By Covadonga Romero
Three months have now passed since the Russian ‘special operation in’ or ‘invasion of’ (depends which sources you are citing) of Ukraine began. As the international community strives to understand this ‘denazification and demilitarization’ event, its causes and consequences, much has been said about war’s potential to fundamentally change the world order—and about the way it illustrates already ongoing shifts. Yet, every aspect of the global balance of power, security architecture, and geopolitical dynamics is challenged by the conflict.
On May 20, the Habibie Center addressed this topical issue through its Public Lecture Series. In an event titled ‘The Ukraine Crisis and its Implications for the Global Political Chessboard’, the Jakarta-based think tank hosted Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic (Vienna, Geneva, universities of ) for a discussion on the war’s repercussions, both globally, as well as for the Asian continent and its Southeastern theatre.
Prof. Bajrektarevic framed his thorough analysis of the conflict by alluding to the usual pattern of “critical insight formation” around an international crisis. The ‘problem’ and its ‘solution’ are presented as two halves to a whole picture; the latter depends on the lens through which the former is viewed. Within this picture, the lights and shadows consist of the ‘costs’ associated with the problem, and their ‘cost distribution’. The multi-dimensional nature of Russia’s war in Ukraine can be understood through this framework. Depending on where the problem’s centre of gravity is located—the rise of new threats in a multipolar order, the global energy crisis, the deterioration of European security structures—different costs can be identified for various stakeholders.
Clearing points at the entrée, professor stated: “the way we formulate the problem will inevitably determine our answer/s and lead the course of our action”. Hence, “today I will concentrate only on setting the questions we must ask to answer what this crisis is about”, explained professor before getting into a 40-minute questions elaboration.
The first key point that was touched upon was the set of historical drivers that shape Russia’s foreign policy today, and along with it, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Among these are the competing universalisms of East and West, insofar as these can be viewed as “not Venus and Mars, but rather two Martian worlds.” The beginning of this is marked by the great schism of the 11th century, with the split between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 1054; from this arises the opportunistic use of religion and its different interpretations for ideological purposes, and the struggle between the dominant centre of religious interpretation and its peripheries or challengers. The events of the Age of Discovery—which saw the projection of European civilisation through political, military, and demographic expansion—reflect this, as exclusivity or dominance over religious interpretation was instrumentalised to justify imperialism.
Another historical factor is Russia’s prolonged perception of Europe as an existential threat. Although this is epitomised by the German-led Operation Barbarossa of 1941—which targeted Ukraine as an important economic territory—previous episodes, such as the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War of 1853-1856, European interventionism during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917-1923, or the humiliation of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921, have also had a lasting impression on Russia’s historical memory. On this point, Prof. Bajrektarevic makes note of the symbolic parallels between the Napoleonic and Axis coalitions that have threatened Russia; these are strikingly similar in size and shape, both between themselves and to the European Union, a third ‘coalition’ that governs today’s continental Europe. Finally, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the fragmentation of Eastern Europe is mentioned, as yet another driver of Russia’s contemporary threat perception.
Against this backdrop, Prof. Bajrektarevic gives an overview of the various aspects—politico-military, legal, economic, and ideological—of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war that are worth considering, in terms of the conflict’s global impact. In the politico-military realm, four key ideas stand out. One is the astonishing deficit of the so-called ‘collective’ West in its response, which is limited by the lack of communications with Russia, and therefore a lack of critical insight about Russian intentions and capabilities. This has led to a shortage of sober analysis on the matter, which manifests as a “dangerous security experiment,” whereby the antagonisation of Russia, supported by “state adventurism,” contributes to conflict escalation. Linked to this is an essential question: who are the conflict’s protagonists? Is this a war between Russia and Ukraine, or between the Russian Federation and NATO on Ukrainian soil?
The peculiar nature of military actions in Ukraine adds to the complexity that the country already experiences. A key aspect of this is its political history, from Kiev Russia, to a prosperous period under the Russian Empire, to a Soviet Republic. Furthermore, the way in which current military activity varies across different segments of Ukrainian territory is associated with the country’s demographic makeup. Before February 2022, Ukraine’s ethnic, linguistic, and religious composite was already reflective of various internal struggles, which have only been exacerbated by the conflict. In recent years, these have included an alarming Gini index and HDI score, as a result of depopulation, deindustrialisation, and the dismal state of civil rights in the post-Maidan Ukraine; now, the surge in internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees will precipitate an irreversible change in Ukraine’s ethnic composition and socioeconomic development. Lastly, the landslide victory of President Zelensky, winning over 70% of the electoral vote in 2019, reflects the buildup of a certain political zeitgeist within Ukrainian society since 2014; among Zelensky’s main electoral promises was the peaceful reintegration of the contested Donbas region under the existing machinery of the Minsk talks.
Regarding these politico-military aspects of the Ukraine crisis, Prof. Bajrektarevic points out the role of the media as an “accelerator of destruction.” Making reference to Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, Bajrektarevic underlines the use of fear as a currency of control, and the widespread personalisation of the conflict through a sensationalist “Putin-versus-Zelensky” vision. This comes as a result of broader trends, such as the “long history of censorship in liberal democracies,” and the more recent phenomenon of complete desensitisation to misery by the numbers, epitomised by press coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The consequences of the media’s approach to Ukraine as an international crisis are far-reaching, with powerful and shockingly-different narratives being built around the conflict. An example is the issue of foreign aid for Ukraine, where a combination of widespread coverage and lack of transparency has led to a number of questions on the donors and receivers; on the quality and configuration of aid, particularly military aid; and on the potential threat of diverted stockpiles ending up in the black market.
On another note, there are several legal aspects to consider in order to understand the conflict’s evolution and implications. To begin with, the indivisibility of collective security from the very spirit of the UN Charter is presented as a potential issue. In this sense, the negotiations held in Geneva, between the US and Russia reflected the need and acceptance of a détente policy, which soon after officialized in the Helsinki Accords of 1975, and consequently institutionalized by the OSCE’s formation (Budapest) – were listed by professor along with other key elements of the post-WWII security architecture. In regard to previous disarmament and security non-expansion guarantees that are challenged by this conflict, it is worth noting the Reagan-Gorbachev talks in the late 1980s; the vision of a “common European home, from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” now seems but a “lame dream.” The same is true for NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PFP) of 1994, which now stands in contrast to the Alliance’s paradoxical role, having been created for defensive purposes but with thirty years of accumulated offensive history across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. NATO’s interventions, although manifesting in different formats, have all underscored a “continued dismissal of Russian security concerns.”
Furthermore, the issue of “neutrality,” or lack thereof, is a key element of this crisis. To begin with, there is the question of Ukrainian neutrality, pledged in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and abandoned in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Much like Ukrainian neutrality was among Russia’s demands in negotiations over the Minsk agreements (particularly Minsk II), it is now a key condition for peace in the current context. On the other hand, recent developments such as Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications demonstrate how neutrality is more of a fluid concept than a legal guarantee.
The implications of this period of change for the non-proliferation regime are disturbing, since unpredictability is a strong force of counterbalance against the multiple international treaties on nuclear and biological weapons. Ukraine’s abandonment of neutrality has led to capacity building, training, and an increase in bio-lab activities; Zelensky’s presidential statement at the Munich Security Conference in February 2022 further emphasizes this intention. All in all, it can be said that the notion of collective security, which previously seemed to rest upon a legal system of “confidence-building measures for active peaceful coexistence,” is seeing unprecedented erosion, into a selective one.
The global economic consequences of the Russo-Ukrainian war are presented from the perspective of costs induced and costs paid. Bajrektarevic’s argument highlights “peripheral countries” as those who bear the burden, particularly regarding the sectors that are at stake in this conflict; these include crude oil, natural gas, and wheat, which respectively come first, third and fifth among the world’s most traded commodities. On the other hand, a sector that is seeing growth as a result of this crisis is the global military-industrial complex. The war has accelerated the dismantling of obsolete military weaponry on Ukrainian soil, which is now being replaced with Western military purchases, financed through loans, donations, and lend-and-lease arrangements; in January 2022, a month before Russia’s intervention even began, the United States had already negotiated lend-lease contracts with Ukraine, totaling $30 billion. However, it is to note that gains for the military-industrial complex inevitably come with losses for international security and overall stability.
Another economic aspect, which has received much of the spotlight throughout the past three months, is the West’s sanctions on Russia and its legality. At present, the sixth round of sanctions has been negotiated. The continuity of this process and the short intervals between rounds make it a credible assumption that, for at least the first four rounds, the timeline was planned and expected. Moreover, the strategy within these rounds, including an arbitrary confiscation of overseas deposits and properties, has clearly been geared towards having an impact on the reputation and credibility of sanctions’ originators. On the other hand, a notion that illustrates the global spillover effects of the war in Ukraine is that of secondary sanctions, aimed at those who associate with the Russian Federation or refuse to punish it. The way in which ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ labels have been put on countries—even traditionally neutral actors—depending on their responses to this conflict is reflective of an overall realignment of the world order; or, at the very least, of the fight for control over the way in which this order is interpreted, and will further evolve.
On the flipside of sanctions, other economic consequences can be found. One is the apparent shift towards de-dollarisation, and even a fragmentation of the global monetary system, so far defined by the ¥€$ (Yen-Euro-US Dollar) domination. The paradoxical resilience of the Russian economy, whose indicators are looking up in spite of sanctions, is a factor behind this; it is also exacerbated by the rise of the “petro-ruble,” along with Europe’s incoherence and panic around energy insecurity. The question of energy has led many countries linked to the Russian Federation’s resources to walk one of two paths: either decoupling and decarbonising, in line with the post-Paris Treaty environmental agenda, or leaning into “preferential prices for friendly countries.” It is largely for this reason -a long with the OPEC solidarity over quotas – that the Russian energy sector remains competitive on the global market, highlighting the important economic role played by third-party countries in this crisis; India stands out as a particular question mark. Beyond this, the overall disruption of global supply chains as a result of war in Ukraine is equally as catastrophic in other sectors; the shortage of wheat exports, in which Ukraine is the main provider for at least 26 countries, has heavily disrupted the global food supply. History shows that a food crisis is not only catastrophic in terms of human security and development, but also as a driver of social unrest and conflict.
The last key theme touched upon by Prof. Bajrektarevic is the conflict’s ideological dimension. The unprecedented nature of a full-scale, traditional war in the European continent as of 2022, and its disruption of the Pax Europaea period that began in 1945, has given rise to a number of reflections and questions. Is it liberal to impose liberal values on illiberal societies? Is the Westernisation of Eastern Europe possible without perpetuating anti-Russian rhetoric? Under this umbrella, several norms, values and key tenets of the Western-led neoliberal institutionalist system—collective security, responsibility to protect (R2P), regime change—are challenged. In trying to make sense of this new reality, Prof. Bajrektarevic makes reference to the “three brave ideas of the 20th century” and their interpretation of territorial competition. First came the egalitarian, non-territorial dogma of the Bolshevik revolution; then, the radicalisation of the material and revival of imperialism through various Fascisms, as well as Nazism; lastly, the ultimate triumph of the non-material and non-territorial idea, through glasnost and Perestroika, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union marking a significant departure from the traditional international conduct.
With the transition into the 21st century, the emergence of “transhumanism” as an alternative (post) capitalistic ideological model where “humans [are seen ] without spiritual dimension, reduced on bio-hackable animal/Bionicle connected to a global IoT network for control and commercial end” gains on ground. This, along with the diminished credibility of Clash of Civilization reasoning, opens a whole new set of questions. The implications of this war for new conflicts within ethno-religious lines span not only the post-1990s “intra-Slavic Guernica”; they also include the wider Islamic world, whereby a break between the Muslim ‘core’ (the MENA region) and the ‘peripheral’ non-Arab Muslim communities in Europe’s south, Caucasus, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. Overall, the question mark next to the promise of democracy suggests that the Russo-Ukrainian war may be the prelude to an inevitable recession, to the return of great power competition. This reflects how the ideological crisis triggered by the conflict is also one of global proportions.
Having laid out all the relevant aspects explored in this lecture, some key takeaways remain. Regarding the potential future outcomes, Prof. Bajrektarevic illustrates the struggle between the ideas of “global realignment” and “decoupling.” Alluding to historical precedent, such as the contrast between the statesmanship of Metternich’s Concert of Europe and the short-sightedness of the Versailles Conference, he argues for the existence of various possibilities—ranging from the total destruction of Ukraine and nuclear war, to sincere peace talks. Finally, following “global repercussions” as the thread that runs throughout his argument, Bajrektarevic’s closing remarks are relevant to Asia-Pacific, and particularly to the Republic of Indonesia, where the Habibie Center is based. Likely outcomes of the conflict’s ripple effect are an overall momentum of destabilization reaching the region at large, thus leading to a reform of the triangular RIC (Russia-India-China) model in continental Asia, and a recession of multilateralism (including ASEAN) in Southeast Asia. Considering the role of Indonesia within this compact, and recalling the previous reflections on loss of neutrality, Prof. Bajrektarevic makes a key recommendation—where Indonesia, ASEAN and Asia must take a side, the side to pick is that of international law, and accelerated multilateralism including the spirt of Non-Aliened movement.
About the author:
Covadonga Romero – International Relations specialist (Madrid-based IE University, Spain) with a concentration on Peace, Conflict and Security. Foreign policy analyst and writer at RAIA Group.