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The Ukrainian Crisis in the Multipolar World Order: NATO, Russia and China

Friday, February 4, 2022

The crisis in Ukraine could escalate into war if Russia and the US and its NATO allies cannot resolve their longstanding standoff over the reach of the transatlantic alliance. Mher D Sahakyan, 2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow and co-editor of the book China and Eurasia Rethinking Cooperation and Contradictions in the Era of Changing World Order, published in 2021 by Routledge, the tense situation could offer an opportunity for China to show global leadership by mediating between Russia and Ukraine, in which it has important economic and strategic interests.

The Ukrainian Crisis in the Multipolar World Order: NATO, Russia and China

In the US, a pro-Kyiv rally in New York City, January 22, 2022: Moscow wants NATO to promise not to admit Ukraine and Georgia as members and to avoid deploying troops and military equipment in post-Soviet countries (Credit: Ron Adar / Shutterstock.com)

The crisis in Ukraine proves that a multipolar world is a reality – and that the US-centered world order is history. There are two competing sides in this showdown, one the United States with its allies from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the other Russia. China, for its part, supports Moscow. The two non-Western powers are building an Eastern political and economic pole underpinned by several joint projects and international frameworks such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The superpower China has Moscow’s back provides an additional impetus for Russia to stand firm in defense of its position on Ukraine. It is not alone against the US and its allies. 

But what does Russia want with Ukraine? What are China’s interests? And what are the scenarios going forward?

Ukraine: From Soviet republic to NATO member candidate?

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, three of the four republics that originally formed the Soviet Union (SU) in 1922, gathered in a dacha in a forest in Belarus to sign the Belovezh Accords that announced the collapse of the SU, which ceased to exist 17 days later. Ukraine became an independent state with Leonid Kravchuk as its first president. Russia, however, would maintain significant influence in Ukraine until February 2014 and the Maidan revolution, which led to the ouster of elected president Viktor Yanukovych and his government. In the aftermath of that political turmoil, Russian military supported the ethnic Russian population in Eastern Ukraine in their struggle against Kyiv and organized a referendum that resulted in the Russian Federation incorporating the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol.  

Diplomatic engagement: Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, at the January 31, 2022, Security Council session (Credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

Diplomatic engagement: Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, at the January 31, 2022, Security Council session (Credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

Russia was aiming to unite post-Soviet states to create the EAEU. Fearing that Moscow was trying to revive the SU, the US planned to draw Ukraine away from Russia’s orbit and transform it into a Western outpost. Without this strategically important country in the fold, the EAEU would not be as strategically strong a grouping and the Russian navy would not have access to Crimean ports, through which it could control the Black Sea. 

The US was successful in restraining Ukraine from joining the EAEU member, aided by the escalation of tensions between Moscow and Kyiv and the imposition by Washington and Brussels of sanctions on Russia over Crimea. This undermined the status and development of the EAEU.  

Washington’s second aim, however, was not accomplished. When Russia reacted to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine by sending troops to Crimea, organizing a referendum and adding the peninsula to its territory. Russia’s action to support ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine and defend them from attacks by Ukrainian nationalists won for Moscow huge influence over the rulers of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, the Donbas region of Ukraine, and secured it a place in negotiations over Ukraine’s political direction. The main part of Ukraine, which has remained under the control of Kyiv, started to strengthen its political, military and economic relations with the West. The status quo prevailing over Ukraine was disrupted in December 2021, with tensions escalating in and around the divided country. The main trigger was Ukraine’s use of Bayraktar TB2 drones, provided by Turkey, against Russian-backed forces in Donbas. In response, Russia concentrated approximately 100.000 troops in its own territory, near the Ukrainian borders.

Russia seeks a NATO rollback

The Russians remember the assurance that Western leaders made to the SU’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would not extend its reach to the East. Russians blame Gorbachev for not signing an agreement with the West to that effect. In the 1990s, the leaders of the several Soviet Republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Moldavia and the Baltic states) were told by the West that the collapse of the SU would be a victory for everyone, as they would gain independence, break away from Communism, and have a chance to become part of the “European family”. 

But only the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), which have been an anti-Russian bulwark, joined the European Union (EU) and NATO. As the president of Armenia from 1991 to 1998, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, put it in an interview in 2021, the post-Soviet states are providing some value to the West if they make problems for Russia.

They Russians concede that they lost the Cold War and, for this reason, they are still losing their territories, influence and markets. For its part, the West basked in its victory and thinks it can continue its political and military extension towards Russia’s borders. This dynamic is causing more and more stress between the two sides, given that Russia is a much stronger player now than it was in 1990s and 2000s, while the EU and the US are arguably much weaker both economically and strategically. In Eurasia, Russia is backed by China, which provides it an opportunity to deter the US in the region and keep the delicate balance of the powers.

Ukrainian army armed personnel carrier on maneuver in Kharkiv, near the border with Russia: Moscow is standing firm in defense of its position (Credit: Seneline / Shutterstock.com)

Ukrainian army armed personnel carrier on maneuver in Kharkiv, near the border with Russia: Moscow is standing firm in defense of its position (Credit: Seneline / Shutterstock.com)

Russia wants to keep Central Asia, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan under its influence. It wants to get assurances from the US that Washington and its allies will not try to rally these countries to the Western pole. Moscow wants an undertaking from the West that Ukraine and Georgia will not become NATO members. Moreover, it wants NATO to avoid deploying in post-Soviet countries troops and military equipment which could be used against Russia. Russia wants to sign an agreement on these issues with the US. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 17, 2021, published a draft “Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on security guarantees”, which it has provided to the US and NATO for discussion. After negotiations between NATO and Russia on January 12, 2022, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the transatlantic alliance had rejected Russian requests regarding new members and the withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe. 

A meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Geneva on January 21, 2022, did not lead to any de-escalation. The Russian side said that they would wait for the US and NATO to answer in writing. A week later, in a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian leader Vladimir Putin stated that “the US and NATO responses did not address Russia’s fundamental concerns such as stopping NATO expansion, not deploying assault weapons near Russia’s borders, or rolling NATO’s military capacity and infrastructure in Europe back to where they were in 1997 when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.” In sum, the tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine continued to escalate.

China weighs in

In this standoff, China’s position is important, given its standing as a major power with regional and global influence. In consonance with Russia’s break with the West over Crimea in 2014 (Moscow’s participation in the G8 was suspended), Moscow launched a pivot to the East and sought to strengthen its relations with Beijing, which had not supported the US and EU’s anti-Russian sanctions.

As the Ukraine crisis has mounted, China is in a tricky position. China is not interested in any military action in Ukraine, as this would result in major economic disruption. The two main links along the Silk Road Economic Belt, namely the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC) and the New Eurasian Land Bridge, which connect Asia and Europe, will be in danger. Russian territory and transport networks such as the Trans-Siberian railway are strategically important for China to reach Russian and European markets and northern seaports.

Within CCAWAEC, Ukraine is a key transportation hub between Asia and Europe. If it would be necessary to avoid Russian territory, it can send and receive goods from China via rail connections passing through the territory of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asian nations. China would like to see this alternative route through Ukraine to Europe operational. 

As situation in Ukraine heats up, the US and the West will focus on Russia and its intentions, taking some pressure off China in the Indo-Pacific. This could provide an opportunity for Beijing to apply more pressure on Taiwan. China might, therefore, be interested in seeing a limited escalation in Ukraine but not an all-out war. In this conflict, China is backing its comprehensive strategic partner, Russia, while not fully declaring itself an ally of Moscow. In Beijing, decision makers reckon that if Putin’s Russia is defeated by the West in this instance, the US and its allies might be emboldened in their confrontation with China. Moreover, China needs Russian weapons to modernize its army and oil and gas to fuel its economic growth. 

China has signaled its position. On January 27, 2022, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China noted that Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a phone conversation with Blinken, indicated Beijing’s support for Moscow: “In the 21st Century, all parties should completely abandon the Cold War mentality and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiations. Russia's legitimate security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed.”

On February 4, 2022, on a visit to Beijing to meet counterpart Xi Jinping and attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games, Putin described Russia’s ties with China as “unprecedented in the spirit of friendship and strategic partnership.” Putin is the first foreign leader Xi has met in person since 2020.

Silk Road link – Beijing has strong economic and strategic interests in Ukraine: The first direct container train from China arrives in Kyiv on July 6, 2020 (Credit: Sergey Starostenko/Xinhua)

Silk Road link – Beijing has strong economic and strategic interests in Ukraine: The first direct container train from China arrives in Kyiv on July 6, 2020 (Credit: Sergey Starostenko/Xinhua)

Scenarios going forward: A role for Beijing?

If war between Ukraine and Russia breaks out, it will be a major disaster for Ukraine. Even if the US and other NATO members send weapons and military advisors to the country, the smaller country’s forces would be defeated by a much stronger Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member; thus, the organization’s members would not be obliged to come to its defense and engage in the conflict. The West would only impose fresh sanctions on Moscow, possibly excluding Russia from the SWIFT payments and cash management system. In response, Russia could recognize Luhansk and Donetsk as independent republics, as it did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the war with Georgia in 2008. For this reason, Kyiv must keep calm and find ways to ease the tensions with Moscow.

If NATO join in a war with Russia on the side of Ukraine, this could lead to a world war. But this scenario is unlikely. During the Bucharest Summit in 2008, NATO declined to approve the Ukraine and Georgia membership action plans, indicating only that the two countries could possibly join in the future. Russia and NATO members the US, France and the UK are all nuclear powers. Conflict among them could escalate to the unimaginable, which would be a world-crushing catastrophe. International organizations and other interested states must encourage all sides to continue diplomatic efforts and not resort to war to resolve the situation. The sharp exchanges between Russia and the US in a session of the UN Security Council on January 31, 2022, were not encouraging. The brinkmanship continues.

Since NATO has not made any concrete offer to Kyiv to join the organization in the near future, it would be constructive if members withdraw military units and halt weapons supplies to Ukraine. In turn, Russia needs to give guarantees that it will not provide weapons to pro-Russian militants in the Donbas. It should also refrain from recognizing Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states and try to find solutions to the impasse through diplomacy.

China, for its part, can take the initiative and offer to be a mediator between Ukraine and Russia. Once the Winter Olympiad is over, Beijing could refocus the message of peace (the Olympic tradition of the “truce”) and take a leading role in resolving the crisis. This could be a defining moment for China on the international stage.

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

Author

Mher D Sahakyan

Mher D Sahakyan

2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong

Mher D Sahakyan is founder and director of the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research, in Yerevan, Armenia. He is a 2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow of the Asia Global Institute and an elected advisory board member of the International Institute for Peace in Vienna, Austria. He launched the annual international conference on Eurasian Research on Modern China and Eurasia. Dr Sahakyan is a lecturer at the Russian-Armenian 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. He holds a doctorate in international relations from Nanjing University, China.


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