Harsh V Pant
On 24 February, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, not only provoking the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II, but also setting in motion geopolitical trends that are likely to change the contours of the post-Cold War global order.
Putin’s misadventure has once again proved that it is easier to start a war than bring it to a conclusion, as one year into the conflict, there is no sign of an end game. Russian forces are struggling even as the Ukrainian resistance aided by Western weaponry has been able to hold its defenses. But the human costs remain high, with Russian forces now resorting to indiscriminate bombing of urban spaces and infrastructure.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Ukrainian historian Georgiy Kasianov underlines how contrasting historical narratives have shaped the causes and consequences of this war: “Russian forces have been smashing their way through Ukraine spurred in large part by historical fiction,” even as “history also propels the fierce Ukrainian resistance. Ukrainians, too, harbour a particular understanding of the past that motivates them to fight. In many ways, this war is the collision of two incompatible historical narratives.”
A year on, neither side has been able to make a decisive breakthrough. The stalemate is quite obvious on the ground, with the outcome of the war remaining highly uncertain, but in a short period of 12 months, the strategic contours of Europe’s post-Cold War security landscape have been radically transformed. The Trans-Atlantic alliance Nato has been revived and Europe is once again seeing the virtues of geopolitics. Most significantly, in a decisive break from its post-World War II foreign policy of caution, Germany today is at a turning point (‘zeitenwende’) in European history.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was forced to confront the consequences of European reluctance to engage with the changing strategic landscape, and he had to accept that “with the invasion of Ukraine, we are now in a new era.” Once one of the strongest proponents of close ties with Russia, Berlin has not only managed to significantly curtail its energy dependence on Russia but has also announced a massive increase in defense spending to build “a powerful, state of the art, the advanced army that protects [Germany] reliably.” Within the EU, there has been an interesting shift in power to the east, with eastern European nations asking and getting a more robust pushback against Russia.
And Nato is back in demand, with its frontiers now actually reaching Russian doorsteps, something that was Putin’s ostensible reason for starting the war.
For Russia, it has been a year of disastrous displays of incompetence at multiple levels. The last vestige of being a major power—its military might—was shown to be of little value. An initial blitzkrieg that was supposed to end the war in days failed due to serious command-and-control as well as logistical frailties, forcing Putin to go in for “partial mobilization” that led to domestic discontent. Now the Russian strategy is to wait and sap Western support for Ukraine as waves of aerial bombardment wreak havoc on hapless civilians. With Ukrainian forces trying to consolidate for an offensive, a major escalation is likely without certainty of a resolution.
Diplomatically, Russia is also losing ground, with its prestige melting away along its periphery in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Apart from Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea, Russia has found little explicit support. Most nations have been keen to balance their ties between Russia and the West, while China, despite its declaration of a “no-limits friendship”, made it clear that it won’t provide one bullet to Moscow. A year on, though, China is said to be considering supplying lethal aid to Russia and the West has warned that such a move would mean crossing a ‘red-line’.
For much of the world, the food, fuel and broader economic crisis brought on by the war has taken a huge toll. The world was just beginning to recover from the pandemic when Putin struck. The developing world has been the biggest loser, with economic distress visible in many countries. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, for example, have all struggled to pay their import bills.
India, too, is fast learning that its extreme dependence on Russia for defense supplies has shrunk its strategic autonomy. Though New Delhi has been a net beneficiary of a leadership vacuum in the global order over the last few years, allowing it to showcase its leadership credentials, global polarization and continuing major power rivalry will also exact costs on India’s ability to pursue multi-alignment effectively.
The article was first published by The Mint as The Ukraine war has shaken up a delicate post-Cold War order on February 23, 2023.
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