From Ukraine, Putin begins his battle against NATO... and the bipolar world has hit the wall

The Russian military operations in Ukraine reflect a shift in the Russian position towards NATO expansion and relations with Western powers, an event that may have reverberations for the post-war world order.

by Hasan Ismaik
  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Feb 24, 2022

More than a decade ago, in 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin, said before a large group of elite politicians, military and experts gathered from different countries of the world at the annual International Security Conference in Munich, Germany: “The United States has crossed its national borders in every way. ... Today we are witnessing the use of -military force- in international ties, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts”. He continued: "No one feels safe! No one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them." The presumption through which Putin wanted to prove his position, it was clear from his conviction that “NATO expansion does not have any ties with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe,” considering that, “it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”

Why am I referring to this speech? Because I see in it the historical moment in which President Putin completely lost his belief in his ability to build good relations with the West, particularly with the United States, and he turns to think about restoring the legacy of the Soviet Union or perhaps the Russian Empire, which means rethinking about Eurasia in a different way, in terms of Russia's strategic depth, drawing attention and warning against any NATO expansion in those countries.

After its formation in 1949 with twelve founding members, NATO grew to include Greece and Turkey in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain later in 1982. Despite the end of the Cold War and the absence of the reason for which NATO was formed, facing the Soviet-led Eastern Axis, debate continued within the organization about eastward expansion. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, amid huge Russian opposition. The second expansion came with the accession of seven countries from Central and Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. They were first invited to start talks of membership during the 2002 Prague summit, and joined NATO on 29 March 2004, shortly before the 2004 Istanbul summit. Albania and Croatia joined on 1 April 2009, prior to the Strasbourg Kiel Summit. The most recent member state to be added to NATO is Montenegro on 5 June 2017, and North Macedonia on 27 March 2020.

This expansion coincided with U.S. Established an Air Base e in the Kyrgyz Republic “Kyrgyzstan”, arguing that it was temporary following the events of September 11, and thus kept it permanent, and its withdrawal at the same time and unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, as well as coincided with the American invasion of Iraq, which had historical and economic ties with Russia, and the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, which brought to power pro-Western governments in those countries that were considered a Soviet domain.

All these events have led Russia to move from being willing to join NATO to a hostile situation in which it demands a halt to the NATO’s eastward expansion, is working to build a counter-Eastern alliance, and is demanding that it be respected and treated as a great Power that is also capable of imposing what it wants by force when it requires it.

What is happening today in Ukraine is nothing short of that. Putin opposes Great Western rapprochement with Ukraine, the strategic State bordered the southwest of Russia, militarily in terms of its joining to NATO, and politically and economically in terms of developing Kiev’s ties with the European Union. Especially since Putin knows that if "democratic" Ukraine receives official Atlantic support will not only affect other Eurasian States, but it may also have an impact on Russia, forcing him to draw a serious red line when it comes to Ukraine.

Putin's choice of this particular time stems mostly from the fact that he senses the state of weakness experienced by Europeans and Americans alike. NATO exited "dishonorably" last year from Afghanistan, in what can be considered as one of a series of steps taken by the US administration to end its wars in the world and to focus its political and military resources on China, perhaps, and not on Europe. In addition, Putin is often aware that the importance of Ukraine, or even NATO expansion in general, is not agreed upon within the organization itself. To some extent, Germany has made implicit promises that Ukraine will not join NATO. France does not hesitate to consolidate its international policies outside the NATO umbrella, its president Emmanuel Macron described two years ago as "clinically dead", is not unlikely to leave the Organization, especially since it had previously made that move.

Therefore, European investment in the alliance is not close to its American counterpart, because Europe is first in the eye of the Russian storm of anger, of course, military and economic as well. It is much closer and more connected to Russia and dependent on its gas, which makes any approach to NATO's expansion a security burden on Europe, something that Russia takes every time as a pretext for escalation and for collecting demands for it in several parts of the world. By contrast, the United States does not suffer from the same level of threat that Europe is exposed to, taking advantage of its geographical distance and its enormous military and economic potentials. This could put the very existence of NATO into a rethink if the gap between the American and European approaches to threats/as well as opportunities/created by NATO is widened.

If America adheres to the alliance, it does not want to engage in direct war of any kind with Russia. It does not even want to negotiate directly on the issue of Ukraine, and Washington has “very” good reasons to explain its position, above all because, regardless of the legal form of this negotiation and the importance of its outcome, whatever it may be, its mere occurrence implies the implicit recognition of the rising Russian power towards universality as a fully-fledged pole capable of dividing the world again and reviving the bipolarity that prevailed in the days of the Cold War.

Today, the United States is content with media escalation, and threatening sanctions if Russia enters Ukraine, a threat that has largely emptied its impact, first because Russia is already under a wide range of sanctions, and no matter how severe and unprecedented the new sanctions are - according to the American expression, it will still be true in it the Arab poet saying:  

As more shafts at my studded heart fly,

Steel upon Steel shatters the hardy twain.

Secondly and most importantly, it is the new Russian-Chinese alliance, which came as a readiness to face the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis, and which is easily able to empty any sanctions of their meaning and cause them to lose the level of influence that the United States aspires to from. It seems that President Vladimir Putin intended to choose Beijing to announce the formation of a new world order, which was reflected in the joint statement of Russia and China following their Presidents' meeting to mark the opening of the Beijing Olympic Winter Games.

There are two observations that call for pause in this statement. The first is that the declaration of unlimited agreements between the two countries and the opening of the door to all types of cooperation, without exception, is in fact a clear declaration of a full-fledged and complete alliance, surprising in its content for the whole world. The second, it is Moscow’s affirmation of its support for Beijing’s position on the Taiwan issue, and that the island is an integral part of Chinese territory, to which Beijing responded in kind and supported the Russian’s position not only from the crisis of what is happening on the Russian-Ukrainian border, but also from the crisis between Russia and the West as a NATO-led alliance America, and China clearly called on the alliance to abandon its "ideological approach to the Cold War!" In this context, the statements of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday 19 February 2022 during his answer to the questions posed to him at the Munich Security Conference on NATO’s eastward expansion, said: “European friends should seriously ponder whether continuous NATO eastward expansion would be conductive to maintaining and achieving lasting peace and stability in Europe.”

So, the statement in which two powerful and large countries, opposed to the Western approach in general, and the US approach in particular, declared unlimited agreements and their criticism of a particular alliance, will not be just a statement, but a roadmap towards the future that the tomorrow's world will be like, the Russian-Chinese axis, ready to confront the Western alliance. Thus, Russia's objectives are far beyond Ukraine and much more than simply curbing in NATO in eastern Europe.

If Putin succeeds in getting a final Western pledge not to accept Ukraine as a member of NATO, he will rush to get a similar pledge on Georgia and Moldova. It may demand the alliance to withdraw from the "confrontational" countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, and for America to limit / or stop / the deployment of new medium-range missiles in eastern and southern Europe. I do not think that the ambitions of the Russian president stop even at that. He wants to reconfigure the entire “security structure” of Europe to ensure that Russia's influence is consolidated and its geopolitical influence expanded, to repair the damage done to Russia’s security after the end of the Cold War, and to achieve political victories that will be very useful to him when He will run again for the Russian presidency in 2024.

In light of all the previous facts, and no matter how different future scenarios may be, Ukraine remains the biggest loser. If the conflict takes place, it will be on its land, and it has already begun to suffer from its effects on its people and economy, and if it continues, it will have to accept the choices that are in the interest of the Russians. Moscow will force Kiev to accept the autonomous status of the Donbass region and to relinquish its claim to the Crimea (as part of the Minsk agreements 1 and 2), especially since the American ally does not show any willingness to go far in defending it, without realizing that Russia’s victory in this confrontation will alienate the allies America is more and more concerned about it, especially the countries of the Arab region and the Far East, the features of which are strongly present at the high-level Arab official attendance at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics Games in Beijing.

The most important question remains about America, which today is clearly inclined to withdraw from most regions of the world, or reduce its presence, in what appears to be a reconsideration of its international strategies. Is Washington facing in the current Ukrainian crisis what makes it retreat from its "desire" to withdraw from international files and impose new confrontations? As for it will continue its regressive approach even if the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis lead to the emergence of a new world order, which abolishes a unipolar dominance, and divides the world again between eastern and western poles, as it was during the Cold War? There is no doubt that Washington should take into account the great difference between what the world used to be in the Soviet Union and what it is now. Today's global divide is not only ideological or military, but is also political, economic, technological and cyber, which means that its scope is wider and confrontations are more costly and more difficult to predict, so it is easy to turn around a direct and catastrophic hot war at any time.

The United States - and the whole West to some extent - is in a real and unenviable predicament. Optimistic scenarios are almost non-existent compared to the balance of Western interests, and if the United States - in one way or another - is able to get out of the current Ukrainian crisis with Russia with the least possible losses, this necessitates an assessment a comprehensive review of its position, roles, and position in the world, an assessment of the effectiveness of its alliances in several places, and a rebuilding of its strategies on this basis, especially since the opposite “alliance” is ready and lurking, ready to take advantage of any retreat by America, and today it has its different tools from what was used in the cold war, as well as unprecedented alliances.

Hasan Ismaik