The Age of Great Power Rivalry Russia’s Geopolitical Vision and the Weaknesses of International Diplomacy

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown the world that the age of great power rivalry in spheres of influence is far from being over. The conflict is more of a proxy war between the US and its NATO allies against a resurgent Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 had long been coming since the fall of the Kremlin-aligned Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014. Yanukovych’s fall signalled another victorious ‘colour revolution’. Unlike in other colour revolutions in the world, Russia would not countenance a regime with increased alliance with the West on its borders. The fall of Yanukovych signalled a drift by Ukraine to align more with western Europe against Russia. Russian president, Vladimir Putin’s hatred of this situation was shown by his use of the words, ‘Neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites’ in describing the leadership that has presided over Ukraine since the 2014 uprising. Putin’s reaction was swift as he quickly annexed the strategic peninsula of Crimea and gave subtle support to pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Eight years later, the failure by the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies to understand the abhorrence of Russia to having NATO on its doorstep has seen the mostly cold crisis erupting into a full-blown war.

Russia’s 2022 invasion also exposed the shortcomings of Western-led and United Nations-mediated global diplomacy. The UN has in many instances helped to avert various wars. However, in cases of great power contestation, the UN has been relegated to being spectators on issues they were supposed to umpire. Cases include the Israeli/Palestinian crisis which has not been concluded since 1948, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and the Syrian crisis of 2011.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine brings to question the interplay between a global power against a neighbour aligned to perceived enemies of such a global power. It also raises questions on what takes precedence between international and regional peace and the sovereignty of less powerful states. More importantly, it invites taking a closer look at: Russian views on geopolitical issues in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) states and eastern Europe; weaknesses of international diplomacy today; and possible ways in which global diplomacy can be made more durable against the threat of a third World War, which threatens to be a nuclear war.

RUSSIA’S GEOPOLITICAL DOCTRINE

I have previously argued that, ‘Russia has always taken active and passive actions to guards the Caucasus region and the former soviet countries from external interference specifically interference from the US. Any encroachment into this region is regarded as a threat to Russian national interest and security.’ It is common knowledge that great powers abhor having perceived proxies of their rivals within their vicinities. One needs to look at the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, to understand this fact. The Chinese have also shown this by the manner in which they have been aggressive on the case of Taiwan. It is from this view that the Russian geopolitical doctrine should be conceptualized.

Russia was born as a successor state of the USSR. It inherited the great power glories of the USSR. But it also inherited the humiliation which came with the break-up of the USSR at the hands of the US and NATO. Russia, therefore, grew with an inherited hatred of the US and NATO which is driven by history and was also masked in ideology—Russia having been the global hub of socialism, while the US has been the global hub of liberal capitalism.

In the post-WWII period, the USSR rivalled the US and western European powers like Britain and France in many geopolitical spheres. Among these was the USSR’s support to the decolonization process where the USSR managed to sponsor and influence the establishment of many socialist regimes in Africa and Latin America. While the US was not a colonial power, it worked with western European powers in the decolonization process in order to ensure an ideological victory for liberal capitalism. The greatest blow on the USSR came with the break-up of the USSR into fragmented independent states that included Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova.

The breakup of the USSR did not stop the US from attempts to establish total hegemony over Russia in geopolitical power competition. Using the EU and NATO, the US managed to attain influence in a number of former USSR states. The process has been seen as the westernization of the former Soviet Republics and has taken place in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania; these countries have joined NATO, while states like Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova have shown a bigger drift to the west, even though they are not members of NATO. Michael O’Hanlon states that many Russians view NATO ‘as an insult—a psychologically and politically imposing former enemy that has approached right up to their border.’

Russia’s rivalry towards NATO is unsurprising. A major reason NATO was created was to contain the USSR and naturally its successor, Russia. In response, in 1955, the USSR created the Warsaw Pact with its eastern and central European allies. The Pact was supposed to counter NATO, but the alliance failed as did the USSR itself. During the breakup of the USSR, there were discussions within and outside of NATO on whether it was still necessary for NATO to be maintained. NATO had been formed to contain the threat of the USSR which was now dead and thus maintaining the organization was considered unnecessary baggage by scholars and analysts like Sara Moller and Mary Dejevsky. However, Western politicians kept the organization and continued its expansion into the vicinities of Russia so as to squeeze Russia from global hegemonic competition.

The Russian geopolitical doctrine is, therefore, primarily centred on preservation against US and NATO encroachment into its zone of security comfort (i.e., the former soviet states). Since the breakup of the USSR, Russia took time to nurse the humiliation from the geopolitical defeat to the US, and in extension, NATO. Putin’s rise as the leader of Russia since 2000 saw the country changing its geopolitical doctrine and seeking the past glories of the Russian Empire. Russia’s geopolitical policy had shifted from internal preservation to more of a direct challenge to US global hegemony. This was exemplified by the Russian intervention in Syria, officially from 2015, a move which was a direct confrontation to the Eisenhower, Carter and Bush Doctrines on the Middle East.

The Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957 was promulgated by US president, General Dwight Eisenhower, during the Cold War to encircle the Middle East against the encroachment of socialism and communism mostly from the USSR. The doctrine designated the Middle East as a special region for the survival of the US and its European allies. During the promulgation of the doctrine, Eisenhower singled out the USSR and its communistic ideology as the threat to the Middle East and requested the US Congress allow the president more economic and military latitude to contain the Soviet expansion in the Middle East. The Carter (1980) and Bush (2002) Doctrines were corollaries to the Eisenhower Doctrine. The two doctrines reinforced the strategic importance of the Middle East to the US and its allies. The major difference may only be that while the Eisenhower Doctrine specifically targeted the Soviet Union as the adversary to be kept out, the corollaries took note of the rising power of Iran, which was no ally of the West.

Having played a somewhat usually pacified role in global affairs away from its safe zone, especially in the Libyan intervention in 2011, Russia argued that the US and NATO were using the UN to pursue hegemonic agenda. This influenced its position on Syria, about which Russia did not only veto various UNSC resolutions critical of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, but also went on to militarily intervene in the conflict in support of Assad. This was a direct challenge to the US and EU which had declared that Assad had lost legitimacy and covertly armed the Free Syrian Army rebels. The failure by the rebels to topple Assad as was the case with the Libyan rebels and the take-over of ceasefire talks by Russia sent a message of a Russia that had created a stronger footprint in the Middle East against the traditional US policy for the region. Hence, the West might have seen a need to re-contain Russia within its traditional Soviet borderlines. This might be the reason for a Western drive to bring Ukraine into the EU and into NATO.

The Russians were also accused by the US and France for meddling or attempts at meddling in their electoral processes. The alleged meddling should not be seen as attempts to direct internal American and west European politics. Such a move would be a challenge to the Russians. The move one can argue, was only to expose American and European systems to the world as not being as democratic and superior as the Western global media purported them to be. The actions might also have been a tactic to contain the US and the EU from speeding up policies of deeper integration with the former USSR republics. These actions could be seen as the Russian bear getting out of its Siberian comfort zone and taking risky adventures in slightly warmer America and Europe.

Russia was not only expanding into the Middle East and showing the world that the US system was also fallible, it was also rekindling its interests in Africa.  Russia had an inconsistent policy for Africa. After showing great interest in Africa during the liberation struggles across the continent, Russia (then the USSR,) was moved back to its backyard after an onslaught by NATO, in a global ideological war. The pushback ended in the fall of the USSR in 1991. In the post-Cold War era Russia concentrated on balancing between the shame of the fall of the USSR and the rebuilding of its great power status.

THE WEAKNESSES OF INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMACY

International diplomacy, which is undoubtedly centred on the UN system, has managed to avert a war of the magnitude of the two world wars to date. However, the system has failed to guarantee peace and security for most of the global weaker states, especially in cases where great powers’ interests are staked, in general, and particularly American interests. A number of examples exist, which include the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1995, and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, all without approval from the UN, the US invasion of Afghanistan in  2001, the disregard of the limitations of the UNSC Resolution 1973 of 2011 by some NATO states, specifically France and the US in the implementation of a no-fly-zone over Libya (2011), and the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, which has been ongoing since 1947.

The weaknesses of the international diplomacy have been visible regarding Russian/Ukraine crisis since 2014. Since 2003, there have been colour revolutions in states within the vicinities of Russia. These states include Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Kyrgyzstan (2005) and Moldova (2009). Putin has opined that colour revolutions within Russian bordering states were deliberately engineered by Western countries. In his speech, which recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk (Donbas) Republics from Ukraine, Putin stated that, ‘A role in this was played by external forces, which used a ramified network of NGOs and special services to nurture their clients in Ukraine and to bring their representatives to the seats of authority.’

Colour revolutions have been viewed differently depending on whether one is from the Western liberal ideals or the regime preservative ideals like Russia. What is accepted by scholars across the divide is that the revolutions replaced Moscow-aligned leaders with those aligned to western Europe and the US. In Georgia and Ukraine, the colour revolutions were followed by attempts to join the EU and NATO. As earlier noted, Russia considers these measures completely unacceptable as they imply bringing an institution created for its destruction to its doorstep.

In place of taking measures to address the issue of colour revolutions as interference in a sovereign state, the UN has actually abetted in the matter by passing Resolution 1973 of 2011 allowing NATO member states to aide rebels in overthrowing the leadership of Moammar Ghaddafi and assassinating Ghaddafi in the process. The manner in which some NATO member states abused UNSC Resolution 1973 of 2011 led leaders of Russia and China to revise their policies with the West and also to have deeper questions concerning colour revolutions.

On 8 December 2011, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, stated that the UN’s actions in Libya ‘impacted on our thinking on Syria and led to our veto, together with China, of a resolution on Syria.’ Putin, in March 2011, claimed that the manner in which NATO states interpreted Resolution 1973 was reminiscent of the medieval crusades. In a speech on the annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014, Putin took a swipe at colour revolutions which he characterized as the new method of Western-engineered regime change. The global community, therefore, had a responsibility to look at issues of the manner in which colour revolutions should be considered and how the global community should respond in the aftermath of the 2011 Libyan bungle. Attempts to continue with the same script on the Syrian case only showed that the global powers were not yet ready to put global peace and security ahead of self-interests. It was this intransigence which impacted on the Ukrainian crisis in 2014.

As earlier noted, attempts to join NATO have historically been the spark of crisis between Russia and its neighbours. The international community, including NATO, is aware of this. There are some arguments that at the dissolution of the USSR, the US guaranteed that NATO would not accept or court former USSR states to be its members. This argument comes mostly from pro-Moscow analysts, while those in support of an expanding NATO argue that it was just an exaggeration of verbal discussions at the time of the break-up of the USSR. Since 2014 the Western bloc, from where NATO derives its members, has acted in ways that encouraged Ukraine to become a NATO member, and this deepened in 2020. Not even Russian military drills dissuaded both Ukraine and NATO from having Ukraine join the military defence bloc. Russia made it clear in various high-level meetings and exchanges with leaders from the US, France and Germany that peace would only be guaranteed by the ‘demilitarisation’ of Ukraine. However, the US stated that Ukraine was an independent state with a sovereign right to decide its future. The US also rejected giving guarantees of a stoppage to the NATO eastern expansion.

In all these events, the UN diplomatic system remained a spectator. This has been the case in many instances where a member of the five Security Council (P5) is involved. The UN normally takes a slumber only to be woken when discussing about humanitarian issues like refugees. In the current crisis, the UN was vocal since the outright invasion of Ukraine but did so in a partial manner. The UN has condemned the Russian actions, without equally noting its security concerns. The diplomatic effort, which included Western-coordinated condemnation of the Russia invasion, also included the broad condemnation of Russia, the sanctioning of Russian sport activities, financial sanctions and media blackouts—all of which have not taken into account the excesses of the West in the matter. Such moves have not helped the situation but have only led some to question why similar actions where not taken when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq in 2003. The use of sport and media blockades are dangerous as they set a precedence that associates sports with military conflict when sports are supposed to be a unifying and mediating force. Media blockades, moreover, have only shown that those with power only talk of media freedom and diversity when it is in their interests.

THE AGE OF GREAT POWER RIVALRY

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown the world that the age of great power rivalry in spheres of influence is far from being over. The conflict is more of a proxy war between the US and its NATO allies against a resurgent Russia. A plethora of Russian geopolitical activities have shown the Western world that the new Russia is not to be counted out of global geopolitical dominance. NATO’s attempts to get into Russian security comfort zone can be described in the proverbial phrase that the best defence is to attack. Hence, in order to deter Russia from moving into the Middle East and Africa, the West should create immediate security threats for Russia within its borders.

Russia has responded to the containment attempts by the US and NATO, with war against Ukraine. The invasion of Ukraine is not only meant to ‘demilitarise’ Ukraine as stated by Putin and Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergey Lavrov. It is also intended to send a message to former Soviet states and those within Russia’s borders that Russia will respond with lethal force against countries that partake in NATO containment activities. Russia also put its nuclear command on high alert as a message to the world that it takes NATO encroachment into its vicinities as a maximum threat.

In all these events, international diplomacy has been exposed as weak at containing great power rivalry. It has proven that the global order created after WWII has become archaic and is only suited for the preservation of great power dominance. In a case of a clash between great powers, or their avowed allies, the diplomatic mechanisms’ ability to resolve the conflicts are limited. As was noted by David Thomson, in his book, Europe Since Napoleon, the establishment only works in cases and events that do not threaten the interests of the veto power wielding states at the UN Security Council. It might, therefore, be prudent for the global community to seriously consider calls for the revision of the 1945 order to answer to new global realities

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