Almost on the centennial of World War I, Europe stands once more on the brink. How inevitable is war between Russia and the United States and the European Allies over Ukraine?
Unfortunately, war between Russia and America is quite possible due to the power dynamics in play. For Russia, at stake is nothing less than its future as a great power: if it is unable to act forcefully to protect its innermost sphere of influence, after having lost Eastern Europe, Russia will cease to exit as a great power, or a power of any kind, becoming a client of the Western global order.
To many in Russia who believe in a great Russia, including the chief visionary of great Russia, President Putin, this is an unacceptable calamity that requires the strongest measures to avert.
The United States, on the other hand, cannot permit Russia to emerge victorious for the same reasons of power: if Russia triumphs, America’s power and the American world order characterized as the “verdict of 1989” and the triumph of American democracy and economic order will have suffered a revision.
Ukraine has shown that the struggle that defined the Cold War hasn’t ended but that the endgame is about to begin.
Global and Regional Hegemons, Or Why Ukraine Matters So Much
The international system is defined by a struggle among states for power. Power is essential because it assures security in a world where rival and hostile powers seek to subordinate other states. Nations which are not able to create enough power for themselves become either victims of the more powerful or vassals in various power blocs organized by larger powers than themselves.
According to a realist theory of international relations proposed by John Mearsheimer in his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, large states such as Russia derive their power and security from imposing regional hegemony in their immediate geopolitical neighborhood. Russia indeed hopes to create an alternative to the European Union in its neighborhood and Ukraine is a key component of this project.
Why do regional hegemonies matter? Because these power blocs are sources of military and economic power and security. Having such a power base can also allow a regional hegemon to make a bid for global hegemony and dominate the larger world. This power base effect and the potential for it to be used as a stepping stone in a bid for global power is precisely why other similar powers do everything they can to frustrate such projects and therefore to keep potential competitors from gaining regional hegemony and so creating a basis for dominating another region or two.
Recent history is replete with such moves by great powers and conflicts over regional hegemonies. One reason for America’s involvement in war against Hitler, for example, was the possibility of Nazi Germany seizing the Eurasian landmass and establishing a position of strength that the United States could not overcome. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States developed its grand strategy of containment as a way of preventing the Soviets from seizing control of the Eurasian land mass and establishing a Eurasian regional hegemony. Western Europe in the post World War II order became part of America’s sphere of influence, forming the Atlantic Alliance power bloc. The Soviet Union’s takeover of the Eastern European area created a competing bloc.
Such efforts by major powers to establish, protect and disrupt regional hegemonies, of course, lead to serious international tensions, even wars. The most well known as well as the most dangerous incident of such interference in regional hegemony occurred during the Cold War when the Soviet Union attempted to test American power by making an incursion into America’s innermost geopolitical neighborhood.
Another moment when a great power made an incursion into another’s regional hegemony took place after the collapse of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union when NATO expanded into what once was Russia’s domain, significantly weakening Russia’s geostrategic position. Putin called this the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. Unsaid is the obvious: This tragedy should be reversed.
An Unacceptable Loss
In essence, from a certain Russian perspective, the contest between an American and a Russian global order hasn’t ended with the end of the Cold War. Russia was simply too weak to maintain control in Eastern Europe, which led to the eastern expansion of NATO and set the stage for future incursions into Russia’s innermost geopolitical neighborhood.
Regardless of why it was happening, to the Russians this expansion was no doubt the Prometheist vision of weakening Russia by supporting democratic movements in its republics and ultimately in Russia itself made real. Putin’s most recent accusation that the Polish government trained activists of the Maidan, though on its surface absurd to the Western mind, is emblematic of the fact that Russia fears and despises Poland. Prometheism was a Polish idea, after all, an asymmetric strategy to destroy Russian power. The reason why Russia cannot accept the spread of the fire of democracy in its former regional hegemony is that Russia fears that it may be nothing but a cover for the restoration of Polish power.
Having recovered some strength and facing further Western expansion and the ultimate endgame of Russia becoming a democratized, westernized client of the Atlantic global order, and facing a powerful Poland with significant influence over the former Russian regional hegemony, Russia has reached a point of no return and the world has come to a most dangerous moment in history as Russia cannot give in, even if it means war.
The differences in perception do not end there, with how Russia perceives the democratic brushfires around its borders. To a hard-line realist like Putin, the conflict over Ukraine and Crimea demonstrate the true nature of the global order in its mind-numbing hypocrisy and distorted thinking: The United States can invade any country it pleases and engage in other violations of international law all in the name of its security interests, but no one else can similarity act to protect their interests. Indeed, anyone who challenges this exceptionalism is deemed mentally ill, as German Chancellor Merkel recently suggested Putin is. But all Putin wants is the West’s respect of Russian security interests, which to Russia mean the control of its sphere of influence. Moreover, if that control cannot be had by Russia, a neutral Eastern Europe would suffice. What Russia cannot abide is further expansion of the Western regional hegemony east.
For Europe and America, the stakes are just as high and motivations immovable, as permitting Putin’s Crimea adventure and claims on Ukraine would be tantamount to an admission that the Western order is a farce. To Russia, giving in will mean a continuation of the great geopolitical tragedy and the triumph of Prometheism, this time on Putin’s watch.
Sanctions and Escalation
When arguing in favor of sanctions, it is important to understand that they represent escalation. But what is the end of such escalation of tension? Isolation, certainly but also economic instability in Russia which will only increase Russian intransigence and hostility. Russian retaliation, which will come if Russia is harmed by sanctions, will only escalate the Allied response, creating a cycle that could spin out of control. This crisis cannot be solved by pretending that Russia can be forced to chose a self-defeating option, which leaves only one way of settling this geopolitical dispute—war.