The conflict between the views and aspirations of the major world players triggered by the events in Ukraine is already affecting the fundamental principles of geopolitics that have existed for the past two decades – and there is no end in sight.
In Ukraine, the situation is at a stalemate. The interim government is incapable of dealing with the disorder and solving the country’s economic problems. The “people’s republics” in the east cannot present themselves as responsible actors or as representatives of the majority of the local population. Much mutual hostility exists among the leaders of all factions and there is no common framework agreed to for finding a solution to the country’s problems. Any legislative norms first collapsed under the pressure of revolution and then were replaced by the principle of “if you can do it, so can we.” In such a multi-ethnic country split by cultural and historical differences, such a situation has created a rapid polarization of society. The collapse of the political system has created a power vacuum that is sucking in foreign powers that are acting in their own interests.
Through the entrenched confrontation in Ukraine, Russia is entering into a relationship with the West similar in psychology to that of the Cold War. Inertia reigns for the moment, but soon a restructuring of the system of international relations and an adjustment of the economic model against further integration into global markets will be necessary. It is not clear how accurately the Kremlin has calculated the economic impact, but in deciding what actions to take in Ukraine, it is clear that the response of the West was taken into account and the damages estimated as tolerable. Moscow’s goal is to rigidly fix the “red line” that was drawn in the post-Soviet period, as well as dramatically improve its global status on the eve of the formation of the new world order. Russia will not back down on the Ukrainian issue. The Kremlin’s decisiveness in Crimea not only demonstrated the seriousness of the mood but also largely blocked any path of retreat. Lowering the stakes is impossible now.
The European Union is bewildered. It cannot find its natural position in the conflict surrounding Ukraine. Power politics is not part of its profile and in no way can it take an independent position. And even though by the logic of the EU itself, the bloc should put the utmost effort into resolving the Ukrainian crisis, it has lost the initiative. Europe is not ready for such a drastic change. In the post-Cold War years, the Old World became used to a comfortable position in which it did not especially fear Russia and had the opportunity of enjoying the benefits of cooperation. The Kremlin’s actions have shocked Europe, awakening the fear of a repeat of the nightmares of 20th century European history.
The United States is now forced to immerse itself completely in Ukraine. The reason, of course, is not in Ukraine itself, but in the fact that the U.S. has met with tough and uncompromising resistance to its positions for the first time in many years. Washington did not expect such a powerful response from Moscow. As a result, its perspective has changed. Until the events in Ukraine, the U.S. considered Russia a headache, but not a fundamental problem. Now, even if the U.S. does not consider Russia a proper rival, it must at least consider the country a contender for the role.
Washington will not be delving far into Ukraine’s murky internal politics, so its wish for Kiev is a perhaps imperfect but democracy-loving government that rode in to power on a wave of a resistance to tyranny. By using sanctions against Moscow, Washington expects to force a change of course in Russia’s behavior. The chance of this is negligible and the pressure will have to be seriously ramped up to have any effect, which will only lead to a more comprehensive containment. Since Ukraine is just part of a bigger picture of creating a new geopolitical order, the standoff between the U.S. and Russia will only expand.
Sanctions against Russia may have effects that were not so clearly seen before. For the first time, the United States has clearly demonstrated that it controls the world economic system: The Visa and MasterCard payment systems can “shut off” financial institutions that fall under American sanctions, and global IT companies are willing to terminate relationships with “undesirable” clients.
Such actions have been undertaken before, but applied to countries many times inferior to Russia in terms of political and economic weight and less integrated into the global economy. Using this method in relations with Russia forces other major global powers to make some difficult choices. They must ask themselves to what extent they can rely on global economic and communications systems if it is so easy for dominating powers to shut off access when it suits their interests. The sanctions against Russia could therefore result in a fragmentation of financial and communications systems and lend further impetus to the multipolar restructuring of the world both politically and economically.
Looking at the staggering scale of these issues, it is almost laughable to recall the smallness of its beginnings. Was Viktor Yanukovich even capable of imagining the Pandora’s box he would open when he postponed signing an agreement of association with the EU?