The invasion of Ukraine ushers in a new era of great power politics

OPINION: If anyone has any doubts about the return of great power politics, Russia has demonstrated it with the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there has mostly been a rules-based international order led by the United States. That is, a set of global standards, underpinned by trade, liberal democracy and a regime of international laws. This, in turn, was reinforced by the possibility that the American force had indeed acted as the guarantor and enforcer of the essentially peaceful – and remarkably stable – international order.

Ukrainians have every right to feel abandoned by the West. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 saw the then newly independent state of Ukraine give up – that’s right, it gave up – its nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for assurances from Russia and the United States that its sovereignty would not be encroached upon.

Obviously, neither party has kept this promise. The Russians have taken territory since 2014, and the Americans have done nothing about it. The two have welched on the case.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow on Thursday, repeating past pretenses to invade Ukraine.


Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow on Thursday, repeating past pretenses to invade Ukraine.

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Since about the middle of the last decade, the international order of the 1990s has been unraveling. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine with little consequence for the international community, on the pretext that there were Russians living there who demanded that the Russian state ensure their security. The occupation was later reinforced by Russian-backed militias in these areas.

These militias were responsible for the downing of flight MH17, a Malaysian airline staffed mainly by Dutch, Malaysian and Australian nationals, by a Russian missile over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Absurdly, following international condemnation of this act, Putin’s regime reacted one day in August 2014 by announcing sanctions against various countries that criticized it, including Australia.

At the time, then-Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott vowed to “make the shirt” of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the incident. It’s an Australian Rules term that basically means grabbing someone by the shirt and pulling them closer. He also criticized the subsequent investigation.

Anyway, after the announcement of the sanctions in 2014, I was a journalist in Australia. I spent the day trying to find out what Australian goods were covered by the sanctions and if there were any goods on the high seas that the Russians would not accept.

President Joe Biden speaks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the East Room of the White House.

Alex Brandon/AP

President Joe Biden speaks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the East Room of the White House.

My job at the time was to find the immediate effects for Australian exporters. Cleverly, however, the Russians had calibrated the restrictions to focus mainly on things that the regime saw as not harming Russians as much, applying them mainly to beef, butter and nuts.

At the time, Australia’s agriculture minister, now deputy prime minister (and former New Zealander) Barnaby Joyce, said Australia would be able to sell the goods to China “in the blink of an eye. eye”.

New Zealand – then led by John Key – had not criticized Russia in the same way, probably because only one Kiwi citizen died on the plane. New Zealand has been removed from the sanctions list.

Putin brazenly blamed Ukraine for the failed flight, as it happened in Ukrainian airspace.

Similarly, on Thursday he blamed Ukraine for any casualties that may result from its invasion, calling on them to lay down their arms.

He’s done that before.

During this annexation of Crimea, Russia was adept at obfuscating the issue. By continually arguing, through various channels, that there was in fact a deceived Russian population there, Putin managed to create a two-sided narrative within the West and muddy the waters on what should have be a simple thing. The headlines should have read: Russia invades Ukraine.

This context is important for understanding both Russia and its modus operandi.

The re-Russification of Ukraine, by Russia, is a long-term historic mission for Putin, a man who considers the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe in recent Russian history.

This is partly due to the nature of Russia itself. Democracies have allies to help keep them safe. For the great old – and emerging – empires and dictatorships of Russia and China, allies are not really something that exists.

There are great dictatorships that mostly get along – provided they don’t interfere in each other’s affairs. This describes the relations between Russia and China. There is also the common heritage of being former communist states: China promotes the illusion that it still is, while Russia has officially rid itself of this myth.

But other than that, for a state like Russia, there are really only vassals and enemies. In Putin’s worldview, Ukraine is historically a Russian vassal. And if not, he’s an enemy. And having an enemy on your doorstep – especially an enemy that is essentially a Western-style democracy – is unacceptable. So now, after the war, it will most likely be turned into a vassal state with a puppet government.

By undertaking this invasion, Putin has posed the greatest challenge to the rules-based international order since the end of the Cold War – and possibly since World War II. Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe in terms of land mass.

Still, it’s a challenge that’s really been around since the middle of the last decade.

Years when the United States and its allies lacked the courage to push back against Russian or Chinese expansionism are now beginning to bear rotten fruit. Turns out Francis Fukuyama’s “End of the Story” wasn’t. There is no emerging ideology that challenges capitalism, but there are still great powers that challenge the West. And the two great powers — one in decline and the other on the rise — simply don’t believe the United States and its allies will do anything if they don’t respect international law — because it doesn’t. is not the case and that they did not.

The current generation of New Zealand politicians grew up at a time when there was little geostrategic competition. The argument of the day was really how imperial the United States was.

But even a cursory look at history reveals how fleeting that moment was. People are people, powers are powers, strong men are strong men. An essentially stable international regime led by a single country was unlikely to last long. The United States seriously spoiled its own notebook with the invasion of Iraq – a strategic blunder, in contradiction to international rules, from which it never recovered. This was further underscored by Donald Trump’s mercantilist America First strategic posture.

In this new world, “the strongest is the law” is emerging as a much more powerful engine than the abstract rules that no one (read, the West) has the courage to apply.

When Jacinda Ardern stood up on Monday and read a list of abstruse and mostly meaningless diplomatic responses New Zealand had made to the invasion, there was little else she could do. US sanctions won’t do much either – Putin will have already factored them in.

This probably won’t affect New Zealanders that much – except through a possible rise in energy prices, and even short-term credit.

In the longer term though, it will be a serious wake-up call for a liberal West that values ​​rules and standards, against rising powers that value guns and might.

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