Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: The first fire of a global new Cold War?

Posted on : 2022-02-25 17:26 KST Modified on : 2022-02-25 17:37 KST
The situation in Ukraine represents the two superpowers of the US and Russia competing for influence, and a collision of incompatible, mutually exclusive values and worldviews
Ukrainian soldiers ride in a military vehicle on the outskirts of Mariupol in the country’s southeast on Feb. 24. (AP/Yonhap News)
Ukrainian soldiers ride in a military vehicle on the outskirts of Mariupol in the country’s southeast on Feb. 24. (AP/Yonhap News)

As signs of an imminent war in Ukraine became more evident, the United Nations Security Council convened on Wednesday night in New York for its second emergency meeting regarding the crisis. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a desperate tone to hold off on war, saying, “If indeed an operation is being prepared, I’ve only one thing to say from the bottom of my heart. President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”

Nevertheless, Putin soon announced a “special military operation” around 6 am on Thursday, signaling the start of a war in Ukraine. About 30 minutes later, US President Joe Biden issued an emergency statement strongly denouncing the attack. “The world will hold Russia accountable,” Biden warned.

Watching Ukraine on the brink of war, the world held its breath, knowing that the conflict would not just be a regional one but a strategic challenge to the current international order with the US at its helm. By pulling the trigger of war, Putin became a challenger of the liberal international order spearheaded by the US, which has been in place for over 30 years since leaders of the US and the Soviet Union came together and declared the end of the Cold War in 1989.

Since then, the world has been divided into two camps: the US and its allies striving to maintain the status quo; and Russia, attempting to shake up the status quo, along with China, a potential collaborator of Russia. Hence, it’s no exaggeration to say that the war in Ukraine has brought about a new Cold War, akin to the bygone Cold War during which the world was sharply divided into the East and the West.

After the end of the Cold War, the US-led international order founded on the principle of free markets reigned for 30 years. It was distinct from the bipolar system of the Cold War period headed by the US and the Soviet Union, and from the system in place before World War II, in which a number of world powers competed and fought one another. Though based on multilateralist institutions and rules, the international order of the past 30 years was fundamentally one maintained by the hegemonic power of the US.

This world order began to destabilize around 2008. The decisive factor was the world financial crisis, which spread skepticism of the US’ capitalist model, summarized by terms like “neoliberalism” or “globalization,” throughout the world. The Occupy movement that rejected globalization gained momentum in the US, and far-right populist forces became popular in Europe.

Amidst all this, Donald Trump became US president in January 2017. During his tenure, Trump forsook the obligations the US had born as a hegemonic power propping up a liberal world order, only seeking to enjoy the country’s privileges. He started trade wars with and demanded more defense spending from allies. This caused discord with European allies and weakened the US’ alliances.

Since taking office in January 2021, Biden has strived to recover the US’ alliances and reestablish the US-led liberal world order. He’s said the worldwide struggle between democracy and autocracy is at an “inflection point,” a remark that captures the gist of his agenda.

However, Trump supporters challenging his administration domestically has weakened Biden’s executive strength in foreign policy. For example, though Biden made the difficult decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan last August in order to focus on competition with China, the process negatively impacted the US’ credibility in the international sphere.

The seeds for the war in Ukraine that started on Thursday were sowed in 2008 as well.

After the end of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, expanded into the east, little by little. Poland and two other countries joined NATO in 1999, and seven countries including the three Baltic states joined in 2004. In April of that year, at a NATO general meeting held in Bucharest, Romania, the US decided it would welcome Ukraine and Georgia as NATO members. This is when Russia went on the defensive and began openly resisting NATO’s eastward expansion. Four months later, in August, Russia started a war in Georgia. Around then, concerns about the start of a new Cold War stemming from geopolitical competition in Eastern Europe began to surface as well.

Having accomplished rapid economic growth since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, China began to assert itself in the East China Sea around the same period. In response, then-US President Barack Obama began a rebalancing campaign in order to prevent the rise of China.

As inevitable consequences of such a policy, both the war in Ukraine and the ongoing conflict in Taiwan will be important tests deciding whether the US-led liberal international order will continue or fall by the wayside.

The war in Ukraine more than qualifies to be called the opening act of the new Cold War. It represents the two superpowers of the US and Russia competing for influence, and a collision of incompatible, mutually exclusive values and worldviews. Invoking its security concerns, Russia is attempting to block the eastward expansion of US-led NATO and neutralize Ukraine. During his Monday night speech broadcast throughout Russia, Putin elaborated on the supposed common origin of Ukraine and Russia and denied Ukraine’s statehood itself.

On the other hand, citing the principle that a nation’s fate should be decided by its citizens, the US is insisting that a third country cannot interfere with Ukraine’s wish to join NATO, in an effort to protect the principle of national sovereignty and territorial integrity established in 1945 after WWII.

During a Feb. 11 meeting with foreign ministers of the Quad, a crucial partnership for US strategy in the Indo-Pacific, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken even called Russian aggression against Ukraine a threat to “very basic principles that have, in a hard-fought way after two World Wars and a Cold War, undergirded security, peace, and prosperity for countries around the world,” arguing, “If we allow those principles to be challenged with impunity, even if it’s half a world away in Europe, that will have an impact here [in the Indo-Pacific] as well.”

It's hard to predict how this war will end, but in the long run, it can possibly encroach on the US’ economic hegemony. If the US places economic sanctions on Russia, the economic bloc of China and Russia may become stronger. When combined, Russian resources and military technology and Chinese markets and capital may form a massive Eurasian economic sphere untouched by US hegemony.

During a virtual meeting at the end of last year, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to speed up efforts to set up an independent financial network uninfluenced by third countries such as the US. By expanding their existing arrangement of paying each other with their national currencies, the two countries were making clear their intention to challenge the dollar’s hegemony. Considering this, cutting Russia off SWIFT, a global interbank payments system, as the US and its allies are preparing as their most stringent sanction against Russia, may not be as effective as one may think.

The war in Ukraine is now weighing down the US and strengthening the solidarity between China and Russia, leaving the door to a new Cold War wide open. Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama dubbed the end of the Cold War in victory for the US “the end of history.” Now, 30 years later, the world is witnessing a reality in which the US-led liberal international order, a product of “the end of history,” has become a shell of its former self — a reality in which a new Cold War is about to begin.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to []

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles