Ukraine: The Broader Geopolitical Conflict

Vijay Prashad reviews the geopolitical battles of recent decades that leave Germany, Japan and India — among others — rattled in their response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Grey Tube Shelter 1940 Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986 Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

By Vijay Prashad
Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

It is hard to fathom the depths of our time, the terrible wars and the confounding information that whizzes by without much wisdom.

Certainties that flood the airwaves and the internet are easy to come by, but are they derived from an honest assessment of the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russian banks (part of a broader United States sanctions policy that now afflicts approximately thirty countries)?

Do they acknowledge the horrific reality of hunger that has increased due to this war and the sanctions?

It appears that many of the “certainties” are caught up in the “Cold War mentality,” which views humanity as irreversibly divided on two opposing sides. However, this is not the case; most countries are struggling to craft a non-aligned approach to the U.S.-imposed “new Cold War.” Russia’s conflict with Ukraine is a symptom of broader geopolitical battles that have been waged over decades.

On March 26, U.S. President Joe Biden defined some certainties from his perspective at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, calling the war in Ukraine “a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”

These binaries are wholly a fantasy of the White House, whose attitude towards “rules-based order” is not rooted in the U.N. Charter but in “rules” that the U.S. pronounces. Biden’s antinomies culminated in one policy objective: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he said, meaning Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

The narrowness of Biden’s approach to the conflict in Ukraine has led to a public call for regime change in Russia, a country of 146 million people whose government possesses 6,255 nuclear warheads. With the U.S.’s violent history of controlling leadership in several countries, reckless statements about regime change cannot go unanswered. They must be universally contested.

Juss Piho, Estonia, “Journey,” 2009.

The principal axis of Russia’s war is not actually Ukraine, though it bears the brunt of it today. It is whether Europe can be permitted to forge projects independently of the U.S. and its North Atlantic agenda.

Between the fall of the U.S.S.R. (1991) and the world financial crisis (2007–08), Russia, the new post-Soviet republics (including Ukraine), and other Eastern European states sought to integrate into the European system, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace process in 1994, and seven Eastern European countries (including Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia that border Russia) joined NATO in 2004. During the global financial crisis, it became evident that integration into the European project would not be fully possible because of vulnerabilities in Europe.

At the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, President Vladimir Putin challenged the U.S. attempt to create a unipolar world. “What is a unipolar world?” Putin asked. “No matter how we beautify this term, it means one single centre of power, one single centre of force, and one single master.”

Referring to U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 (which he had criticized at that time) and the U.S. illegal Iraq War in 2003, Putin said, “Nobody feels secure anymore because nobody can hide behind international law.”

Later, at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, Romania, Putin warned about the dangers of NATO’s eastward expansion, lobbying against the entry of Georgia and Ukraine into the military alliance. The next year, Russia partnered with Brazil, China, India and South Africa to form the BRICS bloc as an alternative to Western-driven globalization.

Yang Fudong, China, “Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part IV,” 2006.

For generations, Europe has relied on imports of natural gas and crude oil first from the U.S.S.R. and then from Russia. This dependence on Russia has increased as European countries have sought to end their use of coal and nuclear energy. At the same time, Poland (2015) and Italy (2019) signed onto the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Between 2012 and 2019, the Chinese government also formed the 17+1 Initiative, linking 17 Central and Eastern European countries in the BRI project. The integration of Europe into Eurasia opened the door for its foreign policy independence. But this was not permitted. The entire “global NATO” feint — articulated in 2008 by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer — was part of preventing this development.

Fearful of the great changes occurring in Eurasia, the U.S. acted on commercial and diplomatic and military fronts. Commercially, the U.S. tried to substitute European reliance on Russian natural gas by promising to supply Europe with Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from both U.S. suppliers and Gulf Arab states.

Since LNG is far more expensive than piped gas, this was not an enticing commercial deal. Challenges to Chinese advancements in high-tech solutions — particularly in telecommunications, robotics, and green energy — could not be sustained by Silicon Valley firms, so the U.S. escalated two other instruments of force: first, the use of War on Terror rhetoric to ban Chinese firms (claiming security and privacy considerations) and second, diplomatic and military manoeuvres to challenge Russia’s sense of stability.

Sadamasa Motonaga, Japan, “Red and Yellow,” 1963.

The U.S. strategy was not entirely successful. European countries could see that there was no effective substitute for both Russian energy and Chinese investment. Banning Huawei’s telecommunications tools and preventing NordStream 2 from certification would only hurt the European people. This was clear.

But what was not so clear was that the U.S. concurrently began to dismantle the architecture that held in place confidence that no country would begin a nuclear war. In 2002, the U.S. unilaterally abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and, in 2018–19, they left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

European countries played a key role in establishing the INF Treaty in 1987 through the “nuclear freeze” movement, but the abandonment of the treaty in 2018–19 was met with relative silence from Europeans.

In 2018, the U.S. National Security Strategy shifted from its focus on the Global War on Terror to the prevention of the “re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition” from “near-peer rivals” such as China and Russia. At the same time, European countries began to carry out “freedom of navigation” exercises through NATO in the Baltic Sea, the Arctic Sea and South China Sea, sending threatening messages to China and Russia. These moves effectively brought China and Russia very close together.

Russia indicated on several occasions that it was aware of these tactics and would defend its borders and its region with force. When the U.S. intervened in Syria in 2012 and Ukraine in 2014, these moves threatened Russia with the loss of its two main warm water ports (in Latakia, Syria, and Sevastopol, Crimea), which is why Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and intervened militarily in Syria in 2015. These actions suggested that Russia would continue to use its military to protect what it sees as its national interests.

Ukraine then shut down the North Crimean canal that brought the peninsula 85 percent of its water, forcing Russia to supply the region with water over the Kerch Strait Bridge, built at enormous cost between 2016 and 2019. Russia did not need “security guarantees” from Ukraine, or even from NATO, but it sought them from the United States. There was fear in Moscow that the U.S. would place intermediate range nuclear missiles around Russia.

Evgeny Trotsky, Russia, “Rest,” 2016.

In light of this recent history, contradictions rattle the responses of Germany, Japan and India, amongst others. Each of these countries needs Russian natural gas and crude oil. Both Germany and Japan have sanctioned Russian banks, but neither German Chancellor Olaf Scholz nor Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida can cut energy imports.

India, despite being part of the U.S.-backed Quad along with Japan, has refused to join the condemnation of Russia and the sanctions on its banking sector [and trade]. These countries have to manage the contradictions of our time and weigh up the uncertainties. No state should accept the so-called certainties that reinforce Cold War dynamics, nor should they neglect the dangerous outcomes of externally influenced regime change and chaos.

It is always a good idea to reflect on the quiet charm of the poems of Toge Sankichi, who watched the atomic bomb fall on his native Hiroshima in 1945, and then later joined the Japanese Communist Party to fight for peace. In his “Call to Action,” Sankichi wrote:

stretch out those grotesque arms
to the many similar arms
and, if it seems like that flash might fall again,
hold up the accursed sun:
even now it is not too late.

Vijay Prashad, an Indian historian, journalist and commentator, is the executive director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the chief editor of Left Word Books.

This article is from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


21 comments for “Ukraine: The Broader Geopolitical Conflict

  1. Mary
    April 12, 2022 at 16:20

    Gratitude for the fresh perspective that does justice to the complex and layered nature of current affairs.

    McCarthyism is back with a vengeance. To dispute the US position, narrative, or agenda is to be branded a traitor. This goes for citizen and international trade partner alike.

    This is another excellent article, from the Responsible Statecraft, to compliment Prashad’s:
    McCarthyism Re-emerging Stronger Than Ever in Ukraine Policy Debates (further hamstringing anyone who wants to bring calm reasoned reflective debate to the mad decisions being made)

  2. Bob McDonald
    April 11, 2022 at 10:42

    The EU is at an historical turning point. It is about to be over-run with political refugees from the north and food refugees from the south. This comes at a time when key industrial sectors have lost access to secure energy supplies at competitive prices and interest rates are poised to rise substantially. Hard to see a role for western Europe in the new multipolar world that is emerging.

  3. April 11, 2022 at 04:13

    Excellent reframing as others are saying. Missing for me is the energy devoted to analysis of the problem in comparison with what to do about it. We are all big on what is bad — as with my rant — but weak on how to address our weakness, especially on how to address our failure in doing so. Where is the literature on the failure to act on such insightful analysis?

  4. April 10, 2022 at 22:30

    Thank you. In the backwater colony of Australia we don’t usually get this type of prescient commentary. More, just the goodies vs baddies type of thing.

  5. April 10, 2022 at 06:27

    See also:
    „The US Power Elite: they are doing it again!“:

  6. robert e williamson jr
    April 9, 2022 at 19:56

    I second that “Excellent “comment. I would like to add that the art that accompanies his efforts here are “excellent” also.

    Unipolar vs polarization. Biden should be scorned, his language reveals his ignorance of human relations, which is say nothing of the human condition. His yearning for an unipolar world is not only stupefying but a crass condemnation of anyone not agreeing with him.

    We see constantly this among the elitists of the world , constantly supposing that everyone else feels the same as they do or should. The dumb shit should know better than to tell folks what they want and how they want it. For the sake of dog gimme a break. Who the hell died and made Joe king of the world?

    The one thing that cannot be debated is that no more than half of the US population agree with much of anything he stands for. And it sure as hell isn’t the working man.

    Putin had it right with his definition of the term, unipolar. Pity no one seems to notice it at the time. Even more of a pity he snapped and fell victim to a trap set by “men of great zeal but with little or no understanding”. ( Justice Brandis)

    Biden has fallen victim to believing his own lies and the same is true for around, from my guesstimation , 90% of everyone in DC.

    For unknowns reason the guy seems to think he is the smartest guy in the room. He clearly isn’t. He is more a professional regurgitist, and his puke stinks of flotsam.

    On this One-Way thing! I guess this is something, evangelicals, zionists , neocons” that crowd” are terminally hung up on. You know that group of One-Way religious zealots who imply it is their way and no other, garbage, well he is helping them prove they are no different than those who join cults. Himself included.

    You cannot make this stuff up! We have went form a blathering lying idiot to a blathering fool it seems who simply doesn’t recognize the truth.

    From, maybe, the one and only, agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac who lies awake at night wondering if dog-ma any longer exists. Have a good evening.

    Thanks CN

  7. Detroit Dan
    April 9, 2022 at 17:09

    Good article!

  8. Robert Emmett
    April 9, 2022 at 15:52

    I love the way words & meaning join stream with the graphics in Mr. Prashad’s work. Thank you for making it available and for the reminders and new insights it provides.

    Yep, it’s the old bully provocation, you’re either with us or with the enemy. And so the divide sharpens yet again along a bright red line of hatred marked with an insatiable appetite for vengeance.

  9. Ernest Martinson
    April 9, 2022 at 15:45

    We can do regime changes in our own country by peaceful elections.
    We should not be doing regime changes in other countries by force.

  10. Vincent ANDERSON
    April 9, 2022 at 14:42

    Your usual sharp focus, even when ‘panning out’ for the larger picture. Thanks for speeding up my education in these larger contexts. Maybe your next illustration should be from Masami Teraoka’s ‘McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan.’ I once owned a print.

    Though I once held out hope that (e.g.) BBC Radio coverage would revert to the Real ‘rules-based’ order that typified its post-2014 UKR coverage for a few years, it now seems to have folded completely to Biden/Boris pressures. According to BBC Radio news last night, Ukraine has 22,000 ‘NATO-trained’ troops now, in the Donbas. That’s called intervention – though BBC emcee thought it the ‘most humanitarian’ solution, sc. to kill all the Russkies asap. Accord this older account, replete with the Imperial nomenclature of ‘paying off’:


    • Gordon Hastie
      April 10, 2022 at 03:01

      I’m almost 100% “deaf” to the MSM by now. I’m not a “Putin apologist” but the skewing of the narrative to exclude inconvenient recent history is sickening (as usual(.

  11. SteveK9
    April 9, 2022 at 11:35

    ‘Annex Crimea’ implies force, not the result of a vote with over 90% wishing to rejoin Russia.

    • UncleDoug
      April 9, 2022 at 20:09

      No, annexation doesn’t have that connotation. For instance, when American cities are expanded to include adjacent areas, those areas are typically described as annexed.

    • Kiril Ianatchkov
      April 14, 2022 at 02:43

      Ouuu! You mean Crimea just woke one morning and said “Let join russia”. Ridiculous funny if not with tragic consequenses.

  12. April 9, 2022 at 11:15

    “Interesting and objective analysis, but will anyone listen” – Cassandra

  13. Realist
    April 9, 2022 at 07:46

    That seemed to end abruptly. I was apparently awaiting a proffered solution, especially one that so many analysts deliberately avoid, namely, that the many and varied nations on this planet may dare or be forced to implement their own approach to this whole can of worms if they cannot stomach or survive under the edicts that Washington wishes to demand of all, but that will only go so far until conflicts necessarily arise, so really the only final and practical solution is for Washington to stop trying to act as the imperial capital of the Planet Earth, and more specifically to cease and desist in its incessant efforts to intimidate, cow and functionally impair Russia’s ability to operate as a normal peaceful state under the UN Charter and sundry other treaties, accords and covenants useful to the maintenance of legal, financial, political, and commercial stability.

    To achieve this end would obviously require security assurances for ALL nations on the Earth, not just for America, or America plus Nato, or America plus whatever other collection of states it can coerce or finagle to sign pacts of alliance with America and its global military empire. It is paramount that nuclear weapons must be rigorously controlled, notably by treaties such as the critical ones mentioned in the feature article (the ABM Treaty and the INF Treaty), which Washington has pointedly decided to unilaterally deep six in recent years and has directly precipitated this crisis. The more sweeping UN Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, signed by nearly every country on Earth and impinging on Iran’s and Israel’s rights to manufacture and deploy nuclear weapons is another critical issue that must be settled, hopefully with the elimination of as many of those threats to our continued existence as possible. No state should be the exception that can break the rules with just a wink and a nod.

    It should not be a single country, like the United States, to dictate and enforce such laws and treaties, it should be a collective effort by the entire planet, or rather its collective forum and executive authority, i.e., the United Nations, that decides these things. Rather than one sole tyrannical society running the whole world (the “unipolar hegemon”), the whole rest of the world should have the right and obligation to command any single country, like the United States that would put all of our human species in jeopardy of extinction, as they have done by their reckless imperious acts in the relevant matter of Ukraine vis-a-vis Russia and the unilateral cancellation of signed nuclear weapons treaties, to comply with the judgement and the demands of the majority.

    If the self-appointed hegemon refuses to comply, that government and its society should be the targets of sanctions, property and monetary seizures such as the United States has made its standard operating procedures (in other words everything that the US is doing to Russia at every conceivable level, mostly without legal precedent and of dubious authority). The bully is the party that must be broken to bring peace and stability to this world, not its victims each in turn, as the case has been. That is your only solution that will ever work long term. A “rules based order” is not one in which the wealthy and powerful make up the rules to suit themselves. That is a tyranny, a dictatorship. Sorry, but the United States cannot stand for “freedom and democracy” (as it so arrogantly purports to do) under its present standard operating procedures. Lord Biden claims to defend democracy against autocracy. Sorry, but autocracy is exactly what he and his government practices. He goes so far as to claim the power to decide the heads of state of all other societies on this planet, and to change them whenever it suits his purposes, or the purposes of the handful oligarchs who pull his strings.

  14. mgr
    April 9, 2022 at 07:41

    Excellent. What trouble we see in the world today in every sphere is overwhelmingly the consequence of America’s outsized ego and hunger. It’s nothing more profound nor noble than that. And this destruction is supported by the banality of self-serving actors, not the least of which, the EU, and it’s jolly group of circus performers.

    • Newton Finn
      April 9, 2022 at 12:32

      Once Europe begins to peel from the dictates of the exceptional nation, recovers its historic stature and dignity, American Empire will be in much the same place as the Ukrainian troops now encircled and awaiting the inevitable end. I pray that both will regain the sanity to surrender to reality. We thought it would be China that would overturn the tables in the imperial neoliberal temple. China will surely play its part, but we Western elite were as blind to the signs of the times as were the elite of Second Temple Judaism, joined at the hip to Rome. Utterly convinced they were that prophets do not come from Galilee.

    • wut
      April 9, 2022 at 18:45

      yeah if it weren’t for the US the world would be peaches. Try to think critically for one second, please.

      • Don
        April 9, 2022 at 20:32

        Well, not all peaches I would think, but it would be a start. Enough to sleep a little better.

      • April 10, 2022 at 10:11

        Definitely more peaceful since the genesis of majority of the conflicts in the world is rooted in America.

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