Four days after the Beijing Winter Olympics closed, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an abrupt attack on Ukraine in an attempt to prevent it from joining NATO. While he is perceived by some at home as a national hero, Putin has also triggered disputes internationally for what he did.
How should the Russia-Ukraine conflict be evaluated?
First is the millennial dimension. The 11th century Kievan Rus included what are the most prosperous parts of present-day Ukraine and Russia, as well as a large stretch of Belarus, so Ukraine and Russia are homologous nations. But internal contradictions resulted in the division of Kievan Rus, which no longer existed as a unified state after the first third of 12th century. Division became even more evident after Mongolia began ruling it in 1240. The Russia-Ukraine war is the contemporary rendition of the historical logic of Europe’s disintegration and unification.
Second is the centennial dimension. Europe remains the nation-state model of the Westphalia System. Ethnic Russians’ independence in the two eastern Ukraine states and Russia’s recognition of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” was the fuse of the war.
Harvard University Russian and Ukrainian history Professor Scrhii Plokhy wrote in “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine” that Ukraine has for centuries been the gateway of Europe thanks to its geographic location on the western edge of the great Eurasia grassland. At times, war and conflict caused the gate to close, and Ukraine would then be a barrier preventing intruders from its east or west.
Before the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO, there was a broad buffer zone between core Europe and Moscow. Their expansion means an increasingly narrowing buffer zone, posing a threat to Russian strategic security.
Third is the Cold War dimension. Thirty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, not only has NATO not receded from the stage of history as a result of the rival Warsaw Pact’s disintegration but it has constantly expanded, squeezing Russia’s security space to an extreme and leading to the latter’s pushback in extreme ways. Western analyses claim Putin wants to bid farewell to the Soviet Union and return to the Russian Empire, citing his open criticism of Lenin’s policy of national autonomy and transfer of the Donbas region to Ukraine as clear evidence.
Putin once said whoever doesn’t feel ashamed of the Soviet Union’s disintegration has no conscience, and whoever wants to restore the Soviet Union is brainless. The West has long believed that Russia seeks to restore the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, so they move preemptively to contain it, resulting in consecutive tragedies. The West, believing it won the Cold War, shows no respect for Russia as the loser and knows no limit in pushing for NATO and EU expansion, leading to today’s tragedy in Ukraine.
The outbreak of armed conflict angered many Chinese. First, China proposed an Olympic truce at the UN and got approval. Second, China advocates respect for and guarantees all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, and it has friendly ties with Ukraine. Third, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council promised security for Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence, but Russia violated it.
Of course, the Chinese people have also seen Ukraine receive tremendous support from Jewish capital and U.S. forces: Even its president and ministers hold dual nationalities, so they understand Russia has the right to counteract. They just don’t endorse its approach.
Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, members of the international community have either mounted pressure or placed hopes on China. Some worry that to accomplish national reunification, China is determined to follow Russia’s example and take Taiwan by force.
In fact, Russia’s thinking is spatial, which is obvious in the Russian national anthem, “Russia, Our Sacred Homeland,” which proclaims, “From the southern seas to the polar lands, spread are our forests and fields. You are unique in the world, one of a kind!” By contrast, China’s thinking is temporal: The country prides itself on its uninterrupted civilization of 5,000 years.
Russia’s goal seems to be splitting Ukraine’s east and west, turning it into a neutral state and a buffer zone between NATO and Russia. Yet, for Europe, the key is to return to the principle of “indivisible security” of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. In fact, NATO expansion driven by U.S. military-industrial conglomerates has sabotaged the European security framework and security thinking, and borne bitter fruit.
Ukraine’s tragedy is not only a refugee crisis but a divided European continent, which ultimately will hurt Ukrainians and Europeans. The Chinese side has therefore advocated that European security should ultimately be resolved by Europeans, and has embraced the idea that European security should neither target nor get around Moscow.
What’s unsettling is that a plan to bring down Russia via war in Ukraine war is a continuation of the Cold War-era plot to break down the Soviet Union through peaceful evolution and an arms race. According to the Financial Times, the Russia-Ukraine war is a critical economic turning point that will have lasting consequences.
It is worth noting that the West has adopted an approach of hard decoupling to defeat Russia and soft decoupling to suppress China. Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once said the most dangerous geopolitical pattern for the West is an alliance of China, Russia and perhaps Iran. It would be led by Beijing, with the parties united by dissatisfaction with the West, rather than ideology. Brzezinski assumed the U.S. would only avoid such a scenario by simultaneously displaying geopolitical skill in all areas on the periphery of both ends of Eurasia.
To sum it up, we should look at the big picture and approach the Russia-Ukraine war from the macro level, instead of dwelling on individual specifics and being led astray by capital-driven public opinion. The war may end with Ukraine having to choose to be a neutral country that serves as a buffer zone between NATO and Russia.
This means Eurasia would retain its interconnectivity with Ukraine at the demarcation line. And it would become impossible for Russia to integrate with Europe, forcing a shift in focus to the Far East and relying more on China economically.