The case presented by the Russians for intervention in Ukraine is as convincing as that by the West for why it should not have interfered. After all, the Europeans were playing around too close to what is considered the traditional Russian ‘Near Abroad’. A couple of years ago in 2008, the bear had responded similarly in Georgia. It’s not clear, what made the Europeans think the response would be any different now; the Russians have not gotten any weaker and their dependence on its gas has not diminished either. So, why did the Europeans go out of the way to invite the Ukrainians to join the European Union and provoke the Russians, remains a question.
The crisis in Ukraine cannot be grasped simply by understanding the European dynamics. Some have argued that this may be a blow back to what is occurring in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iran, and the Russian role their. The best way to understand the crisis is by using the lens of emerging and established powers. While emerging powers like to avoid confrontation and buy time, an established power cannot allow that, especially if the behavior of the emerging actor is perceived to be threatening.
Countering Putin’s article in The New York Times published in September last year, Obama stated in his speech at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly that America is indeed exceptional, and it will act when there are justifiable moral and greater reasons to do so. “But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.”
Putin had written in his piece: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
In his UN speech, Obama went on to spell out the core American interests at stake in the Middle East: the free flow of energy; focus on dismantling the terrorist networks; building the capacity of its partners to fight the extremists; and preventing the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. For this purpose, Obama stated: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region,” he asserted.
It is in this context that the issues of state sovereignty and non-intervention have taken on added emphasis. They were paramount during the recent crisis of Libya and Syria, and have emerged again in Ukraine.
Why Europe is More Important?
In addition to the Middle East, the European frictions over Ukraine have been going on for a while. The crisis there is most alarming because it represents the home sphere of influence for Russia and the other European powers. In turn, the US considers its security inexplicably linked with the stability of Europe, which is its principal ally on the global theater. As happened in the previous World Wars, it was the European frictions that played out in different regions. Since the end of Cold War, the West learned a lesson and presented a united front when dealing with various conflicts. Now that unity is at risk, and this means that we are entering an extremely perilous phase.
The Dynamics of Asia Pacific
Global power frictions are also evident in the Asia Pacific where China is asserting its territorial claims as US pivots to the region. The country established a new air defense zone over the disputed islands in East China Sea in last November, and declared it will start enforcing fresh rules. The declaration was immediately tested when unarmed American B-52 and B-2 bombers intruded the zone without informing the Chinese, followed by Japan and South Korean planes. This has raised a discussion about the Chinese intent and reaction, and with that the chances of escalation. If China does not enforce the new rules, it would seem weak. The question is why do Russia and China want to appear strong at this juncture?
As US shifts its strategic focus to the Pacific, there are fears amongst its Middle East allies that it may leave the region for the other European allies to deal with. In this regards, French, Australian, and moves of the Scandinavian nations towards Africa are of keen interest, while the British appear to be focusing more on the Gulf region. The establishment of Chinese air defense zone, and the Russian moves in Ukraine, appears to be an uncoordinated response at this time.
As the US-Russia ties deteriorate, western analysts are now closely looking at the Chinese response to the Ukrainian crisis. Meanwhile, the statements emanating from China have remained ambiguous, and these analysts have interpreted them in their favor. After all, both China and Russia have consistently resisted foreign intervention in other nations, especially NATO moves in the Middle East, and that has complicated the operation of the UN Security Council. Now that Russia has violated this principle, a number of questions have been raised for China.
Moreover, these stances were meant for positioning on conflicts far from home, when it comes to the home sphere of influence, Russia reacted differently. Can a similar behavior be expected from China if its primacy is threatened in its home sphere? Will the Russian move to defend its interest in Crimea impact the operation of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, dominated by the emerging global powers, is also yet to be seen.
The Fate of Proxies
In the context of Middle East and South Asia, one of the most dangerous ramifications of the growing US-Russian tensions has to do with the role of proxies. After all, the present war on terror is one left over vestige of the Cold War. PoliTact has previously observed in this space that the Arab Spring, war on terror, and tussles of global powers have already merged in the Middle East. One of the perilous lessons of the Syria campaign has to do with the efficacy of non-state actors in urban fighting. Had Hezbollah not come to the aid of Assad, Syria’s conventional military would not have been able to sustain the regime. What this implies for the AfPak region is too early to tell, but the parallel are there for an imaginative mind.
While China and Russia have been deepening ties with both the Shiite and Sunni states, using SCO, US and NATO have remained disengaged from Iran and the Shiite states. Now this pattern appears to be heading for a historic reversal as US focuses on building a balance, first in Iraq, and now by engaging Iran, and perhaps in the future attempt to pull then away from China and Russia. To what extent will this move disillusion the Gulf Sunnis, and if this would push them in the arms of Russia and China, remains to be seen. In this perspective, the Pakistan, China, and Saudi link, has taken an added significance.
As the global balance of power enters high speed of flux, the issues of state sovereignty and non-intervention have taken on added emphasis. They were paramount during the recent crisis of Libya and Syria, and have emerged again in Ukraine. Pakistan itself was recently caught in a controversy regarding its non-intervention stance on Syria and the potential shift under Saudi pressure. On the issue of Ukraine, India has not directly criticized Russia and has spoken against imposition of any sanctions.
The states that exist at the borders of the traditional spheres of influence are increasingly at the epicenter of tensions. These strains are causing weak states to crumble as they attempt to balance the various pulls and at the same time manage weakening economies and ethnic polarization. On the other hand, states in the Arab world and South and Central Asia, are also under pressure from the extremists. This is further aggravating the undoing of fragile states, and creating the necessity for global powers to protect their influence and interests. As they act, the autocrats, military dictators, and other proxies are poised to make a come back; certainly Gen Sisi has already sensed the change.