The horrific war in Ukraine is, tragically, far from over with no end in sight. Whether the world that emerges will be unipolar or multipolar, one thing is certain: the world is now more polarized.
The war in Ukraine is a threshold that, having been crossed, forces Russia to face two certain premises. The first is that the West will not take into consideration Russia’s security concerns. For that reason, for the foreseeable future, Russia will turn away from the West in a stance of hostility and defensiveness. The second is that Russia will no longer trust the West or trust being integrated into the Western system. For that reason, Russia will turn toward the East and reinforce its relationships with China, India and other non-European nations who are unaligned with the US or who line up with a multipolar world not locked to American hegemony.
The previous Russian foreign policy approach of persuading the West to take seriously Russia’s security concerns is over. This hope has been killed by empirical reality. NATO’s decades long march toward Russia’s borders finally pulled the life support from that hope when it refused to make the commitment not to cross Russia’s red line into Ukraine. Its threatened 800 mile expansion along the Finnish border and its announced opening of a permanent military headquarters in Poland in violation of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act demonstrate its future intentions. Putin’s spurned December 2021 request for negotiations and Russia’s accompanying proposal on mutual security guarantees likely represents the last effort by Russia in the foreseeable future to preserve friendly relations with the West by attempting to negotiate the acceptance of Russia’s security concerns.
Russia has now likely accepted that the West has expanded its foreign policy goals beyond the containment of Russia to, in US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s words, weakening Russia. It has now likely accepted, in the words of Dmitry Trenin, that “the strategic defeat that the West, led by the United States, is preparing for Russia will not bring peace and a subsequent restoration of relations.” Having abandoned the hope of relations that respect Russia’s security concerns, Russia will likely now turn away from the West and settle into a posture of hostile defensiveness.
Despair of trusting the West means that Russia will not only turn away from the West but that it will accelerate its turn toward the East. Trust in the West was already on life support prior to the war in Ukraine. Broken promises and broken hopes led Russia to abandon trust of the US, UK and Europe. Broken promises of no NATO expansion had started the despair; Germany and France’s refusal to break from the US and fulfil their promise to push Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreements took away trust in Russia’s last potential Western partners.
The US midwifed 2014 coup that installed a US approved president who led Ukraine toward the West shook Russia’s trust, not only in US intentions for Ukraine on Russia’s border, but in US intentions for Russia within her own borders. Putin said that “For us this is a lesson and a warning. We should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia.”
The recent demonstration of how completely the West could cut Russia from an integrated economic system and how completely it could attempt to isolate Russia politically and destroy Russia economically will likely end trust in rejoining the US led world. The death of trust will likely accelerate Russia’s pirouette to the East.
The turn to the East will mean turning away from economic ties with and dependence on the US, UK and Europe. That turning away will accelerate Russia’s moves towards economic independence and toward strengthening economic relations with the East, including China and India. It will also lead to a project of enhancing relations with nations and regions not fully aligned with the US unipolar system, like Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey.
Equally importantly, it will likely lead to an increased focus on multinational organizations intended to balance the US led unipolar world and create a more equitable multipolar world. These organizations include the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, which includes Russia, China, India and Pakistan; BRICS, which includes Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa; RICS, which includes Russia, India and China; and the Eurasian Economic Union.
In June, Putin said that Russia is “actively redirecting its trade flows” to BRICS countries and called for a strengthening of ties between the BRICS nations.
Though Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Moscow could consider offers from the West to re-establish ties, he also said that they would see if that was necessary and that Russia will, instead, focus on enhancing ties with China. “If they want to offer something in terms of resuming relations, then we will seriously consider whether we will need it or not.” Instead, Russia would work toward replacing economic reliance on Western countries with reliance on more “reliable” countries. Russia’s goal, he said, would be to “cease being dependent in any way on supplies of absolutely everything from the West.” He added that “our economic ties with China will grow even faster.”
On June 15, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to Putin by phone and said that the two nations’ bilateral relations “had maintained sound development momentum in the face of global turbulence and transformations.” He said that “economic and trade cooperation between the two countries has made steady progress” and that “The Chinese side stands ready to work with the Russian side to push for steady and long-term development of practical bilateral cooperation.” Xi stated that “China is willing to work with Russia to continue supporting each other on their respective core interests concerning sovereignty and security, as well as on their major concerns, deepening their strategic coordination, and strengthening communication and coordination in such important international and regional organizations as the United Nations, the BRICS mechanism and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”
China sees the prophetic parallels between the Russian situation in Ukraine and the Chinese situation in Taiwan. They also see that the defeat of Russia would be a threat to China if faced with a confrontation with the US. Russian-Chinese cooperation could include both countries supporting each other politically in any confrontation with the US, NATO and the West.
The events leading up to and during the war in Ukraine have led Russia to reconsider and re-choreograph its stance, giving up on cooperation with a US led West that takes Russia’s security concerns seriously, leading it to turn away from the West in a stance of hostility and defensiveness and to turn toward the East in a stance of reinforced partnership with China, India and other nations not aligned to the US led unipolar world.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft, as well as other outlets.