The challenges posed by the Ukraine conflict are not just regional, they are systemic. The conflict raises two important questions: First, how stable is the international order that has been built mainly by the United States after the Second World War, and expanded after the end of the Cold War? And second, are the liberal democracies of Europe, the United States and beyond ready to defend this order, or are we about to witness the decline of the West?
By using military forces against Ukraine, Russia is making a bold statement: smaller, weaker countries do not have the right to determine their future. In the Kremlin’s view, this right only belongs to a handful of powerful countries that have strong military muscle - including nuclear weapons - and are free to act on the international stage as it pleases them, limited not by international law but only by other, powerful countries.
Some observers have described this model of international order as organized around “spheres of influence”, but what the Kremlin is looking for goes far beyond “influence”. What Moscow seeks is domination, as in the Soviet times when Warsaw Pact countries were only satellites who could neither choose their foreign policy orientation, nor decide about their internal organization. Another way to look at this model is to see it as the Russian domestic “power vertical” translated into the international arena.
Do as the Americans?
A major argument of those defending such a model of global order is the belief that America does so. It may well be that Russian president Vladimir Putin assumes that he is doing just as the Americans do -- that this is how the international system works, if the niceties are stripped. Some Western analysts wouldn’t disagree.
What they overlook, however, is that the current order is not simply built on relationships of power. Instead, power usually flows through channels of rules and institutions, most notably the United Nations. It is an order built on the idea of a ‘power horizontal’, the equal sovereignty of states.
Admittedly, this principle has been violated several times. The prime example is the United States. In some cases Washington has abused its power. But in many others it felt compelled to act because it hasn’t been just a country like others inside the system, it has been the main builder and guardian of the system.
Almost all U.S.-led interventions in the post-Cold War era were triggered by civil war or major violence, with Iraq being the controversial exception. All in all, countries that do not descend in violence and do not threaten or attack neighbors can, in the current international order, pretty much do what they like in terms of international internal organization (including repression and limited violence) or foreign policy orientation.
This is why so many states favor the current international system which is underwritten by U.S. power: it is widely seen as benign, giving countries opportunities instead of forcing them into submission.
It is not an accident that so many countries that have lived under Russian domination for decades have sought closer ties with the West. For them, being part of the western order means not only to enjoy higher levels of prosperity, it means as well that their independence and territorial integrity is secured. They prefer a multilateral order in which might is balanced by right, in which smaller states are subjects of politics, not just objects in the geopolitical calculations of ruthless leaders.
Principles at stake
Ukraine today lays at the edge of both spheres, the western sphere of multilateral order and the neo-imperialist Russian sphere of submission. The Kremlin is using military force in order to stop Ukraine from moving out of its control. As Ukraine becomes a functioning state, and Ukrainians feel they are citizens of a new nation, the prospects of turning the country into a Russian satellite are moving towards zero.
The EU has been far from interested in moving post-Soviet countries into its sphere. Most EU countries were for a long time happy to see Ukraine with all of its problems remaining within Moscow’s purview. And when Armenia backed off from its proposed agreement with the EU, under massive pressure from Moscow, Brussels didn’t do anything―besides offering new negotiations for a much more modest agreement.
Putin is not fighting against a Western-led conspiracy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of domination. It is instead the large majority of Ukrainians who want to move out of the morass of corruption and violence which they see as linked to Russian domination, and into the rules-based, prosperous, liberal order they see in their western neighborhood.
For Putin, control over Ukraine is a core foreign policy goal because it is central to the vision to establish an alternative international system, one that is based on spheres of domination. He wants Russia to be more than a nation-state in a horizontal system of nation-states, he wants Moscow to be the leader and commander of a bloc in a multi-polar order. Controlling Ukraine is an essential part of elevating Russia to the level of such a leader.
For German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has played a major role in shaping the west’s response to the Ukraine conflict, this conflict is equally about principles. The West has reacted so harshly not only because it cares for Ukraine, but also because there was a clear realization that what is at stake is not just one country, but the character of the European peace order at least, or even the future character of the international system.
China testing the status quo
The way the Ukraine conflict will be solved is likely to have global ramifications. If Putin succeeds in regaining control over the country, he will have created a precedent -- other countries will feel emboldened in their neo-imperialist designs.
One of them would probably be China. Beijing’s potential sphere of domination covers the East and South China Seas, but may not end there. For the time being, China is testing the resolve of the international system, rather than attacking it head on, as Russia is doing in Ukraine.
But if Beijing feels that the current rules are getting weaker, that they aren’t supported by the West and its allies anymore, it may feel emboldened and move ahead more strongly in its neighborhood. This would lead to increased tensions with neighbors and with the U.S. which is underwriting the security of some of these neighbors.
Like Russia’s western neighborhood, China’s neighborhood is by no means ready to submit to the larger power. Indeed, most East and Southeast Asian states believe in the ‘power horizontal’: in the sovereign equality of states, in their freedom to chose their domestic system and their foreign policy alliances -- an international system to which they became used to since the end of World War II and which they cherish.
Reasserting the rules of the international conduct over the current conflict in Ukraine is the best and cheapest way to minimize the likelihood of conflict elsewhere. Pushing back against Russia and giving Ukraine the necessary space, and supporting Ukraine in its effort to build a capable state and a viable economy should be a high priority for the west of its allies. If this project succeeds, then the rules of the current international order will have been confirmed and strengthened. To the benefit of all.