Make no mistake: Russia's war on Ukraine is not a regional one
- Unlike regional conflicts of the 20th century, the recent developments with NATO, along with the multipolarity of the world order, indicate that Russia's war on Ukraine may have far-reaching consequences.
What Russian President Vladimir Putin thought would be a conflict that would last a few days, has become an almost four-month-long conflict with no end in sight, and an unclear outcome. What triggered the war was Russia's fear of Ukraine possibly joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which would mean the presence of NATO at its borders. Interestingly though, what seems to be happening as a result of the war is the opposite. With Finland and Sweden officially breaking their longtime neutrality and asking to join NATO — and with the possibility of getting an accelerated admission — Russia's border worries are only likely to worsen.
It is because of these developments, along with the multipolarity of the world order today, that Russia's war on Ukraine may no longer be a regional conflict.
Europe is often called the "old continent". Its supremacy among the other continents was undisputed up until the 19th century. The 20th century saw the strong growth of the United States (US), which became the dominant western superpower, thanks to its flourishing economy and military strength. The eastern superpower back then was the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR), which opposed the West not just geographically, but also ideologically, with a regulated communist regime in the east and liberal democracies in the west.
When the USSR imploded in 1989, the fall of the Berlin wall left the US as the only superpower and self-proclaimed guardian of world peace, apart from also being the leader of the NATO alliance. But the strong and consistent growth of China as an economic superpower (and an authoritarian one), along with the progressive increase of its military expenses, led the US to look at this emerging nation of 1.4 billion people as the most threatening rival in the future.
Throughout the 21st century, China has continued to increase its world share (with an 8-10% Gross Domestic Product or GDP growth), while the US struggled to see a growth trajectory of less than half of that. Hence the US, which, for many years sustained large expenses due to various regional conflicts (like those in West Asia) is being forced to rethink its role as the sole custodian of world peace. Former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was considered a move in this direction.
Europe has, historically, relied on NATO for its security. Many European nations, thanks to decades of peace within the continent, have drastically reduced their military expenses due to budget constraints.
Three major European nations illustrate this: Italy and France maintained an active and ready army, equipped with aerial and naval fleets, with a GDP allocation to defence at 1.5% and 1.9% in 2021, respectively. Germany kept its military budget at 1.2% of its GDP in the last decade, decreasing it from 1.5% during the previous one (remember here that it was completely disarmed after World War II). Further, Germany did not have a central role within NATO and has been hesitant in supplying weapons to Ukraine because it has been building a steady relationship with Russia, perhaps due to its dependency on Russian gas. The fact that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was sitting on the board of some Russian energy companies, including the giant Rosneft, might have contributed to the greater cooperation between the two nations.
At this time of conflict, the US would have perhaps wanted to rely on the role of a strong economy like Germany to support European military defence with NATO. However, the possibility of cooperation between Russia and Germany, and add to that equation, the Russia-China vortex, could make for a strong block in competing with the US, economically and militarily.
This is why the US has been insisting that Germany (and to some extent, also other European nations who aren't totally on board) change its attitude towards the war, gain greater relevance within NATO and increase its military expenses. The fact that Germany has stalled the certification that would make operational the Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea, which was to double the capacity of the existing pipeline, indicates that the European nation is reconsidering its stand on Ukraine. Further, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz requested to double the annual military budget to $100 billion.
Other European nations have also pledged to increase their military budgets to 2% of their GDP or higher. If such expenses happen, in the coming years, the European block of NATO might substantially reduce its dependency on the US, which may then begin to focus more on the Indo-Pacific region.
Meanwhile, in the east, China, which has so far been supporting Russia, though not wholeheartedly, is aware of the possible consequences for its economy, which has slowed down in recent years due to the draconian measures taken by the Xi Jinping government to keep the pandemic under control. The world’s second-largest economy saw a significant drop in retail sales and losses in factory production, both dipping below market expectations. China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that retail sales fell 11.1% in April 2022, a much higher drop than that reported during previous months.
Despite the pandemic, India’s GDP is expected to grow by over 8% or even more during the current fiscal year, making it the fastest-growing economy among large nations. If the Russia-China cooperation continues, India may become an important point of reference for the US, as the latter focuses on the Indo-Pacific. The US has been proactively requesting India to stop buying oil from Russia, offering to help fill that gap, if that import sees an end. Stronger cooperation with the US would also have other advantages — as well as possible risks. India will need to reevaluate its stand on Russia and China depending on how things play out in the next few months.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict is, therefore, much more than a regional conflict. The war is a consequence of Russia's struggle to reaffirm its status as a superpower, while the West, led by the US, stands with its neighbour, Ukraine. Its consequences have already been felt in the economies of many countries in various sectors. This will adversely affect the growth of the global economy and may restructure the geopolitical landscape, with the creation of new blocks, the strengthening of some alliances, and the changing role of some nations within such alliances.
These changes will be profound. The world may never go back to a pre-war situation, and the consequences of the war will be far deeper than Putin could have anticipated when he invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Stefano Pelle is the former MD of Ferrero South Asia, Piaggio Vehicles (Vespa brand owner) and Perfetti Van Melle South Asia, Middle East and Africa. He currently runs his consulting practice based out of New Delhi and Dubai
The views expressed are personal