News | War / Peace - Eastern Europe The Geopolitical Consequences of the Escalation in Ukraine

A new Cold War with negative consequences for all sides appears more likely than ever before



Ingar Solty,

Protest vor der russischen Botschaft in Berlin, 24.2.2022 IMAGO / A. Friedrichs

For all people interested in peace and security in Europe, 22 February 2022 was a black day. 24 February, when Russia launched an unjustifiable war of aggression against a neighbouring country, was even blacker. Russia must end this war immediately and unconditionally to clear the way back to the negotiating table.

Ingar Solty is a Senior Fellow for Peace and Security Policy at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Translated by Loren Balhorn.

With the bombing of targets in Ukraine and the invasion of ground troops, Russia has demonstrated its full potential for aggression and broken international law. Ukrainians, who now find themselves in a war that will most likely trigger huge refugee flows from all parts of the country, are the ones who suffer.

Peaceful solutions could have been found for peace and security in Ukraine. There potentially also could have been better solutions for Russia’s legitimate security interests — and for peace and security throughout Europe. What is likely to happen now is neither in the interests of Ukrainian, Russian, nor Western European civilians — nor, as their state is also a very significant player, US civilians.

Deadly Games and Double Standards

On the evening of 21 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the secessionist so-called “People’s Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk in the eastern Ukrainian Donbass region as sovereign states. Granting the Donbass republics the right to secession today constitutes a clear double standard on Putin’s part, given that the Russian state denied the same right to the Chechens in two bloody and devastating wars.

Before recognizing the Donbass republics, Russia had issued more than 700,000 Russian passports to residents in the separatist areas over the last two years. The Ukrainian government in the west of the country had not recognized the governments in Luhansk and Donetsk up to this point and, following the takeover of power by interim president Poroshenko (confirmed in elections a short time later), deployed armed force against the renegades, pushing them back into a fraction of their original territory. Today, the Russian state justifies its actions with the prevention of a “genocide” of the ethnic Russian population in eastern Ukraine, which has strong economic ties with Russia. It does this because it has to justify the war of aggression internally and before the world. It is a typical monstrous war lie.

At the same time, the Russian president invokes the “responsibility to protect” in the name of “Russians abroad”, as was previously used by the West and NATO in instances like the invasion of Libya in 2011 to justify their own war-like measures and regime-change policy. Moreover, the secession and recognition of the Donbass republics copies the Western model of secession and recognition of Kosovo in the wake of the NATO war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) in 1999.

The propagandistic war lies about an imminent genocide, which Putin now cites as justification, are also similar: the bombing of Yugoslavia was preceded by then-German Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping’s invention and propagation of “Operation Horseshoe”, a supposedly imminent genocide of the Kosovo Albanian population by the Serbian-Montenegrin government. In this way, the West has provided the Russian state with a blueprint for own violations of international law. This fact does not justify anything — but it does help to explain how the logic of the military and the law of the strongest have become dominant in politics today.

What Does Putin Want?

The question is what war aims Russia is pursuing. It has become clear that the Russians do not plan to stop at the stationing of “peacekeepers” in the Donbass. Paradoxically, this would have effectively frozen the conflict, as the US and NATO are not prepared to enter into open warfare with Russia — a nuclear power — on behalf of Ukraine. Joe Biden had previously stated that the US would sanction Russia and send weapons and money to Ukraine, but not troops of their own.

In his speech on the night of 23–24 February 2022, Putin declared the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine as Russian war aims. In addition, those responsible for acts of violence in the Ukrainian civil war, including the perpetrators of the attacks on the Odessa Trade Union House, were to be apprehended.

The airstrikes in all parts of the country are apparently intended to destroy military infrastructure. It is questionable what purpose this is supposed to serve: short-term war aims, or longer-term objectives such as destroying infrastructure that could serve as a staging area for NATO troops in the event of a Western alliance? The latter would undoubtedly be short-sighted given that, following the various rounds of NATO eastward enlargement, Russia shares other direct borders with NATO countries, from the Baltic states to Southeastern Europe. Thus, it is obvious that these moves correspond to immediate war aims and preparation of unimpeded operations on Ukrainian territory.

Nevertheless, it is also clear that with “denazification”, Putin is not only evoking popular memories of the “Great Patriotic War” and liberation of Europe from German fascism by the Red Army, suggesting a repetition of history, but also leaving open the option of a much more wide-ranging operation with ground troops, even “regime change” in Kiev. Admittedly, the number of 120–150,000 Russian soldiers mobilized so far is probably too small for such a war. In the Gulf War, for example, the US mobilized 400,000 troops along a much shorter border. But since the deployment area is directly on the border, a correspondingly rapid movement is quite conceivable and a regime-change war cannot be ruled out.

It is also conceivable that the Russian military operations against Ukraine’s military infrastructure are intended to cover the advances of the so-called “People’s Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. Admittedly, the Russian president had rejected demands in this direction made in the — undoubtedly staged and long-planned — meeting of the Russian Security Council. Moreover, the Russian “genocide” arguments always mentioned a figure of four million “people in need of protection”, which corresponds to the numbers in the current borders of the “People’s Republics”. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that the Donbass republics will now — with Russian support — make advances to recapture lost territories.

The Russian government knows that the US and NATO are not prepared to enter into a conflict with another nuclear power on behalf of Ukraine. As a non-NATO member, Article 5 does not apply. At the same time, it is questionable what Russia stands to gain from an open war with the Ukrainian military. The regime-change perspective could seek to make the pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk president and thus install a foreign policy similar to that of the Party of Regions, which ruled the country under President Yanukovych until 2014. Such a strategy, however, would be somewhat self-damaging, if not crazy.

It is true that Medvedchuk’s opposition party was ahead in some election polls until his house arrest, declared by the Ukrainian National Security Council in May 2021, as a result of dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and corruption scandals of the (originally anti-corruption) President Zelensky. The current Russian actions and Russian violence, however, naturally strengthen the conviction among Ukrainians that EU and NATO membership must be sought for their own security. If that was not already the case, there will be lasting majorities in favour of such a perspective after this war, especially since the opponents of such a development will no longer carry any weight in eastern Ukraine.

This also means, however, that lasting Ukrainian neutrality or even eastern relations would only be conceivable under Russia’s formal, military control of the country. Incidentally, such a Ukraine would be confronted with a whole series of NATO countries with borders to Russia, which would then be even more strongly oriented towards the West and which — like the Baltic States — have already repeatedly been deployment areas for NATO troops.

What Happens Next?

Either way, the Russian action mark the culmination of developments since 2014. The Minsk II peace process negotiated in 2015 foresaw the two parties agreeing upon and maintaining a ceasefire, then entering into dialogue to negotiate relatively far-reaching autonomy for the Donbass region in return for an end to the influx of Russian fighters and weapons. The “Normandy format”, a diplomatic body with the participation of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France, was based on the promise that Ukrainian and Russian security interests would not be decided over the heads of Ukrainians in Washington and Moscow, and that Europeans could take care of their own security in a “common European home”.

From a peace policy point of view, the desirable outcome could have been the development of a common European security architecture incorporating Russia, in which Russia would have to commit itself to respecting the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and guaranteeing the security of Ukraine.

Instead, the worst possible outcome seems to be playing out. The current developments in Eastern Europe have at least six medium- to long-term geopolitical consequences — all of which are deeply worrying.

Firstly, Ukraine has been definitively torn apart by the rift between West and East that began long before 2014. The Minsk II process, which aimed at an intra-Ukrainian ceasefire, dialogue between Kiev and the secessionist areas, and autonomous status in a territorially unified state is thus also history. The same applies to the Normandy format, which arguably represented an attempt to determine our own fate as Europeans: internally and without the US.

Secondly, with the ultimate division of Ukraine, another Eastern European country with a young nation-state abandons multiethnicity and multiculturalism, while nationalist homogenization policies intensify on both sides. This tears families and their respective multi-ethnic, multilingual, and political and ideologically diverse histories apart — between pride in nationalist collaborationist heritage on the one hand and pride in the Soviet heritage and victory in the war over fascism on the other. It is obvious that antisemitism and antiziganism are likely to play some role on both sides. Anyone who remembers the terrible policy of homogenization in Central and Eastern Europe before (and, under different auspices, even after) 1945 will be terrified by this prospect.

Thirdly, spill-over effects in other young nation states in Eastern Europe are to be feared. Although Russia did not formally incorporate the Russian-secessionist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and this is probably not to be expected even now (due to the Black Sea Fleet, Crimea had a completely different geopolitical significance for Moscow than the Donbass republics), there is also a threat of spill-over in other regions of the post-Soviet states, and indeed the world, in the form of drawing new borders through secession. More bloodshed will be the result

Fourthly, Putin’s speech on 21 February shows that people in Russia have also given up hope for the “common European home”. The Russian government’s demands to the West in January 2022 to return to the post-1991 situation and the US promise not to expand NATO eastwards, not to station troops and also not to station nuclear weapons on the Russian border, were illusory given the balance of forces in the West and the facts created by the West in five rounds of NATO eastward expansion. So much has happened in the last 25–30 years that mutual trust has been permanently shaken.

The price for these bad policies will now be paid by the civilian populations of Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the US. In a new age of great power rivalry, a new “Iron Curtain”, reinforced by both sides, threatens to go right through Europe, deepening the dangerous bloc formation of “the West” (as far as Ukraine) on the one hand and an alliance led by China and Russia on the other.

The joint statement of the Chinese and Russian governments at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing also indicates that Moscow and Beijing are preparing for such a new Cold War, even if the Chinese government expressed its regret about the escalation in Ukraine on 22 February and called for a return to dialogue. This will also mean that the global arms race will continue, which not only entails real dangers of war, but also ties up resources that are urgently needed to address global issues like hunger and the climate catastrophe.

Fifthly, with its attack, Russia has finally destroyed the Budapest Memorandum, in which it pledged to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for Ukraine’s renunciation of (Soviet) nuclear weapons. As a result, the agrarian Western oligarchs in Ukraine will also be strengthened, who, out of financial self-interest, want stronger ties to the EU and the West because, in contrast to the domestically or Russia-oriented industrial Eastern oligarchs, they have nothing to lose and much to gain from such ties.

The proportion of the population that wants to apply for NATO membership will understandably increase. The Ukrainian constitution and the NATO statutes have so far stood in the way of such a perspective: until 2019, the Ukrainian constitution mandated neutrality for the country. Moreover, NATO does not admit countries in conflict. Nevertheless, this is likely to be the direction in which the dominant Western elites and the population of Western Ukraine will push given the escalation of the conflict.

Such a perspective is, of course, absolutely understandable from a Ukrainian perspective. The Eastern European states, like Russia, have legitimate security interests that are also based on historical experience. Germany in particular — which invaded, divided, and colonized the Eastern European countries several times in the twentieth century and was also heavily involved in the division of Poland in the eighteenth century — must treat them sensitively.

However, this also includes the realization that the small Eastern European countries have had their own experiences with Russia, which, from the Polish partitions to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, also acted offensively towards the West and re-annexed territory that had been lost at Brest-Litovsk. Not only Russia’s security interests are legitimate, but also — as should be clear by now — the security interests of the Eastern European states, one of which is now being attacked from Russian soil.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s accession to NATO would be a catastrophe in terms of peace, security, and cooperation in Europe, because it means that, in a worst-case scenario, the Western NATO powers and Russia would face each other in the middle of Ukraine. Ukraine’s right to join alliances is rightly cited by the West. The security of Ukraine could not and cannot be negotiated in Moscow or Washington without Ukrainian participation. But: it must be acknowledged that the West, too, when it ran counter to its geopolitical interests, was often not serious about a country’s right to choose alliances. As unlikely as the prospect of a collective European security architecture including Russia is after the current escalation, this prospect nevertheless seems all the more without alternative if we hope to prevent a full-on confrontation between NATO and a Russian-Chinese economic and military bloc.

Sixthly, Germany’s attempt to play a mediating role by refraining from (offensive) arms deliveries to Ukraine and emphasizing the Normandy format has unfortunately also failed. As a result, the US also gets what it has long pursued as its main geopolitical goals: the weakening of Russia (through sanctions and the end of North Stream 2) and through US energy exports to Western Europe, and Germany’s and Western Europe’s energy and thus geopolitical dependence on the US as one of the most effective means of pressure to incorporate Germany and the Western European NATO states into the imperial “management” of global capitalism. The perspective of “strategic autonomy” for Europe is thus greatly weakened.