russian strategic cooperation and the interest relationship is long-term and structural and has an intrinsic foundation and value. The Ukrainian crisis is only a catalyst for promoting Sino-Russian relations. Since his second term in office (2004-2008), Putin has taken advantage of China’s rise to revitalise Russia. Since then, Sino-Russian strategic cooperation relations have progressed quickly. Although there are objective obstacles to deepening these relations, trust between the parties has strengthened, especially since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis. Russia’s eastward strategy and China’s westward strategy have begun to increasingly intersect.

From a practical economic perspective, the Ukrainian crisis and Western sanctions may firstly lead to changes in the global energy model, and the layout of the Russian energy export market has already started to shift towards Asia. For China, which has huge energy needs and seeks to diversify risks through multiple channels, this is an opportunity. China has recently signed a gas agreement with Russia after ten years of negotiations. Western sanctions will certainly force Russia to develop an ever deeper financial relationship with China.

Russian business tycoons are already starting to switch to the credit cards of China UnionPay (the only credit card issuer authorised in the country), converting more US dollars into Hong Kong dollars and depositing them in Chinese banks in Hong Kong. While Sino-Russian bilateral trade, investment and loans have started to increase the scope of deals denominated in local currency and Russia accepts payments in renmimbi yuan. The scope of the renmimbi yuan is expanding, which will have a major impact on the internationalisation of this currency. Western sanctions have already led the Putin government to start promoting the Russian market’s diversification in terms of economic strategy. Economic countermeasures against Europe entail the large-scale transfer of the market for agricultural products elsewhere, and may continue to expand in the field of industrial products. Fast expansion and penetration in the construction of high-speed railways, agriculture, military technology, satellite navigation systems, ports, logistics, IT industry, manufacturing, nuclear energy and many other fields.

Since China and Russia also have common strategic needs that go beyond economic interests, relations between the two countries are increasingly limited to mutual benefit and pragmatic cooperation on a purely economic level. China and Russia are facing the combined forces of the US-led alliance system in East Asia and Europe, respectively. The East China Sea, South China Sea and Ukraine are only specific points of struggle. The central problem is that – as great military powers with a long history and civilisation – neither China nor Russia can accept the path laid out by the United States and the West to determine their own internal affairs and foreign policies.

From a defensive viewpoint, the strategic mutual assistance between China and Russia provides mutual support and solidarity in the face of reality and public pressure in Western countries. During the Ukrainian crisis, Chinese officials endeavoured to ease the Russian-Ukrainian friction and the situation in the country. When the West implemented economic sanctions, and political isolation against Russia, China always opposed the encirclement and political repression and provided strong support to Russia. In the future, China may face a problem similar to the Russia-Ukraine one due to the issues related to Taiwan, the South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands. Hence it will need loyal allies.

Over the last two decades and until a few months ago – from the viewpoint of concrete actions – we have seen that the US strength has gradually lost the ability and willingness to create constructive situations of world peace and prosperity, creating instead situations of conflict that worsened the scenario. The United States used the South China Sea, the Diaoyu Islands and Ukraine to fuel disputes in Asia and Europe and start a series of colour uprisings in Europe – and then the “Arab Springs” in the Middle East, West Asia and North Africa – but it was later unable to remedy the situation, as demonstrated in Afghanistan.

At a time when the United States intervenes everywhere but fails to solve its own self-created problems, there are only chaos and winds of war. This requires that cooperation between Russia and China should not be limited to bilateralism, but should also further unite regional powers such as India, Brazil and the Republic of South Africa and play a greater role in the mechanism of cooperation in emerging markets and in the public and political spheres of countries that can still call themselves independent.