The Alphen Group Geopolitics, Strategy and Innovation


The Defining Moment of Ukraine—Values versus Interests, Democracy versus Autocracy

By Colin Robertson

The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the post-Cold War period. Coming on the heels of the pandemic and the pressing urgency for action on climate change, inequalities within and between nations are exacerbated and key multilateral institutions like the UN Security Council and World Health Organization have proved inadequate to the challenges.

In setting the stage for this week’s 77th General  Assembly, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke of a “world blighted by war, battered by climate chaos, scarred by hate, and shamed by poverty, hunger, and inequality”. With “geostrategic divides …the widest they have been since at least the Cold War” he warned that the “solidarity envisioned in the United Nations Charter is being devoured by the acids of nationalism and self-interest.”.

As the war in Ukraine moves into its seventh month, with no prospect of a cease-fire, we can draw some tentative observations:

First, the war demonstrates that Washington remains the ultimate guarantor of European security providing the bulk of both boots on the ground and the necessary armaments to deter and defend. By a wide margin, the US is the biggest supplier of arms and money to Ukraine.

The European Union for all its ambitions, has failed to achieve its own strategic autonomy. The post-modern period in European security, when economic and soft power provided it with political leverage, proved inadequate. European leaders had at least 16 years, starting from the first complete cut-off in Russian gas deliveries to Ukraine in winter 2006, to diversify gas supplies. They ignored the risks and increased their energy dependence on Russia. Despite their efforts, they are still transferring huge amounts of money for Russian energy. According to CNN, the European Union accounted for around 70 percent of Russia’s fossil fuel export revenues globally, which amounted to US$66.3 billion in March and April of this year.

Despite best efforts, notably by the French, Germans and others, including Canada, during the Trump administration, an Alliance for Multilateralism does not work without the US. Ivo Daalder and Jim Lindsay got it right in titling their book The Empty Throne about the US abdication of global leadership under Donald Trump. They argued, persuasively, that the three US-championed pillars of the postwar order – strong alliances, open markets, with commitments to democracy and human rights  – were undermined under a once, and perhaps future, President Trump.

From now on, hard security, both military and economic, needs to be the priority. NATO, once derided by French President Emmanuel Macron as “” is now the most important organization on the European continent. With its new Strategic Concept designating Russia as the most ‘direct threat’ to the Alliance and labeling China as ‘systemic challenge’ to its ‘interests, security and values’, NATO will also coordinate more closely with Asian partners. If Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s August trip to the Canadian North is indicative, in Arctic security as well. China calls itself a “near  Arctic state” and wants to expand its access.

For Canadians and Europeans – especially the Germans – it means relearning the language of hard power. It is the language China and Russia understand best and they complement it with cyber-intrusions, misinformation and disinformation, and interventions in the democratic process.

The aggregate military expenditure of EU members is $225 billion, twice that of Russia’s $100 billion military budget and roughly three-quarters of China’s $290 billion. Europe has the capacity with a GDP 30 times that of Russia and three times their population. Italy’s (and Canada’s) economy alone eclipses that of Russia. But do they have the will?

Second, long-term stability in Europe and Asia will depend on Washington’s ability to build local balances of power and promote regional orders. But make no mistake: most of the world is not aligning with the West.

The United States’ main strategic focus remains the pivot to Asia and “the growing multi-domain threat posed by the PRC.”

Prospects for a US-Chinese confrontation are growing in Asia. Any Asian sense of US reluctance to resist Chinese hegemony will inevitably push more countries in the region to bandwagon with Beijing. The Biden administration is restoring existing pacts and creating new ones. In seeking to constrain Russia and China simultaneously, the United States looks to its partner nations:  29 and soon to be 31 with Sweden and Finland through the NATO alliance; four bilateral pacts with Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand; the reinvigorated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that includes India; the AUKUS partnership. The G7 should invite its close Pacific partners – India, Australia, Korea – n to be regular participants in the group’s strategic dialogues, whether on sanctions policy, technology investment, or critical supply chains.

While 141 nations at the UN General Assembly condemned the Russian invasion and Russia was tossed out of the Human Rights Council when it comes to the imposition of sanctions in the face of territorial aggression, most of the world chose not to. Sanctions are imposed by only about 40 nations – the EU and G7 nations along with Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan and Switzerland. Together they represent about 16 percent of the global population.

Russia and China are actively seeking to increase their influence. China’s Belt and Road initiative already includes 139 nations. As we witnessed at last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Iran was elevated to full membership, alongside China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and Egypt. Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan now wants to join the club. Together the SCO, a rough counterpart to the G7 for dictators, represent one-third of global GDP, about 40 per cent of the world’s population, and nearly two-thirds of the Eurasian landmass. and include four nuclear powers. Xi Jinping is continuing to strengthen Chinese relationships in Central Asia, once described by a Chinese general as “a rich piece of cake given to today’s Chinese people by Heaven”.

Third, Putin and Russia are weakened by the Ukraine war and even more dependent on a China within whose ruling circles there is likely some buyer’s remorse about their partnership with ‘no limits’.

Putin’s war aim, detailed in his long essay (July, 2021) on the “Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” was to topple the Zelensky government and incorporate Ukraine into its sphere of influence. Russia’s reliance on its energy resources are a reminder of the late John McCain’s caustic description of Putin’s Russia: “a gas station run by the Mafia masquerading as a country.”  Putin shows no sign of changing his approach confident that in the coming months the West will divide over the hardships inflicted on them by the war.. The Russian public is still behind him having been fed a steady diet portraying NATO and the USA as the aggressor and the Zelensky regime as run by Nazis. The recent military setbacks have stimulated the nationalists who are demanding national mobilization

Xi and Putin continue to share the same objective which is to challenge the Western designed rules-based order. Six months on, Xi is likely embarrassed by the failure of the Putin invasion. If nothing else he will wonder about the efficacy of the Russian weapons they have bought for over 30 years. The Ukrainian response will also likely make them think twice about military intervention in Taiwan.

The Xi-Putin February “no limits” pact has also shown it does have limits. There was no promise from Xi of weapons or armaments or endorsement of Putin’s “special military operation” although the Chinese narrative claims a more inclusive model of international relations through SCO and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and other multilateral groupings where China plays a central role. It also reflects Beijing’s criticism of the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, for unilaterally targeting states that fail to follow the “universal values” of liberal democracies. NATO is regularly vilified as a “gangster,” a “war machine,” and a “butcher”. China promotes its networks of multilateral and bilateral strategic partnerships as positive-sum correctives to US-led formal alliances, which Beijing consistently asserts drive world politics toward zero-sum competition.  The secondary and tertiary consequences of the conflict are affecting supplies of fuel and food, while increasing famine and forced migration.

The International Energy Agency warns of continuing shortages of energy for coming years.  “The world has never witnessed such a major energy crisis in terms of its depth and its complexity,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in July. Until renewables come into their own, it puts a premium on getting energy to Europe. For reasons of collective security Canada needs to get gas and oil to both our coasts. Of course, this is not the context hoped for at November’s Sharm el-Sheikh COP27.

The World Food Program warns of famine for many millions in Africa and the Middle East. As many as 828 million people go to bed hungry every night, the number of those facing acute food insecurity has soared since 2019 from 135 million to 345 million. A total of 50 million people in 45 countries are teetering on the edge of famine.

Food and fuel shortages will spur more outward migration from Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean and through Eurasia. Putin and Erdogan have demonstrated that migrants can be weaponized. And as we see in the Swedish and Italian elections with the rise of the populist right there are political consequences.

There was a sense after the Biden and Macron victories that the nativism and populism personified by BREXIT, Trump, Modi and Bolsonaro had run its course. It now appears that the force of populism and its underlying drivers that go back to the 2008 financial crisis, the inequalities created by globalization and the power of social media are very durable and have stimulated parties both the far right and far left.

Is a post-dollar world coming? The effect of sanctions combined with decoupling, Chinese “self-sufficiency” and dual circulation may well spell the end of the dollar as the global currency with more regional blocks doing business in their own currencies.

Canada has responded to Ukraine’s plight with armsmoney and resettlement of 87,000 refugees. With a deeply rooted Ukrainian diaspora, the Mulroney government was the first western government to recognize Ukrainian independence in 1991. Successive governments have supported Ukraine with aid, military training and technical assistance to support good governance. Canada will be involved in Ukraine’s eventual, massive reconstruction.

The war has also refocused attention on the importance of collective security through NATO and the importance of deterrence, defence and intelligence. The Trudeau government has increased its defence budget and NATO deployments, although we are still well short of spending two percent of GDP on defence – the NATO commitment for 2024.

Looking forward, the US Institute for Peace argues for three levels of negotiations: a contact group for Russia and Ukraine; Multilateral Talks in Europe involving EU, OSCE, NATO; Strategic Stability Dialogue using Track 1.5 and Track 2 involving US, Russia, China, and others.

There are also good ideas in a recent German Marshall Fund report on reconstruction in Ukraine. It answers core questions including When to start? Who should lead? Who should pay? What about corruption?

The Ukraine war has refocused debate on values versus interests. But it is an ultimately sterile debate as our values underline our interests and our interests reflect our values. Abandoning or soft-peddling the values dimension towards Russia and China in favour the Realpolitik of market access is a mistake. We cannot depend on Russia for energy, nor on China for critical minerals and strategic goods.

The West reacted to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 with words and very limited sanctions. In the case of Chinese-made islands in the South China Sea we made “protests” – words not deeds. We did the same with the international tribunal’s ruling in favour of the Philippines. Democrats in Russia and China lost faith in the West. The net result was to leave the Kremlin and Beijing with the impression that the West can be either intimidated or bought. It did not serve our interests and diminished faith in our values.

The Ukraine conflict reminds us that leadership, intelligence, arms and allies all matter. But so does morale and the belief you are fighting for something you believe in. Narratives are important and the closed nature of autocracies gives them the advantage. They control the media. One of the early actions of the Putin regime was to ban independent and social media. By controlling the media they control that what people hear and see. Western governments have adapted through, for example, the release of intelligence previously kept secret as to when the war would begin to discredit Putin’s denials.

Going forward the narrative needs to hammer home that Russia has violated territorial sovereignty in violation of international commitments. In doing so it is also breaking the rules of war in its treatment of civilians and that those responsible will be held accountable.

The defining divide of our time is not that of right versus left but democracy versus autocracy. We can never take liberty for granted. And let’s not delude ourselves, we are not doing very well, either at home or abroad.

Next Article:
%d bloggers like this: