“Khrushchev wanted to present Ukraine with a gift on a golden dish, so that the whole republic knew how generous he was and how he cared about Ukraine’s prosperity.”
Today’s conflict in the Ukraine marks the inception of a new period of hostility in East-West relations after two decades of relative peace. The end of the Cold War, its aftermath, and the United States’ unchallenged emergence as a global hegemon (unipower or hyperpower) yielded various predictions about how global power would be distributed over the coming decades. Francis Fukuyama, for example, posited that the world had reached the End of History, with liberal democracy being the final ideological victor after a century of conflict between the West and communism, fascism and other dictatorial belief systems. America stood tall as a shining “City upon a Hill” – its ‘exceptionalism’ scarcely doubted. Now, American hegemony appears to be under considerable threat, and idealistic notions of a prevailing liberal democracy spreading irreversibly across the world are appearing more and more defunct. Numerous scholars (as identified by Buzan and Clark) are suggesting that, over the coming decades, the global centre of power could shift East, and that a new multipolar system – a result of the economic and political emergence of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) as great powers – is but a matter of time. Out of these states, only India and Brazil have the advantage of being relatively free and open democracies, compared to Russia’s authoritarian regime, a still-divided South Africa, and a China still under the firm rule of the Communist Party.
For neoconservatives concerned with the spread of freedom and democracy by interventionist means and advocates of hegemonic stability theory – the idea that the United States ought to maintain a strong military presence around the world in order to prevent the international system descending into anarchic destabilization – these changes are seen as quite troubling. Indeed, the Russian Federation is the successor state to the USSR, having retained its nuclear stockpiles. Just last month, Putin announced that he would put forty new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) into service – a troubling sign of the growing hostilities between the newly emergent Eurasian power bloc and the West. Russia also inherited the Soviet Union’s permanent seat (and all important veto) at the United Nations Security Council, giving it significant influence over international decision-making.
Undoubtedly, the United States now wields less influence over world affairs than it did in the 1990s. The decade notably succeeded America’s victory in the Cold War and the end of global bipolarity. Partly, this recent decline can be attributed to its adventurous wars overseas, which have cost trillions of dollars, damaged the superpower’s reputation across the world, and seen an overextension of the country’s resources (which, if one accepts the premise that the United States is indeed an empire, Paul Kennedy in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers has conceptualized as ‘imperial overstretch’). While the Rise of China, whether peaceful or otherwise, is set to continue unceasingly, a resurgent Russia is an issue that has only recently regained attention following the re-election of Vladimir Putin as President in 2012 and his subsequent invasion of Crimea (Ukrainian sovereign territory). Firstly, there is little question that the four-year hiatus in his Presidency – with Dmitry Medvedev stepping into the position while Putin accepted the post of Prime Minister between 2008 and 2012 (in what has seen the regime be described a “tandemocracy”) – was but a constitutional annoyance rather than any intentionally desired relaxation on the part of Russia’s strongman.
President Putin, himself an ex-KGB member, has stated that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century”, and with the creation of the Eurasian Union earlier this year there is growing unity among the former Soviet republics. Such a move suggests a diplomatic shift away from Europe and the West in favor of a more Eurasian cultural identity, which strikes resonance with Samuel Huntington’s theory of the post-Cold War era constituting a Clash of Civilizations. Indeed, in Central Asia the United States’ closest ally is Kyrgyzstan (and until last year the U.S. had stationed troops in the country). Similar alliances with Russia’s neighbors, such as American support for President Saakashvili of Georgia during the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, has led some to argue that the region is seeing a new ‘Great Game’ between the Western powers and the Eurasian states. Belarus – under the dictatorial rule of President Lukashenko – has also joined the Eurasian Union, while Eastern Europe and other former Warsaw Pact countries – having attained freedom from Soviet rule in the late 1980s – are now feeling increasingly threatened by the resurgent growth of Russia’s sphere of influence. Lithuania has even chosen to reintroduce conscription as a result of the growing tensions, and an old U.S. proposal to place missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic further contributes to the uneasy relations here.
An additional issue is the granting of asylum to American whistleblower Edward Snowden after his revelations detailing the National Security Agency’s pervasive global surveillance practices. And turning to the Middle East, there has been a long-standing relationship between Russia and several American enemies. Iran, for example, was provided with the Bushehr nuclear reactor by Russia amid ongoing international concern about the former’s nuclear ambitions. Furthermore, the USSR was the biggest contributor of arms to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – Putin being strongly opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation in 2003. Russian military support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is also well documented.
During a period of relatively cordial relations between the West and Russia, President George W. Bush famously announced that he “looked [Putin] in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Now, the conflict in the Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions has seen a rapid growth in hostility between the two former Cold War enemies. Hostility that, as a topic, is sure to dominate the study of international politics in the foreseeable future.
Tom McLachlan is a recent MSc Global Politics graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science’s (LSE) School of Government, having also acquired an undergraduate MA in International Relations and Modern History from the University of St Andrews. He has a background in think tanks and the UK Parliament. His main interests include U.S. foreign policy (being the subject matter of his undergraduate dissertation on the Bush administration), the politics of the Middle East, ethnic cleansing and genocide, self-determination, and international terrorism.
Cover image ‘BRICS Business Council‘, 20 Aug 2013’ by GovernmentZA