Oscar van Heerden: Ukraine-Russia conflict – Are we witnessing the rise of a new world order?
Russia and Ukraine are just players on the larger stage of changing world politics, writes Oscar van Heerden. He explains that this story is geopolitics at its best.
Let me open this article with some unequivocal statements regarding the war in Ukraine.
1) War is horrible. The devastation of the Ukrainian population and the civilian casualties are an atrocity.
2) Racist treatment of black immigrants in Ukraine is unacceptable. Unparliamentary, or should I say racist, language has already found its way into the vocabulary of journalists, pundits and even government officials from various European governments. Talking about “these are people like us”, “blonde hair and blue eyes”, Christians as opposed to non-believers or black-haired, black-eyed barbarians in other places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Africa is to be abhorred.
3) Sovereign nation states must not be invaded by other states. State sovereignty must be respected. Invasions for any reason – for regime change or expansion – should not be tolerated. This goes for the behavior of Russia and also for the actions of the United States, France, the United Kingdom and other nation states in recent times.
I take all these statements as given. The argument I now present below is in no way intended to deviate from or undermine these fundamental truths.
In the paradigm of realist international relations, war is the extension of politics by other means. What is the story behind “the war in Ukraine” or behind “the Russian invasion of Ukraine”?
The prevailing story seems to be simple: big, bad and dangerous Russia (which has nuclear weapons) is wantonly expanding its territory into Ukraine. They violate international law and invade their neighbor Ukraine, led by a seemingly deranged Valdimir Putin. Therefore, it is justified to supply arms to Ukraine and to use Western control of financial systems to hurt the Putin regime.
Russia must be punished. Russians who have their money in offshore banks have had to deal with various governments wanting to freeze their money. It seems that all Russian money is illegitimate and/or obtained through nefarious means.
If you are Russian and have money in foreign banks, Western governments can claim it immediately. The West is justified in freezing certain bank accounts, it seems.
The West can simply take other people’s money, shut down SWIFT credit card schemes and initiate trade sanctions. Is the West right to take Russia out of the SWIFT banking system, right? The dollar remains the international currency.
READ | EXPLAINER: What is SWIFT? The global financial arm the West is twisting against Russia
The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) remain in Western hands. These global financial systems can and will be manipulated to serve Western interests, it seems. The West is justified in lending its support to the Ukrainian government in the form of sophisticated military weapons and money to continue the destruction and the death toll. The sale of military weapons continues unabated to Ukraine, encouraging that country to pursue a war at its own expense and at the expense of its people. Millions of them have now been displaced to neighboring countries.
This story is a classic example in international relations of how a great power uses privileged regional powers to curb the rise of potentially hostile powers. It is “off shore balancing” that has been invoked by the United States.
What does the Ukrainian crisis reveal about geopolitics?
What are the counter-narratives? What does the war in Ukraine reveal about our current geopolitics?
We must first take a few steps back to grasp alternate history.
First, I take you back to the end of the Second World War and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Remember who belongs to NATO. Who funds it? What interests does NATO represent? Are these the same people who have special status in the United Nations? Are these the same people who have veto power and permanent seats on the UN Security Council? Is it the good guys or maybe the world tyrants? You decide. For the sake of brevity, let’s call the beneficiaries of NATO broadly, “the West,” with the United States as its leader, shall we?
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And now – what is important – who is not part of NATO? Which of the major global players are not part of the NATO club? Some of them don’t have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Who does not have the right of veto at the UN? Think of all the Muslim states, South America, Africa, India, Brazil. Let’s call those who are not part of NATO, “the others”, with China and Russia (although members of the UN Security Council) as leaders, okay?
Now, knowing who NATO is and how it was born, I take you back to 2008 and another expansion of territory: this time, not Russian expansion, but NATO expansion. Oh, and by the way, the West has made global commitments not to expand NATO. These commitments have been broken. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have all joined. The latest discussions focused on Ukraine’s membership in NATO.
NATO military expansion
Would the United States allow an “Others” military base on its doorstep? No. Would Russia allow a ‘Western’ NATO military base in Ukraine? No. Fair is fair, right? In this narrative, Russia is right to prevent NATO expansion into Ukraine. Russia sees Ukraine as having “strategic autonomy”. Ukraine must remain a neutral zone – and not join NATO.
How is Russia reacting to financial and trade sanctions? Russia does not operate alone, will stop at nothing and suffer its punishment. It acts to oppose and further weaken Western hegemony. This is evident in three key examples.
The first example concerns its response to no longer being able to use the SWIFT banking system. Instead of hurting Russia (in the short term only), Russia and China have come together and agreed to challenge this Western-run global system. A Russian equivalent system designed by the Russian central bank called the Financial Message Transfer System (SPFS) and a Chinese system, called the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), are in talks to integrate the two to be a counterweight or a counterweight to the SWIFT system.
READ | ANALYSIS: War in Ukraine follows warnings that NATO expansion in Eastern Europe could provoke Russia
The second example concerns the position and strength of the US dollar. The petrodollar is now under attack, with Russia now claiming that all oil purchases can be made in local currencies and no longer in agreed US dollars.
As the fourth-largest oil producer, Russia has just reset a 50-year-old international agreement (in which it was agreed that all oil transactions should be done in US dollars). Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have agreed to Russia’s request to reverse this trend and allow trading in local currencies. So the United States and its hold on the oil market has now been broken after almost 50 years.
The latest example is Putin’s threat of retaliation if the West imposes a no-fly zone and/or targets oil and gas pipelines to certain European countries. Such retaliation, in my opinion, will escalate this war against Poland and other members of NATO. This will force NATO to invoke Article 5 and come to the military aid of its member states. This will then mean all out war with the western boots on the ground. A war that would mean more victims, deaths and destruction.
Message to China
Is the West’s message about arms supply to Ukraine, trade sanctions and financial restrictions only intended for Russian ears? Is Russia a lone wolf in this story?
I do not think so. In my view, the West’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine carries a message for the other members of “The Others”. The message is also clearly addressed to China: try your luck to challenge the West’s global hegemony and you will suffer the same consequences as Putin’s Russia. So listen carefully, “You better watch it Mr Dragon and stay in your lane”. Is the West trying to tell China, “You just think about invading Taiwan, and you will suffer the same fate as your Russian friend.”
This message or this warning probably arouses sneers and skepticism in the Far East. The United States as the leader of the West is no longer what it used to be. His hegemony is questioned and his empire declines.
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As we know, China has always had a policy of non-interference. It hardly speaks out on such global issues and certainly does not get involved in offshore military operations. But with the balance of global hegemons realigning and a declining global hegemon desperate to exercise its declining hegemony, what does a China do? I guess since I haven’t lived through a period of an empire in free fall, I don’t know what such an empire does when it’s obvious that its hegemony is quickly running out of steam. It must be such a hard pill to swallow and even harder to accept.
Is the United States still a global superpower?
Such are the events of recent months in Ukraine, a show of strength and influence that could very well determine whether the United States is still perceived as a global superpower or not. After all, we all still remember vividly how the mighty United States just months ago left Afghanistan with its tail between its legs after almost a decade of fighting unconventional opposition in the mountains of this country.
I think the war in Ukraine and the desperate measures taken by the West to restrain Russia is really a story of the formation of a new world order. It’s not just about Ukraine. It’s not just about Russia. They are only players on the larger stage of the evolution of world politics. This story is geopolitics at its best. I believe we see a new world order playing out before our eyes.
– Dr. Oscar van Heerden is a specialist in International Relations (IR), where he focuses on international political economy, with a focus on Africa, and SADC in particular. He is currently Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Fort Hare.
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