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Destruction and Reconstruction of Order in the Field: Reflections on Ukraine


An assessment of the primary causes of the Ukraine crisis and possible long-term impacts of the conflict on the international order.

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The outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine was sudden, but as to its root cause, it is the inevitable consequence of the complex security game between the United States, Russia, and Ukraine after the Cold War. The “gray rhino” of war has entered the field, and the order within the field will be an overlapping of destruction and reconstruction.


After more than two years of havoc wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, and following Sweden’s becoming the first country in the world to declare the end of the pandemic on February 9, many European countries have followed suit by lifting all pandemic restrictions. Just as humanity seemed to have just seen a glimmer of light in this fierce battle against COVID-19, another hot war came unexpectedly to the Eastern European hinterland. Early in the morning of February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an emergency televised address announcing the decision to launch a special military operation in the Donbas region. This special military operation then quickly turned into a full-scale war in Ukraine. In the blink of an eye, a Cold War shroud once again loomed over the European continent, and people even wondered aloud whether World War III was coming.


When there is an avalanche, no snowflake is innocent. The outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine was sudden, but as to its root cause, it is the inevitable consequence of the complex security game between the United States, Russia, and Ukraine after the Cold War. The “gray rhino” of war has entered the field, and the order within the field will be an overlapping of destruction and reconstruction.


The conflict in Ukraine is in essence the result of U.S.-Russian strategic interaction


In Mackinder’s [1904] geopolitical map, whoever controls the “heartland” of Eastern Europe will control the world. It was through its control of Eastern Europe that the former Soviet Union established a bipolar pattern to counterbalance the hegemonic United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union emptied the “heart” of the Eurasian organism, leaving a power vacuum at the center of the continent. The United States and Russia then started a struggle over this region, based on the establishment of their respective security borders, that has lasted thirty years. Russia needed a strategic buffer zone to reduce its security pressure from the west, while the United States incorporated the former Soviet sphere of influence into its own strategic space through successive eastern expansions of NATO, squeezing Russia’s strategic space step by step, and thus increasing Russia’s security anxiety.


In The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski talks about how Russia “is more likely to become a problem, unless America fosters a setting that helps to convince the Russians that the best choice for their country is an increasingly organic connection with a transatlantic Europe.” In 1993, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin publicly endorsed Poland’s membership in the transatlantic alliance, and thought that the process was in Russia’s national interest. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed joining NATO three times. It is thus clear that post-Cold War Russia has tried to ease relations with the United States and Europe. However, the United States has never treated Russia as an equal partner, always seeing it as an adversary, and ignoring Russia’s legitimate security concerns. Russia’s assertiveness in Ukraine is a projection of Russia’s stress-induced reaction under the heavy pressure of NATO’s eastward expansion. If one says Russia today has become an enemy of the United States and Europe by going to war against Ukraine, then this enemy role is also a consequence of the United States’ failure in shaping its post-Cold War security strategy toward Russia.


Ukraine’s ingrained and intractable domestic contradictions are the root cause of the conflict


Ukraine’s own fragmentation and complexity have kept it mired in a muddle of interwoven internal and external problems, creating a diplomatic option dilemma, and eventually plunging it into the vortex of war. Many analysts believe that the U.S.-Russian rivalry dragged Ukraine into the war, but in essence, it was Ukraine’s own persistent ailments that created the battlefield for the great powers to fight over.


First, there is Ukraine’s special geopolitical environment. For Russia, Ukraine is the last defensive barrier in a “strategic buffer zone,” while for NATO it is the front line of offense for containing Russia. Although NATO has always been ambiguous about Ukraine’s demand to join NATO, for Russia, which is highly sensitive to security needs, the Ukraine issue is a bottom line and a core interest. Forces from the East and West have never abandoned the struggle over Ukraine.


Second, there is the fragmented nature of the Ukrainian state itself. Ukraine itself is the product of a collapsing empire, and its ethnic, religious, and linguistic intricacies have always put the country at risk of fragmentation. Ukrainians predominate in the western part of Ukraine, while the Donbas region in the east has a high proportion of Russians. The western part is Catholic, while the eastern part is Eastern Orthodox. Although Ukraine was once predominantly Russian-speaking, the “de-Russification” process begun by Ukraine after the Crimean Crisis in 2014 has further intensified the East-West conflict. The Donbas region in the east is pro-Russian, while the west, centered on the capital Kiev, is pro-Western.


Finally, there is the failure of Ukrainian state governance. Ukraine at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union was called the “breadbasket of Europe,” and had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, but after 30 years of economic development and political transformation, it has almost become a “failed state,” on the verge of collapse. Zhang Hong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that the neoliberal Washington Consensus led to the emergence of oligarchy in Ukraine’s political transformation, which thus caused the form of the Ukrainian state to develop from collusion to capture, and finally to the brink of a “failed state.”


To sum up, Ukraine was walking a tightrope due to the failure of state governance, the tearing of domestic fragmentation forces, and the disturbance of external forces. For Ukraine, it is safer to act as a “bridge between East and West” (Kissinger’s term) than to “choose sides.” However, both Yanukovych and Zelensky brought in external forces from one side to counter the other, ultimately eating away at their own country’s independence.


A New World?


The transformation of the international order, which has been explored continually in academic and policy circles in recent years, is based on three assumptions: first, the rapid development of China; second, the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic; and third, the disruption of the new technological revolution. While people are looking into the distance for the “metaverse,” international politics is regressing to the most primitive form—war of iron and blood. Once a war begins, it does not follow a fixed script. And though the outcome of the war remains unknown, the conflict in Ukraine is destined to have a profound impact on the transforming international order.


First, there is a return of great power politics, a failure of the international system, and a dramatic change of the post-Cold War international order. The collapse of the bipolar system led to the global domination of the United States, and although there are descriptions of the international landscape as “one superpower, many strong powers” or “an age of nonpolarity,” the units in the system have never formed a counterweight to hegemony, and “following the strong” has become the action logic of many countries. Today, Russia, one of the permanent five [members of the United Nations Security Council] and a nuclear power, is demonstrating to NATO, led by the United States, in the form of a war. This will have a transformative impact on the international order. In his book After Hegemony, Robert Keohane suggests that the decline of hegemony does not necessarily lead to war, as the inertia of the system still maintains the order of the system. However, the withdrawal under Trump and the failure of international organizations in the COVID-19 epidemic have put the non-neutral character of the international system in starker relief, and raised numerous questions about the existing system of international institutions. Now, NATO’s eastward expansion has brought about a hot war in Eastern Europe, and this war is also a major test for the international system with the United Nations at its core.


Second, the European geo-security landscape is facing a shake-up. On February 24, the day Russia launched its military special operation, German Chancellor Scholz said, “This is a terrible day for Ukraine and a dark day for Europe.” The United States, in conjunction with the EU, then imposed a series of harsh sanctions against Russia, including the announcement on February 27 that some Russian banks would be kicked out of SWIFT. Germany even changed its previous position of not providing weapons to the conflict zone and provided weapons to Ukraine. If the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact gave rise to the “NATO obsolescence theory” and Trump’s alienation of allies led to the “brain death of NATO,” then Biden’s diplomatic strategy to repair the alliance, coupled with the impact of the Ukraine conflict, could become a shot in the arm for NATO. On February 26, President Biden spoke publicly about the possibility of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. However, activating NATO would only worsen continental Europe’s security dilemma, bringing about an imbalance in the overall geo-security environment in Europe and a surge in the probability of a new Cold War.


Lastly, with U.S. global strategy facing “worries east and west,” China needs to take firm hold of the strategic moment and maintain strategic stability. In 2011, as the United States began to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama proposed an “eastward” turn in U.S. global strategy—a “pivot to Asia.” With the rapid development of China’s economy, China is facing increasingly strong strategic pressure from the United States. In 2017, Trump positioned China as a “strategic competitor” in the U.S. National Security Strategy and proposed an “Indo-Pacific Strategy” aimed at containing China. After the Biden administration took office, it intensified competition with China, and the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy report was released on February 11. However, the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine has required the United States to “look west” again and consider the geopolitical security challenges facing itself and its allies in Europe. A possible “east-west” shift in U.S. global strategy could bring dramatic changes to China’s strategic environment. China needs to maintain its strategic sobriety and strategic determination at all times, and resolutely follow the path of peaceful development in the midst of turmoil and crisis.


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Cite This Page

姚璐 (Yao Lu). "Destruction and Reconstruction of Order in the Field: Reflections on Ukraine [场内秩序的破坏与重建:乌克兰问题审思]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in China Social Sciences Network [中国社会科学网], March 1, 2022

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