Geopolitics

How is Russia’s war on Ukraine changing global politics?

The Signal

How is Russia’s war on Ukraine changing global politics? Tim Sayle on economics, ideology, and the specter of a new Cold War.
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(Originally published 2022 | 03.08)
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States was, for a time, the world’s lone superpower. Its invasion of Iraq 14 years later, in 2003, complicated that standing; the Great Recession of 2008 complicated it further; and over the last decade, the U.S. has been contending more and more actively with the challenges of a rising China. But after Russia invaded Ukraine, Washington and its historically closest allies in Europe found themselves faced once again with an implacable, nuclear-armed enemy in Moscow. The dynamic has seemed in some ways like the Cold War—with Russia the top security threat, Europeans worried about an unpredictable Kremlin, and severed economic ties between the West and Moscow. But in the years since ’89, the global order has been transformed: Communism is dead, Germany is reunified, and the Western and Eastern Blocs have scrambled. What’s the war in Ukraine doing to this order?
Tim Sayle is an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto, the director of the university’s International Relations Program, and the author of Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order. In Sayle’s view, the attack on Ukraine has fundamentally altered the relationship between the U.S. and Russia—starting with the West’s fast and thorough economic sanctions, and potentially leading to a new global economic structure. Though the new conflict is in some ways reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia is in a substantially weaker position today than the Soviet Union ever was. Putin’s authoritarian model won’t attract many followers, as communism once did, but his government’s growing cooperation with Beijing is something utterly unlike the Chinese-Soviet tensions of the pre-’89 world—and could complicate Washington’s capacity to deal with threats from China now.
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Michael Bluhm: What has the war in Ukraine done to U.S.-Russian relations?
Tim Sayle: The implications have been enormous—even bigger than I expected before the invasion. We’re seeing significant steps by the United States and its allies, not only to voice support for Ukraine but to take costly economic sanctions and actions against Russia.
The relationship between the U.S. and Russia has been dramatically changed—and I wouldn’t have predicted how quickly and substantially that has occurred. We’re seeing major ruptures in the economic relationship. Diplomatic relations were already quite cool, but they’ve significantly changed now. Also, the attitude of both the American government and the American people generally has changed—with many, including news commentators, speaking out against Russian actions. It’s drastic and profound.
Bluhm: Where do you see the most consequential changes?
Sayle: The most profound and significant element has been the economic rupture: sanctions, the rules governing relationships companies can have with Russia, and banking changes. These are far more than I and other analysts expected, and they’ve come into force much more quickly.
This will have a significant effect on how the United States and its allies organize their economies and financial systems. It’s leading to the total exclusion of Russia from significant markets, lending bodies, and cutting off Russian commercial flight carriers from European travel routes.
This isn’t just about the economic costs to Russians; it is a total change in the way the world is doing business. This is going to restructure economic relationships and energy relationships in Europe and between Europe and North America.
Bluhm: You mention that relations between the U.S. and Russia were not warm even before the war. How would you compare the new dynamic between the U.S. and Russia to the Cold War?
Sayle: Before the war, I would have cautioned against making comparisons to the Cold War. I would have said Russia is a different country than the Soviet Union in its size, strength, integration into the international economy, and allies. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was part of an alliance—the Warsaw Pact—which included many countries that now belong to NATO.
There are a few ways in which this is much more reminiscent of the Cold War than I’d expected. The first is that the United States, Canada, and the countries of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe believe that Ukraine will affect the global security environment—and especially European security. What’s so surprising is the return to the number of players who believe they have a stake in this conflict.
Envato / The Signal
Envato / The Signal
More from Tim Sayle at The Signal:
There’s a similarity here with the Cold War in that, then, the outcome of any single conflict, or the movement of any state from one side to the other, was thought to be like a domino falling, a tipping point that could change the whole balance of global affairs. This conflict is not only about the future of Ukraine. The other striking resemblance is in the economic rupture. The Cold War wasn’t just a military balancing act; it was a competition between two different economic systems that really did—at least for the first decades of the era—operate in mutual isolation.”
Communism during the Cold War was exceptionally attractive to developing states outside Europe, which could look to the major projects that the Soviet Union under Stalin had undertaken and hope that their countries, too, could modernize quickly on the Soviet model. The communist system was not sustainable and utterly failed, but it held a promise not only to other leaders but to other peoples. That’s totally different than authoritarianism. Today, the authoritarian model might be attractive to some leaders or people who want to be leaders, who see it as a way to gain power and enrich themselves. But I don’t see people organizing into groups to make sure that their country becomes authoritarian. It’s not an attractive model.”
A nightmare scenario from Washington’s perspective is if the Russians continue to fight for Ukraine and the Chinese begin to make moves against Taiwan. In the fall of 2021, the potential war in the news was Chinese preparations for an attack on Taiwan. The current Russian and Chinese willingness to work together multiplies the challenges facing Washington. The Russians have moved into Ukraine after dramatically reducing the number of troops on their eastern borders. That could only have happened with some guarantee that Russia was protected in the East—from China and by China.Now the Chinese have enormous opportunities to move in Asia, with the world focused on Ukraine. The close relationship between the Russians and Chinese makes for an extraordinarily difficult geopolitical scenario for Washington: Where does it put its time, energy, money, and military resources?”

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