Echoes of the Cold War

Published February 14, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

AS sabre-rattling continues in the crisis over Ukraine, shifting geopolitics have pushed Russia and China into closer alignment while exposing differences within the Western coalition on how to respond. It has further intensified East-West polarisation and sent tensions soaring to a new high amid US warnings that Russia might invade Ukraine in the coming days. Whether the hour-long phone conversation between the US and Russian presidents on Saturday eases or exacerbates the situation remains to be seen. Reports indicate it was a tough exchange.

The stand-off between US-led Nato countries and Russia is widely seen to be about the balance of power and security architecture in Europe. President Vladimir Putin, who has witnessed several waves of Nato’s eastward expansion, has now drawn a red line insisting on a halt to more expansion. He regards this as a threat to Russia’s security and intrusion into its ‘sphere of influence’. Among key Russian security demands discussed with the US in abortive diplomatic talks was that Ukraine and other states should be barred from joining Nato, no strategic weapons be deployed in Ukraine and Nato’s presence ended in former Soviet countries. This was turned down by the US and led to suspension of US-Russia talks.

Meanwhile, a military build-up continued apace. When Russia mobilised tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, Washington accused Moscow of planning an invasion and warned of serious consequences as it began crafting tough economic sanctions aimed at pressurising the Russians. Troops of Nato member states went on high alert while the US sent more military aid and weapons to Ukraine. The Ukraine president cautioned against spreading panic. But President Joe Biden asked American citizens to leave the country, warning of an “immediate threat” and declaring that “things could go crazy quickly”.

Earlier, at a UN Security Council meeting on Jan 31, the Russian ambassador vehemently denied any plan to militarily intervene in Ukraine and accused Western countries of “pumping Ukraine with weapons”. Days later the Pentagon announced the deployment of 3,000 troops to Poland, Germany and Romania in addition to around 8,000 troops already on standby. For his part, Putin accused the West of using Ukraine as a “tool” to provoke war. His foreign minister said Western countries were spreading “hysteria”.

The Ukraine crisis has pushed Russia and China into a tighter embrace and exposed divisions in the West.

What this crisis has already done is to bring Moscow and Beijing into a tighter embrace which some Western analysts are now describing as a China-Russia axis. The meeting between President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Beijing concluded with a strong expression of solidarity and resolve to mount a united front against the US.

The Feb 4 joint statement issued after the Xi-Putin meeting was unprecedented in its scope and substance as in its firm rejection of US policies. The crux of the lengthy statement was their common position “against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions”. In a pointed reference to the US, the statement rejected “unilateral approaches” and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. The key priorities of both countries were addressed by the statement. Russia reaffirmed support for the One-China principle and on the Taiwan issue while China joined Russia in opposing Nato expansion and called on the Western alliance “to abandon its ideologised Cold War approaches”. They also criticised Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the trilateral security alliance between the US, Australia and UK (AUKUS) for undermining security and spawning an arms race in Asia.

In contrast to the growing entente between Russia and China — even though their interests don’t always converge — the Western coalition did not appear united despite vigorous US efforts to rally Europe into forging a common front against Russia. European countries seemed to have differing views about how to respond to Putin not least because the continent is dependent on Russian energy supplies while many states have significant commercial links with Russia. The EU gets almost 40 per cent of its gas imports from Russia. Germany, with over half its imported gas coming from Russia, was faulted for not taking a tougher line and balking at sending arms to Ukraine. On economic sanctions too, European nations differed because most would be hurt by them with serious economic repercussions. Agreement on sanctions has to be forged among EU’s 27 members, which is not easy. Western analysts suggested that some of the scepticism of European allies could also be attributed to being ignored by the US in its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan with the disorderly exit raising questions about American credibility.

Last month, President Biden acknowledged differences in Nato over the response in case of a “minor incursion” by Russia. US officials however quickly walked back this statement while Biden proclaimed “total unanimity” in the transatlantic alliance. With German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent visit to Washington, the US has sought to fortify what is widely described as a weak link in the united front against Russia. The joint press conference by the two leaders, however, showed they were not on the same page on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that the US wants stopped.

The diplomatic role France has been playing to defuse tensions reflects much of Europe’s preference to resolve the crisis by diplomatic means and avert conflict. President Emmanuel Macron’s statements about addressing Russia’s security concerns while defending Ukraine’s sovereignty struck a different note from Washington, which has continued to insist that a Russian invasion is imminent. Significantly, Macron argued that “the geopolitical objective of Russia today is not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with Nato and the EU.” Although his talks with Putin in Moscow did not yield anything concrete it seemed to shift the needle away from conflict. French officials claimed the talks had moved the crisis towards de-escalation with Putin agreeing to continue talks in a spirit of compromise.

Although the crisis is still playing out it has been marked by echoes of the Cold War. The stand-off also reinforces the overarching global dynamic of growing East-West mistrust and confrontation while holding out the prospect of a world increasingly riven into two competing blocs.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2022

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