Multipolar World Order 2.0 and Colliding Interests in Ukraine: Russia, the EU, the US and China

Thursday, March 30, 2023

The war in Ukraine has confirmed the emergence of what might be called the Multipolar World Order 2.0, with Eurasia as a vast arena for strategic and economic contention between the great-power rival blocs – the US with its Western allies and other partners on one side and Russia, China and countries in their spheres of influence on the other. AsiaGlobal Fellow 2022 Mher Sahakyan of the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research in Yerevan, Armenia, who is the editor of China and Eurasian Powers in a Multipolar World Order 2.0: Security, Diplomacy, Economy and Cyberspacepublished by Routledge, assesses the colliding geopolitical interests in the continent and the impact of the Ukraine conflict.

Multipolar World Order 2.0 and Colliding Interests in Ukraine: Russia, the EU, the US and China

Strengthening the partnership between two poles of power in Eurasia: Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin after signing a joint statement in Moscow, March 21 (Credit: Vladimir Astapkovich/RIA Novosti/President of Russia)

The US under President Joe Biden aims to unite the West and “like-minded” countries in Europe and Asia and raise pressure simultaneously on Russia and China. But the world order is no longer unipolar or US-centered – the geopolitical state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What now exists should be called the Multipolar Word Order 2.0 (the first version having been in play during World War II), a new stage of multipolarity heralded by the Russian war in Ukraine. 

The US is no longer the dominant power in the Eurasian continent. It has lost its hegemonic position in favor of the established young superpower China, the emerging great power Russia, and the rising big power India. Middle power Iran is also challenging the US in the Middle East. In the strategic front, North Korea looms large as it keeps developing its missile program and expanding its capability to launch nuclear strikes on the US and its military bases and operations in East Asia.

Across Eurasia, countries are aligning with either the US and West or China and Russia. Iran, for example, is implementing its “Look to the East” policy, strengthening its links to Beijing and Moscow. In reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden are in the process of becoming members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which will strengthening the West's military capabilities. (As of March 27, Finland needed only the ratification of its accession by the parliament of Turkey.) Georgia and Ukraine also hope to join NATO but the transatlantic security alliance is not yet ready to admit either of the two embattled Russian neighbors.

Eurasia in the Multipolar World Order 2.0

In this Multipolar World Order 2.0, the West and East will contend across the supercontinent, primarily in the Indo-Pacific (South and East Asia), Central Asia, South Caucasus, Central and Eastern Europe, and even the Middle East. This struggle will be manifested in hot wars or proxy wars in fragile regions. Ukraine and Syria are already arenas of conflict. 

International norms and laws are being interpreted in different ways. To justify their actions in different parts of Eurasia, the great powers will appeal to principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination. But the rules and legalities will play a secondary role, with economic, political and military capabilities of states playing the decisive role. This tough competition between the rival great powers asserting their spheres of influence will entail weaponized sanctions to secure technologies and exclude the opponent from access to markets, controls over vaccine distribution, restrictions on financial activities, and battles for influence in international organizations. This will only mean continued instability across the continent – a "new Cold War", as some have called it. 

Market access for companies of different states will be limited depending on the spheres of influence of the poles. Cyberspace will be another battlefield where great and middle powers will compete. Small and middle states may have little or no room to choose or maneuver. They will have to or be forced to choose one of the poles or centers, given their practical economic and/or security needs. Their independence will be diminished. In the Multipolar World Order 2.0, the centers will limit or even cut their economic links with rivals or perceived adversaries over geopolitical or even ideological differences, as has already happened between the West and Russia. The continuation of these trends will only lead to new conflicts.

The war in Ukraine, which started on February 24, 2022, has become the top security concern of the Eurasian continent. The post-Cold War unipolar moment is long over. To be sure, Biden has tried – with some success – to use the conflict to rally Western allies and other partners around the world to apply sanctions on Russia (in addition to those that were already in place in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014). After the invasion of Ukraine, 141 members of the United Nations voted for a measure demanding that Russia withdraw unconditionally. Only four countries – Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Eritrea and Syria – supported Moscow and rejected the resolution, with 47 abstaining or missing the vote. 

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio met Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, March 21: The war has heralded a new multipolar world order (Credit: President of Ukraine)

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio met Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, March 21: The war has heralded a new multipolar world order (Credit: President of Ukraine)

A year later, the West’s coalition has largely held up but Russia has not been isolated, even though it (along with ally Belarus) remains under heavy sanctions which affect every sphere of economic activity including technology and military. The sanctions have affected the economies of other members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) including Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which depend to a large extent on the Russian economy. Members of the Russia-led military grouping, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (the EAEU members and Tajikistan) are also under intense pressure from the West, a challenge the leaders of these nations have discussed at their meetings. Moscow, for its part, has applied its own pressure on its fellow EAEU members and others in its neighborhood, which have struggled to remain neutral on the Ukraine war, while maintaining good relations with the West.  

Winners and losers from the Ukraine war

The war in Ukraine is disrupting Eurasia's economies, politics, energy and food security, transportation networks, environments and cybersecurity. The question is: Who are the winners and losers from the conflict?

Ukraine  Obviously, in the conflict, Ukraine is the most affected party. It has lost thousands of its well-educated citizens, while millions have fled to other countries and become refugees. It has also lost significant military and technological production, in which the Soviet Union had invested hundreds of billions of dollars. After the war, how will the country rebuild? Ukraine is likely to lose its Luhansk and Donetsk regions. President Volodymyr Zelensky miscalculated when he did not comply with the Minsk Agreements and used Turkish-made drones against the Donbas where Russian-speaking people live. As a result, his country triggered Russian aggression. NATO is not going to accept Ukraine as a member in the near future. The primary responsibility of the decision makers in Kyiv is to keep the country and citizens safe, realistically assessing their ability to push back against Russian forces and figuring out how not to worsen an already calamitous situation.

Russia  Realistically, Moscow has completely lost any possibility of regaining influence in Ukraine or even having friendly relations with its neighbor for the foreseeable future. The enmity will last a long time between the two nations which have civilizational, cultural, religious, linguistic, historical and strong family connections. During the war, the Russian army has suffered severe casualties and losses of military equipment. Little by little, Russia has been losing its energy markets in Europe. Its primary goal in invading Ukraine is yet unclear. Does President Vladimir Putin aim to force regime change in Kyiv, or does he want to secure enough territory to ensure the security of Donbas, which has been unstable and restless for more than seven years? In his book New Balance of Power: Russia in Search of Foreign Policy Balance, Russian political scientist Dmitri Trenin writes that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its break up into independent states such as Ukraine, Russia lost not only its outskirts but also its historical nucleus of the Russian state. Over its history, he explains, Russia lost territories from time to time, "but afterwards they were returned, mostly by force, as a rule". Even if Russia wins on the battlefield, it will lose economically and technologically as it has been isolated by Western powers and will likely have to depend more on China. 

Protesting in London for peace in Ukraine, February 25: Russia’s invasion prompted Finland and Sweden to seek membership in NATO (Credit: Alisdare Hickson)

Protesting in London for peace in Ukraine, February 25: Russia’s invasion prompted Finland and Sweden to seek membership in NATO (Credit: Alisdare Hickson)

The European Union (EU)  To deter Russia and to counter its actions in Ukraine, the West uses its two main institutions in Europe: NATO and the EU. Most of the members of these organizations are sending weapons to Ukraine, providing Kyiv with the firepower and capacity to take on Russia. The EU is also losing from the conflict, as the conflict has led to millions of Ukrainian refugees arriving in member states. Russia has also imposed retaliatory sanctions against the EU and UK; it has weaponized its gas supply, which is harming European economies. The EU must, therefore, take the initiative to use diplomacy to end the war as soon as possible. Austria, an EU member which has maintained neutrality, could act as a mediator. 

Traditional neutrality in certain EU states, however, appears to be crumbling as a result of the Ukraine war. EU members Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership, which provides the impetus for other neutral states to choose between the contending military blocks. For example, non-EU member Moldova, also a neutral state, is in a difficult position because the war has raised questions about its control over its Transnistria region.

China  Beijing has no interest in a defeat for Moscow in Ukraine, but neither does it want to see a prolonged war, which could lead to direct conflict between Russia and NATO. The war and Western sanctions on Russia make it difficult for China to use the New Eurasian Land Bridge Economic Corridor, a network under Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) incorporating Russian transportation infrastructure connecting China and Asia to the European market. The war in Ukraine has truncated this trading route by more than 40 percent. The China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC), also under the BRI and which China agreed in 2015 to harmonize with Turkey’s Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor, will become more critical for East-West connectivity.

China had been Ukraine’s trading partner, accounting for US$18.6 billion in bilateral trade in 2021. The war has severely reduced this commerce. Beijing, meanwhile, is not providing military and full political support to Moscow but is supplying economic help to Russia. If Putin is defeated, Beijing will stand alone against the West. For this reason, China shares Russia's view that US-led NATO must not expand further towards the East. If Russia totally cuts off its oil and gas supplies to the EU, China would surely increase its imports of Russian energy. It would renegotiate terms and aim to get lower prices from Moscow.

To fuel its economic development, China needs Russian energy, particularly less-environmentally harmful gas. But increasing trade (US$184 billion in 2022) with Russia carries risks, with Beijing possibly opening itself to secondary sanctions from the West for aiding Moscow. China has condemned the imposition of sanctions on Russia and has not joined in applying them. But many Chinese enterprises have had to halt trade and commerce with Russia, lest they be subject to punitive measures from the US. 

US President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened the second Summit for Democracy 2023 on March 29: Washington is rallying the West and “like-minded” countries to counter Russia and China (Credit: @POTUS on Twitter)

US President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened the second Summit for Democracy 2023 on March 29: Washington is rallying the West and “like-minded” countries to counter Russia and China (Credit: @POTUS on Twitter)

The US  The Ukraine war will have a negative impact on the development of Eurasia for several decades. No country in the continent stands to benefit. If the key players geographically located in the region are not profiting, then who is? The US, it might be argued, is bolstering its position in the new Multipolar World Order 2.0 by being the main actor – the ringleader – in rallying support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Washington supported the Ukrainian revolution in February 2014, which heightened tensions between Moscow and Kyiv. Ukraine did not join the Russian-led EAEU, limiting the organization's capabilities.

Ukraine became the main battlefield for the US and West’s proxy war with Russia. Ukraine was regarded as Russia’s "Achilles’ heel", through which the US could weaken one of its main geopolitical adversaries. The US has long argued that the EU should not rely on Russian energy purchases but should source their needs from the US. The war means that the US will finally gain the foothold in the EU energy market that it has craved. The suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and damage from explosions to Nord Stream 1 and 2 have meant that Europe has been seeking alternatives to Russian supplies.

Meanwhile, the war is clearing out the military arsenals of NATO members that previously belonged to the Warsaw Pact of Soviet- and Russian-made weapons. This equipment is being sent to Ukraine for use against Russia. To compensate for this and replace what they have dispatched to Kyiv, these NATO states will buy weapons from the US and other members of the transatlantic alliance. This will sever the remaining military-technological links between Eastern Europe and Russia, further splitting Eurasia into two camps and intensifying the strategic competition for power and influence in Eurasia under the Multipolar World Order 2.0.

This article is based on sections from China and Eurasian Powers in a Multipolar World Order 2.0 Security, Diplomacy, Economy and Cyberspace, edited by the author and published in March 2023 by Routledge, which has granted permission to AsiaGlobal Online to use material from the book.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Mher Sahakyan

Mher Sahakyan

2022 AsiaGlobal Fellow, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong, and the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research

Mher Sahakyan is founder and director of the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research, in Yerevan, Armenia. He is the editor of China and Eurasian Powers in Multipolar World Order: Security, Diplomacy, Economy and Cybersecurity, which was published by Routledge in March 2023. A 2022 AsiaGlobal Fellow of the Asia Global Institute, he holds a doctorate in international relations from Nanjing University in China. Mher is an elected advisory board member of the International Institute for Peace in Vienna, Austria, and the School of Liberal Arts & Humanities at Woxsen University in India. He launched the annual international conference on Eurasian Research on Modern China and Eurasia. Dr Sahakyan is a lecturer at the Russian-Armenian University and Yerevan State University. He is author of the book China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Armeniawhich was published in Armenian and Russian and was shortlisted by the International Convention of Asia Scholars in Leiden, Netherlands, for its 2021 book prize. He is also author of “The New Great Power Competition in Central Asia: Opportunities and Challenges for the Gulf”, a paper published in 2021 by the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in the United Arab Emirates. He is co-editor (with Heinz Gärtner) of China and Eurasia: Rethinking Cooperation and Contradictions in the Era of Changing World Order, which was published by Routledge in September 2021.

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