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Dmitri Trenin

RIAC Member

Major powers are at war again. So far, it has been a proxy one, but waged on the territory of vital strategic importance to one actor, Russia, and in a key overseas area for the other, the United States of America. US NATO allies in Europe are also intimately involved. The implications of this conflict are vast and pose an existential threat to the world. Even if the escalation of the conflict does not lead to a strategic nuclear exchange, the consequences of the Ukraine war will fundamentally change the world environment. The war has defied earlier predictions and expectations. Neither the enlightening police-style Special Military Operation started by Russia to bring Kiev to its senses, nor the sanctions Blitzkrieg unleashed by the West to bring the Russian economy to its knees have succeeded. Ironically, in 2022 Russia’s GDP, in purchasing power parity terms, became the world’s fifth largest, ahead of Germany. As of this writing, the two sides to the conflict, Russia and the collective West which uses Ukraine as the tip of the spear, are locked in a protracted confrontation along a 1.000 km-long frontline. This first major in decades ground war in Europe, which by many observers was deemed to be dominated by artificial intelligence and other high-tech stuff, has turned out to be conventional and look more like a throwback to the World War I (WWI) (1914-1918), with its long trenches and the dominance of artillery.

Major powers are at war again. So far, it has been a proxy one, but waged on the territory of vital strategic importance to one actor, Russia, and in a key overseas area for the other, the United States of America. US NATO allies in Europe are also intimately involved. The implications of this conflict are vast and pose an existential threat to the world. Even if the escalation of the conflict does not lead to a strategic nuclear exchange, the consequences of the Ukraine war will fundamentally change the world environment.

The war has defied earlier predictions and expectations. Neither the enlightening police-style Special Military Operation started by Russia to bring Kiev to its senses, nor the sanctions Blitzkrieg unleashed by the West to bring the Russian economy to its knees have succeeded. Ironically, in 2022 Russia’s GDP, in purchasing power parity terms, became the world’s fifth largest, ahead of Germany. As of this writing, the two sides to the conflict, Russia and the collective West which uses Ukraine as the tip of the spear, are locked in a protracted confrontation along a 1.000 km-long frontline. This first major in decades ground war in Europe, which by many observers was deemed to be dominated by artificial intelligence and other high-tech stuff, has turned out to be conventional and look more like a throwback to the World War I (WWI) (1914-1918), with its long trenches and the dominance of artillery.

Yet, technological progress has produced a lot of things to make this fighting very different from WWI, including drones and other forms of reconnaissance that make the entire battlefield and its adjacent rear areas fully transparent to the enemy who can hit them in real time, using attack drones and precision-guided munitions. The capacity of tanks, long believed to be the main striking force in a maneuver war, has been largely reduced to functioning as mobile artillery systems. Missiles with a longer range, which can also be fired from ships, and drones that can travel by air as well as by sea, have only demonstrated that no one can feel safe within a wide area on land as well as at sea, but also that offense can often be much cheaper and more effective than defense.

The war in Ukraine is not the first major armed conflict in Europe after the end of the Cold War. Suffice it to mention NATO’s 78-days-long intense air war against Yugoslavia in 1999. Yet, the ongoing conflict has lasted much longer, brought more destruction, and has already resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, mostly among the military. The conflict in Ukraine has made many people in the countries immediately involved accept war as a grim reality, bear sacrifices they only read about or see in the movies, and even think the unthinkable – the risks of a nuclear exchange. In these and many other ways, this war has ushered in a new era, and not just in military history.

The root causes of the war and its nature

The Ukraine war did not start out from the blue. In fact, it had been long in coming. Its roots can be traced to the times the Cold War ended. The United States and its allies who claimed victory as a result of the end of the bipolar confrontation refused either to include Russia as a full-fledged member of the new order that they established or to respect its national security interests. The outcome was a gradual – over two decades or so – the deterioration of the Russia-US relationships which came to the breaking point in early 2014.

February 1994 – Ukraine joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.
July 1997
– The Charter on a Distinctive Partnership was signed. NATO-Ukraine Commission was established.
April 2005
– NATO launched Intensified Dialogue with Ukraine.
January 2008
– Ukraine applied to integrate with a NATO Membership Action Plan.
April 2008
– NATO Bucharest summit took place. NATO proclaimed that “Ukraine will become NATO members”.
July 2010
– Ukraine officially declared neutrality (non-aligned status).
March 2014
– NATO intensified cooperation with Ukraine.
December 2014
– Ukraine’s parliament abolished non-aligned status.
June 2020
– NATO recognized Ukraine as Enhanced Opportunities Partner.
July 2023
– NATO-Ukraine Council was established.

Source: NATO

Currently NATO-Ukraine cooperation covers a wide range of activities from building Ukraine’s capabilities and interoperability with NATO forces, to promoting reforms in Ukraine’s defense and related security sectors and to supporting non-military activities, for example, in the realm of research or public diplomacy.

By supporting the street protests in Kiev that led to ousting of the elected president and endorsing the policies of the new regime that immediately proclaimed Ukraine’s intention to join NATO and moved to restrict the use of the Russian language, the United States and its European allies finally exhausted the Kremlin’s patience.

Moscow responded by seizing control of the strategically important Crimean Peninsula in a bloodless military intervention. In short order, it was followed the referendum on the territory’s accession to the Russian Federation, which promptly embraced it. In parallel to that, the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s Donbass region refused to recognize the new authorities in Kiev and voted for the independence from it. Moscow did not formally recognize the self-proclaimed republics, but it extended material – including military – support to them. Kiev, for its part, sought to suppress the separatists with tanks and bombers.

These developments turned the long-ailing relationships between Russia and the West into a hostile confrontation. The unique 25-year-long period when Russia earnestly tried to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic space, even groping for NATO membership for itself, while retaining its clear identity and as a co-equal of the Western powers, came to an end. A new era of confrontation began. Similar in many ways to the Cold War, yet different from it in many ways, a new hybrid war made its appearance on the scene of Russian-Western relations.

Ukraine became the war’s prime, though not the only battlefield. From the spring of 2014 till February 2022 Donbass was the stage of an armed conflict. Russia made sure that the capital cities of the two Donbass republics, Donetsk and Lugansk, were not overrun by the Ukrainian forces. It even succeeded in getting Kiev to sign an agreement with the republics (the 2015 Minsk Agreements) which made re-integration of Donbass into Ukraine possible, though conditional on the region receiving a wide autonomy.

Moscow’s diplomatic success, however, was dead on arrival, for Kiev and the two Western powers that were present at the negotiating table as guarantors, France and Germany, viewed the accord – as then the leaders of both European nations and the president of Ukraine publicly admitted later – as a possibility for Ukraine to buy time, rearm and train its military forces to defeat the separatists and restore Kiev’s control over Donbass.

“The 2014 Minsk Agreement was an attempt to give time to Ukraine. It also used this time to become stronger as can be seen today. The Ukraine of 2014-2015 is not the modern Ukraine”.

Angela Merkel in an interview for Die Zeit news magazine
December 7, 2022

“As for Minsk as a whole, I told Emmanuel Macron and Angela Markel: we will not be able to implement it like that”.

Vladimir Zelensky in an interview for Der Spiegel news magazine
February 9, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was deeply involved in the diplomatic effort at Minsk, spent the next eight years trying to get Kiev to fulfil its commitments. The change of presidents in Ukraine in 2019 briefly gave some room for a hope of peace, but a newly elected Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, then a complete political novice, soon fell under the spell of his ultra-nationalist allies and Western governments that had no interest in a compromise with Russia.

In 2021, President Vladimir Putin, realizing that time was not working for Russia, and the population of the Donbass republics (still not recognized by Moscow at that time) was being victimized by Ukrainian shelling ignored by the West, made it clear that Moscow’s patience was not unlimited. He ordered Russian troops to pile up on the Ukrainian border and put forward to the United States and NATO a set of demands. These included a formal obligation that Ukraine would not become a NATO member, and that the Donbass issue would be resolved in compliance with the Minsk Agreements. Should the West reject those demands, Russia declared it would take military-technical measures to defend its national security interests and to protect the Donbass population.

The Biden administration (from 2021 to present time) saw that Putin was serious, but it chose not to yield to his ultimatum, for this could be perceived as acting under pressure and accepting the limitations on the US international engagement. Instead of stopping the dramatically widening conflict, Washington was resolved to use it to weaken Russia, whose revisionism it considered a challenge to the US-dominated global system. So much for the nature of the Ukrainian conflict, the so-called Russian quest for restoring control over the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the allegedly unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.

Hybrid war acquires a proxy war dimension

The war in Ukraine is not an isolated phenomenon. It fully fits into the West’s concept of a hybrid war launched against Russia in 2014. Since that time the United States and its allies have been using economic, financial, and personal sanctions – its preferred weapon, given America’s global superiority in these fields – against Russia. The Ukraine war raised the sanctions pressure on Russia exerted by the US, the European Union, the UK, Japan, Australia, Canada, South Korea, and other countries to a level unprecedented in recent history.

Ukraine was the most important pretext for decisions on sanctions, but not the only one. The Democratic Party in the United States – falsely, as it has turned out, – blamed Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential elections on Russian interference. Following that, the Trump presidency (2017-2021) viewed Russia as turning into a political football in the ruthless world of the US domestic politics, with both the Democrats and the Republicans seeking to outcompete each other in initiating anti-Russian measures.
Other arguments for introducing sanctions ranged from Russia’s alleged (but never proven) use of toxic agents in the UK to the Russian military operation in support of the Syrian government war against terrorists and extremists. Moscow’s successful use of its military forces in Syria not only prevented regime change in Damascus, which Washington had favored, but broke up the US post-Cold War monopoly on the extraterritorial use of forces in the Middle East. It also returned Russia, after a two-decades-long hiatus, the status of a key regional actor.

Sanctions have become the main non-military component of the hybrid war, but not the only one. Russian political regime and the country’s leadership have been increasingly demonized in the Western mainstream media. Western governments and NGOs have supported Russian liberal opposition figures and organizations morally and materially, seeking to influence the country’s politics.

The launch of the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and the ever-deeper involvement of the United States and NATO countries in that conflict (through arms transfers, intelligence sharing, joint military planning, consultation and advice, presence of military and intelligence personnel and so on), the hybrid war has acquired a new important dimension of a proxy war between Russia and the United States/NATO. With that war continuing to escalate, there is a growing prospect of a direct kinetic collision between the West and Russia, fraught with the danger of a NATO-Russia war.

Hybrid war and transition to a new world order

From the standpoint of the US foreign policy establishment, the conflict between the West and Russia, and further confrontation between the United States and China are the principal characteristics of the major power competition. In the American political discourse, this competition is styled as the Sino-Russian autocratic revisionist challenge to the US-led world’s democracies. In Russia and China, however, that wider conflict is understood as the rise of sovereign nations against the US global hegemony and the centuries-old Western dominance.

It is important to note that it was the United States that took the initiative to deter/contain/push back China and Russia when these countries dared to defend their security, increase their role, or advance their national interests. True, Moscow’s comeback and China’s rise, even when not directed against the United States per se, did constitute challenges to Washington’s hegemony. However, in that challenge Beijing and Moscow were part of a global trend towards a less hierarchical, more diverse, more consensual world order.

This trend was reinforced by the failure of the United States and its allies, in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, to politically and economically isolate Russia. That said, breaking ranks with the United States, practically all African countries participated in 2023 Russia-Africa Summit held in July in Saint Petersburg; BRICS, of which Russia is a founding member, decided to expand its membership by adding six more countries to the current five; despite the intense US courting of India, New Delhi is not giving up on its long-standing bonds with Russia; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cooperate closely with Russia on the issue of oil production quotas (hereby oil prices); Türkiye, a NATO member, keeps close ties with Russia, despite some clashes of interest; and a number of Latin American countries, from Brazil to Mexico, do not fear demonstrating friendliness towards Russia. True, these countries are not Russia’s allies in any formal sense, but they look in the same direction, towards a freer world.

The conflict in Ukraine did not start the process of transition to a new world order. One can argue that the 2008 Global Financial Crisis destroyed the Washington Consensus and dealt a powerful blow to the US-supported economic model. One can describe China and India not only as world-scale economies, but also major world powers and self-confident strategic players. However, the Ukraine war gave the process a powerful impetus, strengthened it, and increased the pace of change.

By linking, for self-serving ideological reasons, the issue with Russia over Ukraine to the issue with China over Taiwan, the United States essentially turned what it called major power competition into a simultaneous conflict with the two big countries, which it heretofore had preferred to deal with separately, playing one off the other. The real stake in that wider conflict is nothing less than American hegemony. And the world order.

The US-led system of alliances turns into a bloc

To defend that hegemony, and using the Ukraine war as a pretext, the Biden administration has succeeded in marshalling its geopolitical, geoeconomic and military resources, starting with the system of alliances and partnerships. With reference to the war in Ukraine, the West is acting as a well-disciplined bloc, with Washington as its sole leader. The current unity of the West is several notches higher than it was during the height of the Cold War. There are no attempts at mediation between Washington and Moscow (as, e.g., by the UK in the 1950s). There is no more pretense of organizing tous azimuts defense, and staying away from NATO’s integrated military structures, as practiced by the French president Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s. Forget about a new special German Willy Brand-style Ostpolitik of the 1970s.

And more than that. There are even no more formal neutral powers in Europe. Finland, in a belated but fierce revenge for its former Finlandization policies (which some Finns always hated and were ashamed of), joined NATO in 2023, thus doubling in length the NATO-Russia border. Sweden, which despite its 200-year-old neutral status had always been considered in Moscow an unofficial member of NATO, asked to formally join the alliance, and was waiting for Türkiye’s consent[1]. Even Switzerland, the neutrals’ neutral, is no longer taking a balanced view, and is instead supporting anti-Russian sanctions. Austria and Ireland, as the EU member states, can hardly claim to be neutral anyway.

It is not just a peculiar feature of Europe alone. Under Washington’s guidance, about 50 countries worldwide coordinate their policies, transfer arms, and provide various forms of aid to Ukraine. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are most actively involved. Japan and South Korea are in it too, albeit more cautiously. Apart from that, Australia, Great Britain, and the United States have formed the AUKUS alliance primarily focused on China, as well as on Russia in the Asia-Pacific. Washington is also working to turn its bilateral alliances with Tokyo and Seoul into a trilateral military bloc. Thus, the US is busy binding its Asia-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic partners closer together in order to use their combined capabilities against both Russia and China.

Emergence of the World Majority

Not everyone has joined in, though. Despite the heavy US pressure, dozens of countries around the world have refused to accede to the anti-Russian sanctions regime. They declared themselves neutral in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and have been urging to put an end to hostilities and to make peace. These countries abide by the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity but refuse to condemn Russia. In fact, Russia’s fight against the US-imposed post-Cold War order has resonated with the neutral countries’ own efforts to do away with vestiges of Western neocolonialism and domination. These countries are not pro-Russian, but they insist on acting in their own national interest, not in assisting America’s attempt to restore its global hegemony. They do not accept the usual Western portrayal of the Ukrainian conflict as a banal fight between democracy and authoritarianism. With their own vast experience of dealing with the US and European countries’ policies, they know better.

It is thanks to the rise of this World Majority – as it has been called in Russia – that the US attempt to completely isolate Moscow internationally has failed. Russia’s ties with China, if anything, have strengthened (more on this below). India, a rising world power, has found itself actively courted by Americans and Europeans. So far, New Delhi has managed to maintain balance in its foreign relations. It combines the expansion of contacts with the West, necessary for fostering India’s economic growth and technological development, with the preservation of long-standing friendly ties to Russia. Moscow has reset its relations with Africa and Latin America; partnered closely with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates within the OPEC+ oil cartel; and reached out to the ASEAN. NATO member Türkiye maintains a vibrant and multi-faceted relationship with Russia, to name but a few.

Closer Sino-Russian alignment, but no alliance

Despite both being officially characterized as adversaries by the United States, Russia and China have not formed an anti-Western alliance – in stark contrast to the behavior of the US and its allies. The two great powers talk about their no limits strategic partnership, but they are not joined at the hip. The start of the Ukrainian conflict has proven wrong the Western media’s frequent insinuations about Moscow playing the role of a vassal to Beijing. Undoubtedly, the launch of Russia’s Special Military Operation that started only three weeks or so after President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics came as a surprise to the Chinese leadership.

On the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine, China has not demanded a vote. It took Beijing a few months to observe the developments in Ukraine and come to a conclusion that, strategically, Chinese interests would be far better served by Russia prevailing in the proxy war against the West than by Russia’s failure in Ukraine, not to speak of its (unlikely) defeat there. As for China’s alleged warning to Russia, reported by the Western media, not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, there has been no sign and no mention of Moscow actually considering such plans. Thus, while the Ukraine war has turned into a major stress test for the Sino-Russian relationship, it would be correct to say that it has passed that test.

The conduct of the military operation in Ukraine has demonstrated that Russian forces do not critically depend on China’s military support, but that the Western sanctions policies and the departure of many Western companies from Russia opened up significant new opportunities for Chinese business there. China, which about a decade ago replaced Germany as Russia’s leading trading partner, has by now overtaken the European Union as the principal destination of Russian exports and the source of its imports. The loss by Russia – for the foreseeable future – the majority of its European and other Western partners and investors, has put China in a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis Russia in a number of areas.

The Ukraine war has also pushed Chinese diplomacy to a much higher orbit. Far from being an outlier or an outsider, as often before, Beijing has come up with a ten-point peace plan on Ukraine. In fact, this amounts to China’s first-ever attempt to mediate in a crisis that pits Moscow against Washington. At this point, this Beijing’s peace initiative is more symbolic than real, but even as a symbol it indicates a much deeper level of China’s engagement in the world affairs as well as a sign of its readiness to take much bigger international responsibility. Actually, Beijing’s recent successful effort in reducing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia suggests that the effectiveness and the quality of Chinese diplomacy, backed by China’s vast economic resources, are rising fast.

Inevitably, parallels are drawn in many minds between Ukraine and Taiwan. China is certainly watching the Ukraine conflict with intense interest as it develops its political and military strategy regarding Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland. Like the US Armed Forces, the People’s Liberation Army is learning from the conflict in Ukraine.

Assisting deglobalization

The sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, Britain, and a number of other Western countries on Russia were once described as sanctions from hell. They were designed as a sort of an economic Blitzkrieg aimed at paralyzing Russian finances and economy and bringing the Kremlin to its knees in short order. These sanctions included, among many other things, cutting Russia off from the global financial system; seizing Russia’s hard currency reserves; stopping the flow of Russian natural gas to Europe; putting a cap on the price of Russia’s oil exports; severing most transportation links between Western countries and Russia, etc.

A number of market and legal principles that heretofore had been widely considered sacrosanct even in extremis, were violated by the Western countries in the name of political expediency. This included the suspension or abolition of property rights where the Russian state, Russian companies or Russian nationals were concerned. The third parties who continued trading in sanctioned items faced secondary sanctions in the West. Among these third parties, some were clearly deterred by the threats, but the stronger countries could not help but putting themselves in Russia’s shoes – in case their relations with the United States were to deteriorate.

Yet, though the sanctions did hurt Russia, they did not work. The Kremlin policies have not changed. Russian society and polity have not cracked. Russia’s financial and economic managers, its crises-hardened business community scrambled to re-orient foreign trade, re-design production chains and logistical corridors, and have come up with import substitution, and various other creative solutions. Russia’s GDP, which dipped under the weight of sanctions by just under 3 percent in 2022, grew by more than 3 percent in 2023[2].

In a previously unthinkable (barring a shooting war between NATO and Russia) act of sabotage, the Nord Stream I and II pipelines supplying Germany and other European countries with inexpensive Russian gas were blown up – allegedly on the orders of the US president, which bears a semblance of truth. Tellingly, the principal target of the attack was probably not so much Russia, but its client Germany, the US ally, and the goal was to make sure that German leaders would not turn to Russian gas during the cold winter period.

The impact of the war in Ukraine on international trade has been significant. The trend towards deglobalization and securitization of the economy has received a powerful impetus. Financial sanctions in particular undermined confidence in the reliability of the US dollar. The EU’s preventive moves to de-activate Russia’s energy weapon by shutting off Russian gas natural supplies have tied Europe to much higher-cost energy imports from the United States and other non-Russian sources. In Germany, the country whose industry was hit the hardest, de-industrialization is a real risk, as businesses leave the country.

Other sectors that suffered a lot, on a worldwide scale, were food and fertilizers supplies, where Russia is a leading producer, and Ukraine is a major one. It is important to note that all the economic troubles described in this section came as a direct result of Western sanctions, not of Russia’s retaliation against them, which was limited, and whose impact was small to negligible.

Denting the US dollar’s dominance

The seizure of Russian state assets has produced not only fears and concerns in other countries which could put themselves in the circumstances when they were hit by similar sanctions but also made them look for alternatives to the US dollar and other Western currencies which, given the West’s rediscovered bloc structure, were no safer in their eyes than the American one. Russia, as the country directly and massively affected, began using national currencies in its foreign trade on a much wider scale than before. Thus, the bulk of Moscow’s trade with its post-Soviet partners within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is overwhelmingly done in the Russian ruble and other local instruments; the Russo-Chinese trade is mostly carried out in the ruble and the yuan. Recently, Moscow has gotten used to being paid for its oil exports in the Indian rupee, the Saudi riyal or UAE dirham, the Iranian rial, and the like.

Trade in national currencies, while politically more secure, suffers heavily, of course, from the high volatility of these currencies, their limited convertibility and various other transaction costs. To deal with these issues, the BRICS group has prioritized the development of a system of international settlements that would replace the need to make payments via the US banking system, but with minimum cost to the parties. There is much talk about the need to create a new world currency, but practical efforts boil down to the development such means as a basket of currencies.

The Crisis of the Western-oriented multilateral institutions

In the context of the Ukraine war, the West’s success in coalition-building and administrative staffing of the most international organizations, has led to a further erosion of these organizations’ supposedly universal character; turning them into battlefields or talking shops; or paralyzing them altogether.

Pan-European organizations have been the most affected. With Russia de facto excluded or severely restricted in its rights, some bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have essentially lost their raison d’être. Russia’s decision to leave the Council of Europe drastically limited the Council’s remit. The same can be said of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC), from which Russia has withdrawn, and of the Arctic Council where Moscow was boycotted by the Western members during its 2021-2023 presidency; the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS); and the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) which all still remain standing but barely breathing.

The Western-dominated Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has long been crippled by Western machinations aimed at blaming Syria and Russia for the alleged but never proven use of chemical weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has fared somewhat better than the OPCW, but its inability, for political reasons, to point finger at Ukraine for deliberately and repeatedly shelling the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), located inside the Russian-controlled territory, shows its limited agency. The World Health Organization (WHO) has had little to do with Ukraine so far, but it richly displayed its bias during the COVID-19 pandemic by dragging its feet on certifying the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine. In the heady atmosphere of the Ukrainian conflict, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been used by the West as a tool to bring politically inspired and spurious charges against Russia’s president and the Children’s ombudswoman.

Predictably, the divisions that had plagued the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) since the late 2010s have deepened and sharpened as a result of the war in Ukraine. The Permanent Five (P5) is now permanently divided: the US, Great Britain and France vs China and Russia. The Ukraine war has come to dominate the UNSC’s agenda, turning the Council into a rhetorical battleground and propaganda platform, leaving little time and will to deal constructively with other global issues. Thus, the lists of the countries that the West and Russia would support for permanent membership in the UNSC as part of its long-debated reform differ significantly. While India and Brazil are not controversial, Moscow strongly objects to adding Germany and Japan, which it sees as Washington’s vassals.

No wonder that, in the radically changed environment, global governance, a popular subject for discussion in the recent past, has taken a back seat. Instead, China, Russia, and many countries in the World Majority, are increasingly focused on building pillars of a new world order which can start functioning while the old system is not completely gone. While the West-only G7 is essentially of one mind and works to support the US-led effort of restoring dominance, BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are not only admitting new members but represent a new model of interaction: without a dictatorial leader, a single ideology, and discipline. The G20, almost equally divided between the West and the World Majority, finds it difficult to function efficiently in this environment.

The world security agenda was grossly distorted during the brief period of the US hegemony when Washington would not agree to international limits to its military power. Since 2002, the US has withdrawn from a series of treaties, ranging from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) and the Treaty on Open Skies; and refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Agreement on Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty).

Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, Russia, has followed suit. Moscow suspended the implementation of the New START Treaty and the Adapted CFE; and it has decided to call off its ratification of the CTBT. As a result, arms control has been superseded by rearmament, and international/common security by national or military balance between particular nations and/or alliances.

The climate agenda, dominant on the world scene for several years, has moved off the center stage, even in the West, in the wake of the Ukraine war. The collapse of the energy links between Russia and Europe, initiated by the EU and long advocated by the US, has led to wider use of hydrocarbons, including coal. It is remarkable that the act of sabotage against the Nord Stream pipeline on the Baltic seabed, which resulted in large emissions into the atmosphere, was played down by the Western mainstream media.

The Ukraine war has led to a large-scale and determined attempt, particularly in Europe, to cancel Russian culture and arts, restrict cross-border movement of Russian nationals, ban Russian athletes from international competitions, including the Olympic Games.

Russia’s domestic transformation

The conflict in Ukraine has launched Russia onto the trajectory of a fundamental internal transformation. The Russian Foreign Policy Concept approved in the Spring of 2023 represents a stark contrast to the wording of the previous one[3]. Russia describes itself as a distinct civilization; it focuses on relations with non-Western nations of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, as well as its partners in the Near Abroad. Relations with Europe and North America are given the lowest priority. It is not the last three decades of Russia’s ill-fated attempt of Western integration that are being repudiated; this is a reversal of the strategic vector laid down by Peter the Great (1682-1725) over three hundred years ago.

The most important processes of change, however, are happening inside the country. The launch of the Special Military Operation in February 2022 sent into oblivion the first post-Soviet version of the Russian Federation and put the country on the road of transition towards something that can be called RF_2.0.

Key to that process is restructuring of the Russian economy, which has proven resilient to the sanctions Blitzkrieg. A new national payments system has been put in place; new production chains have been established; a range of products that used to be imported are now being manufactured in Russia. The country’s leadership has announced plans of moving towards technological sovereignty. Reindustrialization can be particularly seen in the defense sector: spending on defense and security has doubled over a year, from 3 percent to 6 percent. Yet, it is not confined only to it.

The pattern of Russia’s foreign economic relations has changed radically. China and Türkiye, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have become important transit/intermediary countries. New logistical routes are being developed, from the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic to the North-South corridor across the Caspian and the Caucasus to the Middle East, India, and Africa, and to the so-called Eastern Polygon in the Russian Far East.

Russian society as a whole – and the Russian elites in particular – have faced a stark and painful choice: to stay in the country at war, or to leave and settle down abroad. While political elites have overwhelmingly elected to stay, thousands of business tycoons, entertainment industry celebrities, IT sector specialists, and liberal political activists and journalists have left Russia. Those who stayed in the country, have, by contrast, spoken in support of President Putin, including Ukraine the relations with the West.

Such social change, in turn, has ensured a new psychological climate in the country. A set of patriotic values for the nation as a whole; a unified view of Russian history as laid down in textbooks for high school and university students; an emphasis on national culture and harsh punishment for publicly slandering the army and targeted repression against radical activists, whether on the arch-conservative side or on the far left. These are some salient features of the social climate change in Russia.


Russian-Western relations are in a flux. One thing is clear, though. There is no turning back to where things were in 2013, or even in 2021. The war in Ukraine will continue and is likely to intensify and escalate – certainly vertically (more powerful weapons used) and maybe even horizontally (expanding the theater of war). Both Russia and the US/West have a huge stake in the outcome, even though Russia’s is more consequential by far. A negotiated peace settlement between them is next to impossible. For Russia, denazification of the Kiev regime, demilitarization of what will eventually remain of Ukraine, and full integration of the newly incorporated territories appear to be the main objectives.

The hybrid war, however, will continue even after the cessation of hostilities in Ukraine. A new world order is not at hand. When the military conflict essentially stops, each side might claim victory in Ukraine, but living with the real outcome will not be comfortable for either one. Instead of a new security architecture, the best scenario one can hope for in Europe may be a military stand-off along an unbroken front line stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea. Russia’s political relations with the now officially called unfriendly countries of the West will not much improve. The trust between Russia and America, Russians and Europeans will not be rebuilt in the foreseeable future.

Rocky Russia-West relations is only one aspect, though an important one in a raft of big changes that the world is experiencing. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has just been resolved by force. The US-China confrontation is aggravating, with Taiwan and the South China Sea being the most likely flashpoints. The escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached an unprecedented intensity and threatens to spill over to the wider region. Tensions are growing on the Korean Peninsula.

One might argue that this points to the direction of change: back to the future. Ironically but tellingly, even many of those in Russia who for over thirty years used to criticize the unfortunate notion of the end of history, secretly believed it to be true, and only wished that end to be different from the one suggested in the concept. Above all, they considered war to be history. Now history has caught up with them.

What this turbulence and violence also highlights, however, is the decline of the US global hegemony. Even more important: breaking with the historical pattern, there will most probably be no hegemonic succession. In the more or less distant future, there most likely will be no hegemony, whether single-handed, bipolar or oligarchical: the world is already turning polycentric. Not that it will be fragmented, but it will be united in a different fashion – not unified. Without a hegemon there will be far less uniformity – diversity will be ubiquitous. Universal values will continue to exist, but as a result of negotiations between the players, each relying on their own cultural and civilizational heritage. The road to that more equitable future, however, is bumped by a series of conflicts – the peaceful way the Cold War ended was a historical aberration.

[1] Sweden became a full member of NATO on March 7, 2024. – Editor’s Note.

[2] Росстат: ВВП России в 2023 году вырос на 3,6% // ИД Коммерсантъ, 7 февраля 2024 г. URL:

[3] The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, 2023 // Russian Foreign Ministry, March 31, 2023. URL:


Source: PIR Center

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