The Ukrainian Geopolitical Pivot and the new Cold War

It took years for the expression “new Cold War” to become obvious. Still, one would like to reserve its use for the description of relations between China and the West. However, Russia is also a geopolitical problem and part of this new Cold War: its allegedly European character would call for “accommodations” on Europe’s borders. In this perspective, explain the “realists”, Ukraine would be an exchange value.

In contrast to this petty cynicism, Ukraine (the largest country in Europe) must be considered as a geopolitical pivot of primary importance. This is the definition of a state whose geographical location, sensitivity and vulnerability influence the behavior of geostrategic actors. An importance that must be realized as the next European summit on the Eastern Partnership (Brussels, December 15, 2021) looms.

In the future, historians will probably choose the year 2014 as the starting point of this new Cold War that pits the West against Russia and China, or even against a power front that includes Iran and a few others. The date corresponds to Russian aggression in Ukraine, with the “strategic competition” that was thought to be framed by rules of fair play turning out to be a state of peace-war, with the manu militari attachment of Crimea and the outbreak of “hybrid war” in the Donbass. Shortly afterwards, Beijing undertook to reclaim the South China Sea (concreting reefs and deploying military means in this “Asian Mediterranean”).

Franco-German ambiguities

Over time, the conflict has expanded to multiple domains and the dividing lines become more pronounced every day. For readers of Michel Strogoff who dream of a Russian-Western front against the “yellow peril”, the consideration of the Sino-Russian manoeuvres “Maritime Interaction — 2021” in the Sea of Japan should be a reminder. In short, we are embroiled in a cold war, in the sense that George Orwell gave to this syntagm: “A peace that is not a peace”, and the world is on the verge of a breakdown of equilibrium.

In situations of this type, when the great architectures are unraveling, the distinction between friend and enemy appears as the decisive criterion of politics (according to Carl Schmitt). Now, the reluctance to call things by their name (an effect of post-modernism?) can be seen in the inability to designate the “enemy” (hostis, i.e. the public enemy), even if it is virtual, but also to identify the “friend”, in the political sense of these two terms.

Thus, the Minsk agreements (February 12, 2015) deceptively made Russia a third party, a possible “peacemaker” in Donbass. While Moscow controls the Russian-Ukrainian border, open to all trafficking, and ensures the maintenance of paramilitary militias equipped and supervised by its services, Ukraine is ordered to organize elections in the occupied territories, in the shadow of Kalashnikovs. As for Crimea, it is in good taste not to talk about it, hence the launch by Kiev of an international “platform” on the fate of this Ukrainian peninsula (France and Germany have held back). Finally, the Ukrainian political leadership is referred to the political and economic reforms it is supposed to carry out.

In the hope of an unlikely reset, the leaders of the two main EU states and Ursula von der Leyen’s “Geopolitical Commission” pretend to ignore the strategic importance of Ukraine, preferring to admonish it or to treat it in a technocratic manner. Yet it is a key country on the Baltic-Black Sea axis. Together with Poland, Ukraine constitutes an “Eastern barrier” capable of containing Russia and its revisionist ambitions on Europe’s eastern borders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in 2019 // The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine

American views

It will be objected that the Biden Administration, by lifting the sanctions on Nord Stream II (a project almost achieved), is not doing much better. In fact, the so-called pipeline is a strategic Russian “asset” intended to pincer a doubly devalued Ukraine, because it will be financially impoverished and geopolitically ruined (Ukraine will no longer be the “energy bridge” between Russia and Europe). Moreover, Nord Stream II divides Europe (an “energy Rapallo”), and increases its energy dependence on Siberian gas.

No one in Washington is unaware of the parameters of the strategic equation, but the lifting of sanctions is considered as a “second best”. With Germany seen as the leading country within the European Union — the Elysée’s fractious foreign policy has not been able to restore France’s effective power and influence —, the Biden Administration is seeking common ground with Berlin. The objective is to reach a Western consensus against China.

In Washington as in Berlin, it is explained that Ukraine’s security will be guaranteed by a system of sanctions that will be implemented if the Kremlin wants to push the advantage east of the Dnieper or blackmail Europe with the energy weapon. Let’s hope so, because the Russian political maneuvering that is exacerbating the current energy crisis does not bode well. We may soon find out what these promises are worth.

The fact remains that there are strategists and geopolitologists in the United States who are fully aware of the Ukrainian geopolitical stakes. Anticipating the possible incapacity of France and Germany to maintain the cohesion of the European Union, they envisage the constitution of a “Jagiellonian Europe” which, mutatis mutandis, would reconstitute the Polish-Lithuanian ensemble that once extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. This new “Eastern barrier” would require a solid alliance between Warsaw and Kiev.

Is this just a figment of the imagination? No, it is not. Since the dislocation of the Warsaw Pact and the dismemberment of the USSR, Poland’s diplomacy has seen its neighborhood and its eastern borders as a “soft zone” that must be organized and consolidated in order to prevent Russia’s offensive return to its western bangs (the facts have proven it right). And the “Three Seas Initiative” (Baltic, Adriatic, Black Sea) has American support. This is reminiscent of the “Federation between the Seas” projected by Jozef Pilsudski (see Françoise Thom, “La vision géopolitique de Pilsudski : origines, mise en œuvre et postérité”, La Marche à rebours. Regards sur l’histoire soviétique et russe, Sorbonne University Presses, 2021).

The Turkish-Ukrainian partnership

In the Black Sea basin, Turkey is not indifferent to the destiny of Ukraine either. Until now, Ankara and Moscow have exercised a sort of condominium there. At the center of the geo-energy partnership (see the Blue Stream and Turkish Stream gas pipelines), the Black Sea has become the site of a regional naval and maritime cooperation dominated by these two riparian powers (see the Blacksea Force). In order to strengthen its own position, Ankara has been careful to limit NATO’s role in the Black Sea. Despite the establishment in 2011 of a high-level “joint committee” between Turkey and Ukraine, the last one was thus relegated to the background.

However, the Istanbul Canal project could be a source of friction with Russia. The “Blue Homeland” doctrine and the question of maritime zones also have their extensions in the Black Sea, where a gas field has been identified in Turkish waters. Moreover, Turkish-Russian friction in other theaters (Syria, Libya, South Caucasus) has repercussions in this area. Especially since Turkey, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Arabian Gulf, is facing a containment enterprise: Ankara’s ambitions and efforts could therefore be redeployed to the Black Sea, to the detriment of cooperation with Russia.

Since 2014, Turkish-Ukrainian relations have been tighter and more intense. In addition to the fact that Ankara readily points to the illegality of the Russian occupation of Crimea (the Turks are sensitive to the fate of the Crimean Tatars) and part of the Donbass, a multifaceted cooperation — political, economic and military-industrial —, has taken shape in recent years. These include the delivery of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, a military-industrial partnership for the design and production of new drones, and Turkey’s assistance in the electronic warfare that Ukraine is experiencing in the Donbass (jamming and sabotaging communications).

This overview highlights the importance of Ukraine on the regional scene — at the crossroads of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East — and the inability of Paris and Berlin to reason in terms other than those of “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals” or “Ostpolitik”. The ideal solution in their eyes? The neutralization of Ukraine. Unfortunately, this solution failed, as Moscow violated precisely this neutrality proclaimed by Kiev in 2010. In the eyes of Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is not a “real state”: sooner or later it will be attached to Russia or destroyed as a state.

Is the Russian tropism of Paris and Berlin therefore strategic illiteracy? In our opinion, it is rather a kleinstaatlich syndrome, i.e. a difficulty in adapting to this new global age in which revisionist powers and “civilization-states” are mobilizing titanic energies. In truth, this age is not so new. Half a century ago, Raymond Aron gave a conference in London entitled “The Dawn of Universal History” (1960). It is necessary to hammer it: we are not any more in a Westphalian world centered on Europe and governed by the concert of the powers (it failed in 1914).

Photograph: The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

Ukraine as a lever in the new Cold War

Skeptics will say “Yes”, but what about Chinese ambitions and threats? Shouldn’t we give in on Ukraine in order to detach Moscow from Beijing? We have previously discussed the strength of Sino-Russian ties and their common desire to definitively ruin the long historical primacy of the West. The passage of a Sino-Russian naval force through the Tsugaru Strait (between the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu) last month, and their sailing off Tokyo and the Yokosuka base, illustrates that Beijing and Moscow are behaving like allies. Moreover, Vladimir Putin has declared that in the event of war in the Taiwan Strait, Russia will support China.

Of course, nothing here on earth is eternal, and it is possible to think that Russia and China could eventually clash, in Central Asia or in the former “Outer Manchuria” (the Russian Far East), which was taken away from China in 1858-1860 (the port of Vladivostok/”Master of the East” was then built). It remains that a school hypothesis does not constitute a strategic horizon: Russian and Chinese interests are aligned, and Moscow does not ask anything from Western leaders inclined to take their desires for realities.

Finally, Russian diplomatic and military history shows us that Russia’s geopolitical reversals only occur after external shocks (a war ending in a major defeat most often). Thus, the Russian Empire, since Peter the Great and Catherine II, favored westward expansion, with the conquest of a Baltic Sea front (1721) and the northern shores of the Black Sea (1774). The doors of the European concert were then forced, to the great displeasure of the kings of France who did not admit that the tsar was proclaimed emperor.

The turnaround occurred after the Crimean War (1853-1856), when Russia gave in to the “temptation of the East” (conquest of the Caucasus, Western Turkestan and Outer Manchuria). Until the defeat of Japan, half a century later, Russia turned away from the Far East (1904-1905). Russian ambitions were shifted to the Balkans, not without effects on the dramaturgical lines that led to the First World War.

By way of conclusion

What can we conclude from this, except that firmness should be the rule in the “Ukrainian question”? An attitude of complacency and accommodation (i.e. a policy of appeasement) would encourage Vladimir Putin to persevere in his desire to push back Russia’s western borders. As a result, the Sino-Russian alliance would be strengthened, as the double pressure from one end of the Euro-Asian bloc to the other (from Ukraine to Taiwan) would bear fruit.

On the contrary, Ukraine should be supported and armed, so as to thwart any new Russian push and to change the Kremlin’s geopolitical representations and anticipations. And if a real and solid consensus on the Ukrainian candidacy to NATO cannot be reached, it must be done in the framework of bilateral diplomatic-strategic relations. There will only be true peace and lasting understanding with a “Russia-Eurasia” turned away from the West and redeployed towards the East, with the primary concern of defending its specific interests there.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

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