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Preparing for the Worst, Working for the Best

  • Geopolitics
  • 1 Months ago
  • 6 min read
Preparing for the Worst, Working for the Best

Russian President Vladimir Putin | Atlantic Council

Andrey Kortunov
Andrey Kortunov - Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council. RIAC member

A new world order and a new level of global governance should sooner or later emerge, if humankind has not yet completely lost its instinct of self-preservation. But the new world order is unlikely to become a product of another Big Deal of Grand Bargain between major players, it is more likely to emerge as a combination of specific incremental multilateral arrangements. In this sense, institutions like BRICS or SCO, attempts to regulate AI, efforts at preserving WTO or at democratizing the global financial system deserve careful attention.

Introduction

“Hope for the best and prepare for the worst”. The old English proverb is probably the most evident way to approach world politics two years after the outbreak of the military confrontation in the center of Europe. All of us would like this fratricidal conflict between Russia and Ukraine to end as soon as possible and therefore, we are desperately trying to find at least some grounds for optimism in every new statement coming out from Moscow, Kyiv, Washington or Brussels, in every new peace initiative presented by various state leaders, international organizations and independent scholars.

However, time flies, the conflict goes on and on; a ceasefire, not to mention a conflict settlement, is moving further and further away like the horizon line moves away once you approach it.

All the parties directly or indirectly involved in the conflict have demonstrated a degree of resilience that was hard to imagine two years ago, all seem to believe that with time their position should get stronger, and peace narratives on the two sides remain incompatible with each other.

Though the widely advertised Ukrainian counteroffensive that started in early summer of 2023 was clearly unsuccessful, its failure so far has not resulted in any new flexibility of the Ukrainian leadership; the so-called ‘Zelensky Plan’ that implies a de-facto capitulation of the Kremlin remains firmly in place. Vladimir Putin, in his turn, does not seem to be motivated to change his overall approach to the conflict, especially when the strategic initiative seems to be back in his hands with the Ukrainian forces retreating.

In fact, since 2023, one could observe a further escalation of the conflict with the Ukrainian side trying to bring war deeper into the Russian territory and the West providing Kyiv with more and more sophisticated weapons, including modern tanks and long-range missiles.

If the idea behind these efforts was to demoralize the Russian population and to boost political opposition against the Kremlin inside the country, it clearly did not work out. Before the presidential elections in mid-March 2024, Putin’s political position remains strong and his domestic powerbase is solid, to the extent any criticism of the Kremlin does exist in Russia, it comes more from impatient militant hawks than from frustrated pacifist doves.

In 2023, Moscow swiftly moved ahead in increasing its military hardware production in recruiting more contract servicemen and also intensified massive missile strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure.

Future Prospects

Is there any light seen at the end of the tunnel? Some analysts argue that the forthcoming US election in November 2024 might become a turning point in the conflict, especially if Donald Trump beats Joe Biden and the Republicans gain full control of Congress. Others disagree, reminding us that US foreign policy has a bipartisan nature and that the Washington Deep State cannot afford to lose in Ukraine, no matter who sits in the White House or on Capitol Hill. Some believe that given the growing frictions within the Ukrainian leadership, there might be a political regime change in Kyiv. Others consider such predictions to be absolutely arbitrary and ungrounded; they interpret the recent removal of the top Ukrainian military commander, General Valery Zaluzhny by President Volodymyr Zelensky as yet another proof that the latter is still in full control of the political decision-making in Ukraine.

In sum, there are many independent variables at play, but in any case, the third year of the conflict is likely to be another very difficult year for Russia, for Ukraine, for Europe and for the rest of the international community. Even if there is no further escalation on the battlefield, the crisis in Europe is doomed to spread instability and chaos across the world like a stone thrown into a pond creates ripples on the water. The difference is that in the physical world, ripples die down as quickly as they form, as the surface tension of the water dampens their efforts. In the modern international system, there is no such tension to damper them.

True, not all of the conflicts in various corners of the planet are directly related to the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, each of these conflicts has its own roots, dynamics and beneficiaries. Still, the impact of what is going on in Europe is felt everywhere - in Gaza and in the West Bank, in Yemen and in Sahel, in the Korean Peninsula and in the South Caucasus.

Anyone with open eyes can see the daunting writing on the wall. The US-Russian strategic arms control is completely stalled and the chances that it could be resumed are disappearing literally with every passing day. The non-proliferation regime is not in much better shape, given the failure of great powers to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran or to keep North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions at bay.

Last year’s US-China mini-detente remains very fragile and might turn into another cycle of escalating tensions at any moment. The global economy is exposed to high risks of further fragmentation, protectionism, trade wars and unilateral sanctions. All these unfortunate developments have a strong negative impact on the performance of international multilateral institutions, on the climate change agenda, on global food and energy security, on transborder migration management and on fighting international terrorism.

Sceptics would say that humankind has seen hard times more than once before but the world has not come to an end and the international system has always demonstrated a remarkable flexibility and adaptivity. One could refer, for instance, to the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, or to the Arab Spring of 2011, to the migrant flood in Europe in 2015 or the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021.

True, the modern international system managed to survive through many lean times and has absorbed numerous shocks. However, all of these shocks, whether the Soviet disintegration in 1991 or the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, were largely limited to either one dimension of global politics or to one region of the world. Conversely, the ongoing crisis in Europe is rapidly acquiring a truly global scale and a multidimensional nature.

Furthermore, during previous disasters there has always been a strong chance that great powers could quickly get together, put aside their disagreements and work hand in hand with each other in tackling common threats and challenges. This is no longer the case – under the current divisive geopolitical circumstances, great powers are much more likely to work against one another than together with each other. The international system is rapidly sliding down towards a dangerous zero-sum game (some would even argue that this is a negative-sum game), making it exceedingly difficult to come to a mutually acceptable compromise.

Of course, all the pain, penury and strife that the world goes through today notwithstanding, life does not stop at this juncture. It is inherent in human nature to hope for the best; if our species had consisted mostly of pessimists, it would probably have not survived in its sometimes quite harsh and hostile environment. This is not the first time in history, when the international system faces the prospect of a radical transformation. It is probably not the last one either. Transformation might be painful and costly but it should not be lethal. So, as Steve Jobs once put it, “Let’s go and invent tomorrow rather than worrying about yesterday”.

Conclusion

However, how exactly can we invent tomorrow? In the past, fundamental transformations of the international system usually came as a result of major wars between leading actors – be it the Thirty Years war in the mid-17th century, the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, or the first and the second world wars of the 20th century. The outcomes of these large European or even global conflicts allowed to fix a new balance of powers, and the victorious actors were able to set new rules of the game for themselves and for the rest of international players.

Not this time. The 21st century reality is that great powers can no longer afford to wage classical wars between themselves since such wars may well lead to a complete annihilation of humankind. Instead, they prefer to go for proxy wars (like the one that the West now wages in Ukraine against Russia) or economic and technological wars (like the one that the United States has launched against China). Such wars may last for many years and even decades without defining the ultimate winner. Therefore, a new balance of powers – in Europe, in Asia or in the world at large – is likely to remain manifestly uncertain, highly ambiguous and fiercely contested for a long time.

A new world order and a new level of global governance should sooner or later emerge, if humankind has not yet completely lost its instinct of self-preservation.

But the new world order is unlikely to become a product of another Big Deal of Grand Bargain between major players, it is more likely to emerge as a combination of specific incremental multilateral arrangements. In this sense, institutions like the BRICS or the SCO, attempts to regulate AI, efforts at preserving the WTO or at democratizing the global financial system deserve careful attention.

A lot can and should be done at the expert level paving the way for future official negotiations on critical security and development matters. It would be morally unacceptable and politically short-sighted to stay caught in a gloom and doom mood lamenting about the unravelling crisis.

Fragile sprouts of a new globalization should gradually break through the hard shell of stone and concrete that geopolitics covered the international system with over the last couple of years. The urgent task of today is to locate these sprouts, to water, to fertilize and to tend them so that they will grow and bear fruit. To cut it short, preparing for the worst should not be a reason to procrastinate with working for the best. To quote James Baldwin, “the challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


     

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