Why Today’s Anti-Status Quo Belligerents are Problematic for Global Flashpoints and Security

Like Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault out of the Gaza Strip (via air, sea and land) on Israel provoked a visceral reaction from the international community. Indeed, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres strongly condemned the attack.

For its part, the UN Security Council (UNSC)—whose principal mandate, as a key organ of the UN, is the maintenance of international peace and security — also condemned the brazen attack.

Yet for all the outrage, just as the 15-member UNSC is unable to display unanimity regarding the Ukraine war, this time around, history repeated itself in the worst of ways.

This highly coordinated terror attack killed more than 1,200 Israelis, unleashing a steady stream of rockets targeting major Israeli cities and towns; although, by and large, Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system has withstood the onslaught.

Israeli forces are striking back, simultaneously laying the groundwork for a wider offensive, amid harrowing accounts which continue to surface of the brutality visited upon civilians. All the while, among authorities, there is mounting concern for the fate of dozens of Israeli and other nationals who were abducted to the Gaza Strip to serve as bargaining chips.

And there is growing alarm over the wider effects of Israel’s retaliatory strikes which, in the context of the laws of war, are coming under scrutiny.

In the closed-door UNSC meeting in question, Russia, the baleful belligerent in the Ukraine war, also skirted the said condemnation. (Regarding the ensuing Israel-Hamas war or Gaza war, to date, in contrast to Kyiv’s stance, the Kremlin’s messaging is guarded. Kyiv has made a show of support for Israel which—relative to its post-February 24, 2022 dealings with Russia—has curtailed casting its lot with the West’s pro-Kyiv foreign policymaking.)

Short of an outright rejection in that vein, increasing the odds of the inability of the UNSC to effectively get its arms around the Israel-Hamas war, the current highly fragmented multilateral diplomacy will come to be seen for what it is—a signification of intractable divisions among great powers reflective “of a multipolar international order in the making.” 

In this anarchic international system, the Ukraine war is the polarity-based lodestone.

The situation at the UNSC also reveals at least three peremptorily-derived, interconnected strategic priorities of anti-status quo belligerents—constituting international actors at the top table, mid-tier players and instruments of power play-related set pieces, respectively—in the emergent, broader spheres of influence qua control-configured geopolitical context.

The first is ‘buying time’ with a malign outlook/intent, as a means of outmanoeuvring a foe. As a major power, Russia—for instance—approaches this calculation systemically. In this regard, consider the Ukraine war. Raging unabated, now in its twentieth month, this is the largest interstate war on the European continent since 1945. As a proxy war, its dynamic hinges on major powers duking it out (at arm’s length)—informed by great-power competition.

On Feb. 24, 2022, notwithstanding the Kremlin’s repeated insistence that military action was not on the cards as regards Ukraine, Russia’s so-called ‘special military operation’ got underway. Historically, the Kremlin prevaricated on the matter and, with a view to misleading the international community, equivocating endlessly. It either approached processes tied to the so-called Minsk agreements in bad faith or simply stonewalled them.

This buying time manoeuvring, which European leaders were not especially attuned to, was all a ploy to get its warmaking ducks in a row.

Notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping have committed to a ‘no limits’ bilateral partnership. While on paper the new Sino-Russian relationship lends itself to a partnership of equals, in practice, Russia is the junior partner. Be that as it may, with Russia now notoriously perched atop the United States’ (U.S.)/West’s list of pariah states, in diplomatic terms, the Kremlin has engaged Beijing to good effect. Consequentially, Beijing has been pivotal to the Kremlin coming up with a meaningful workaround regarding Western sanctions and more.

Then there is a recalcitrant’s second priority: A conviction, by any means necessary, to exact a ‘spoiler’-centric foreign policy. In this regard, what immediately comes to mind is Putin’s other crucial chess piece: The Wagner Group. It is a paramilitary outfit, founded by the late Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. Its advent, nearly a decade ago, is directly linked to the Russian state.

Bankrolled by Putin’s government, the Wagner Group has lent to the expansion and deepening of that country’s post-Cold War geopolitical footprint in Africa and elsewhere. To wit, a yet more focused aim of this mercenary group is to backstop pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Also, it was integrally involved in those Kremlin-directed military exploits geared towards the invasion and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 (i.e. the largest land-grab in Europe since the Second World War).

Whether it has been cast further out or reeled in, the Wagner Group has also been strategically and tactically deployed by the Kremlin on the battlefields of Ukraine.

The Ukraine war came eight years after a turning point for that country—the Maidan Revolution and Ukraine’s pivot to the European Union (EU)-cum-the West.

Post-independence Ukraine saw fit to move, in earnest, away from Russia’s orbit.

In the intervening period, conflict broke out in the Donbas. From that point on, the Kremlin’s involvement in Ukraine’s internal affairs only deepened. 

Kyiv’s pushback was met with an increasingly forceful response; the most egregious: the Kremlin taking revanchist liberties in-country.

Ultimately, in metastasizing, this calculated move came at a heavy price. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the attendant war has been ruinous for post-independence Ukraine, impacting the country and its people in a “horrific” manner—as the UN documents. According to reports, genocidal violence is ubiquitous. What is more, the economic fallout has been dire.

In today’s geopolitical context, on account of the wide-ranging foreign policy actions of the Kremlin and its agents, it seems nigh impossible for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders to follow through on this Western defense alliance’s stated commitment in 2008 to one day bring Ukraine into its fold, even as they continue to rhetorically beat that drum.

Ukrainian NATO membership remains a Russian redline, which is steeped in historical controversy. Kyiv’s push for EU membership, though, is another story.

A third priority of authoritarian and rogue regimes centres on the ‘irresolution of conflicts’ which have  a bearing on their respective countries’ national interests, typically, with a view both to regime survival and the promulgation of an ethos which stands in opposition to the West.

For Putin (who is heavily invested in the perpetuation of frozen conflicts in Russia’s near abroad, in a slow motion iteration of the implosion of the Soviet Union), in leveraging the Kremlin’s Ukrainian gambit,  Wagner mercenaries and Russia’s regular military are hulking “tools” to give effect to Machiavellian scheming around tightening his grip on the reins of power in Russia. In this sense, the Russian national interest is contorted in the upside down image of Putin’s realpolitik—as it were—of domestic survival. Russia’s existential security questions, then, have been transmuted into questions around Putin’s political and literal survival.

One can conclude that, having regard to the scholarship of the late Halford J. Mackinder, Putin is a ‘ways and means’-oriented realist in a context of the Kremlin’s “neurotic view of world affairs [comingling with a] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” (A renowned British political geographer, Mackinder was instrumental in the formative development, during the interwar period, of International Relations’ (IR) realist school of thought. The discipline later established itself through the scholarly work inter alia of E.H. CarrNicholas J. SpykmanReinhold Neibuhr and Hans Morgenthau. The latter, as the standard-bearer for classical realism, shared Mackinder’s assumptions about power relations and laws of history, but in deference to the conceptual abstraction of human nature à la aspatial statecraft, as opposed to Mackinder’s attempts to play up the nexus between human societies and the natural environment in that schema.)

That said, bearing in mind some of Putin’s Ukraine war-related utterances which inter alia underscore historical grievances relating to “Russian lands,” along with related assessments of experts, and in order to make better sense of it all, it is prudent to also highlight the work of Spykman on the primacy/permanency of geography (which stands apart from Mackinder’s work) in matters of statecraft or international conflict dynamics. Russia’s ongoing attempt to dismember and/or carve out a rump state from its contiguous neighbour Ukraine, then, also seemingly ties in with “conflicts over land and resources [which] are intensified by physical proximity, leading to greater incentives for expansion and more destructive conflicts over time.” 

The case of Iran, whose enemies have (the threat of) transnational terrorism qua the Sword of Damocles hanging over their respective heads, is also apt in this analytical regard. Iran is a regional or middle power, which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up as a straw man or bogeyman (depending on the audience).

Tehran is focused on regional calculations. (At the same time—albeit, with differing emphases—Tehran is ramping up diplomatic efforts to look in earnest farther afield in the pursuit of Iran’s wider foreign policy objectives and to address related concerns.) At the direction of its Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and with due regard to its statecraft-related endgame, Tehran leans on the ethos of the Islamic Revolution vis-à-vis Shia Islam and wider narratives (invectives) about Israel and the West.

All the while, Tehran makes use of its proxies or agents, among which are armed non-state actors, like Hezbollah and Hamas. The latter group does not fit the mould of a belligerent to a tee; but, like the Wagner Group, it is a pertinent example of an international, spoiler-driven actor operating on the ground level. It does so at the behest of others. (By and large, those ‘handlers’ are located further up the stratagem-related totem pole.)

Notwithstanding, Hamas is deeply invested in the promulgation of it agency. Namely, it is the self-anointed steward of the Palestinian cause vis-à-vis the Palestinian question and, by extension, the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.

Given that these Palestinian Islamist militant groups serve Iran’s foreign policy ends in the Levant, and in respect of biding its time before deploying them to deadly effect, one might expect Tehran to make the foreign policy calculation that the targets of Hamas’ heinous October 7th attack on Israel are fair game. (In this thinking, to boot, the Levant will likely spiral into war-related crosshairs, as the conflict possibly spills over from the Gaza Strip.)

The common wisdom and historical record suggest that, given the scale of the attack, but also Tehran’s hold over the group, the attack bears the hallmarks of Iran’s hand, even as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cast doubt in that regard.

For its part, on the heels of the said game-changing Hamas-orchestrated attack on Israel, Tehran rejected claims of Iran’s involvement thereof. (This even as it has an obvious interest in tipping the scales in the long running Israeli-Palestinian conflict—such that it (abruptly) ventures into uncharted territory, with broad implications for the projection of Iranian hegemony in the wider Middle East.) Even so, Tehran seemingly justifies that attack.

Such a narrative, then, is about goading supporters into escalatory steps along a subversion to straight-up war-footing-related continuum, where conflagrations are long-standing. As Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz famously said of wars: Their “outcome[s] [are] not always to be regarded as final.”

Beyond this, as already intimated, Tehran’s interests are linked to undercutting U.S. prestige in the wider Middle East and beyond, and given America’s own interests in Saudi Arabia (as the world’s leading petrostate), Washington backs Riyadh—Tehran’s arch-enemy—in a Middle East context that has been the subject of a “dangerous new hegemonic confrontation.”

The other part of the equation: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has moved assiduously to cement his majority Sunni Muslim country’s “regional leadership”-related ambitions. Having run afoul of Washington, well after the difficult 9/11 period of Saudi-U.S. relations, Riyadh is once again in Washington’s good graces.

This is the case even more so now in the midst of speculation in Western capitals that the Hamas attack under reference was partly fuelled by Iranian attempts to scuttle The Abraham Accords and, by extension, the progress towards the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations which they engender.

This in a context where, following Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, and as an outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Iraq War, Iran’s stock qua status (standing) in world politics was buoyed. (In the early 2000s, Iraq suffered a debilitating blow to its power in the region; and, by the 2010s, Baghdad was firmly ensconced in Tehran’s orbit.) It is also noteworthy that, for Iran, as regards Russia and Syria, foreign policy-related synergies became increasingly apparent in recent years. Taken together, having emerged as a “treacherous triangle” in geopolitical terms, Iran, Russia and Syria are colluding to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East.

In this geopolitical milieu, the U.S. and Israel are staunch allies, with the latter’s military “bolstered by more than $3.8bn of military aid a year from the US.”

(Washington, too, is wise to attempts by one of its “strategic competitors”—i.e. the PRC—to “assert power” in the Middle East, including by having brokered a historic thaw in Iran-Saudi relations.)

At its core, then, the Israel-Hamas war (and the repeating conflagrations between those parties) is a conflict in which a sovereign state is facing off against an armed non-state actor. This in a wider context where Israel is indirectly embroiled in a conflict with Iran, which the U.S. Intelligence Community assesses “had accelerated its overall nuclear program [even as it] was not producing a nuclear weapon.”

In short, Iran has hegemonic aspirations in the wider Middle East. Moreover, Riyadh is in Tehran’s foreign policy sights.

Significantly, against the backdrop of The Abraham Accords, there is a growing rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This is now on the line.

Indeed, in the week-plus since that surprise attack on Israel, the world seemingly remains in the grips of a moment whose magnitude appears to have overshadowed a war of horrendous proportions on the European continent.

And Israel is on a war path, with Netanyahu having formed a national unity war cabinet. As it looks ahead, some tough questions will have to be answered in respect of how Israel’s military was seemingly caught off guard by this attack.

Instructively, Israel’s political and military elite may have unwittingly fallen for a stratagem that sought to lull the latter into a false sense of security. The background: as the most far-right and religiously conservative government in that country’s history, the Netanyahu administration has an interest in trying to undercut and undo the ability of the West Bank-based, state-like Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority to advance Palestinian interests. Insofar as it does not view Hamas in these terms, it sought to divide and rule.

In fact, that administration was widely seen to be fanning extremist flames which are said to have further undermined Israeli-Palestinian relations and, ultimately, with the power play in question backfiring, Israel became more susceptible to some of the wider dynamics set out above. 

It is also instructive that Netanyahu’s government faced an uphill battle in getting most Israelis on side regarding related foreign policy issues; i.e. pre-October 7th.  In fact, prior to this grim date, Netanyahu’s government had been severely weakened by deep-seated societal cleavages.

As Israel has been severely rocked to its core—in a manner that defies comparison, save (perhaps) for the era of the Yom Kippur War—the United States has stepped up to the plate.

Where Washington has risen to the occasion, the executive arm of the 27-member EU has come in for harsh criticism. This at a time when it seemingly takes every opportunity to hype up its self-proclaimed geopolitical power bona fides, even as the forthrightness of such a global standing seemingly has not seen much light of day on this matter.

The EU had only just deftly one-upped the U.S.—whose lawmakers recently jettisoned military assistance for Kyiv in a budget-related imbroglio—on the Ukraine war.

The United States is on the front foot, putting would-be mischief-makers intent on exploiting Israel’s 9/11 moment on notice. Contemporaneously, Washington has its eye on mitigating the potential fallout relative to the wider Middle East.

Taking a leaf from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in the region relative to the Yom Kippur War, as the Middle East is once again “on the brink,” Blinken is criss-crossing a handful of Arab states and Israel to build consensus on the way forward.

Unlike Kissinger’s time serving as a broker in Arab-Israeli warring, key sets of belligerents are not directly in the mix in Blinken’s monumental diplomatic touring. Instead, a number of them are on the side-lines, with a renewed attempt by the parties concerned to advance on stratagem-related power plays.

While Washington has a crucial role to play in steadying an unsettled ‘new’ Middle East, UN-facilitated multilateralism should be the order of the day.

Yet, not since its founding in the aftermath of the Second World War has the UN been put to the test in the way that it has today. Now more than ever, global security is being held to ransom by the incredible complexity of global flashpoints which, both in form and function, are outpacing the UN’s ability to adapt.

To this extent, an esoteric Hegelian take on the rhythm of human history/affairs comes to mind: “[P]hilosophy … always comes too late.”

Among the themes which run through this attenuated but no less complex quip is the timelessness of power, which is omnipresent in all manner of (international) political projects.      

This essay has attempted to shine a light on just two of them, which potentially constitute geopolitical touchpapers, applying a Clausewitzian prism to highlight a class of actor-specific foreign policy decision-making and decision makers.

It is chock-full of disruptors, whose foreign policy-related actions are located within a broader, zero-sum geopolitical milieu. In this regard, Carr’s admonishment of international politics’ “moral bankruptcy” rings true.

In all of this, drawing on Carr’s intellectual insights once more, the takeaway is clear: a given actor in a “diplomatic dramaturgy” does not hold “a monopoly of truth.”

[Photo by Tasnim News Agency, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Nand C. Bardouille is Manager of The Diplomatic Academy of the Caribbean in the Institute of International Relations (IIR), The University of the West Indies (The UWI), St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of The UWI or The Geopolitics. 

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