More than six months have passed since February 24, when Russia began invading Ukraine. Before the start of the war, we witnessed a long period of tension between Russia, the United States and European countries, in which the tone of the discourse was increasing. However, the US President Joe Biden’s statement, “No US soldier will fight in Ukraine” the day before the start of the war, was almost like giving a greenlight to Russia for military intervention in Ukraine. We did not witness a new world war during the period when the whole world was on the edge and worried.
It seems that the crisis in Ukraine will continue to drag on rather than reach a conclusion. Contrary to many pre-war interpretations, the crisis in Ukraine did not cause a third world war, but it can act as a front line, a signal. For example, given the political history, the Moroccan crisis in 1905 and 1911 respectively, and the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908 were the footsteps of the World War I. Crisis such as Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, Hitler’s arming of the Rhine, Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland and then the whole of the Czechoslovakia were the footsteps of World War II. What is happening in Ukraine today is at most a footsteps of the World War III.
The West cannot afford a World War with Russia in Ukraine. What we call the West is USA, which should be perceived first. The future of the US is also in the Asia-Pacific, not Europe-Atlantic. A US that will linger in a military conflict in Ukraine offers China, its strongest rival, an opportunity to pursue its goals in the Asia-Pacific, which could mean the end of US hegemony. Again, given political history, Japan, which took advantage of the situation while the world powers were struggling in the Atlantic during the WW I, was able to impose its demands, known as the famous 21 demands, on China in 1915 and seize the German colonies in the region. In the WW II, while the world powers were battling each other mainly in the Atlantic, in the North of Africa and in the West of Eurasia, Japan, taking advantage of the situation, tried to establish Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by trying to dominate all of Asia. Therefore, if Russia and the US come face to face in Ukraine, this time China can play the role played by Japan during the world wars. Taiwan issue can also form part of this role and even the most important part.
After the WW II, the main architect in the establishment of today’s international order was the US. However, Russia’s actions to challenge the order in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea in 2014 and in Ukraine today are acts of undermining the norms of the order. These actions raise questions such as how much longer the US can remain unresponsive to these challenges as the order’s architect, and whether these Russian challenges will lead other powers to challenge them, and if so, what will be the US’ stance? Again, given the political history, in 1908, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia’s main supporter and ally Russia had not yet forgotten the defeat of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and its main rival in the Balkans was Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany. Russia left the ally Serbia because it could not risk a war with Austria-Hungary and Germany. In this period, there was an alliance between Russia and France. In other words, Russian support for Serbia would also necessitate French support. However, this did not happen, and these two great powers could not prevent a very simple crisis from causing a world war in 1914, as they understood that they should not be in a similar situation at any cost, loosing prestige against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The reason for giving this example is that the system continues to erode as the US stays silent while the norms of the order it has established are being challenged. It is a mystery how much the great powers can afford to lose prestige in such matters. Given the political history, the appeasement policy of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain against Germany, which was making a challenge against the order Great Britain had established, did not work and did not stop Hitler. Britain was not in a position to tolerate too many the challenges to the order. Therefore, when Germany occupied Poland’s Danzing Corridor, an insignificant corridor that did not touch the geopolitics of either Britain or France could cause a world war.
Today, Ukraine really needed to grasp and know, are we touching the geopolitics of the USA? The answer to this question was very simple: no, you are not. But you were touching on Russia’s geopolitics. To understand this, it was enough to look at the doctrine of the Russia’s Near-Abroad Policy and geopolitics. The Russian-Ukrainian border is a few hundred kilometers from Moscow. Why would Russia want Ukraine to be in NATO? Moreover, the geography is flat from France to Russia’s Ural Mountains. So the borders are permeable and suitable for conducting military operations. The Russians still remember the arrival of Napoleon’s armies in 1812 and Hitler’s armies in Moscow in 1941.
Now, if we go back the present day, the concern that Russia’s occupation of Ukraine may create a basis for a similar purpose in other countries in the international arena has intensified. The main concern here is whether China will make a military intervention similar to Taiwan, which it sees as a part if itself. But unlike the crisis in Ukraine, the US does not hesitate to confront China in the Asia-Pacific because from the point of view of the US, China is a bigger and stronger country that it has ever been encountered before. Moreover, China has the potential to challenge the US in geographies where the US must maintain its dominance in order to conserve its world hegemony. If that hadn’t happened, then maybe the US could afford to fight in Ukraine, but today it cannot.
In summary, the US hesitate not to focus on China in the Asia-Pacific by lingering on a war in the Atlantic. There is no Unity in Europe’s foreign and defense policies. It does not have its own defense organization. Most countries are very small if you set aside the UK, Germany and France. Therefore, if there is a war in the Atlantic, the US will have to bear the brunt of it. The US has also been experiencing budgetary difficulties in recent years. That is, in a situation where a rising power like China and its ambitions in the Asia-Pacific and even the wider world are not yet clearly defined, there is no reason for the US to linger in a serious war in the Atlantic and to allow China expand in the Asia-Pacific. From a more global perspective, there are rising powers in the system. And these forces are all over the world like China, Russia, India, South Korea, Indonesia, South Africa and so on. It is impossible for the US to struggle with such a power in every corner at the same time. Thus, in order to maintain its global role, it must focus on the most threatening one and compromise with others, which may be explicit or implicit, or it must remain silent on some actions of others. Given the political history, Britain was the most powerful state in the 19th century. But there were Germany, the US and Japan rising at the turn of the century. The UK was not in a position to face all three at once. That’s’ why it set its strategic priorities. It first reached a compromise with the US in 1871 as a result of some kind of appeasement policy and withdrew from western hemisphere except for Canada and Bahamas, and accepted US sphere of influence over that region. Later, in 1901-02, Britain formed an alliance with Japan and acknowledged each other’s interests in Asia and China. Thus, it was able to turn to the threat that touched the British geopolitics the most and was closest to it, namely Germany. If the US wants to maintain its global leadership position today, the US has little choice but to do as the UK did.
[Photo by Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Oktay Kucukdegirmenci is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of International Politics in Shandong University, China.