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The Ukrainian Conflict: An Anachronism In 21st-Century Europe – OpEd

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine last February shook the Western world because of its anachronism and cynicism. With its millions of refugees, this brutal and totally unjustified aggression (whatever its defenders say) against a sovereign and peaceful state in the heart of Europe, in flagrant violation of international law and the law of armed conflict, against the backdrop of a nuclear threat, reminds us of the dark days of Hitler’s or Soviet military expansionism.

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But what has occurred on Europe’s doorstep that Europeans were not expecting? And who is to blame? Is it the fault of the West, which has been chastised for its conquering imperialism, manifested in particular through the expansion of its armed wing (NATO) in Eastern Europe, in defiance of Russia? Is it the fault of President Putin’s insanity, a “psychopathic” dictator greedy for power and disconnected from all reality, a dangerous madman in some ways? In any case, the facts are there, and they speak to our conscience: Ukrainian cities have been wiped off the map; tens of thousands have died; war crimes are being committed on a daily basis… and tomorrow, perhaps, a nuclear disaster!

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the product of nostalgic hyper-nationalism, materializes the West’s long-feared fantasy of a return of the Russian threat to the European continent, all in a world profoundly transformed by the evolutions of the second half of the twentieth century: the construction of Europe, the end of the bipolar world, the globalization of economic networks and communication means. Who would have guessed? We just came out of a global pandemic in which we all felt connected, even if in different ways. Now we are in the middle of events from another century, like dreams of empires, military conquests, and dominance, which go against the grain of a world that wanted to become more integrated and globalized.

Surprising and unexpected, recent events in Ukraine have elicited strong reactions, sometimes unprecedented. Let’s remember the fierceness of the Ukrainian resistance, which was led by warlord President Zelensky. We should also remember the renewed political convergence in the West (both in Europe and the Americas), the most extensive and strict economic and financial sanctions ever put on a country, the military and logistical help from the U.S. and Europe outside of NATO (estimated to be worth nearly 64 billion dollars), and the many appeals to the international justice system.

Aside from these reactions, there are the geopolitical ramifications of such a conflict, which will undoubtedly affect future generations. Some people are already predicting a paradigm shift or the end of the post-Cold War era. Whatever terms are used, the facts show that we are at a watershed moment in history. The last two decades have already seen the return of power politics in international relations, the geo-politicization of globalization, the (re)emergence of large emerging countries (China, India, Russia, Turkey…) and the correlative weakening of the West, followed by these authoritarian regimes’ increasingly direct challenge to the principles and values of liberal democracy. Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine has only accelerated these changes. Whatever its outcome, it is feared that it will increase the likelihood of any other military movement in the world. For with President Putin, a taboo has been broken: peace is no longer sacred, and the use of force has (re)found its justification. This is made possible by the spread of a story that is also custom-made and based on beliefs about anti-Western conspiracies, ushering in what some people call the era of post-truth. The conflict in Ukraine could spell the end of globalization as we know it. Many countries have realized this and are considering rearmament. Aside from the perennial hotspots of Syria and Yemen, tensions are rising in other parts of the world, including between Algeria and Morocco, in the Balkans between Serbia and its neighbors, and the Korean peninsula, not to mention tensions between China and Taiwan.

Western countries did not see (or did not want to see) this coming, preferring to be content with defending the status quo in international relations, turning a blind eye to the world’s autocrats’ populist and fascist excesses as long as the latter are working to strictly defend their own interests. The “Arab springs” that shook North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 did not change this posture, nor did Vladimir Putin’s threats against a corrupt and decadent West. For years, Putin has received immunity, blind admiration, or even benevolent complicity from his proxies abroad (beginning with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder). And, despite his often-stated ambitions to resurrect the Russian empire, using arguments such as “Ukraine as a nation does not exist, therefore it must not exist,” the West’s awareness and response to these threats were far too late. The invasion of Crimea in 2014 was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Ukraine is paying the price today.

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This awakening, even if late, has nevertheless had some effect on Russia, even to the point of working against President Putin’s war aims. We are witnessing the restoration of European unity (including the United Kingdom), as well as transatlantic cooperation, the strengthening of NATO with the recent announcement of Swedish and Finnish candidacies, or even the affirmation of Ukrainian national identity and its European vocation, and finally, Russia’s permanent exclusion from the international community. Everything is now moving at a breakneck pace. Proof of this is Germany’s shift away from reliance on Moscow for energy while significantly increasing its military budget, which could kick-start a European energy policy as well as a European defense of which has long been a pipe dream. Vladimir Putin’s military action could also make it easier for the rest of the world to see that Europe is committed to democratic values.

Of course, it is still too early to make a forecast of the international trends that will emerge. There are numerous uncertainties regarding the outcome of the Ukrainian conflict and the future of the regime in Moscow, as well as the sustainability of European progress and the evolution of American policy. The ambivalence displayed by states traditionally closer to, or even allies of, the West, such as India, Turkey, or even Israel, as well as the significant indifference of the rest of the world, will all be decisive, revealing the fragile nature of this multipolar world that some people were calling for in the 1990s.

The world must all prepare for the worst. Fasten your seatbelts, because what we are experiencing today is unprecedented. The brief and imperfect pax americana has ended. Instead, an era of extreme instability and increased unpredictability has taken its place.

Richard Rousseau

Richard Rousseau, Ph.D., is an international relations expert. He was formerly a professor and head of political science departments at universities in Canada, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. His research interests include the former Soviet Union, international security, international political economy, and globalization. Dr. Rousseau's approximately 800 books, book chapters, academic journal and scholarly articles, conference papers, and newspaper analyses on a variety of international affairs issues have been published in numerous publications, including The Jamestown Foundation (Washington, D.C.), Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century (Canada), Foreign Policy In Focus (Washington, D.C.), Open Democracy (UK), Harvard International Review, Diplomatic Courier (Washington, C.D.), Foreign Policy Journal (U.S.), Europe's World (Brussels), Political Reflection Magazine (London), Center for Security Studies (CSS, Zurich), Eurasia Review, Global Asia (South Korea), The Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs, Journal of Turkish Weekly (Ankara), The Georgian Times (Tbilisi), among others.

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