Since its outbreak in 2014, the ongoing Ukraine crisis has become one of the most dramatic and tragic post-Cold War geopolitical events. Ukraine’s geopolitical situation has created a zero-sum game between Russia and the West.
The question that has most tormented analysts’ minds in their attempt to understand the crisis has been who is to blame. Some blame the West for squeezing Russia out of its traditional sphere of influence. Others blame Russia for being revisionist, expansionist, and aggressive. Still others argue that the blame should fall on the shoulders of the Ukrainian government — after all, it is Kyiv and not Moscow, Brussels, or Washington that determines Ukraine’s foreign policy.
While such discussion is not irrelevant, attempts to assign the guilt for the unfortunate developments in Ukraine risk missing the forest for the trees. The focus must be on the urgent need to recognise the stark geopolitical reality of great power politics. Great powers, such as the United States, China, and Russia compete for influence. When they do so, smaller states such as Ukraine cannot reverse the great power dynamics and are faced with growing systemic pressure and uncompromisingly binary choices that can be circumvented only by the most gifted diplomatic operators.
The nature of what is happening in Ukraine is ages old and can be traced back to the fall of the state of Melos described by Thucydides in his 416 BCE work, History of the Peloponnesian War. The famous failure of Melos to strike a middle ground between the larger warring parties — Athens and Sparta — is epitomised in the Melian dialogue. In response to the Melians’ question of “why would you not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side?” Athenians replied, “for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.”
History tends to repeat itself. The notorious “Melian dilemma” reappears in contemporary Southeast Asia, as the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the US-led response, the Indo-Pacific strategy, geographically overlap. As both China and the US attempt to alter the regional order in their favour in both economic and security realms, smaller Southeast Asian states caught between the larger powers have increasingly limited options to preserve their independence. This global dynamic will become more pronounced in the years to come, as the power gap between the United States, on one hand, and China and Russia, on the other hand, shrinks. The intensifying great power rivalry will trickle down into different corners of the world in the form of geopolitically charged regional security environments.
The insurmountable strategic predicament of Ukraine is that the country sits on the collision zone of two irreconcilable geopolitical projects – Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to the East, and EU and NATO eastward expansion projects to the West. This competition between Russia and the West materialises in zero-sum policies that limit Ukraine’s room to manoeuvre. The crux of the problem is that both Russia and the West are more interested in prevailing in the ongoing Ukraine crisis than in preventing it. This unmistakably adversarial bipolar system in the region undermines Ukraine’s agency over its own foreign policy, limiting Kyiv’s capacity to mitigate extremely challenging geopolitical circumstances.
The zero-sum nature of the Russia-West stand-off in the post-Soviet space became clear long before the Ukraine crisis. Soon after the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, then-President Dmitri Medvedev (not Vladimir Putin!) explicitly stated that Moscow had demarcated “a traditional sphere of Russian interests,” to which then-US Vice President Joe Biden rebutted, “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence.”
In the next few years, the geopolitical pressure on Ukraine increased immensely. In 2010, after Brussels offered the Eastern Partnership to Ukraine as the first step of integration into the EU, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked the question, “what is the Eastern Partnership? Is it a sphere of influence, including Belarus?” In response, prominent European experts wrote, “the answer, of course, is yes… In the post-Soviet space, neutrality is not an option for Europe…. we are engaged in a systemic competition [with Russia].”
A year later, Sergei Glaziev, head of the Customs Union Commission, the precursor to the EEU, put it straight by saying, “The only option for Ukraine is full participation in the Customs Union.” In response, an EU official stated that it is “impossible for Ukraine to align with both the EU and the Customs Union at the same time. Ukraine should choose which path to take.” The United States chimed in when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed, “[the EEU] is not going to be called that [Soviet Union]… but let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” Both Russia and the West have clearly ruled out any possibility of a positive-sum scenario involving Ukraine.
What followed was heavy-handed pressure on Ukraine by Russia, under which Kyiv decided to make a U-turn in favour of Moscow, which plunged the country into chaos. Even as the mayhem unfolded in Kyiv in 2014, Russia and the West continued their geopolitical contest over Ukraine, trying to score geopolitical points against each other.
The current tradeoff for Ukraine is clear, brutal, and with little leeway: give up on trying to join the EU and NATO or face territorial partition. At the same time, since Ukraine is not a priority strategic interest for either the EU or the US, Kyiv would have no protection whatsoever in a worst-case scenario. The EU and the US did not directly defend Ukraine in 2014, nor are they willing to provide any significant military support now. Joe Biden has already explicitly ruled out putting US troops on the ground in Ukraine. The EU is also shying away from hardcore geopolitics. The issue is exacerbated by what is called “geopolitics of asymmetry” — a situation when Russia is willing to pay an enormous price to pursue its geopolitical interests in Ukraine, a price that neither EU nor NATO is willing even to consider. Simply put, Russia is ready to use military force in order to pursue its geopolitical goals in Ukraine, whereas the EU and the US are not. This is why neither the EU nor NATO has provided any membership, not to mention collective security, guarantees to Ukraine. As to the economic sanctions, they have so far failed to have any tangible impact on Russia’s foreign policy.
What can be done? Because the forces that drive the Ukraine crisis are those of system-level balancing between the great powers, the only possible solution for Ukraine must begin at the same level. Ukraine’s prospects look gloomy unless both Russia and the West are willing to wind down their zero-sum geopolitical competition in the region and agree on an arrangement for Ukraine. This arrangement can hardly be ideal, and it will most likely upset many Ukrainians, but the game now is not about finding ideal solutions — there are none. It is about selecting the lesser of two evils.
Dr Alexander Korolev is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations in the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Design, and Architecture, at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He received an MA in International Relations from Nankai University, Zhou Enlai School of Government, and PhD in Political Science from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include international relations theory and comparative politics with special reference to China and Russia, great power politics, and China-Russia-US relations. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit: https://research.unsw.edu.au/people/dr-alexander-korolev.
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