Russian actions and Western responses to them could accelerate the unwinding of the current international order
Russian actions – and Western responses to them – will not lead to the unwinding of the current international order, but they could accelerate the process. For the last few decades, Western powers have benefited from an international architecture they designed and policed. Although rising powers such as Brazil, China, and India have not overturned these post–war institutions, they are uncomfortable with the way the West has used global institutions to pursue its own interests and are increasingly “routing around” global institutions by creating bilateral arrangements while caucusing within them to hollow out the liberal bias of their rules and regulations. If the West now tries to use these institutions to act not just against Iran and North Korea but against Russia – a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – it may find that it encourages revisionism rather than deterring it.
“The world will never be the same again”, said European Council President Herman van Rompuy after Crimea, conjuring up a geopolitical awakening at the heart of the EU. So far the crisis has been contained to Ukraine rather than spilling over across the post-Soviet space or bringing the global economy to its knees. What will the longer-term global consequences of the Ukraine crisis be? That is the question that we have tried to answer by drawing on the expertise of all ECFR’s programmes, compiling here 10 of the striking effects.
Our findings are framed by a bigger story about global order that predates the crisis in Ukraine. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has benefited from two orders: an American-led security order that ensured a balance of power in every region, and a European-led legal order that sought to write rules for our interdependent world – in everything from free trade and climate emissions to financial transactions and genocide. The backdrop to the Ukraine crisis is the fraying of the American-led security order as non-Western powers rise and the US recalibrates its foreign policy after a decade of war. Increasingly, the West seems to be trying to compensate for its lack of willingness to use military power by “weaponising” the international legal order – that is, using financial sanctions, asset freezes, and international law to shape the choices of revisionist powers.
1. Raising the stakes in Russia. In the future, the annexation of Crimea may look like a watershed moment for Russia itself. It has dramatically intensified the internal political and economic strains that Putin’s authoritarian regime was already facing and thus created a domestic pressure cooker, which may relatively quickly spawn either fully-fledged authoritarianism or the collapse of the regime – the exact contours of the outcome remain anyone's guess for now.
2. An open challenge to the European Order. By annexing Crimea and intervening in Ukraine, Russia has raised fundamental questions about the principles of the European order. Russia was always against the principle that countries are free to choose their alliances and has consistently, though often covertly, tried to derail NATO enlargement into its neighbourhood. But Putin is now challenging these principles explicitly. Russia wants to both restore and re-legitimise spheres of influence as an organising principle of European order. This is a direct challenge to Europe and the West as a whole: although some countries might be willing to accept implicitly Russia's view of European order, none can afford to do so explicitly. But it seems even less likely than before that Russia will accept the Western-led order.
3. Contest for international norms. We face a contested international normative terrain. Russia's actions under Putin represent a two-pronged attack on Western ideas of international order. First, Putin challenges the principled basis of Western policy, asserting that the US and Europe only pretend to respect international law but in fact are happy to act outside it when their interests are at stake. He cites Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya as evidence. Secondly, he presents an essentially illiberal vision of world order that he claims to be more realistic, based on spheres of influence, opposition to popular empowerment and favouring one's own national or linguistic group – in each respect a direct opposite of Western ideas of liberal order.
4. The West loses the Rest.Despite the fact that Russia’s use of force to annex territory set a precedent that threatens widespread disorder, the world has not taken the West's side. The large number of abstentions in the UN General Assembly vote shows that many countries see this as a struggle between power blocs rather than as a fundamental question of international order and do not accept the West's self-identification as the guardian of liberal order. The “Rest” – that is, non-Western countries – have found some of the actions cited by Putin troubling and do not separate their views of Western-backed liberal order from their conviction that the West enjoys an unjustified position of privilege in the international system. We should reject any equivalence between controversial Western actions and Russian action in Ukraine, but we also need to revisit and strengthen the international foundations of the liberal vision.
Middle East & North Africa
5. The beginning of the end of sanctions. The West's Middle East adversaries have been at the sharpest end of the impact of punitive US-led economic sanctions – from Libya and Iraq and more recently Iran, which continue to this day. The Ukraine crisis could mark the beginning of the denouement of economic sanctions as the preferred instrument of contemporary US coercive power. Going after Russia, the world's 9th largest economy, may represent the kind of overreach in economic coercion that the Iraq war demonstrated in the military arena. Expect some acceleration of efforts by an "alliance of the threatened" to develop circumvention options (bank and payment systems, reserve currencies) to insulate themselves from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. This will have implications for the Middle East and far beyond. And Europe too might want to question the desirability of being so exposed to the predilections of the US treasury – as the current predicament of BNP Paribas indicates.
6. Looking to MENA for energy.Any European strategy to reduce energy dependence on Russia will inevitably turn its attention to the Middle East. Alongside existing sources in Algeria and the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Ukraine crisis could make the sanctioned Iranian energy market look ever more attractive – encouraging Russia-Iranian competition as opposed to cooperation. Or Europe might refocus attention on Libya and to bringing its potential 1.6 million barrels per day back online, or see new opportunities in the Kurdish or other regions of Iraq especially given new pipeline options via Turkey. The prospects for a serious Middle East energy pivot may prove as elusive as they are tantalising, but they should be on Europe’s radar.
Asia & China
7. Asian countries are competing to woo Putin. As tensions increase in Asia, many countries in the region are trying to strengthen their strategic relationships with external powers – and despite its actions in Ukraine, even Western allies in Asia have continued to woo Putin’s Russia. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has opened up to Russia because he is seeking a territorial settlement over the four islands that both Tokyo and Beijing claim, and wants to keep Russia from joining China’s side. Similarly, South Korea is engaging to get Moscow’s cooperation with North Korea. By comparison, Europeans do not have in Asia the leverage that would allow them to enlist Asian countries’ full cooperation on issues such as Crimea and Ukraine.
8. Asia hates western intervention even more than self-determination.Given that many Asian countries worry about their own secessionist regions, you would think that they would oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But the Ukraine crisis illustrates how they worry even more about Western intervention. Given the choice between self-determination and holding sovereignty sacred, Asia mostly chooses the latter. Even India, which should worry about any referendum on secession because of the Kashmir issue, and especially China, which sees a chance of enlisting Russia in its own territorial gambits.
9. European unity in escalation.In the past, relations with Russia were the most divisive issue in European foreign policy. But the EU has maintained cohesion in responding to Putin’s aggression with limited sanctions, political and economic support for the new Ukrainian leadership, and the maintenance of diplomatic channels with Russia. Poland and the Baltic states wanted a bolder response but compromised in the name of European unity. The recent decision of the Bulgarian government to suspend the construction of South Stream shows that the European Commission’s pressure is working. And Europe still possesses its weapon of mass destruction which gives it a leverage on Russia: access to its financial sector. The EU has to work on how to fine tune this weapon and use it as a deterrence.
10. The risk of disunity with de-escalation.However, the crisis has also showed that this unity, as much as it is valuable, has been fragile and lacking leadership. Most notably, neither the Weimar Triangle, nor the Visegrad Group – two formats which could provide stronger impulses for both crisis management and long term strategy towards EaP countries and Russia – have been efficient. Sure, many countries previously most engaged in the EU Eastern policy (Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Czech republic, Hungary) have managed to agree on relatively low-common-denominator reactions to the ongoing developments in Ukraine. But they remain divided on the long term issues that will determine EU policy in the future: most notably a possible energy union and the lessons learned from the failure of the Vilnius summit. Competing readings of the mistakes made by the EU in its policy towards Eastern partners (“bad communication of this policy to Russia” versus “insufficient offer to Ukraine”) may make the current consensus difficult to sustain.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.