Miguel Ángel Medina
Deputy Director of Antoni de Montserrat Chair of World Studies at Universitat Abat Oliba CEU
When in January 2022 we wrote about the eternal chess game between Russia and Ukraine, no analyst would have ventured to predict the events that have shaken the international scene over the past year. These twelve months have been the scene of profound changes at the global level and, without a doubt, 2023 will be the year that will test many of the constants of the post-Cold War international system, a system that analysts and political leaders believed to be fully consolidated. What consequences could this military conflict have? Can tectonic changes be expected on the basis of this episode? We will sketch a few brief outlines to help us better understand how the Russia-Ukraine conflict has reshaped the canvass of international relations.
First, when the Kremlin decided to launch its special military operation and invade Ukraine on 24 February 2022, one of the key variables of the international order melted like a sugar cube in water: the international system ceased to be predictable, as the actors operating within it ceased to be predictable. The invasion of a sovereign country seemed to have been relegated to geopolitics classes and world history books, but the Russian offensive on Ukrainian soil has shattered all predictions about how world powers behave in a certain expected, rational, almost exemplary way at the global level. The conflict between Kiev and Moscow testifies that no new global dynamic can be ruled out, however implausible it may seem.
A second derivative is directly related to the above; in the world there are no friends, only allies. And there are no perennial interests. The international liberal order that emerged after the end of the Cold War, based on international rules, multilateral institutions and shared economic growth, is not in crisis, but in a process of permanent erosion. The liberal umbrella is no longer sufficient to shelter from the international storm of the last decades, starting with the recession, passing through the global food crisis or energy uncertainty, and ending with the fragile state of democracy or global deregulation. Many countries had already called into question the Western-style multilateral system, and the invasion of Ukraine has now thrown the entire international system into turmoil in this regard, underlining that there is much more division in the world than previously thought. The typical division between democracies and dictatorships has become obsolete, and the military contest highlights that there are many greys in the world in terms of political, institutional, economic and military support between countries. Think of the dictatorships, autocracies, theocracies, sunset regimes, countries led by a strongman… and we will understand why the conflict has not led to a new division on a planetary level. Ukraine and Russia do not represent two antagonistic models of seeing the world, and therefore neither do the countries that support them, in one way or another. There is no risk of a second Cold War.
Third, the concept of neutrality must surely be reviewed in the light of the evolution of the conflict. Sending or not sending arms to Ukraine and not merely applauding the courageous Ukrainian people, firmly adopting international sanctions against Moscow, or voting firmly in forums such as the United Nations against the Russian invasion are now inevitably part of the menu of international leaders, and remaining neutral in this sense has connotations diametrically opposed to the typical Scandinavian or Swiss conception of neutrality in recent decades. To be sure, the conflict in Ukraine brings home to the world that neutrality and inaction are not synonymous, and that given that the international system is far from bipolar, neutrality may be institutional, but it will hardly be political or economic.
In other words, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent armed conflict lead us to think that this international system, so permeable, so liquid, so heterogeneous and interdependent, is increasingly complex, and that the backbone of the international order has very weak foundations. Ukraine and Russia are warning us that any regional, international dynamic is not only probable but possible, and we cannot rule out a new invasion of a sovereign country, a global energy crisis or a shortage of raw materials in the future. In other words, global problems require global solutions.
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