The Ukraine War and Strategic Shifts in International Relations
Dynamism and Stability in International Relations
The ups and downs in international relations have become all too familiar as countries promote their interests. Whether we talk of the expired rapprochement between Russia and the United States, Sino-US relations, Iran’s relation with the US and its Western allies, ties between Israel and Arab countries or Africa’s relations with former colonial powers, international relations are characterized by stability-cum-volatilities. To borrow from the founding sociologist, Auguste Comte, international society too can be viewed through statics and dynamics. The war in Ukraine raises important questions about international relations: are we in the midst of strategic shifts? If so, what are those shifts?
The Ukraine War: A Critical Juncture?
The Ukraine war has become a critical juncture in the way we understand global society, and more specifically international security. To recap the all too familiar Ukraine war, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed significant parts of Ukraine. In February 2022, Russia made rapid gains as Putin hoped to quickly topple the government of Ukraine. However, Russian forces met steep resistance as they approach Kiev and were forced to retreat. Since then, the war has devolved into a grind as Ukraine regained some lost territory and increased its resilience with the help of weapons from NATO countries. As the US and its NATO partners dramatically increased their support, the war has been elevated to a super proxy war making Ukraine a strategic geopolitical war zone.
Three Shifts: Gravitations, consolidations, and realignments
The Ukraine war is leading to three major shifts that is shaping the security, economic, and humanitarian relations among countries. These shifts are evident in the gravitation toward NATO, the consolidation of ties among non-Western major powers, and the realignment of humanitarian interests.
Gravitation toward NATO – throughout the Cold War and after the fall of the Soviet Union, Finland and Sweden had refused to join NATO, even as other European countries lined up to join NATO. The rapid expansion of NATO toward Russian territory happened against the backdrop of Western triumph in the Cold War. The triumph of Western liberalism became the new normal upon which the international relations stabilized. However, a new dynamic was broiling as China rapidly rose to superpower status and Russia aimed to rebuild its lost power. Arguably, Russia had set the Sea of Azov as its exclusive military zone putting the countries there in the tight grip of Russia, which Ukraine sought to break through NATO membership.
The annexation of mainland Ukraine in 2022 pushed Finland and Sweden to rethink their longstanding strategic security principle of nonalignment. Both countries have now applied for NATO membership. Finland’s application has been approved, while Sweden is awaiting final approval. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced more European countries to gravitate strongly toward NATO. Ironically, the invasion of Ukraine, which was partly meant to halt NATO expansion and enhance Russian dominance, has led to a stronger NATO. Internal disagreements about military spending levels and American excessive financial burden are easing. This gravitation toward NATO is cornering Russia more toward nuclear weapons and forging stronger ties with countries that have contentious relations with the US.
Consolidation of ties among non-Western powers –The US and its Western allies are caught in a struggle to consolidate Western victory over their former rival (i.e., Russia) and to halt the rise of a rival superpower (i.e., China). The simultaneous multidimensional military and economic “wars” between the West and countries not deeply wedded into Western liberalism and security vision is creating opportunities for the consolidation of ties among non-Western powers. Russia has been pivoting toward China, while China is accommodating Russia. Also, Iran is strengthening ties with Russia and China. Even Saudi Arabia has restored ties with Iran and is pivoting to China. These countries are showcasing their growing ties through state visits, military collaborations, and tacit diplomatic tolerance, if not support, for Russian invasion of Ukraine. China held military drills with Russia in December 2022 and has refused to vote in support of UN resolutions condemning the Russian invasion or participate in Western sanctions against Russia. China has been supplying military equipment to Russia and, according to the CIA, is poised to supply Russia with lethal weapons. Moreover, China’s Ukraine peace plan does not call on Russia to give back Ukrainian territory. Iran has also refused to condemn Russia; and there are strong indications that Iran has been supplying Russia with military drones. High profile visits among the leaders of these countries are frequently happening during which they profess their strong bonds and collaboration. In fact, China and Russia have agreed to a “no limits” partnership. A number of other non-Western countries have refused to condemn Russia. While the Western-dominated G7 group has imposed sanctions on Russia, the more global G20 cannot agree on how to apportion blame or sanctions.
Realignment of humanitarian interests – the Ukraine war has added to the long list of humanitarian calamities around the world from Myanmar to Palestine, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Ecuador. Humanitarian problems, whether induced by war or natural factors, often generate international interests, especially from major powers. According to Development Initiatives, a total of US$24.9bn was given out as humanitarian assistance by governments in 2021, mostly to Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.
However, the Ukraine war has generated a new humanitarian obligation and interest. For both humanitarian and geopolitical reasons, Western countries are directing huge resources toward Ukraine. According to data compiled by Statista, between January 2022 and January 2023, Ukraine received over €132bn from NATO countries, including €9bn in pure humanitarian aid. Ukraine’s humanitarian needs have catapulted to the top of the humanitarian priorities, while countries in the Global South (e.g., Niger) struggle for aid. This is poignantly displayed in the sluggish humanitarian response to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria which killed over 50,000 people. A moral dilemma of the Ukraine war is that the sufferings of the people of Ukraine is exposing broader humanitarian inequities that may well mark a sharp turn in the way global humanitarianism is undertaken and viewed, especially in the Global South.