Is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine returning the world to bipolarity?


On February 24, 2022, Russia launched an unprovoked attacked on Ukraine. Russia’s actions can be explained by its grand ambition to expanding its sphere of influence to cover areas occupied by countries of the former USSR and create a safe buffer between it and the Atlantic Alliance – North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). That the war in Ukraine has further polarised the world is an understatement. Several countries have reacted following this attack with most Western countries, the European Union and its allies taking severe actions and sanctions in retaliation against Russia. Others, such as China and India have not condemned Russia’s actions and have cordial relations with the Kremlin. It is interesting to note that since launching the war, Russia has made over $97 billion from sale of fuel and gas alone because of these strong partnerships. Together, these embolden President Putin and his allies to continue a trajectory that further polarises the world. Russia envisions a bipolarity where it champions a group of countries that seek to upend the US hegemony and liberal world order. Probably, this is where China and Russia’s interests intersect. This paper argues that the response of European Union, its allies and sympathisers of Ukraine is returning the world into bipolarity, the phenomenon that characterised the Cold War era. It also argues that security interests usually trample over economic partnerships. This will be done by analysing the immediate response of Ukraine to the invasion, the actions of the US, EU and some specific countries. Beyond Europe, the paper also considers the reaction of some countries in the Indo-Pacific, Asia, Middle east and Africa.

The UN held its first emergency meeting in nearly four decades led by the US and supported by 94 other countries on February 27, 2022. This meeting was occasioned by Russia’s earlier veto that blocked a resolution involving the organisation’s 12-member Security Council that called on the Kremlin to halt its invasion and withdraw its forces from Ukraine on February 25, 2022. The decision by Russia to raise the readiness of its nuclear forces was denounced in the resolution. With the necessary two-thirds of the member states voting in favour, it was adopted. Despite this development however, the war continues and there has not being any sign of a ‘retreat’ on the part of the Kremlin nor a ‘surrender’ in the case of Ukraine.

NATO, often known as the North Atlantic Alliance, is a military alliance made up of 30 countries – 28 European countries, the United States, and Canada. Formed in 1949, NATO’s fundamental goal is to safeguard the allies’ freedom and security by political and military means. It became a formidable force that contributed to the success of the US and its allies over the Russian Federation during the Cold War. NATO leaders reaffirmed their decision at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine would join the Alliance, with the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process, and Ukraine’s right to determine its own future and foreign policy course without outside interference at the June 2021 Brussels summit. A development that the Kremlin had opposed until now. NATO’s key, traditional principle is “collective defense.” This means an attack on one or more members is considered an attack on all members. This principle has been invoked once following the 9/11 attacks where European planes were deployed to patrol American skies. It is safe to argue that Kremlin’s pre-emptive strike/attack on Ukraine is, therefore, aimed at preventing potential conflict with NATO once Ukraine’s membership becomes déjà vu.

As expected, NATO condemned Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which is an independent, peaceful, and democratic country and a close NATO ally, in the strongest possible terms. The Alliance urged President Putin to put an end to the conflict as soon as possible, withdraw all his troops from Ukraine without restrictions, and engage in meaningful negotiation. The initial Western response was economic. The US is imposing the strongest sanctions against Russia in history which are unlikely to change the form of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hostility according to Jonathan Guyer. The UK has openly and unequivocally condemned the Kremlin government for what it has referred to as an unprovoked and premeditated war against Ukraine. The UK government lined up a range of economic, humanitarian and defensive military assistance to Ukraine while imposing sanctions on Russia and Belarus. The assistance includes a £400 million humanitarian aid for vital medical supplies including £220m for humanitarian assistance. It also sent about 5,000 anti-tank guns, anti-air missiles, armoured vehicles, small arms, and non-lethal supplies like as helmets, body armour, meals, and medical equipment.

Arguably, this invasion has caused a shakeup in Europe’s security architecture and many countries in the region are beginning to re-evaluate the security of their states. NATO has enhanced its status and willingness to defend its members while new countries are taking steps to join the military alliance. In an interesting twist, some European countries that have hitherto been neutral have expressed their desire to join NATO. Despite earlier reports that denied Finland’s intention to join NATO, the Prime Minister Sanna Marin told Finns that “Russia was not the neighbour they thought it was” in April 2022. Since joining the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994, Finland has had formal connections with NATO. Since the end of the Cold War, the country has maintained strong relations with the organisation, and the potential of membership has been a topic of discussion in the country. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the argument shifted in favour of NATO affiliation, and the country together with Sweden applied for membership on May 18, 2022. The decision of these two countries to join NATO is becoming a turning point to switch Europe back to bipolarity. Surprisingly, Turkey, a key NATO member expressed its opposition to the application of the two Nordic countries to the organisation until recently. Just two days after lifting their objection, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey has threatened to stall the application process should these two countries fail to meet Turkey’s expectations. Without the support of all NATO members, Sweden and Finland could not have join the military alliance. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin had said that the decision by Finland and Sweden to join the 30-member military alliance does not directly threaten Moscow, but any expansion of military alliance will prompt a response from Moscow.

Just as other countries, Germany has been forced to face the harsh reality that its years of demilitarisation by design and neglect require a complete overhaul. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz convened emergency meetings in Berlin with his closest advisors two days after President Vladimir Putin began the invasion, culminating in the most drastic turnaround in German security and defence strategy since World War II ended. With a cash injection of €100 billion ($110 billion), the German parliament approved plans to bolster its undermanned and outgunned military and commit to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence in the coming years, a NATO aim previously accepted only with vague guarantees or scorned outright by German politicians.

On June 9, NATO Headquarters hosted a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at the level of defence ministers. Ministers discussed Ukraine’s defence policy amid a changing security environment, as well as the reform of the country’s armed forces and the country’s continued support for NATO-led operations. The meeting was part of efforts to coordinate their actions and provide more tailor-made support to Ukraine even as Russia makes gains in the eastern Donbas region. The meeting also highlighted the unity among NATO and partners and meeting of the working group on Ukraine comprising some 50 countries. For Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration objectives to be realised, allied ministers emphasised the significance of comprehensive security sector reforms. They recognised progress made in executing the National Security Sector Review, which aims to bring Ukraine’s entire security sector in line with Euro-Atlantic standards and principles and pledged to continue to assist the process through the Joint Working Group on Defense Reform.

Countries outside of Europe have been drawn into this conflict and ensuing rivalry that is taking centre stage in global discussion. In the Middle east for example, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been inconsistent and erratic. Both countries sided China and India abstaining on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion on February 25. These two countries, together with some other states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are courting a path to avoid the ‘wrath’ of either the US or Russia and their potential allies. Just before the invasion, the GCC countries called for peaceful political settlements as events were unfolding in Ukraine. Ahmed Aboudouh insists that this move is an attempt on the part of the GCC to reveal their “desire to sit on the fence and resist being drawn into the diplomatic saga around it”. In an interesting turn of events, Saudi Arabia and the UAE voted in favour of “territorial integrity of Ukraine” to strongly support Ukraine in a United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 in March 2022.

China’s stance on the attacks have left many wondering as to Beijing’s commitment to becoming a responsible global leader. Prior to the invasion, Russian leader Vladimir Putin had met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping in a closed-door meeting in Beijing during the winter Olympic games in which both countries pledged to support each other. China and Russia currently enjoy the best relations they have had since the late 1950s. Although they have no formal alliance, the two countries do have an informal agreement to coordinate diplomatic and economic moves and build up an alliance against the United States. As a result, China voted in support of a UN Security Council resolution proposed by Russia that would ease humanitarian aid to Ukraine during the acme of the debates surrounding the conflict. Interestingly, the resolution makes no demands for an end to the conflict or condemns Russia’s role in the humanitarian disaster. Le Yucheng, a senior Chinese diplomat, told Andrey Denisov, the Russian ambassador to China, on April 19 that China would always increase strategic cooperation with Russia and jointly preserve the common interests of both sides, regardless of how the world situation unfolds. China would undoubtedly lose Ukraine as a key commercial partner and a crucial member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Eastern Europe as the war in Ukraine continues according to Wang Li.

In faraway Africa, Jude Mutah and Heather Ashby argue that the conflict is upending long-term trends and provoking conflicting responses from governments. Increased sanctions are forcing the Kremlin to expand its contacts with countries outside of Europe and the United States, leaving African countries vulnerable to food shortages and energy project finance. While some see this as a chance to create economic capability on the continent, others believe it has given the Russian government the opportunity to rethink its African policy. In the meantime, African countries have endeavoured to stay away from the politics and tension surrounding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine by abstaining from openly supporting or condemning the attacks. Out of the 54 African countries, 28 of them representing 51.85 percent, voted in support of Ukraine at the UN Assembly in March 2022. Eritrea was the only African country that voted against the resolution. However, Mahama Tawat argues that if one considers abstention to be halfway between a yes and a no, then nearly a third (17 out of 54) chose not to take a side, 8 countries being absent. It is not clear how long African countries can stay neutral as there are no signs of the end conflict ending soon. In the meantime, the current Chair of the African Union (AU), Macky Sall, led an African delegation to Russia in June 2022 to talk about both cessation of hostilities and impact on food supplies.

Arguably, Europe is gradually returning to the alliance structure and bipolar world system that characterised the Cold War era, which is spreading to other parts of the world. One thing has become clear – security interests dominate economic partnerships, and that the safety and security of country always prevails over other interests. The actions of countries that support Russia and continue to do business with it have emboldened the Kremlin further enhancing the ensuing bipolar international structure. More countries are also being forced to take sides by choice or out of necessity. Countries who have chosen to remain neutral can only hope that the conflict will end soon so that they are not compelled to choose a side in a prolong war situation.

Isaac O. Frimpong
Isaac O. Frimpong
Isaac is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, Political Science & International Relations department. His research interests cover China-Africa relations broadly, peace and security in Africa, international security and migration. His PhD research focuses on China’s increasing security engagement in Africa. He is also a Postgraduate Fellow at the UWA Africa Research & Engagement Centre (AfREC) and is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Ghana, Legon and a master’s degree in International Relations from Jilin University, China.


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