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Ukraine-Russia war and the alternative global order

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Graphic: Wade Geduldt/African News Agency (ANA)

By David Monyae

A lot has been said about Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine which began in February 2022 under the orders of President Vladimir Putin. A considerable amount of ink has been spilt on the implications of Russia’s actions in Ukraine on geopolitics and the global order going forward. This is not surprising because Ukraine has, since the early 2000s, been the centre point of the tensions between Russia and the West.

While the western forces represented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU) have targeted Ukraine as their prized recruit into the liberal order, Russia views Ukraine as its last buffer against western encroachment and possibly containment.

For the West, the move into Ukraine represents the spread of democracy while for Russia, such a move represents an existential threat. Western pundits and commentators have, rather unsurprisingly, concluded that Russia’s actions in Ukraine will leave Moscow diplomatically, geopolitically, and economically worse off. In his article on Politico, Mathias Dopfner proclaimed that “the outcome of the conflict is clear: Russia has lost”. He contends that Russia’s operation will yield a militarily and economically devastated country. The same operation will somehow lead to a stronger and united West.

Dopfner pontificates that when Russia is defeated, the West must exercise benevolence and extend an olive branch to Moscow. This, he contends, will draw Russia closer to the West and away from China thus preventing the consolidation of an alliance that would be a danger to western interests.

He envisages the creation of what he calls America, Europe, and Russia (AMEURUS) alliance as a strategic imperative for the West. The alliance would be bound by trade, values, and security and would be able to withstand China’s assault on the liberal order. Dopfner’s views are by no means unique. The views expressed in his article have been circulating widely in the western media making it seem like a coordinated propaganda strategy to justify their governments’ unsustainable spending on Ukrainian military aid.

But first and foremost, we must address the barrage of media claims that Russia is losing its war with Ukraine. It is indeed true that in the last few weeks the NATO-supported and numerically superior Ukrainian forces made significant advances in the cities of Kharkiv and Kherson where they have managed to drive the Russian forces back. But these are just battle victories which do not necessarily foretell the outcome of the war. The Ukrainians’ numerical advantage, outnumbering Russian forces by 1 to 3, seems to have been an important factor in their latest victories. There are an estimated 600,000 Ukrainian troops against less than 200,000 Russian troops.

As a result, Russian troops had to spread themselves thin to cover as much ground as possible which meant that some of their front and defence lines were numerically overwhelmed by their opponents. However, President Putin has taken steps to address this shortcoming by decreeing the mobilisation of 200,000 troops to be deployed to Ukraine.

The additional troops will provide Russia with the much-needed manpower to defend and even make more gains in territory. Moreover, Russian forces control and occupy about one-fifth of the Ukrainian territory including the annexed Donbas and Luhansk regions. The Ukrainian forces are unlikely to take back these regions any time soon. In light of the growing concerns by some sections of the western public and politicians on the huge military aid to Ukraine which is depleting their military stock, Ukraine cannot bank on the continued supply of unlimited military aid from the West in the long run.

The outcome of the American mid-term elections in November will certainly have an impact on the US resolve to keep channelling military aid worth tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine. Hence, the widespread western media verdict that Russia has lost the war seems to be little more than coordinated propaganda far removed from the reality on the ground.

Secondly, Dopfner is of the view that the West will emerge stronger and united from the Ukrainian crisis while Russia will be on its knees with a begging bowl in its hands. Again, this is a claim that is not very well substantiated. It sounds more like an item on a wish list. It is as if Dopfner and his colleagues think that the West is prosecuting a proxy war in Ukraine out of thin air. The US and the EU have thus far committed more than 80 billion euros in military aid in propping up Ukraine’s war effort.

If this conflict drags on, the West will have to channel even more aid which will leave their military stocks severely depleted.

The EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell was quoted as saying that, “The military stocks of most member states have been, I wouldn’t say exhausted, but depleted in a high proportion, because we have been providing a lot of capacity to the Ukrainians.” As such, it is not as if the West will emerge militarily unscathed from this conflict. Economically, western countries especially in Europe are already feeling the pinch from the sharp rise in energy prices as a result of Russia reducing its natural gas supplies to the region by 7.5 percent. Europe is highly dependent on Moscow’s natural gas for its energy needs which makes up 40 percent of the EU’s energy consumption.

The EU’s struggles with gas supplies have hit its economy quite hard as producing goods and services has become more expensive as a result of high energy prices. Moreover, the effectiveness of the western-imposed sanctions on Russia has not been clear thus far. If the West does not possess an economic and military trump card then it will not have any leverage on Russia after the Ukraine crisis as Dopfner argues. Further, the unity of the West in the long term is uncertain. There is a real possibility of leadership changes in the US in 2024 as Donald Trump looks set to challenge an increasingly unpopular and frail Joe Biden.

If Trump successfully reclaims the White House, we might see a radical change in NATO’s approach to the Ukraine issue and to Russia itself. Hence the claims that Russia will emerge geopolitically worse off from the Ukraine crisis with a stronger West is based on flimsy evidence.

Further, Russia’s flirtations with the West during Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s eras in the 1980s and 1990s were nothing short of a disaster. The western-backed political reforms led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union which severely weakened Russia geopolitically. The disappearance of the Soviet Union and the termination of the Warsaw Pact paved the way for NATO’s eastward expansion which threatened Russia’s national security. This has directly precipitated the Ukraine crisis.

The economic reforms which saw a move away from a state-regulated economy to one characterised by deregulation and private enterprise only yielded poverty, inequality, and an arrogant oligarch. It is difficult to see how the Russian people will all of a sudden embrace the West.

Dopfner assumes that the hostility to the West in Russia does not go beyond the political elite and claims that the Russian people are indifferent to and can work with the West. Polls show that the majority of Russian people view the West, particularly the US, in a negative light. This will not suddenly change in the post-Putin era. The article recommends that it will be to the West’s strategic advantage to court Russia and recruit it into the liberal order to avoid a situation where Moscow enters into a partnership with Beijing and radical Islamist states. Such a partnership, Dopfner worries, would mount a formidable challenge to the West thus increasing the chances of a change in the global order to suit China’s interests.

China is viewed as an unrepentantly authoritarian state that threatens western values and interests. Such views emanate from the West’s narcissistic attitude which includes remoulding the world after its own image. China and Russia’s manoeuvres to navigate a western-dominated and authored global order to advance their own interests are nonchalantly dismissed as an attempt to undermine western values and global stability. Yet somehow these countries are expected to welcome the West’s military expansion in their backyards.

The EU and the US actions in Ukraine will instead strengthen the partnership between Russia and China and maybe India making the possibility of Russia’s recruitment into the western fold highly unlikely. India and China have somewhat come to the rescue of Russia against the onslaught of western sanctions. The Ukraine war will accelerate these countries’ efforts to map out an alternative global order where the West cannot hold them to ransom. As things stand, Dopfner’s AMEURUS is unlikely to see the light of day.

David Monyae is an Associate Professor in International Relations and Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Africa – China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.