How the Ukraine crisis will develop, whether it will escalate into a full Russian invasion triggering severe U.S. and European sanctions or end with a temporary diplomatic resolution, is in essence up to Vladimir Putin.
Only the Russian president knows what the next phase will be. But as the crisis unfolds and overly enthusiastic analysts and a drama-prone media present various scenarios, a new perspective is emerging: Perhaps this crisis is not just about Ukraine, but about something bigger and broader.
After all, the Ukraine crisis and its various dimensions are amenable to diplomatic solutions, whether a crisis-averting, short-term framework or a formula for a durable, long-term arrangement. Supposedly, it is in everyone’s interest, and there is objectively nothing inevitable about a Russian invasion.
Unless, this is not just about Ukraine.
This high-stakes-brinkmanship crisis continues to evolve after a round of talks failed to produce any diplomatic breakthrough. In fact, despite an agreement to continue the diplomatic dialogue, both sides are upping the ante and escalation of rhetoric. The United States pledged a swift, hard response. President Joe Biden indicated that beyond economic sanctions, he is considering deploying troops in Eastern Europe in response to Russia reinforcing its military presence not only in the Donbas region in easten Ukraine but also on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.
The U.S. State Department has released a fact sheet titled “Russia’s Top Five Persistent Disinformation Narratives,” while Russia has continued its subtle yet belligerent threats to invade, while trying to instill chaos and discord within NATO.
There is a hyperbolic tendency in the last few years to view every Chinese policy, statement or move as either defiance or a formidable challenge to the international order. Conversely, every U.S. policy is seen as recognizing and countering this attempt at systemic change. The Road and Belt initiative, an increasingly bold naval presence in the South China Sea, the Hong Kong clampdown and its Taiwan policy are all viewed as a zero-sum game with the United States.
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Now, this interpretation is being expanded and reinforced, with Russia ostensibly seeking to rekindle its Soviet superpower stature. The two facets are then combined with U.S. fatigue and disillusionment with foreign entanglements. The inevitable conclusion is that the international system, based on a U.S.-dominated order, is threatened.
The tendency to use hyperbole and to invoke profusely the “Chinese threat” as the overriding analytical panacea often sounds like alarmism. But it does not mean the U.S.-dominated system is not being structurally assaulted, is subject to critical review and in need of change. It is.
China and Russia have coalesced around an organizing meta-strategic idea: The post-World War II order – the Pax Americana of international institutions, norms, alliances, power structure and relations – effectively weakens China and Russia and encroaches on their spheres of influence. Then, the two superpowers of the United States and the USSR competed in a bipolar world, while China was weak and inconsequential regarding international affairs. But what was understandable and grudgingly acceptable in the post-1945 order is no longer tolerable.
China and Russia, however different in their relative power and ability to project it, both oppose the continuation of the American concept of unipolarity and Washington-centric management of the world.
This structure, they claim, was enabled by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and China’s relative weakness in the 1990s. Now, China is a superpower by all parameters and Russia is trying to reassert its previous status. Both see the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, disengagement from the Middle East and diminishing interest in intervening in crises as proof that the international system is ripe for change.
In a Foreign Affairs article last summer, Yan Xuetong, the dean of the School of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a prominent scholar of foreign policy, expressed current and prevailing thinking in China: “China believes that its rise to great-power status entitles it to a new role in world affairs – one that cannot be reconciled with unquestioned U.S. dominance. ... The U.S.-led world is fading away … in its place will come a multipolar world.”
Russia and China have grown significantly closer over the last decade. A commonality of strategic interests, shared frustrations and an inherently anti-American worldview have emerged. In one of their phone conversations in recent months, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly told Putin that “certain international forces are arbitrarily interfering in the internal affairs of China and Russia, under the guise of democracy and human rights.”
It is not too difficult to figure out who these “international forces” are. It is also not too difficult to conclude why Putin believes that, thanks to China, the United States can’t really isolate Russia.
Since the ’90s, Russia has been blaming the Americans for patronizing it, belittling its power and expanding NATO to its borders. In the last few years, Russia has been accusing the United States of sponsoring and fomenting the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan, while deploying intermediate-range missiles within hostile Poland.
At the same time, China is accusing the Washington of supporting the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang region, northwest China; encouraging Hong Kong’s anti-China protesters; and providing security assurances to Taiwan against a U.S.-fabricated, false threat of Chinese invasion.
The gist of the Chinese and Russian argument isn’t new: The United States is imposing Western ideas about democracy and so-called human rights in an effort to set the agenda, decide the rules, serve as the ultimate arbiter and dominate the international system.
The system requires structural changes that reflect political and economic realities. First, and most important among them, would be to divide the world into distinct, well-defined spheres of influence and an understanding that they must not be infringed upon, politically or militarily.
This is where Ukraine fits into the grand equation. Conceivably, so may Taiwan.
When the Ukraine crisis is isolated and examined through a Russian lens of national security interests, historical ties to Ukraine, NATO expansion and Putin’s attempts to rekindle the grandeur and perceived power of the Soviet Union, it is very hard to see where the Russian president got his reputation as a vaunted strategic genius and savvy statesman.
Nothing about how this crisis may transpire benefits Russia. NATO will be more, rather than less, unified; Sweden and Finland are considering joining the alliance; and the cost of major U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia in the event of an invasion will be very high on an already weak Russian economy.
If the invasion turns into a quagmire and exacts high numbers of casualties and no visible and tangible achievements, Putin may well have to pay a political price.
But if the Ukraine crisis is seen through the broader vantage point of a challenge to the international order, of an uncoordinated but tacit Russian-Chinese manufactured crisis – to be followed by others – it may be about much more than who controls the Donbas or even Kyiv.