The Ukraine crisis has come to a head with Russia biting the bullet and launching “a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.” Even as the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres was warning that the world was facing a “moment of peril” and calling for “restraint, reason and de-escalation” to avoid “a scale and severity of need unseen for many years”, Russian troops that had massed on Ukraine’s borders for months now were preparing to launch an assault on Ukraine — after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the Russian-backed, rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent and even challenged the historical right of Ukraine to exist.
Mr. Putin continued to insist that he was open to “direct and honest dialogue” but with every step of the escalatory ladder he climbed, he ensured that dialogue was becoming difficult to sustain. And the Russian Foreign Ministry even suggested that the idea that Russia is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine is an invention by the West. But the invasion has now happened in full view of the international community, with Mr. Putin saying that Russia did not plan to occupy Ukraine and demanding that its military lay down their arms. Launching a “special military operation” and alleging that Ukraine’s democratically elected government “had been responsible for eight years of genocide”, Moscow’s seeming goal is demilitarisation and a “denazification” of Ukraine.
Putin versus the West
Hours before the invasion, the western countries had imposed a new round of sanctions against Moscow (targeting Russian individuals and banks linked to Mr. Putin’s regime), and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz suspended certification of Nord Stream 2, a major gas pipeline between Russia and his nation. But clearly it had no real impact on Mr. Putin’s calculus.
United States President Joe Biden, in his response to the invasion, has suggested that Washington and its allies would respond in a united and decisive way to “an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces” on Ukraine. But the future course of action for the West remains rather murky. Perhaps because of this, Charles Michel, the head of the European Council, has continued to insist on the need “to be united and determined and jointly define our collective approach and actions”. The European Union has announced a “massive” package of sanctions as it comes to terms with “the darkest hour in Europe since the Second World War”.
Where Mr. Putin has shown resolve and a single-minded sense of purpose, the West has been incoherent in its response — not being able to present a united front, and worse, not even speaking the same language at times. For Mr. Putin, this is a moment to use Ukraine to highlight his broader demands of restructuring the post-Cold War European security order. For the West, this has been a moment when it has been found wanting — a lack of imagination, lack of will and lack of leadership, all rolled into producing a lackadaisical response to the one of most serious security crises in decades.
Mr. Biden’s leadership has been found wanting. For all his talk of leading through coalitions, all he has to show for is a disarray in the European ranks. Where Germany has been reluctant to allow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to ship German-origin weapons to Ukraine, France has used this moment of crisis in trying to showcase its own leadership credentials. French President Emmanuel Macron has been talking of the European Union taking decisions independent of the U.S. in an attempt to showcase its ‘strategic autonomy’. The trans-Atlantic alliance has barely functioned despite all those who had argued that it was the fault of U.S. President Donald Trump fracturing this partnership. It turns out that even Mr. Biden has not been able to build the trans-Atlantic engagement around common objectives to be pursued collectively.
The energy factor
Moreover, the EU’s energy dependence on Russia is a reality that has to be factored into strategic considerations. With the EU importing 39% of its total gas imports and 30% of oil from Russia, and with the Central and Eastern European countries being almost 100% dependent on Russian gas, the reasons for internal EU dissonance are not that difficult to fathom.
Where Russia repeatedly made it clear that it remains willing to even use the instrumentality of force to attain its diplomatic objectives, the singular refrain from the West has been that it has no intention of escalating. In such a scenario, the initiative is always with the side that can demonstrate a willingness to ratchet up tensions. Mr. Putin is willing to take significant strategic risks which the West is not ready to do. And, as a result, the initiative since the very beginning of this conflict has been with Russia. The West has been left to respond reactively to the developments around it. And it is in the very nature of great power politics that smaller and weaker nations such as Ukraine struggle to preserve their very existence.
A strong Beijing
This ineffectual western response has emboldened not only Russia but also China as the focus of the West is in danger of moving away from the Indo-Pacific. The Russia-China ‘axis’ is only getting stronger as the two nations seem ready to take on the West that seems willing to concede without even putting up a fight.
It was this week in 1972 that U.S. President Richard Nixon shook hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and radically altered the contours of the global order by reshaping the extant balance of power. It allowed China to emerge as the leading global economic power and helped the U.S. in winning the Cold War.
Today, the balance of power is once again in flux, and as China develops a strategic partnership with Russia, the future of the West-led global order will be defined by how effectively it responds to the crisis in Ukraine. The tragedy of great power politics is unfolding in Europe but its embers will scorch the world far and wide, much beyond Europe.
Harsh V. Pant is Director of Research at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King's College London