The Russian-U.S. confrontation provoked by the Ukrainian crisis is most often viewed as a purely regional phenomenon. However, its roots are much deeper than the problems faced by Ukraine; its nature is much more complex than the ongoing geopolitical struggle for that country; and its consequences affect the United States’ relations with other centers of power and global governance in general. The outcome of the Ukrainian conflict will likely determine the rules of relations among the great powers for decades to come.
A CLASH OF WORLD ORDERS
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has never been a consensus among the great powers on any of the key issues of the world order: recognized distribution of power, rules and norms of international behavior, and decision-making mechanisms. The abyss between the United States and non-Western centers appeared right after the end of the bipolar confrontation. Washington proclaimed its victory in the Cold War and began to view its “global leadership” as an essential condition and even the foundation of the world order. Russia, China, India, Brazil, Iran and other countries rejected the U.S. position.
Moscow was in the forefront of dissent all along. Even in the 1990s Russia made risky moves when it believed that its vital interests were threatened. The redistribution of power from the old West to new centers and the increasing infringement by the United States upon Russia’s vital interests and its principles for the world order made the Kremlin more and more resolute.
All problems of Russian-U.S. relations after the end of the Cold War are rooted in questions to which Moscow and Washington have been giving opposite answers for over 20 years. Does Russia, as an independent center of the multipolar world, have a right to an integration project of its own in Eurasia? Do great powers have a right to a friendly neighborhood, and a right to establish their own security configuration along their borders and be its center? Should the international order in Europe and the Euro-Atlantic area be based on the extension of Western institutions up to the Russian border if Russia is excluded from it a priori, or should it be built jointly by Russia and the West? Finally, why does the United States has a right to declare some states and regimes sovereign and legitimate and others not sovereign and illegitimate, and overthrow undesirable regimes?
Similar problems exist in the United States’ relations with all non-Western centers of power, including democratic ones. India and Brazil criticize its interventionist policy, selective approach to state sovereignty, and regime change practices as much as Russia and China do. Russia’s policy in the Commonwealth of Independent States is consonant with New Delhi’s concern over U.S. military presence in the Indian Ocean, with Brazil’s attempts to weaken Washington’s influence in Latin America, and with China’s desire to restrain the United States’ resolve to project military power to neighboring regions.
THE DECISIVE ROUND
Unlike the conflicts of 1999, 2004 and 2008, the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 has not only become another battle between Moscow and Washington over the rules of relations between the great powers, but has elevated it to a basically new level.
Firstly, the battle has become more bitter. This is the most dramatic aggravation of international disorder over the last 25 transition years. The degree of violation by each of the conflicting parties of the rules that the other party considers vital has reached a peak. The incorporation of Crimea and Russia’s support for the revolt in Donbass have shown that not only the United States but other countries as well can now violate fundamental norms of international law.
Secondly, this time Russia and the U.S. have denied each other the chance to scale down the confrontation and try to improve their relations again without reaching an agreement on the rules of the game. Over the year since the beginning of Euromaidan, Moscow and Washington have shown that they are not ready either for compromise or for a model where they “agree to disagree” on Ukraine but where they seek to cooperate on other issues (as was the case after the 2008 crisis). On the contrary, both capitals see the other party’s surrender and the establishment of one’s own rules of the game as the only way out of the conflict.
Having incorporated Crimea, prevented a defeat of Donbass rebels, and taken countermeasures in response to the Western sanctions, Russia has deliberately burned its bridges behind it. It has proved that it is prepared to go far to keep Ukraine away from the western orbit and prevent it from becoming part of a new “cordon sanitaire.”
Having started the process of political-diplomatic and even military-political (soft) containment of Russia and its economic weakening and having stopped cooperation with it in actually all areas, the United States has also made it clear that it is not ready for compromise. Washington views Russia as a hostile state and a threat to its interests and international order. It has conditioned an improvement in relations with Russia on a change of the Russian political regime (or, rather, a fundamental change in its foreign policy, which is simply impossible under the incumbent leadership). The essence of the U.S. approach was well conveyed by Barack Obama who described Russia as one of the main threats to international security, along with the radical Islamic State and the Ebola virus.
The reason for such categorical position is the global context. Both Russia and the United States assessed each other’s actions in the context of broader trends and factors, not directly related to Ukraine, and both powers came to the conclusion that now is the best time for a “decisive battle.”
Russia perceived U.S. actions regarding Ukraine against the background of Washington’s poorly concealed irritation with Vladimir Putin’s return to presidency. Moscow met with a growing rejection of its foreign and domestic policies, a demonstrative unwillingness to try to find a positive model for bilateral relations “after the reset” (the cancellation of a summit in September 2013), and an unprecedented (since the 1980s) information campaign against the Sochi Olympics. As a result, even before the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014, Moscow believed that Washington had already made a conscious choice in favor of confrontation.
No wonder Moscow took the U.S. resolute support for the coup in Ukraine as nothing more than a political and economic war against Russia. Moreover, Washington’s desire to legitimize the results of the coup at all costs (including support for the military campaign of the new Kiev authorities) looked like an attempt to make Ukraine part of a new anti-Russian “cordon sanitaire” and deprive Moscow of its major foreign-policy achievements of recent years (an independent role in world politics, and gradual strengthening of integration in the post-Soviet space). That would at least partially have compensated Washington for its failures of the last decade. Many people sincerely believed that after the change of the regime in Kiev a decision on Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the establishment of a U.S. military base in Crimea would be a matter of several months.
At the same time, the Russian leadership apparently proceeded from the assumption that Russia had reached its peak of foreign-policy influence in 2013 and that in the near future the balance of power would change in U.S. favor (economic stagnation in Russia and economic recovery in the United States).
At the same time, the U.S. took Russia’s actions as a new pattern of Russian foreign policy in the post-Soviet space. It seemed that Washington’s longtime geopolitical nightmare had come true: “authoritarian” Russia had begun to recreate the “empire.” This prospect threatened to deprive the United States of a major part of the legacy of its “victory” in the Cold War – one of the pillars on which the American vision of global leadership rests. Also, one should bear in mind the United States’ oversensitivity to Russia’s “revisionism” against the background of U.S. failures in the 2000s and 2010s, which marked the end of the “unipolar moment” proclaimed in the early 1990s. Having suffered setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East in general, the U.S. needed to get things done its way at least in the region whose fragmentation remains an important symbol of its recent triumph.
Since at least the fall of 2011, the United States had been increasingly irritated by “Putin’s Russia.” Its foreign and domestic policies seemed to confirm all stereotypes. Already a year before the Ukrainian crisis, the U.S. began to take Moscow’s actions in the former Soviet Union as attempts to restore the empire. At the end of 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of trying to “re-Sovietize” the post-Soviet space.
In Washington’s view, Moscow’s actions created a dangerous precedent as they demonstrated inability of the United States, as a self-proclaimed leader and guarantor of international security, to prevent or reverse a gross violation of the established rules by a “regional power.” This factor calls into question Washington’s ability not only to play the role of a global leader but even to claim this role: if it is unable to keep a power claiming regional leadership from encroaching on the sovereignty of the largest country in Europe and an important U.S. “strategic partner,” how can it guarantee security for its allies? What if other countries start behaving this way? This refers, above all, to China which claims the role of the regional leader, which is engaged in territorial disputes with most countries in East and Southeast Asia, which has the nuclear deterrence potential, and which is in a state of economic interdependence with the U.S. At stake is the cornerstone of the United States’ leading position in the international system – its global system of alliances.
Two more factors should also be taken take into account.
First, exactly by the autumn of 2013 the Obama administration had failed in its last attempt to build non-hostile relations with Moscow. Russia’s refusal, despite a U.S. concession on a missile defense system, to start a new round of nuclear arms reduction negotiations, the aggravation of the situation over Syria, and the Edward Snowden case finally convinced the White House of the futility of attempts to establish constructive relations with “Putin’s Russia.”
Second, it is a regime change that the United States sees as the best and, importantly, quite achievable way to respond to the challenge of “Putin’s Russia.” America tends to explain many “unpleasant” features of Russia’s foreign policy by its domestic political factors. The actions in Crimea and Donbass are portrayed as the regime’s desire to compensate for its own weakness and economic stagnation with an aggressive policy of “gathering lands,” to recreate the “empire” and prevent the “ideas of freedom” from flowing from Ukraine to Russia. The opinion that Moscow’s actions are a response to an attempt to make Ukraine part of an anti-Russian “cordon sanitaire” and that they are actually defensive rather than aggressive is shared by the minority that is not part of the foreign-policy mainstream.
Mass protests in major Russian cities in 2011-2012, the dependence of the Russian economy on oil prices, and economic stagnation which began in 2012-2013 convinced many analysts in Washington that the Putin regime was really weak and that his support by the majority of people was based on “oil prosperity,” which is fragile per se. Hence, the U.S. made attempts to influence members of Russian elites through personal sanctions and to incite them against the president, and adopted economic measures that will not force Moscow to change its policy towards Ukraine but that can considerably worsen its economic state in the medium and long term.
So, the “limited systemic confrontation” between Russia and the U.S. is for the long haul. It will last at least until the end of the next presidential cycle in America (that is, until the middle of the next decade) and will end with a significant weakening of one of the parties and with the establishment of new rules for their mutual relations. As prominent international affairs expert Thomas Graham wrote, “even if Russia works diligently for a political resolution that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Washington will continue to seek ways to punish, constrain, and weaken Russia, now seen as an adversary.”
From the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, the United States was faced with the need to convince its allies that U.S. security guarantees were reliable and that America would not allow a repetition of the Ukrainian scenario in other countries. Probably it needed to sound even more convincing to its Asian partners than NATO members. U.S. allies in Asia instantly saw Russia’s actions as a possible model for China’s behavior in East and, especially, Southeast Asia. Japan was among the first to react: on July 1, 2014 it lifted a half-century ban on the use of its armed forces abroad. The Annual White Paper of the Japanese Ministry of Defense, published on August 5, 2014, directly links the move to Russia’s actions in Crimea.
The United States took steps in two directions. Firstly, it gave its allies and partners more solid security guarantees. Specifically, it expanded its military presence on their territories and adopted more concrete and more ambitious plans of action in crises. Secondly, it intensified the policy of containment, and not only with regard to Moscow but also Beijing.
It is often argued that, while focusing on the new confrontation with Russia, the U.S. will ease pressure on China and pay less attention to the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. In reality, things are the other way around. The Russian-U.S. confrontation per se does not change the balance of power in the world. China remains the main rival of the United States, while the Asia-Pacific region is still Washington’s main foreign-policy and economic priority. It is precisely the priority of Asia that makes the United States pay even more attention to the risk of a repetition of the Ukrainian scenario there than to responding to it in Europe. Preventing a more aggressive policy on the part of Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region is no less important to Washington than “punishing” Moscow and ousting it from Ukraine.
Obama’s Asian tour in April 2014 (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia) was aimed at convincing the U.S. allies that Washington would not allow a repetition of the Ukrainian scenario in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, the United States significantly increased its policy of containing China. On the eve of his arrival in Japan, Obama said that the U.S.-Japanese agreement on cooperation and security, under which the U.S. assumed responsibility for the defense of its ally, also applied to the disputed Senkaku Islands. In other words, an attempt by China to challenge Japan’s claim to the islands militarily may lead to a U.S. military intervention. The main result of the tour was the signing of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, which allows the United States for the first time since 1991 to temporarily station troops on Philippine territory. It is noteworthy that the U.S. announced plans to increase its military presence in Southeast Asia four months before similar plans for Europe, adopted only in early September at the NATO summit in Wales.
In his keynote speech at the Military Academy at West Point on May 28, 2014, Obama described China as an opponent posing danger to U.S. allies and international order. China’s military buildup and its demarche with regard to disputed territories were mentioned in conjunction with Russia’s actions against Ukraine. As a clear evidence of the U.S. policy of containment, Obama warned that “Regional aggression that goes unchecked – whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world – will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military.”
The growth of U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, the strengthening of the U.S. system of alliances, and more active efforts to contain China will result in a geopolitical polarization of the region, which is central to 21st-century international relations.
The Russian-U.S. confrontation has one more effect that leads to the same result: it denies Moscow the possibility to play the role of a balancer, a third center of power in the Asia-Pacific region, which by its very existence would keep the region from getting polarized. Until recently, Russia was the only country that could theoretically have performed this function if it had established a strategic dialogue with the U.S. on the Asia-Pacific region and if it had built partner relations with U.S. allies in the region, including Japan. It was the only one among great Pacific powers to maintain non-hostile relations with the main centers in the region – the United States and China. Other countries, and specifically India, cannot play this role as it is very suspicious of China and views it as a rival. Without a third player, the Asia-Pacific region will divide into two centers, however hard medium and small countries would try to slow down this process.
Russia will also seek to stall this process as it does not intend to give up building up political and economic cooperation with U.S. allies and partners in Asia. If it succeeds (many Asian countries want the same: none of them, except Japan, has joined in the U.S. sanctions), the polarization in the Asia-Pacific region will slacken. However, the United States will oppose such developments, and so will China which is not happy about Russia seeking to strengthen ties with U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific and which in the present circumstances will expect greater loyalty from Moscow.
In addition to the polarization of the Asia-Pacific region, the Russian-U.S. confrontation is amplifying an even larger trend in global development: the danger of the world’s division into the “Greater West” – the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia – and the “Eurasian non-West,” including Russia, China, India, and Iran (possibly with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia). There is the impression that the geography of the division resembles the dividing line between “continental” and “island” countries in classical geopolitics.
On the one hand, this confrontation provides a strong incentive for Russia to develop comprehensive cooperation with China and non-Western centers of power in general. In the next few years they will be the main, and actually only, strategic partners of Moscow, with Beijing holding a special place among them. Already now it is the friendliest center of power in the world for Russia, and vice versa. Given the Russian-American confrontation, these relations will move towards an informal alliance. In addition, as the confrontation between Russia and the U.S. is accompanied by the toughening of the U.S. policy of containing China, rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing will be mutual. This factor strengthens China’s position in Eurasia, and the longer the confrontation between Moscow and Washington lasts, the more opportunities Beijing will have to build up its military capabilities (using Russian technologies) and develop its economy (through to access to Russia’s resources and consumer market). For the first time since the 1950s, the Eurasian “heartland” is uniting on the basis of anti-Americanism, and this time China is the leader.
Moreover, this consolidation has more than one dimension. It is accompanied by growing cooperation among Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran, which is facilitated by the Russian-U.S. confrontation and the increased rivalry between the United States and China. Both Russia and China are stepping up their partnership with other non-Western centers of power, and these multilateral efforts can dispel each of these centers’ fears that this strengthening can be directed against it. As a result, there have already emerged tendencies towards the strengthening and possible enlargement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is now the main regional institution not only for China but also for Russia. If India, Iran and Pakistan join the organization as full members, which does not seem unrealistic today, multilateral cooperation among non-Western centers of power in Eurasia will be elevated to a new level. The confrontation between the United States and Russia, and the aggravation of rivalry between the U.S. and China will unite Eurasia on a basis unfriendly to Washington.
On the other hand, this tendency is taking place amid consolidating relations between America and its allies in Europe and Asia, which is also facilitated by the confrontation with Russia and the growing rivalry with China. We are already witnessing the strengthening of NATO and U.S. military alliances in Asia, which are increasingly focused on containing Russia. It is very likely that the strengthening of military alliances will be accompanied by the accelerated creation of U.S.-oriented economic communities in the Asia-Pacific region and the Euro-Atlantic area, which will be closed to Russia, China and other centers of power in Eurasia. So far, the Washington-backed projects of the Transatlantic Free Trade Area and the Trans-Pacific Partnership have stalled. However, the U.S.-Russian confrontation, the aggravation of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry, and extension of cooperation within the SCO framework can give a new impetus to these projects.
In a bid to weaken the Russian economy, the U.S. has begun to openly use its leadership in global economic governance, especially in the financial sector, to deny Russia the possibility of using what many in the globalized world have become accustomed to view as common things – financial markets and instruments, payment systems, etc. It is one thing when such sanctions are used against a country like Iran, and quite another when they are used against the world’s sixth largest economy and a member of the G20. This came as an important reminder to all new centers of power of how vulnerable they are for as long as the United States remains the operator of the world economic order, and of how quickly the U.S. can begin to use its status for political purposes against this or that country.
As a result, the process of creating alternative tools for international governance, which was slow until recently, has significantly accelerated. There have appeared new mechanisms within the BRICS. The SCO may step up economic interaction among its members. The creation by the non-West of alternative institutions, instruments and processes that are out of Washington’s control (development banks, payment systems, credit rating agencies, a gradual movement away from the dollar in international payments, etc.) has become a real imperative for all new centers. Time will tell what effect this bifurcation will have on the quality of governing the economy which remains global.
Finally, the confrontation affects the quality of combating global security threats which largely depended on Russian-U.S. interaction.
THE END OF CONFRONTATION AND INTERNATIONAL ORDER
A much greater impact on the international system will be made by the outcome of the present Russian-U.S. confrontation. In fact, it will be a crucial factor in determining the future international order which will replace the protracted post-Cold War transition. However, if the confrontation ends with a U.S. “victory,” this transition will drag on and international relations will for some time develop in the absence of order.
As the confrontation can hardly be settled without surrender by either side, there may be two basic scenarios for settlement.
The first scenario, being sought by Washington, is a regime change in Russia and its further international and political downfall. The U.S. will press Russia into giving up plans to build its own economic order (the Eurasian Economic Union) and security domain (the Collective Security Treaty Organization) in Eurasia and to engage Ukraine in these organizations. And, naturally, Washington will insist that Russia give Crimea back to Ukraine, which is impossible under the present political regime in Moscow. For Russia and the post-Soviet space in general this will mean the “second coming” of Pax Americana, and the “rules of the 1990s” will be re-established for some time in Russian-U.S. relations. All talk of Russia as an independent center of power, the leader of a regional international subsystem, and an equal member of a non-hegemonic order in Europe and the Euro-Atlantic area can be forgotten then. It is not ruled out that such weakening of Russia may cause a new upsurge of centrifugal tendencies in the country and lead to the loss of not only Crimea but also some other territories.
If implemented, this scenario will be a painful blow to all new centers of power. Russia, as one of the leaders in the struggle for a multipolar world, will actually be excluded from among the rising centers. This factor will change both the general balance of power in the world between the old and new leaders, and the vector of international development.
The discourse of the last decade on a relative weakening of the U.S. and a redistribution of power in favor of new centers will lose ground, while the thesis about American leadership will get a second wind. It will again become popular for American liberal internationalists to say that non-Western centers have no other choice but to join the U.S.-centric international order as junior partners and that they are not able to create successful alternative systems for regional, let alone global, governance. This talk will be especially loud if Russia’s “exclusion” coincides with progress in establishing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Free Trade Area.
These developments will deal a heavy blow to the BRICS and, in general, to all attempts to create global and regional governance mechanisms independent of the West. The BRICS may break up altogether. Today Russia is the only country in the association that has stable friendly relations with all its members, and as such it serves as an important link between them. If this link is lost, relations among the other BRICS countries will be marked by distrust and geopolitical or economic differences, or, which is hardly any better, by indifference. Russia is the only BRICS member to build its foreign policy in terms of international order and multilateral rules and norms, rather than in terms of simply promoting its own interests.
Organizations controlled by the U.S. will receive much support. Bretton Woods institutions and the G7 will get a second wind. NATO will for long assert itself as the dominant security institution for the entire Euro-Atlantic region, and its influence will extend up to the borders of China, which will increase Beijing’s fears of strategic encirclement.
China will be the second largest loser after Russia. It will lose its only friendly neighbor (not counting Mongolia and North Korea) and the only truly friendly partner among new centers of power. It will also lose a “reliable and safe rear” in Eurasia, which is ensured by the strategic partnership with Russia and which China vitally needs to prevent a hostile encirclement and to carry out a confident strategy in the Asia-Pacific.
The second scenario, which Moscow is now seeking to implement, is the adoption by the United States of new rules of the game, based on the recognition of Russia as an independent center in a multipolar world and respect for its interests, including the right to its own regional integration and security projects and full-fledged participation in international regulation. Under this option, Russia would retain Crimea, while Ukraine should build a state system that would rule out its turning into an anti-Russian state and integration with Western organizations, that would guarantee its neutral status and ensure its close ties with Russia.
If implemented, this scenario will mark the completion of the international system’s transformation into a new multipolarity. The remains of the U.S. global leadership, in the Wilsonian understanding, will be eliminated not only in relations with Russia and other post-Soviet countries, but globally.
The establishment of new rules in Russian-U.S. relations will set a precedent for other nations that do not accept U.S. leadership. America will have to recognize de facto the right of the centers to regional hegemony in a multipolar world, which is a norm for this international order. Although this factor will defuse most of the problems and differences in the United States’ relations with other centers of power and will allow it to eventually build stable and more or less equal partnerships with them, the global system of U.S. alliances will be dealt a blow.
For the time being, this scenario seems to be science fiction. Washington is moving in the opposite direction, which is explicitly proved by the general transformation of the U.S. policy under Obama from building strategic partnerships with all major centers of power in the world to consolidating European and Asian allies around itself, while tightening the policy towards Russia and China.
This transformation suggests that the U.S. is experiencing enormous difficulties trying to adapt to multipolarity. This adaptation is at variance with American history and ideology and is hard to accept twenty years after the U.S. seemed to have reached the end of history. It is equally difficult to admit that the Wilsonian tradition of liberal internationalism, under which the United States is actively involved in international relations as a leader with a view to changing the world, does not work under multipolarity.
Sooner or later, the historical norm of multipolarity, balance, regional hegemonies and ideological diversity will prevail in international relations, and America will have to recognize it just as it did under Woodrow Wilson, however much he opposed it.