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“Gates of Europe” and Changing World

Feb 28, 2022
  • Wu Baiyi

    Research Fellow, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

On the night of February 21, the Ukraine crisis further escalated. Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech and signed a legislation acknowledging the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics in east Ukraine, and announced sending in troops for “peacekeeping” there. The US, UK, France and EU all strongly condemned, and came up with plans of sanctions.  At least three factors will be important to watch as the situation evolves: first, what a resolution the UN Security Council will make; second, whether the US, EU and NATO will increase military aid to Ukraine, even take advantage of the opportunity to also deploy “peacekeeping” forces; three, how US and Russian leaders will interact to manage the crisis. The logical reasoning for the above order is, although the UN has limited restraint over the recklessness of major powers, the latter still need to seek maximum legitimacy for its own behavior on this diplomatic stage, otherwise, they may sink in isolation for insufficient or unsustainable moral standing.   

In 2003, the US failed to gain UN authorization with a Security Council resolution allowing it to launch war against Iraq, resulting in greater discord between the US and EU, the aftereffects of which are yet to disappear. Since Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council and has veto power, it would be impossible for the council to pass any resolution condemning and sanctioning it. So the US and EU would be on their own. If they only increase military aid to Ukraine, it would be difficult to reverse the situation – considering the Ukrainian military was unable to even defeat the rebel forces in the Donbas area in the past few years, it would be more difficult for them to resist the powerful Russian troops today. So far countermeasures from Washington and Brussels remain limited to the economic and diplomatic fields, military gestures are limited to increasing deployment of US troops stationed in the EU and upgrading alertness level of defense at home, indicating the US and NATO have yet to decide to push back Moscow’s offensive with force. Even they later conduct “peacekeeping” with forces of central and eastern European nations that have joined NATO, it will cross the red line the US and EU drew internally early on, which would hardly be different from treating Ukraine as a NATO member ahead of schedule, putting Russia and the US and EU on a collision course once again. 

Why is it so difficult for the US and EU, as the most direct stakeholders on the Ukraine issue, to make the strongest responses to Russia? First, they are aware the current international order is more favorable to themselves, taking the risk of direct conflict with Russia, which has a formidable military and nuclear arsenal, is far more costly than preserving this old order, and the outcome may be more rapid collapse of their own advantages. Second, they actually lack the moral legitimacy. Since the end of the Cold War, US and European Russia policies can be summed up as further weakening it taking advantage of its weaknesses, eating their own words, pushing the envelope, and bringing trouble to themselves. NATO’s repeated eastward expansion seriously reduced Russia’s traditional geo-security space as a continental Eurasia country, and directly led to it losing strategic trust in Western nations.   As eyewitnesses of different periods of such a historical process, both George Kennan and William Perry had cool-headed predictions of the serious consequences of the West’s diplomatic plots and subsequent rash advances; Third, there have been greater differences between US and EU strategic concerns and interests calculations. Washington’s global strategy has turned eastward, and identified the containment of China as a priority goal, thus is reluctant to invest too much in Europe, where the situation is relatively more controllable, let alone allowing Ukraine to distract its strategic focus. Such major European powers as France and Germany have seen through the Americans’ half-heartedness, and chosen to balance “strategic autonomy” and “confronting Russia depending on the US”, make difficult trade-offs on such pragmatic interests as unity between east and west Europe and energy cooperation with Russia.  Finally, just as Putin stated repeatedly, after so many years of Western economic sanctions, Russia has developed a tougher skin, and the Russian people are standing with their government when it comes to positions on the approach to relations with Ukraine, and the security guarantee agreement with the EU. Therefore, despite Ukraine’s role as the traditional geographic barrier between east and west Europe as well as the foremost gates of cultural segmentation, the US and EU would choose the expediency of relative flinch under the tremendous risk. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO will be unrealistic in the foreseeable future, and the country, a nation with various domestic sections each going its own way and remains vulnerable to major power games, will continue to be the most eye-catching “ulcer” on the political plate of the Eurasia continent. 

The Ukraine crisis will no doubt continue. This is not only because the contradictions among the US, Russia, the EU and Ukraine are irreconcilable, but also reflects the inevitable trend of “major turbulence, major division, major reorganization” after the 21st-century world order and international relations entered a stage of drastic adjustments. In essence, such a trend features a “hybrid of new and old dynamics”, mainly because such Western countries as the US are unable to get rid of Cold War thinking, attempt to preserve hegemony relying on old “collective security” mechanisms, thus becoming sources of major challenges of geo-security imbalance, hence suppressing the international security governance regime’s transition in the direction of “common security” in the new era.  The West should realize that in the face of the increasingly complicated global security, allowing such backward thinking and old paradigm to spread will not only trigger more traditional and non-traditional security risks, it will also be impossible for themselves to escape the fate of being hurt and punished. The dialectics of history is merciless, all stakeholders and onlookers should maintain proper vigilance against the “butterfly effects” the Ukraine crisis keeps releasing, and fairly, reasonably, peacefully resolve this international security dispute truly in the spirit of the purpose and principles of the UN Charter. 

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