GeoBrief: The big picture of the Ukraine crisis

The Ukraine crisis is certainly not over. To state the obvious, the Ukraine issue is an international crisis that escalates and de-escalates within the broader protracted conflict of Russia-EU-NATO-US, depending on developments.

This protracted conflict is nothing new. It’s the result of a new and emerging international order. To remember Antonio Gramsci: “The Old World is dying and the New World struggles to be born: now is the time for monsters”. The Realist theory of International Relations has a similar view: whenever there is lack of balance in the structure of the international system, instability and conflict ensue.

What we have here are two intertwined dynamics of the post-Cold War era:

  1. The fact that Russia has overcome its post-Cold War Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and as a rising power wants to exert influence and claim a key international/global role.
  2. American “hegemony” is in partial retreat (which entails reduced willingness for engagement), NATO faces limitations and the Euro-Atlantic security architecture is under reconfiguration.

As such, Russia is not simply responding to severe threat perceptions e.g. regarding NATO’s expansion or the security of its energy exports, but is also testing the limits of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture diplomatically, geopolitically and militarily. And it does so because it wants to expand its own sphere of influence in Eurasia and beyond, as well as become an agenda-setting player regarding the global balances of power in the “day after”. This includes to one degree or another the relationship with China as well.

Of course this creates or exacerbates other geopolitical antagonisms as well, for example between Russia and Turkey. But that is a whole other chapter and should again be seen in the context of a multipolar world (that pehaps has not yet come to be), where rising powers can tolerate each other – and compromise with compartmentalized relations – insofar as that allows them to climb the ladder of international power against the previous, established (Western) order. This much is common between Russia and Turkey, despite divergences.

The EU is still unable to respond as a Union. Germany’s ties with – or dependence on – Russia have proven more effective in dealing with the crisis for the time being, than French diplomacy. Which, again points to the limitations of France’s “EU strategic autonomy” project. At the same time, Germany and the US are not exactly on the same page, though the NATO framework still provides some degree of cohesion. And yet significant compromises had to be made for “de-escalation”. Shelving Ukraine’s NATO accession was no small thing, though it happened before.

I believe it’s safe to say that, as far as this phase of the protracted conflict is concerned, Russia has been successful – not least by demonstrating its importance for the EU’s economy and security. The US on the other hand has been unable to convince; Washington’s public discourse has been a fiasco.

Overall, unless there is some kind of settlement on the protracted conflict, Ukraine crisis won’t be resolved. But this doesn’t work the other way around: a “solution” on the Ukraine crisis – whatever that may be – won’t resolve the protracted conflict that stems from fluctuations in the international order.

By Zenonas Tziarras

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