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Lessons From a Year of War

Mar 01, 2023
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Since it began last year, the Russia-Ukraine war has evolved. It is now affecting the global order and adding more uncertainty to the world economy. According to the United Nations World Economic Situation and Prospects 2023, this year’s global economic growth rate may be among the lowest in recent decades.

After the end of the Cold War, people wondered: When will the world return to normal? That question is being asked again. When will countries come together to deal with various global challenges or ideological conflicts and again promote trade and cultural exchanges? Of course, the desire for a normal world order — one characterized by peace and harmony — has always been illusory. The real natural state of the world is marked by disagreement and conflict.

Looking beyond the ideal, one can understand why the Russia-Ukraine war is taking place in the European region with its relatively high level of civilization — and why wealthy Europeans do not hesitate to give up their social welfare in an effort to win. But despite the fact that the United States and its allies are strengthening the Ukrainian military, this war will not end anytime soon.

At the Munich Security Conference in February, European countries overwhelmingly supported Ukraine. The European Commission, for its part, actively pushed member states’ defense industries to join forces to accelerate and increase production of weapons and ammunition urgently needed for the Ukrainian battlefield. U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv on the first anniversary of the outbreak of the war demonstrated America’s determination to firmly support Ukraine.

Currently, Russian and Ukrainian military forces are engaged in a seesaw war in eastern Ukraine. It is difficult for Ukraine to achieve a decisive victory because, with a combat zone limited to the territory of Ukraine, Russia’s domestic resources are capable of sustaining a long-term conventional war.

As the longest and largest war on the European continent since the end of the Cold War, the Russia-Ukraine war has forced people to rethink the role of today’s international system in maintaining world peace. The international community is calling for a revision of the existing international system to reshape self-correcting mechanisms.

Obviously, the current international system — with one superpower and several other significant powers — is unable to curb the choice of war by major countries. Over the past decade, especially, because of the rise of nationalism and the abuse of national security, competition between the major powers seems to have become increasingly irreconcilable.

So, is multipolarity capable of curbing war? The answer is also no. This is because the competition between great powers in a multipolar world has become more uncontrollable. A case in point is the 1853-56 Crimean War.

Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, pointed out to the Security Council in November that the international collective security system for resolving or managing tensions and conflicts has been seriously undermined by the war in Ukraine, which in turn has made it more difficult to resolve the hostilities in Ukraine itself. Against this backdrop, calls for reform of the UN General Assembly are growing.

The structures within the international system reflect national strengths and perceptions and are difficult to self-correct. The international system, having one superpower and several other powers, is structurally imbalanced, and more powerful countries always try to control others, rather than sharing power with them. Therefore, under the circumstances of the Russia-Ukraine war, George Kennan’s containment strategy has become the preferred option for the dominant power and its allies.

In response to Russia’s conduct of war in Ukraine, the containment strategy of the dominant power and its allies is to deter Russia militarily, increase its war costs and decouple it from the international community. Only when Russia meets the criteria set by the dominant power and its allies politically and economically will it become a partner and a member of the international system again.

The war is the result of a multiparty game, and Russia needs to be responsible for its war behavior today. Before the outbreak of the war, Russia had many opportunities to solve the problem through diplomatic means with Ukraine and the West.

At the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva in June 2021, the two countries agreed to a dialogue supporting bilateral strategic stability. However, less than a month after that summit, Putin referred to Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” in an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” He claimed that Moscow had been “robbed” of its territory by the scheming West.

In October 2021, the Biden administration’s intelligence concluded that Russia was going to attack. In November that year, CIA Director William Burns traveled to Russia to meet with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev to discuss the Ukraine issue. Despite intelligence from the United States that war was imminent, French and German leaders insisted that diplomatic opportunities still existed and worked to broker them with Russia and Ukraine. But these efforts ended when Russian missiles were aimed at Ukrainian targets.

There is no doubt that under the current international system, countries can shift easily from competition to confrontation, and from confrontation to war. To circumvent war in an international system that is structurally out of balance, a state needs wisdom — the wisdom to avoid becoming a seeker of unlimited power and empire. 

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