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The End of Unipolarity? Broader Implications of the Russo-Ukrainian Crisis

Ilan Hulkower

 On March 11, 2022, President Joe Biden announced that Russia, due to its war against Ukraine, would no longer have a most favored nation trade status with the US and that he would ban Russian seafood, diamond, and alcohol imports. This action has added to the long and dramatic list of American and allied sanctions on Russia: like America’s ban on Russian oil and gas. What is notable here is who has not gone along with the United States in levying sanctions against Russia and what this could signify for the future of international relations. Charles Krauthammer’s famous 1990 article cited the Soviet transfer of Eastern Germany to the West as the beginning of what he saw as a brief unipolar moment. This unipolar moment was marked by world power being now so firmly concentrated in the West that the Cold War division of power between the United States and the Soviet Union was no longer the predominant force in international politics. Krauthammer noted that other states had rushed to the West in general and America in particular as “the sole allocator of geopolitical goods”. Assuming that this unipolar moment had lasted, the limited reaction by the international community, and the emerging great powers in particular, to America’s demand for sanctions against Russia over its war in Ukraine have in essence signaled the end of American unipolarity. 

Before I explore the broader implications of the reaction to the Russo-Ukrainian war, it is important to provide background on the war itself. Ukraine is historically seen as an important state by the Russians. Various experts like George Kennan, the famed architect of the American policy of Soviet containment, and Robert M. Gates, former Secretary of Defense under Bush and Obama, had warned that expansion eastward by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would engender adverse Russian reaction. Gates in his memoir lamented the policy of trying to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia into NATO when the Russians had vital interests in those countries. Likewise, William J. Burns, now Biden’s CIA director, warned in 1995 that NATO expansion would not be welcomed by the Russians. He further wrote in a memo to the State Department in 2008 that Ukrainian entry into NATO would be seen as a bright red line by not just Putin but by the entire Russian elite. Such warnings as well as any understandings with the Russians about NATO expansion were ignored. 

The ousting of a democratically elected pro-Russian president of Ukraine in the 2014 Maiden Revolution with American backing raised the hopes of many Ukrainians who were desirous of NATO membership. This revolution resulted in controversially conducted but (at least on paper) popularly supported secessions from Ukraine in the Russian speaking Donbass region and the annexation of Russian majority Crimea from Ukraine to Russia. Nevertheless, Ukraine persisted in its appeals to join NATO, which at times were met with Western encouragement. As late as the 2022 Munich Security Conference, which was hosted days before the outbreak of the war, President Zelensky of Ukraine was again raising the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO while accusing those in the West blocking this as appeasers of Russia. Zelensky also expressed underlying concerns in the same speech that since Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the 1990s it has had no real security. American Vice President Kamala Harris remarked that while the United States would not send its troops to defend Ukraine, Washington D.C. recognized that the peace and security of Europe was under direct threat by Russia. 

On February 24th , 2022, President Vladimir Putin, partly citing fears of NATO expansion, announced that Russian forces were going to carry out a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.” This announcement came on the heels of a previous decision made by Putin on February 21, 2022, to recognize the independence of the Russian separatist republics in the Donbass area amid an uptick in violence between the Donbass separatists and the Ukrainian army. Since the invasion, Moscow has publicly released their initial terms to the Ukrainians. These demands are that the Ukrainians enshrine the principle of neutrality in their constitution (i.e. that they cannot join NATO), recognize Crimea as part of Russia, and recognize the separatist Donbass republics as independent states. These acts spelled the death of the 2014-2015 Minsk Accords, which was an attempt to establish an effective ceasefire between the Ukrainian government, the Donbass separatists, and Russia. Even before the invasion, the effectiveness of the accords was already in question. In the days prior to the Russian invasion, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recorded some 1,710 ceasefire violations Daily Report") between the Ukrainian government and the Donbass republics. Violations of Minsk were not a new development. Despite promises by both sides that they would withdraw heavy weapons from the Donbass region, such promises were not upheld. Similarly, one OSCE report also noted that civilian casualties in the separatist Donbass republics between 2018-2021 comprised over 80 percent of total civilian losses from active hostilities (like shelling). 

The United States and its allies reacted to the invasion of Ukraine by issuing a whole litany of sanctions on Russia. The declared goal by the Biden administration is that these sanctions make it impossible for Putin “to ignore public sentiment and continue his increasingly brutal invasion. Their main guiding principle is to provide Russian citizens with facts and context that they cannot find on Kremlin-controlled outlets, whether online or through other media.” As of the writing of this article, these goals have failed to be met. In fact, popular sentiment in Russia is moving counter to those goals with Putin’s approval ratings, which have been consistently high, soaring into the 70s. Additionally, most Russians approve of Putin’s action to invade Ukraine. Indeed, this policy by the Biden administration has not been thought through well given that Russia’s response to the sanctions was to restrict or outright ban their citizenry from accessing Western social media outlets. This makes getting out the Western narrative over Ukraine to the Russians harder. Even if Russians had unfettered access to these outlets, they would be exposed to the change in policy by these outlets to now allow for the praising of neo-fascist groups in Ukraine and calling for the death of their fellow Russian soldiers. Additionally, they might notice that living and dead Russians have also suffered from public pressure campaigns due to the Western reaction to the war. Hence, exposure to Western media may not necessarily lead toward Russians accepting the Western narrative. 

In terms of the sanctions themselves, contrary to some reports, Russia anticipated serious sanctions to be levied against it and worked to lessen the burden of these sanctions even prior to its invasion of Ukraine. For one thing, Russia is in better economic shape than it was when Putin first took office. In 2020 their debt to GDP ratio was 17.8 percent which is a very marked improvement of when in 1999 their debt to GDP was 92.1 percent. For another, Putin has for years worked with China (the second largest economy in the world and set to become the largest economy [by nominal GDP] in the world as early as 2026), on creating an alternative to the dollar for their bilateral trade. More recently, Putin signed a series of economic deals with China on February 4th totaling $117.5 billion. Russia also deepened its ties with Argentina, Cuba, Iran, India, Venezuela, and others. Russia has only strengthened its economic ties with China in the aftermath of its invasion and has accelerated plans to construct an alternative to the dollar as a reserve currency. Indeed, Russian-Chinese ties have become so close that the United States has expressed its concerns about the relationship. India, the sixth largest economy in the world, has also explored options to set up a non-dollar trading account with Russia. India has also considered buying discounted Russian goods after the West issued sanctions against the Russians. Isolating Russia may have costly consequences for those levying the sanctions. Russia has already become pretty much self-sufficient in domestic food production and has even overtaken the US in becoming the top exporter of wheat. European markets being isolated from Russia thus stand to be in serious jeopardy from the loss of Russian gas and fertilizer. This is not to argue that there won't be serious pain inflicted on the Russian economy through these sanctions or that Russia will necessarily ultimately emerge victorious from this bout of economic warfare. Rather, the economic consequences of the fallout with Russia are a two-way street and that Russia is in a better position now regarding meeting its basic food needs than the rest of Europe seems to be. If Russia does manage to survive this fallout and if a viable alternative to the dollar as an international reserve currency emerges from this experience, then America’s global standing has been seriously undermined. 

A prospective global balancing coalition against the United States may be starting to emerge. Many point to the overwhelming passage of the United Nations’ General Assembly resolution denouncing Russian aggression in the Ukraine as a sign that the world stands firmly united against Russia and with the West. There are flaws with this analysis. For one thing, General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding. The only part of the United Nations that is invested with binding legal power is the Security Council, which failed to pass a resolution on the war due to Russia’s veto. What is a more important clue of the willingness of states to act on an anti-Russian policy, is not primarily through them giving lofty speeches and passing non-binding majority resolutions, but whether they joined in the sanctions regime against Russia. As of the writing of this article, the vast majority of states, including states in America’s backyard in Latin America, have not joined in. 

International relations between states can be compared to a game of chess where not all pieces are equal. Emerging great powers and great powers in our example constitute the more important pieces of international relations. All the BRICS (stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) grouping of countries, those who are widely seen as potential great powers, have not joined the United States here. Neither has important regional powers like Indonesia and Turkey, the latter being a member of NATO. What is important to note is that countries in the BRICS grouping collectively constitute a major and growing share of the world market. This is in comparison to the major blocs like the European Union (EU) that joined the call to sanction Russia, whose share of the world GDP is still considerable but in decline

Frustrated by those desisting in sanctioning Russia, the Biden administration is considering levying sanctions on some countries who do not sufficiently exhibit an anti-Russian policy. To that end, the Biden administration has mused sanctioning India for its close defense ties to Russia. India has not taken these threats laying down. Despite American pressure for the Indians to denounce Russia, they have adamantly refused to do so. An Indian government official let it be known that they are improving relations with Pakistan, a longtime rival of India’s and an ally of China. India has additionally taken steps to improve its relationship with China, another geopolitical rival of India. All of this points to the possibility of a balancing coalition being formed against America consisting of three great powers. This is an alarming development. Such a combination of Russia, China, and India would be extremely difficult if not impossible for the United States to handle. It would effectively mean that the United States could not reasonably contain its main geopolitical rival of China. 

It is not only great powers that are aligning against the United States. Now, foreign energy producers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have long been close to Washington D.C., are no longer taking the US’s calls. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who has complained of poor treatment by Biden, warned that his country was considering reducing its investments in the United States while seeking deeper economic and security ties to China. One of the items on the table between Saudi Arabia and China is to peg China’s currency to oil. Should the Saudis back the yuan with oil, this would create a real challenger to the US dollar given that the US dollar is currently backed by oil. In effect, such a move may well spell the end of the power the dollar has as a reserve currency. The United States, being no longer energy independent due to Biden’s policies concerning gas and oil drilling needs to increase oil production."), is forced to compensate for the already rising fuel prices and the loss of access to Russian oil by begging unsavory regimes that are close to Moscow like Venezuela and Iran for their oil and gas. Talks with Venezuela over an oil deal appear to have for the moment broken down. Dealing with Iran means that the United States does not have the upper hand in negotiating the terms of a nuclear deal and it also means Russia, the object of US sanctions, could also hold the talks hostage until the US gives Moscow some additional concessions as well. All of this points to a poorly thought-out policy by the Biden administration that is alienating much needed allies and strengthening the hand of those whom we wish to contain. Whether Russia emerges victorious from its war in Ukraine or not, the biggest winner of this war is China who now has openings to create a stronger balance of power coalition against the United States. 

There are those who insist that Putin’s plans have backfired in Europe at least, and America has had gains there. They note that erstwhile neutral countries like Switzerland are joining in sanctioning Russia, that there are debates now about Finland and Sweden joining NATO, that many countries are now sending arms to Ukraine , and that Europe in general (as well as Germany in particular) has committed to rearmament. Do these developments offset these growing problems I have highlighted? These developments have admittedly created a European bandwagoning/balancing coalition against Russia that may in future (assuming this coalition in Europe is European rather than American led) allow the United States to focus more on providing security to its Asian allies rather than its European allies. 

This balancing coalition against Russia is however much inferior to the alternative balancing coalition of states like India against China. Using our aforementioned chess analogy, not all exchanges of pieces in the game are equal. In itself the loss of a pawn in exchange for a knight or queen is eminently acceptable. Here we stand to lose India, Russia, and other powers to China in exchange for possibly gaining Sweden and Finland. This is not a wise exchange. As previously noted, Europe represents a diminishing share of the world economy. In the realist line of thought, economic power is the foundation of military power. Declining economic strength ultimately means one is unable to spend as much on defense as a growing and economically dominant rival power. In other words, in the long run, should trends continue, our prospective gains in Europe will accrue less and less value.

There are other outstanding issues here as well. Europe, like the United States, is energy dependent on gas, coal, and oil. Until this crisis, they happily got a lot of their energy needs from Russia. So far, while there has been much talk of ending Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, our European allies have failed to set an exact date when they plan to end this dependence. Rearmament requires more energy be spent and put in reserve for building and maintenance of these armed forces. As NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg once noted, “our armed forces still rely only on fossil fuels.” Assuming Europe is serious about rearmament and about cutting their dependency on Russia, all this leads to two questions: (1) where NATO is going to go to get the fuel for its armed force and (2) whether Russia received any indirect or direct benefit from these options. Some of this burden may be relieved by revisiting Biden’s decision to scrap alternative oil and gas pipelines to Europe like the EastMed pipeline. Should the United States become energy independent again and export the needed oil and gas to Europe this too could create an alternative to Russia. However, Biden seems more focused on enacting a green agenda (which underemphasizes the potential of nuclear power) than looking to oil/gas sources to offset an economy overheated with historic rates of inflation, rising fuel prices, and with a severe supply chain problem. As for present green technology being a viable alternative for NATO forces to build themselves on, this prospect is highly debatable on multiple grounds

We are now witnessing the end of American unipolarity with countries looking to the East rather than to the West. This crisis has demonstrated that the West and America in particular no longer has the sway it used to. Many of the rising countries are resisting American demands and expectations. Trust in the US dollar as the reserve currency is waning and alternatives to the US dollar are being seriously considered. American foreign policy is not well thought out with our declared goals not being realistic. It is by no means certain that Russia will ultimately succumb to economic pressure by either ending the war on unfavorable terms or by regime change. Even if the Russian economy is rendered wholly dysfunctional or if Putin falls (and it is by no means certain that his replacement would not carry out a similar if not more aggressive policy than him) or a favorable settlement by Russia of Ukraine proves to be illusive, we have pushed Russia into cementing its balancing coalition with China through not settling the NATO question and the Ukrainian crisis diplomatically. One of the potential virtues of a diplomatic settlement of Ukraine (and of the issue of NATO expansion) would be that if it were brokered by Russia, this would make it easier to approach global powers like India to balance with us rather than against us. This is so as it would rob the Russians of their argument over NATO expansionism driving Russia to act. If on the other hand a diplomatic settlement with Russia had succeeded, then the Indians, who are close with Russia, would have fewer outstanding reasons to not get closer to the United States. While promises by our European partners in NATO to rearm is a welcome development, this still does not remove the fact that we are becoming more isolated on the world stage as many growing powers are looking to Beijing rather than Washington. An isolated America or an America in an inferior international coalition is not at this time inevitable but if we do not tread more carefully it may very well be our future.

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