2023: a make-or-break year for the global order

Feb 2, 2023
Ukraine and Russia flags paint over on chess knight war 2023.

Many of the accounts we hear of the current Russia-NATO conflict are deeply flawed. and risk degenerating into pure farce – a crude melodrama, in which an upright, democratic Ukrainian government headed by hero Zelensky is pitted against a corrupt and brutal autocracy led by the deluded ogre, Putin. What is really in question, is the unsustainable global security framework.

How can we make sense of the year that was and gauge what the year ahead holds in store? Indicators are not hard to find, but one stands out: the war in Ukraine. In less than a year this theatre of conflict has unmasked the catastrophic implications of great power confrontation in the nuclear age.

Since hostilities began on 24 February last year, western media have carried an endless stream of news items, opinion pieces and graphic images, to which must be added the interviews, articles, and books of “experts”. Yet, much of the coverage thus far, even when not unashamedly biased, has been less than illuminating.

That the war has caused carnage on the battlefield and inflicted untold suffering, death and destruction is beyond question.

Though official and unofficial estimates are notoriously unreliable, it is safe to say that the number of soldiers killed and injured on each side runs into the tens of thousands. On the civilian front, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded as of 15 January 7,031 killed and 11,327 injured. The actual figures are thought to be much higher.

Casualties aside, every facet of civilian life in Ukraine – housing, education, health, transport, culture and even sport – has been gravely damaged. As of December, the damage caused to Ukraine’s infrastructure is estimated to have reached US$138 billion. The current figure is probably in excess of $150 billion, and may soon approach the $200 billion mark.

To this must be added the heavy burden the war and Western sanctions have placed on Russia’s society and economy and on European economies dependent on Russian gas and oil supplies.

Nor can we lose sight of the direct and indirect cascading consequences on global food security, with high food and fertiliser prices compounding the plight of many developing economies already struggling to deal with the ravages of climate change.

Keeping abreast of the heavy toll of the war is essential. But then comes a critical question: how do we explain all this? From which follow several other questions: Who are the key protagonists? What are their underlying objectives? And what is it about the geopolitical, economic and cultural landscape which leads them to define and pursue their objectives in the way they do?

It is here that much of the commentary, expert or otherwise, leaves much to be desired. Often these questions are not even posed. Rarely are they seriously examined.

Many pundits, including not infrequently those of progressive disposition, argue or simply assume that this is a war between Russia intent on annexing parts of Ukraine, and the latter intent on defending its territory. This account is deeply flawed. and risks degenerating into pure farce – a crude melodrama, in which an upright, democratic Ukrainian government headed by hero Zelensky is pitted against a corrupt and brutal autocracy led by the deluded ogre, Putin.

True enough, those engaged in battle and sustaining mass casualties are overwhelmingly Russian and Ukrainian. The Russian military operation is controlled by the Russian Defence Ministry and acts in line with the strategic planning set by the Kremlin. For better or for worse, it is a Russian organised and funded operation.

The same cannot be said of the Ukrainian side. The carefully orchestrated Zelensky image is as much a creation of Western political propaganda and media coverage as it is of Ukraine’s domestic politics. Ukrainian forces are trained, advised, supplied and funded largely by the United States and key NATO allies. The entire Ukrainian economy is sustained by Western economic aid.

NATO’s military, economic and political involvement at every level is pervasive. The sheer size and makeup of the western aid effort are highly revealing and merit closer attention.

Between January and November 2022, the US aid package stood at US$48 billion comprised of three segments: military (48%), financial (31%) and humanitarian (21%). In early January, the Biden administration announced another round of military aid estimated at $3.75 billion. To this must be added the contribution of European allies which by year’s end exceeded that of the United States (US$56 billion).

The military aid packages have included infantry arms and equipment, air defence systems, air-to-ground missiles, explosive and surveillance drones, artillery, tanks and armoured carriers, radar and communications, and satellite services.

In January, two developments raised NATO’s military engagement to a new high. First came the US and German decision to supply advanced armoured personnel carriers. Soon after, the US, UK and Germany announced the imminent supply of M1 Abrams, Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks respectively. These powerful modern tanks, especially suited for offensive operations, will come with extensive training and guidance in their use.

In short, the war in Ukraine is first and foremost a war between Russia and NATO, in which Ukraine and its people are pawns in a complex power game that was in full swing well before Yeltsin’s passing in 2007.

The honeymoon period in Russian-US relations ushered in during the Gorbachev years helped end the Cold War and led to a spate of arms control and disarmament agreements, but it proved short-lived. With the demise of the Warsaw Pact, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a crippled and humiliated Russia was in no position to question US strategic priorities. It sought instead to gain the respectability and economic assistance that friendship with the US could offer.

However, it soon became clear, even before Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999, that the United States was intent on consolidating its global dominance. Far from fading away, NATO was moving to rebrand its role and expand its membership, despite frequently expressed Russian anxieties.

Over the next two decades, a reemerging Russia under Putin sought but failed to dissuade successive US administrations from pursuing strategic primacy in Europe and beyond. Tensions and disagreements multiplied.

Russia questioned the direction of US policy on numerous fronts: the Bosnian conflict and later the creation of Kosovo, relations with Iran, US military intervention first in Iraq and Afghanistan and later in Libya, the decision to build a missile defence shield (and later missile defence deployments in Poland and Rumania), US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, and more recently withdrawal from the INF Treaty.

But the bone of contention that has dominated Russian perceptions of US intentions is Washington’s single-minded pursuit of an enlarged NATO. For a while Islamism was portrayed as the great threat confronting NATO. But the real target and purpose of a revamped NATO were soon glaringly obvious.

Successive waves of expansion beginning in 1999 engulfed former Warsaw Pact countries and many of the former Soviet republics. The US-led alliance juggernaut had reached Russia’s doorstep. US signals that Georgia and Ukraine were also destined for NATO membership were the straw that broke the camel’s back.

To plot the relentless projection of US military power, first in Europe and now across the Asia-Pacific region, is not to justify Russia’s use of force in Georgia or Ukraine. It is to lay bare the perilous state of the current geopolitical power play. The Doomsday clock has rightly been reset at 90 seconds to midnight.

What is in question is not just this or that flashpoint, be it Ukraine, Taiwan, Korea or Iran. It is the unsustainable global security framework that gives rise to such flashpoints.

No centre of power and influence in the world can seek to impose its authority, its interests or its values on the rest of the world. To do so is to invite a renewed arms race and proliferating wars. More than that, it is to destroy any prospect of a viable global response to existential threats, be it nuclear war, climate change, or pandemics.

Stark choices await us in 2023. Will nations and governments bury their heads in the sand or begin a comprehensive rethink of security policies and institutions? Will they opt for strategic confrontation or cooperative coexistence?

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