The Ukrainian crisis has changed the post-Cold War status quo ante in Europe and has opened a period of Russian-US rivalry, even of confrontation, reminiscent of the Great Game of the 19th century. Analysis
The Ukrainian crisis has changed the post-Cold War status quo ante in Europe. Viewing the Western partners’ support for a regime change in Ukraine as a betrayal, Russia has defended its vital interests, while the West regards all this as pure aggression by a superpower.
The Ukrainian crisis has opened a period of Russian-US rivalry, even of confrontation, reminiscent of the Great Game of the 19th century: the struggle for supremacy between the Russian and British empires. This competition is asymmetrical and highly unequal.
Since February the current conflict, extending into the political, economic and information spheres, has also included the war side. It differs from the Cold War insofar as people-to-people contacts, trade and information flows are not completely disrupted and cooperation between the parties is partially preserved.
Russia’s interests are focused on post-Soviet integration in Eurasia, while the United States starts to re-establish Truman-style policy of containment against Russia in Europe.
The US approach to Russia reflects traditional fears, even phobias, and is not based on an adequate understanding of the country, not least because Russia has ceased to be the focus of the US foreign policy, as it was in the 1945-1991 period – a “fear” currently replaced by the People’s Republic of China.
The international system is becoming more balanced and the United States must prepare for this by developing a policy line that takes into account the interests of the major players, including Russia. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are becoming the focus of a struggle for influence between the United States and Russia.
This rivalry is also affecting a number of other countries and territories, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian North Caucasus, Crimea and the Baltic States, as we will see later. Meanwhile, in Central Europe, Poland – the most closely connected to the Ukrainian crisis – is hardening its stance against Russia.
With the development of the Ukrainian crisis, relations between Western Europe and Russia are changing significantly. The period of cooperation and mutual understanding that began with the reunification of Germany is over. This is also because Europe’s ruling classes – that have been living for 77 years in a pseudo-Kantian land of plenty – are largely devoted to issues that real Marxists once called “bourgeoisie itches”.
Their greatest political effort is their attempt at imitating the US melting-pot, which is pursued by trying to remove the racist veneer that has characterised the Western world for the crimes of its imperialist-capitalist production system: the slave trade, ruthless colonialism, the massacres of World War I and II, the nuclear bombs on Japan, the Holocaust, the devastation of the Near and Middle East, the current geographically distant and invisible plunder of Africa.
The desire to appear good and sympathetic at all costs, under the US umbrella that – in the opinion of the aforementioned unprepared and incompetent ruling classes – should free us from all evils coming from the East. A new Athens of unconscious slaves, of metics, of women with few rights, and about whom there is much talk – just to beat around the bush by deceiving the eye. A political world halfway between a boarding school for scions of rich and noble families, and a middle school class of ignorant people.
Hence, faced with the growing hostility of the felix West of human rights and democracy-bringing bombings, Russia is turning more towards the East. The People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are also getting closer through the signing of gas agreements. They are also holding joint naval manoeuvres and expanding trade ties.
At the same time, Russia’s tough policy in Ukraine and its willingness to defy the United States have strengthened its reputation in the Middle East and West Asia. Just recall what the liberal West did in those places close to the World Cup in Qatar: four Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973); three Gulf wars (1980-1988, 1990-1991, 2003); civil war in Iraq (2003-2011); war in Afghanistan (1979-2022); Syrian civil war (2011-2002); first civil war in Libya (2011) and second civil war in Libya (2014-2022), not to mention the colour “revolutions”, the so-called Afro-Mediterranean “springs”, the wars in Africa, always with the blessing of the Western war industry.
We reiterate that the political and military crisis that broke out in Ukraine in early 2014 marked the end of the constructive relationship between Russia and the West that had developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a result, we witness a new period of heightened rivalry with former Cold War adversaries, who were thought to be dead and buried, or at best drunk on Coke and Hollywood soft power.
This confrontation is reminiscent of the Cold War, but differs from it in many ways. In the current situation, the value component is represented to a lesser extent than the conflict between communism and liberal democracy, which had a permeating ideological and political depth – hence a moral justification.
It should be said that the traditional military dimension – which is always present – has not become predominant and exclusive, or at least not yet. The Ukrainian crisis is fraught with global consequences but, in itself, is not central to the international system and does not become an organising principle of world politics and the foreign policy of the main parties to the conflict, primarily the United States of America.
If historical analogies are appropriate here, it is better to draw a comparison with the aforementioned 19th century Russian-British Great Game, with the exception that today the Russian-American rivalry is asymmetrical.
The severity of the crisis came as a surprise to many people in Ukraine itself, in Russia, and in the United States of America, not to mention in the faint-hearted European Union-Christmas land. This does not obviously mean that the ongoing crisis and the deteriorating atmosphere in Russia’s relations with the West have been ignored.
Nevertheless, many Ukraine experts, who believed that – as in the book Il Gattopardo by Tomasi di Lampedusa, when referring to the political practice of making reforms that are only apparent and not substantial – “the more this country changes, the more it stays the same”, were taken aback by the dynamic development of events.
At the end of February 2014, Ukraine “swang” too strongly and abruptly to the West and lost its strategic equilibrium that had held it together for almost a quarter of a century. Shortly before, US support for “liberal” change in Ukraine – achieved by overthrowing a democratically elected President – had gone beyond its usual boundaries. The backlash from Russia, which felt cornered, surprised everyone.
A new phase in the struggle for influence is quite real and today we cannot clearly predict either its duration or outcome. One thing is clear: a new era has begun for the Euro-Atlantic region.
The Ukrainian crisis was preceded by a competition between the European Union and Russia over Ukraine’s geoeconomic orientation. The roots of the crisis are related to the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, which put an end to the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, and to the turbulence in the global financial market, which increased the relevance of regional economic structures. The European Union and Russia assessed the outcome of the war and the relevance of the crisis differently.
Having developed the Eastern Partnership programme in 2009, the Europeans moved towards the political and economic association of Ukraine and five other former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova). That initiative was not so much a step towards EU expansion, but rather an attempt to create a comfort zone on its Eastern border and strengthen the pro-Western orientation of the participating countries.
The Russian Federation, in turn, sought to involve Ukraine and most other post-Soviet States in the implementation of its Customs Union project. The work for its establishment also intensified in 2009 and ended in May 2014 with the signing of an agreement on the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union and on the improvement of its position in the relations with its large continental neighbours: the EU in the West and the People’s Republic of China in the East.
Ukraine’s inclusion in that scheme, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to achieve since 2003-2004, as early as the time of the “single economic space” project, was supposed to provide the new association with a “critical mass” of 200 million consumers, of which the Ukrainians would be almost a quarter. At the same time, President Putin remained faithful to his De Gaulle’s vision of a Greater Europe from the Atlantic to Vladivostok, which he revived in 2010.
Therefore, both the EU and Russia considered Ukraine an important element of their geopolitical plans. The Russian side also tried to explore the possibility for Ukraine to be simultaneously integrated with the EU and the Customs Union, which would enable it to maintain a balance within the country and in international relations. Nevertheless, Westerners – on behalf of third parties – categorically rejected negotiations with “another” party on Ukraine’s association.
Both Russia and the EU eventually began to see Ukraine’s choice as a zero-sum game and spared no effort to influence its outcome. We are witnessing the results day by day on TV, and reading about it in the newspapers.
Giancarlo Elia Valori