Europe and the West have to watch helplessly as Russian President Vladimir Putin breaks the peace in Europe and overwhelms Ukraine with military force. War in the heart of Europe? Who could have imagined that just a few months ago?
And before we hear the self-accusations again, especially in Germany, that “the West” has “overdone it with the encirclement of Russia” and that we are to blame for the fact that the “Russian bear is now acting irritably,” it is worth taking a look at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on the reasons for the annexation disguised as “recognition” of the eastern Ukrainian separatist regions. And it is definitely not about the alleged need to protect the Russian part of the population in eastern Ukraine from “genocide” and a “fascist government in Kyiv.”
It is about something quite different: The return of Russia as a superpower, which is more reminiscent of the tsarist empire than of the former Soviet Union. Unlike the former Soviet Union, this Russia is not intended to unite different peoples, but to anchor a hegemonic claim to a supposedly unique Russian civilization, which emerged from the three East Slavic peoples – the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians – and which sees itself as fundamentally different from “Western civilization”. The “Russian nation” based on this does not recognize any independent states in Ukraine, Belarus and probably not even in the Caucasus, parts of Central Asia and probably not even in Finland. Therefore, not only Europeans will have heard the speech of the Russian president with both attention and concern. Above all, however, according to Vladimir Putin’s will, this “Russian nation” is also to become a major European power again, which is to have at least a say in deciding the future and fate of Europe. Just as was the case with tsarist Russia for centuries.
Russia only has its military as an instrument
The Russian president wants to reverse a development in which Russia has steadily lost influence in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has since increasingly descended to the role of an energy supplier. Geopolitically, the United States has dominated Western Europe since 1945 and all of Europe since 1989. Russia no longer played a significant role; instead, China has expanded its influence in Europe in recent years. Russia is the big geopolitical loser, both globally and in Europe. The Russian president wants to stop and reverse this trend. And since Russia is neither economically nor politically attractive, “only” the military remains as an instrument to re-establish the country as a European power.
In a sense, the Russian president has already achieved this goal, because the US is again negotiating with him about the fate of Europe. From the Russian perspective, this is a return to normality: Russia negotiated with the US about the future of Europe in 1945, then again in 1989/1990 as part of German reunification, and again in 1997 with the NATO-Russia Founding Act.
Soviet decline and China’s rise – the end of the ‘Pax Americana’
Russia wants to reverse this development after 1989/90 and position itself as a major power in Europe, as it did for centuries before. What is at stake is its influence on Europe’s future role in the new world order that is currently underway. After all, the postwar order of World War II has come to an end with a bit of delay. What we were used to as a global order came into being when states like China and India were still developing countries belonging to the so-called “third world”. Decisions were made in the “first world”: in the US, the USSR, and the democratic industrialized nations of the West. The decline of the Soviet Union and the rise of China were also associated – largely unnoticed at first – with the end of the “Pax Americana”. The United States became less and less able to be both the leading economic and technological nation and to maintain the global order.
Long before Donald Trump, the USA began to gradually withdraw from its traditional role as a global regulatory power to be able to focus its strength on the new competition with China. Today, the center of gravity of the world is no longer Europe and the Atlantic, but the Indo-Pacific. This is where the majority of the world’s population now lives, where most of the world’s GDP is generated, and where five nuclear states with the capability to build nuclear weapons have long since emerged. We are witnesses to an almost tectonic shift in the world’s economic, political and military power axes.
China stands ready as a business partner
Naturally, we can and must now take harsh sanctions against Russia. Harsher and more consistent than anything we could have imagined so far. But we already suspect that Russia has already “priced” these sanctions into the cost of its war: Neither halting the Nord Stream 2 natural gas project, nor freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs, nor decoupling Russia from the European and American financial markets will make the Russian leadership turn back. Sanctions are a kind of “superpower tax” for Russia that it must be willing to pay if it wants to be a geopolitical power factor. And even if we go further and completely cut ourselves off from the Russian energy market and exclude Russia from international payments: None of this will work quickly, especially since China is Russia’s new economic partner.
In fact, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine contradicts China’s principles of non-interference in other states. But the Middle Kingdom will not go as far as to participate in Western sanctions. China’s geopolitical rivalry with the United States is too great. On the contrary, from the perspective of China’s political leadership, this conflict will receive a great deal of attention. Particularly given China’s claim to Taiwan, the political leadership in Beijing will closely study whether and for how long Europe and the US will stand together, or whether this unity may eventually show cracks. China wants to learn from the current conflict between Russia and the West concerning impending US sanctions. On the other hand, from a Chinese perspective, it is a good thing if the US has to refocus parts of its strength on Europe and Russia. This will at the same time hinder the American focus on the Indo-Pacific. The conflict with Russia thus certainly has global consequences.
Read the full version of Sigmar Gabriel’s opinion here.