The war in Ukraine is taking place in a world fraught with tension and polarisation. Unless that is overcome, we could be heading towards a dark future.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not just a horrifying humanitarian catastrophe, but also a significant geopolitical event whose consequences most likely will be both far-reaching and long-lasting. For one thing, it crushes the European security order that was established in the decades following World War II and that many had come to take for granted. Indeed, despite Russia’s recent history of aggression towards not just Ukraine, but Georgia and Syria as well, there were few politicians and political commentators who believed that a full-scale attack was imminent even when hordes of Russian soldiers were mobilising along Ukrainian borders during the year leading up to the invasion. The prospects of a major war on European soil in 2022 just seemed unthinkable to many.
Yet since the attack took place, many have been asking themselves the obvious question: why? The response is not very straightforward, though, partly because of the unreliability of communication by the Russian leadership – but also because of what has emerged as two very distinct explanatory models for what caused the invasion: what we broadly may refer to as a left-socialist and a centre/right-liberal model.
Basically, the left-socialist model sees the major cause of Russian aggression as the consequence of NATO’s expansion eastwards. According to this model, it is NATO’s expansion particularly into countries close to or bordering Russia since the late 90s – despite repeated warnings from the Russian leadership that this is unacceptable – that has prompted these horrific responses from Russia. Hence, it blames the Western (and particularly American) world order for its reckless imperial ambitions that have triggered this ruthless aggression by an increasingly militarily/geopolitically surrounded (and frustrated) Russia.
The centre/right-liberal model, on the other hand, sees the attack as a consequence of Putin’s imperial ambitions. Essentially, as the next logical step of his imperialist desire to recreate a Great Russian Empire that consists of Russia surrounded by neighbouring vassal states (e.g., Ukraine and Belarus), as well as states positioned within a broader ‘sphere of interest’ (e.g., Sweden and Finland). Indeed, Putin views the fall of the Soviet Union as a traumatic event – the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, as he has put it himself – which brought about a geopolitical catastrophe that must be overcome by the Great Russian Leader that is himself. Hence his denial – in his (in)famous essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ that was published on the Kremlin website in 2021 – that Ukraine is a real country with its own sovereignty, as well as his rationale for using violence and warfare as instruments for realising his imperial ambition to annihilate the Ukrainians as a people.
While these models do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, it is noticeable how often they have been characterised as this in the media. This is unfortunate in my view, insofar as there have been important contributions to understanding the war, as well as its broader geopolitical context, from across the political spectrum – which risk becoming oversimplified if only parts of them are considered.
Firstly, six months into the war, I think it has become obvious that Putin’s hostility towards NATO-expansion is only a smaller piece of a larger geopolitical ambition, rather than the primary cause of Russia’s aggression. Certainly, Putin’s rhetoric (more recently, comparing himself to Peter the Great and arguing that he, like him, simply is taking back territory that belongs to Russia) and all the horrible war crimes committed by the Russians against the Ukrainians – such as the brutal killings of civilians, the forced deportations, the instalments of local leaderships loyal to Russia, as well as the ambition to get rid of Ukrainian currency, language, culture, and so on – cannot easily be explained simply as reactions against NATO-expansion, but must rather be seen for what it is: an attempted genocide orchestrated by the Russian leadership.
Hence, putting too much emphasis on NATO-expansion on the one hand risks neglecting much of what actually is happening in Ukraine at the moment – and, on the other hand, also risks depriving the Ukrainians, as well as other Eastern Europeans, of their agency if one only sees their integration into the liberal West as, for example, a consequence of US foreign policy. Because what is being forgotten in that case is these people’s own desire for guaranteeing their territorial sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet Union (e.g., when the Baltic states joined NATO) – which is a perspective that those who have not lived within a Soviet/Russian sphere of interest sometimes seem to lack (this is also why Finland was very quick with moving towards NATO after the attack – since they have direct experience of living under Soviet influence, and refuse to risk ending up in that situation again).
Secondly, does this mean that the narrative of the centre/right, liberal mainstream – which rests solidly on the recognition of Putin’s imperial ambitions – should simply be accepted? Certainly not. For one thing, the distinction that often is drawn in Western liberal politics and media – between Western democracies and their anti-democratic, non-Western adversaries – is simply too one-sided. From this perspective, the West is the representative of the free, democratic world – and states like Russia its totalitarian enemy. Yet, as is well-known by now, the Western, neoliberal world order piloted by the United States is not simply the peaceful alternative to non-Western dictators it often is characterised as. Indeed, it also has its own track record of war crimes – most famously, of course, those of the Iraq War and the War on Terror in general – that do not fit well into the popular story of a heroic West nobly fighting against the ‘axis of evil’ of the geopolitical other.
Needless to say, this does not excuse the horrible war crimes committed by the Russians against the Ukrainians – but it does undermine the overly simplified liberal idea of the West as an altogether force of good in an increasingly hostile world. Indeed, this basic mode of critical self-consciousness is usually absent in the liberal mainstream. And this is, accordingly, where I think that the left plays an important role, in terms of providing a critical perspective also on ourselves to serve as an ideological counterweight to the liberal hubris that is dominating Western societies. For example, when the United States are not following the international rules that they themselves have been part of setting up, it clearly opens the door for other states, such as Russia, to do the same. Or, even though I think that blaming NATO-expansion as what ultimately caused the war is too simplistic, what nevertheless is important to consider is what the West perhaps could have done differently, for example in terms of diplomacy and negotiation, to possibly break the unfortunate trajectory that we are currently on.
It is certainly important to recognise these shortcomings and failures of our own, because we need a different and better West to stand prepared for the increased geopolitical conflicts and confrontations that could take place following the invasion.
Beyond Neoliberalism and Authoritarian Nationalism
Additionally, the popular narrative of the free and democratic West also threatens to skate over severe problems internal to the West itself, which could have major long-term domestic and geopolitical consequences. One way of examining these cracks within the popular Western self-image a bit closer is by nuancing the concept of freedom. In their book Inventing the Future (2015), the political theorists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue that the struggle for freedom should be essential to any left political programme – but it must be a freedom more expansive than the one associated with the popular idea of the West as the apex of the free world, which routinely is contrasted in liberal politics and media against the forms of unfreedom associated with various totalitarian state apparatuses. More specifically, this liberal idea of freedom is a form of negative freedom that, while it prides itself on the idea of formal rights free from totalitarian state interference, at the same time has provided very few people with the material means to actually realise these rights. As Srnicek and Williams point out: ‘Under negative freedom, the rich and the poor are considered equally free, despite the obvious differences in their capacities to act.’ What therefore is necessary is a more expansive form of positive freedom, which recognises ‘that a formal right without a material capacity is worthless’ – and also provides everyone with sufficient means for realising these rights.
It is this gap between the acknowledgements of formal rights and the lack of means for realising them – or, between negative and positive freedom, which indeed problematises the popular and simplistic idea of the free West – that has led to the widespread anger and frustration which has fuelled the many recent political successes of nationalist and authoritarian right-wing parties and figures in the West. The latter has not only increased tension and polarisation within the West significantly, but has also led to various questionings of, and withdrawals from, international relations. For example, events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States have not only made massive conflicts within the West blatantly clear – they have also weakened its geopolitical position vis-à-vis other major actors on the world stage, which has allowed figures like Putin to advance their positions.
This once again became particularly obvious during the recent French election, where we came dangerously close to having a right-nationalist leader, Marine Le Pen, being elected president of one of the major European countries. While her opponent Emmanuel Macron has become known for his advocating of strengthening the EU and imposing major sanctions against Russia due to the war – Le Pen, on the other hand, not only is highly critical of the EU and NATO, but also has ties to Russia (e.g., the unpaid loans her party has received from Russian banks) and has supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Needless to say, this would have threatened to seriously undermine the surprisingly strong unity displayed by the West against Russia since the invasion (not to mention worsening an already catastrophic situation for the Ukrainian people), by creating more internal conflict within the West that most likely would have played right into the hands of leaders like Putin – who obviously wants to see a split, and thus geopolitically weakened, West.
Thankfully, this was avoided due to the victory of Macron. Yet the fact that a significant amount of French people voted for Macron not because they like his politics, but because they felt that they had to in order to stop Le Pen from being elected, is a depressing reality that has become an all-too-common scenario by now: relief that we avoided catastrophe, rather than excitement that we elected someone able to challenge the status quo. The French election is indeed also a useful example precisely because Macron is that typical kind of neoliberal Western leader that we have seen too many of at this point, and whose elite-privileging politics has given rise to the anger and frustration among working class people that has fuelled the rise of the nationalist right.
The West self-destructing due to internal conflict and polarisation would certainly play right into the hands of countries like Russia (and let us not forget the Russian interference in the 2016 US election, as well as their possible interference in the Brexit vote, which obviously were carried out according to this objective). What would for example happen on the back of a new Trump presidency in 2024 – with US/Russia-relations, US/NATO-relations, as well as the US itself, given the authoritarian and anti-democratic core of Trumpism? This is certainly an extremely worrisome scenario – not just for the US, but for the West and the world as such.
In order to prevent this from happening, by decreasing polarisation and the current momentum of right nationalists, a sharp turn away from neoliberal politics towards a political programme that reduces class divides by strengthening the welfare state and improving the lives of workers and the poor along the lines of positive freedom is necessary. This will undoubtedly be difficult – particularly in the current climate, where inflation is rising dramatically partly due to the war, and where people will see their buying power reduced even more in order for the West to uphold the sanctions against Russia – yet it is necessary all the same. Indeed, it is important also because it would provide a stronger popular and political-economic foundation for rethinking, rather than abandoning, international relations along better and more fair trajectories, by rejecting the unfreedom of authoritarian nationalism, as well as pushing beyond the negative freedom of neoliberal globalisation, and instead building genuine global solidarity through positive freedom.
The End of Globalisation?
At the moment, we seem to go in the opposite direction. Indeed, the Russian attack on Ukraine has increased current geopolitical tensions also by forcing countries to take sides for or against the war – and not always in satisfactory ways. China’s unwillingness to take a clear stance is most significant here – because of its emerging status as a superpower, its currently frosty relations to the US and the EU, its close ties to Russia, as well as the possibility of a similar conflict between China and Taiwan that, if so, most likely also will lead to some kind of confrontation between China and the US (and possibly NATO as well).
What these geopolitical tensions ultimately could lead to is the emergence of a new, massive iron curtain between the East and West – with Russia and China as the major players on one side, and Europe and North America on the other. Perhaps the emergence of such an iron curtain will mean the end of globalisation as we know it – due to the establishing of major Western and Eastern adversarial alliances engaged in various kinds of arms races, as opposed to international collaboration and exchange. We do not yet know if this scenario ever will become a reality, but the possibility of such a new world order should not be taken lightly and prompt us to work towards creating a different alternative: a true globalism that strives towards expansive international relations without major class division, nationalism, authoritarianism, imperialism, or geopolitical rivalries.
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