The Ukraine war shapes a new world order – unipolarity crumbles to give way to multipolarity (Part 1)

New Delhi, July 4:
As Russian troops commenced military operations in Ukraine on 24 February, the reverberations of this event are being felt in different parts of the world and hold out the promise of major changes in international politics.
Fareed Zakaria has described the war as a “seismic event”, perhaps the most significant event in world affairs since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; it marks, in his view, the “end of an age”, though there is no clarity as yet about the new age that will now emerge.
The war marks the culmination of Russia’s resistance to the eastward expansion of the US-led security order in Europe after the end of the Cold War. This was in the shape of NATO membership being provided to countries on Russia’s western frontiers, and even to nations that had once been part of the Soviet Union. This NATO expansion had affirmed the US continued perception of Russia as a security threat to Western interests and the need to perpetuate the world order that, after the Cold War, had the US as the sole global power.
In 1990, the Soviet Union and NATO had reached an agreement that a reunified Germany would join NATO under West Germany’s pre-existing membership, although restrictions were placed on the deployment of NATO troops on former East German territory. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of former Warsaw Pact and post-Soviet states joined NATO — Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic became NATO members in 1999. NATO then facilitated the accession of seven Central and Eastern European countries Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, while two more countries — Albania and Croatiajoined on April 1, 2009.
This steady encroachment into Russia’s security space was supplemented by the “Colour Revolutions” the replacement of existing pro-Moscow governments in Russia’s neighbourhood with pro-West leaders, following widespread street protests that, Russia believed, had been organised by western powers. These included: the “Rose” revolution in Georgia (2003); the “Orange” revolution in Ukraine (2004), and the “Tulip” revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005). After this, there were other attempts at regime change, though without the “colour” label: the April revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2014, and the agitations in Armenia in 2018.
Towards war in Ukraine
Russia under President Vladimir Putin viewed these initiatives as western attempts to encircle it and place it at a disadvantage vis-a-vis Western powers by depriving it of strategic depth in the West, something Russia had deemed crucial for its interests through much of Czarist Russian and Soviet history. Putin finally drew the line to limit western encroachment in Georgia and Ukraine.
In March 2007, Putin, addressing the annual Munich security conference, said that “NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders.” He added that NATO expansion “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?” In 2008, Russia launched a military offensive against Georgia that brought its troops to the outskirts of the capital. Thereafter, Russia permanently detached two secessionist regions and put them under effective Russian control.
This scenario was repeated in Ukraine. The Obama administration’s involvement in Ukraine’s internal politics in 2013 and 2014 to help demonstrators overthrow Ukraine’s elected president led Russia to seize and annex Crimea. The conflict ended with the Minsk Accords of 2015 that placed restrictions on arms supplies to Ukraine and provided limited self-rule to Ukraine’s Russian-majority eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, the region being referred to as Donbas.
There were violations of both provisions: arms continued to enter Ukraine from western sources (with Russian weaponry coming into Donbas), while elections in the Donbas were thwarted as Ukraine refused to cede full autonomy to the region as its local leaders insisted on, amidst reports that Russian troops were actually involved in backing militants in the Donbas.
In June-November last year, there were apparently positive interactions between Putin and President Joe Biden on the Ukraine issue and larger matters affecting bilateral relations and European security in general, followed by several high-level meetings between US and Russian officials; these gave the impression that the US understood Russian “red-lines” relating to Ukraine.
However, from November itself there were indications that the US was adopting a more hardline position towards Russia. It is likely that sections of the US security establishment were uncomfortable with the president’s accommodative approach towards Russian concerns and encouraged a confrontationist approach. This included: increasing supply of lethal military equipment to Ukraine, rejecting the special status for Ukraine’s eastern provinces, and, through the Charter of Strategic Partnership’ concluded with Ukraine in November 2021, affirming the US commitment to “deepening Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions”, an obvious reference to the country’s NATO membership.
The Russian attack on 24 February was due to what Moscow saw as the massing of Ukrainian troops on the border of the eastern Donbas region and military preparations to bring the region under Ukrainian control, in violation of earlier agreements. In the background of increasing mutual distrust and escalating military movements, the assessment in Moscow at this point was that Russia’s crucial interests would be best served through a pre-emptive attack of its own, thus sending out significant challenges to the prevailing global order.
Challenging the existing world order
During the Cold War, the principal US interest was to maintain its global security interests by resisting the ideological and political challenges from the Soviet Union-led Eastern bloc and maintaining control over the political and economic institutions that it had itself helped to set up after the Second World War. These included the US maintaining 500 military bases in different parts of the world, supported by US-led collective security arrangements in Europe and Asia, i.e., NATO, CENTO and SEATO. These arrangements were complemented by global economic, financial and trade institutions represented by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT), all of which functioned within the framework of US-prescribed norms and principles, collectively referred to as ‘Western values.’
The Cold War ended with the US and its allies as the apparent victors. This was the US’ unipolar moment, the period when the US enjoyed untrammelled global authority and influence. To safeguard its global hegemony, the US shaped the world order based on two mutually-reinforcing principles market capitalism and ‘liberal’ values. The first retained US influence over the globalised economy, buttressed by the replacement of the GATT by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), that became the instrument to enforce neo-liberal market values worldwide, and the retention of the NATO alliance to maintain US hegemony in Europe.
‘Liberal’ values taken together constituted an attempt to reshape national values on American lines, i.e., upholding the US value system of democracy, human rights and free markets. This came to be referred to as a ‘rules-based liberal world order.’ In the political area, the rules-based order meant that international relations would be shaped not by power but, instead, “international laws and norms [would] restrain the action of states” to avoid global disorder. In the economic arena, free markets would prevail, with no barriers on the free transnational flow of goods, finance, technology, information and human resources. Liberal values, upholding universal political, civil and human rights, would constitute the global standard.
Over the last two decades, the US-led order has been facing diverse challenges security, political, economic so that commentators began to believe that a new global order was emerging that was “increasingly multipolar” and defined by several players that are “neo-authoritarian states seeking to expand their influence.” An observer, Scott Lawless, noted that this is largely due to the US “experiencing a crisis of legitimacy on the world stage”; among other reasons, he cited the fact that the US itself “broke the rules” of the security order by undertaking unilateral military interventions outside the UN framework.
Fareed Zakaria, writing in 2019, was even more forthright: he pointed out that the US “mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies”; he referred specifically to unilateral US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq after the events of 9/11. Commenting on the Trump administration, he simply noted that the president “has abandoned the field” and “what is most notable about Trump’s foreign policy is its absence.” Cooley and Nexon affirmed this view a year later when they said: “US global leadership is not simply in retreat; it is unravelling. And the decline is not cyclical but permanent.”
The pandemic appears to have delivered the fatal blow to the unipolar world order: the US had the highest number of infections and deaths globally, while its president and most of his advisers revealed a remarkable ineptitude in handling the challenge. As Francis Fukuyama then noted: “It was the country’s [US’] singular misfortune to have the most incompetent and divisive leader in its modern history at the helm when the crisis hit.”
The Russia-China alignment
The “neo-authoritarian states” viewed as challenging the US-led order were Russia and China. While both were members of the principal global institutions the UN Security Council, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO — they parted company from the US’ allies in crucial areas: as Richard Haass noted in 2020, in his book, The World: A Brief Introduction, they demonstrated “little or no interest in safeguarding human rights or becoming more liberal or democratic”. Russia, he said, had violated several basic principles of the liberal order, such as respect for borders, while China had adopted aggressive policies in the South China Sea and pursued restrictive trade policies that were inconsistent with WTO rules and norms.
But Hass also admitted that the “liberal world order is now fraying”; this was due to: decline in the US’ relative power, its increasing reluctance to be the global gendarmerie, the rise and increasing assertiveness of Russia and China, and, in general, the rising tide of authoritarianism worldwide. Writing two years later, Fareed Zakaria described the new era as “post-American” and said that “Pax Americana of the past three decades was over”. Other commentators have disagreed: Michael Beckley and Hal Brands asserted in Foreign Affairs immediately after the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine that “Putin’s war is fortifying the Democratic alliance” and saw in the war an opportunity for the US and its allies “to get serious about defending the world order that has served them so well.”
To go back a few years, there is little doubt that US hostility to both Russia and China has pushed the latter closer to each other, a trend that was accelerated during the pandemic. From 2014, it was Russia, after the Ukraine attacks, that had evoked western hostility at a time when China was attempting to maintain its economic ties with the US.
However, as the Trump administration shaped US differences with China into an ideological divide and imparted to this confrontation the trappings of a ‘new Cold War,’ Russia and China expanded their relations in economic, energy, military and logistical connectivity areas. Thus, the share of China in Russia’s trade went from 10.5 per cent ($88.8 billion) in 2013, to 15.7 per cent ($108.3 billion) in 2019; in the first quarter of 2020, it became 17.3 per cent ($31.8 billion) of total Russian trade.
Energy became a significant part of the expanding relationship. In April 2020, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the top oil supplier to China, providing 18 per cent more oil (7.2 million tonnes) than in 2019; in May, Russia sold 19.2 per cent more than the previous year. Russian energy companies and Chinese financiers have developed a mutually beneficial relationship: in 2009, the Russian company, Rosneft, took a loan of $15 billion from the China Development Bank to complete the Eastern Siberian Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline that brings oil to China.
This pattern has continued: in 2013, Rosneft took multibillion-dollar loans from three Chinese oil companies to fund domestic projects; it paid for these loans through sales of oil to China over a 25-year period. In a gas-related transaction in May 2020, the Russian company, Gazprom, revived the $55 billion Power-of-Siberia-2 (POS-2) gas pipeline project to provide 50 billion cubic metres of gas to China. This pipeline will transit through Mongolia and will transport gas from operating fields in eastern Siberia and Yamal.
Railway is the other flourishing area in their expanding bilateral ties: Russia is investing heavily in upgrading the Trans-Siberian and the Baikal-Amur railways that are important transport corridors linking Russian and Chinese markets.
Defence ties between them are also witnessing an upswing since 2014. Russia has provided China with its latest Su-35 multipurpose fighter and the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Joint military exercises are a regular occurrence: Chinese troops joined the Russians in the Vostok-2018 exercise, the largest ever post-Cold War exercise. There are annual naval exercises as also joint air patrols.
A new area for cooperation is technology: even as the US and Europe are placing restrictions on Chinese hi-tech products, Russia is increasing its links with China. Huawei is now an important presence in the Russian telecommunications sector, with Russia sharing none of the security concerns that agitate western countries.
Both Russia and China, concerned about possible US sanctions that could deny them access to US-controlled global financial transactions, have begun to reduce their dependence on the dollar in bilateral transactions. In 2015, about 90 per cent of their transactions were designated in US dollars; this became 51 per cent in 2019, and was only 46 per cent in the first quarter of 2020. Russia, on its part, is increasing its reserves of Chinese currency: in 2019, the Bank of Russia reduced its dollar holdings by $101 billion and increased the share of the renminbi in its foreign reserves from 5 renminbi to 15 renminbi , valued at about $44 billion.
There is a substantial strategic aspect to this burgeoning cooperation: given sustained western hostility to the two countries, they know “they need to play as one team,” as Russian commentator Alexander Gabuev has noted. Chinese commentator, Zhao Huirong, has said that Russia and China were working together to build “a platform to find solutions to new crises and challenges through the author is the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, and Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Puneh negotiations.”
Towards this end, the two countries are shaping ‘Eurasia’ as the centre-piece of their bilateral alignment and, over time, as the centre of a new global order.

(Talmiz Ahmad is India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, and Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune)
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