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Foreign Policy

Conflicting Bottom Lines

Apr 17 , 2015
  • Yin Chengde

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

The white-hot U.S.-Russian rivalry over Ukraine is worsening. With the two sides accusing each other of masterminding the crisis and splitting Ukraine as a country, and sanctions and counter-sanctions entering a vicious circle, U.S.-Russia relations have degraded to a historical low. As both parties strengthen frontier military deployment and carry out military drills, clouds of military standoff are gathering again over Europe. Though it is exaggerated to say the Cold War has resumed between Russia and the United States, they have indeed entered an unprecedentedly tense state of quasi Cold War.

The U.S.-Russian competition over Ukraine had started as soon as the country won independence, but has remained less tense over the past two decades. The competition would not have evolved into such a fierce confrontation and acute crisis had the two sides’ actions in the past year not broken each other’s strategic bottom lines. For Russia, the U.S. took advantage of the chaos in Ukraine and masterminded a “coup,” installed an entirely pro-West, anti-Russia regime, resulting in Ukraine openly forsaking its non-alignment principle and formally applying for NATO membership, violating its foremost strategic taboo. Russia believes that once it looks on with its hands folded, the inevitable outcome will be Ukraine, a traditional part of Russian territory and sphere of influence, becoming the forefront and bridgehead of U.S. anti-Russia maneuvers. Which is equivalent to a fatal stab into its strategic core. Therefore, it has no choice but to resort to a forceful “push-back” strategy and fight back.

For the U.S., by supporting the pro-Russia separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, annexing Crimea, occupying a strategic height by the Black Sea and in East Europe, and changing European geopolitical pattern, Russia constitutes an unprecedentedly severe challenge and threat to the significant strategic interests of the U.S. as well as of its NATO allies, especially NATO members from “new Europe”. This goes beyond the strategic redline it had drawn in Europe. Which is why it has carried out an “anti-push-back” strategy and ultra-severe sanctions against Russia.

That U.S.-Russia ties have slid to the brink of a new Cold War should not be blamed on any side alone. Though the civil war in Ukraine has more or less eased, the root cause of the contradiction – the fierce US-Russian competition for Ukraine – remains, with one side continuing to support the extremely pro-West government, the other continuing to support the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The tinder for Ukraine’s civil war stays intact, and could be activated any time. Whether the chaos in Ukraine can be eased depends ultimately on whether Russia and the U.S. can stop meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

China is very concerned about the Ukraine crisis. The serious crisis there, as a result of big power rivalry, has not only worsened the situation in Europe, but also damaged world peace and stability. China has no private interest in the Ukraine issue. So it has always retained a consistent and just stance. It neither endorses western countries’ efforts in plotting a “color revolution” and drawing Ukraine into their sphere of influence, nor endorses other countries’ support for the separatist forces in Ukraine and interference in its internal affairs. China advocates respect for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. The Crimea issue is quite complicated, and has its own causes. Still, China insists it should be resolved politically.

The sharp U.S.-Russian contradiction and confrontation over Ukraine is irreconcilable, and may escalate in step with the potential worsening of the crisis. The U.S. has recently expressed the intention to provide the Ukrainian government with lethal weapons. That is an extremely dangerous signal. Doing that will inevitably lead to serious escalation of the chaotic situation in Ukraine as well as the U.S.-Russia rivalry. Though the proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, the civil war in Ukraine, has lasted for a while, the two countries would not head toward a showdown and come into a direct war between themselves. Because, instead of solving the Ukraine problem, it will bring disastrous consequences to both parties. Which is why leaders of both countries have repeatedly ruled out military intervention in Ukraine. Maneuvering a “soft landing” for the Ukraine crisis by political and diplomatic means, making proper compromises and resolving their antagonistic contradictions in non-antagonistic manners will be the only viable and eventual option for Russia and the U.S.

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