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Shifting sands

Mark Galeotti on how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the world’s response to it are reshaping the world order. 


As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, strong nations dictate terms to weaker ones, while truly great powers have spheres of influence and as much freedom of manoeuvre as they can assert. Putin’s policies are not driven by any overarching ideology, just personal and national interest.

His decision to invade Ukraine has generated frantic commentary as to whether the international order has been irreparably broken. But the truth is that it is constantly being broken and then reassembled in a slightly different shape. If anything, one could argue that this invasion is actually the geopolitics of the 19th century clashing with those of the late 20th. And from it a proper 21st-century order may begin to emerge.

Putin’s attack was a further and even more flagrant breach of the 1994 Budapest memorandum – a deal Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed with Russia, the US and UK (pictured). They surrendered Soviet nuclear weapons still on their soil in return for assurances against any threat, use of force or infringement of their sovereignty. Ukraine wasn’t really giving anything up; although in theory it had the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile, it could not afford to maintain them. Nonetheless, the memorandum was hailed as a step forward in global nuclear-arms control. However, the agreement was arguably the product of a disappearing age, in which threats were of a materiel nature and a handful of nuclear powers could determine the fates of nations. In the 21st century, military force remains one of the key indices of national power but it is far less dominant than before. This is not simply a question of whether it has the same effect in an era in which national wealth is measured more by ingenuity and intangible services than territory and physical resources; it is also about whether even authoritarian rulers can afford to spend blood and money quite so recklessly.

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The unfolding array of Western sanctions has demonstrated the power of economic warfare, just as Kyiv is showing the value of soft power forged the hard way. The spectacle of Ukrainian women preparing Molotov cocktails and the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, rejecting the American offer of evacuation with the eminently meme-able reply, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” have all helped galvanise the international response. 

Power is also more diffuse. Whatever the strength of the US economy, for example, the efficacy of the Western response is that it united not just London, New York and Frankfurt but Taipei, Tokyo and Canberra too.

“Putin’s willingness to ignore the Budapest memorandum and assume the collective West would be indecisive and fragmented is ushering in a new world order”

Many of the new threats do not lend themselves to the 20th-century instruments of treaties and formal blocs. When you can’t prove a cyber attack’s origins, how can you enforce a ban? When security partners such as France and the UK can unite against Russian aggression, even while one threatens to cut off power to the other, how can we rely on blocs for anything but the most existential of threats?

The response to the invasion of Ukraine points to a new, postmodern approach to security, in which alliances will be supplemented by ad-hoc coalitions in response to specific threats, broad-spectrum asymmetric responses, and a renewed emphasis on what could be called the etiquette of international relations. 

The 19th century was an era of raw geopolitics and alliances of convenience. The First World War revealed its limitations. The Second World War and cold war were framed by blocs and treaties. But Putin’s willingness to ignore the Budapest memorandum and assume the collective West would be indecisive and fragmented is ushering in a new world order. While the UK and US have a legal obligation to support Ukraine, other nations are joining in because of a moral obligation. This could be the start of something new.

Galeotti is the principal director of Mayak Intelligence and author of ‘The Weaponisation of Everything: A Field Guide to the New Way of War’.

Image: Shutterstock

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