For a world that was looking to finally have some semblance of stability this year, 2022 is looking quite ominous this early (well, geopolitically, at least). As Russia masses a growing number of troops near Ukraine’s eastern and northern frontiers, alarm bells are ringing among the Europeans and their cousins across the Atlantic. The answer everyone’s struggling to know: when (not if) Vladimir Putin will move from active intimidation and launch the ground attack on Ukraine to fulfil his purported goal of a pliable regime?
Reading through subject-matter-expert opinions published in the Western media over the past month, one gathers the impression that President Putin has painted his Mother Russia into a tight corner. America’s Joe Biden first tried to offer him safe passage, by giving diplomacy a chance. But it appears that multiple rounds of talks in December and January were frustrated by Putin’s insistence that NATO forces retreat from Eastern Europe. The US and its European allies found those demands outrageous.
In the current hostile environment where diplomacy has vanished, Putin (whose time in power is now in the third decade) cannot risk calling his troops back to the barracks, for he will lose face with his public. Launching massive cyber-attacks, or instigating mass protests in Ukrainian cities, are among other middle-options for the strongman – but they won’t likely fetch what he allegedly wants after raising stakes this much. That, by elimination, leaves a full-scale military attack as his only viable room to maneuver.
Western experts are afraid of economic consequences if a war were to break out at the edge of Europe. Considering that Europe receives about a third of its gas supplies from Russia, and given the fact that a portion of Russian gas and oil exports move through pipelines in Ukraine, the global energy market will become even more unbalanced in case of a war. Wheat and corn prices will rise if ports on the Black Sea got in the cross-fire – Ukraine is a major exporter of both wheat and corn, and Russia is the top-most wheat exporter. Besides, the impact of US-led economic sanctions on Russia will be felt far and wide.
Beyond the war’s near-term implications that exacerbate the twin inflations of food and fuel, there may also be long-term consequences. The term ‘pivotal moment’ has been overused, but a Russia-Ukraine war (which has potential to envelope the US and the EU as well) may well be the critical juncture that turns the axis of geopolitics away from ‘hot peace’ that has largely-held among major powers since 1945. Diplomacy hasn’t worked to dissuade Putin, and apparently neither did the West’s military deterrence.
The West is already in crisis – and Russia and China know it. America seems weakened by domestic political divisiveness (which has acquired a violent tone), even as its military might is undermined by failed campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Europe’s unity project now has a chink in its armor, not just because of Brexit, but also due to anti-EU movements in Hungary, Poland and France. Fearing economic fallout, Germany and France have also been at odds with the US over confronting Russia and China.
In the last decade, the West’s domestic political system was tested (and it showed serious vulnerabilities). Now it seems that the West’s combined military power (as personified in NATO) is about to be challenged, close to the ground zero of WW2. If there is one lesson that big powers should draw from the painful pandemic, it is to renew and deepen collaboration via multilateral platforms, so that the next global catastrophe can be averted. Let’s hope that wiser sense prevails, sparing the global peace (and prices)!