The term Great Power competition (GPC) can be used as a framework to analyze interstate relations, such as those between the United States and the Russian Federation. GPC eras existed prior to World War II, during the Cold War, and in the post-Soviet period. They feature multiple powerful states competing for relative status, position, power, and influence. The primary rivalry during the Cold War was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR, there was nearly a 20-year period where the United States was arguably the only super power. Since the 2010’s, however, both the Russian Federation and China have emerged as great powers pursuing interests conflicting with those of the United States. At least since 2018, the United States National Defense Strategy has identified China and Russia as the primary threats to U.S. prosperity.
Great Power Competition is said to exist when powerful nations compete for the authority to shape global security architectures, drawing other countries into their orbit. The competitors also vie for the ability to set the norms and practices of economics, trade, and investment. Additionally, GPC involves countries competing to control the flow of information, as well as the development and regulation of new technology. Competition does not have to mean conflict, however. The U.S. competes with its partners in the E.U., particularly with Germany, as well as with Japan, but this is healthy competition which in the end, improves the competitive environment of the global economy. True global power competition is more of a zero-sum game, whereby the winner will be more powerful and the looser less powerful. GPC often results in war between two great powers, but war, including proxy wars and limited wars, even between actors other than the most powerful nations, can be the symptom of a great power competition.
The Ukraine war, has the markings of great power competition between the U.S.-led western bloc and the Russian-led bloc. The U.S. side includes NATO, the E.U. the rest of Europe, and close U.S. allies in Asia, such as Japan. On the other side are Russia and its allies, Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Serbia, and China.
Destabilization from Europe to Asia
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for the second time in less than ten years, is clearly an act of power projection and an attempt to change the world order. The Russian annexation of the Crimea, in 2014, was an attempt at destabilizing Ukraine while creating problems and challenges for the broader European community and the United States. The fact that Russia did not suffer any significant repercussions for its actions in 2014, emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine in 2022. Both the 2014 and 2022 incursions in Ukraine can be seen as extensions of the Cold War and both were attempts by Russia to disrupt the international order.
The Ukraine War is taking place during a period of intense competition between the United States and China. Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion at the UN Security Council or the G-20 meetings. China does not participate in western sanctions. In fact, China is helping Russia circumvent sanctions. As result, this conflict involves the world’s three largest military powers, threatening the global order from Europe all the way to Asia.
The intensified strategic rivalry between the United States and China carries severe implications for security in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region. Russia and China are collaborating to support the military junta which seized control of Myanmar. China provides money, while Russia provides weapons and oil. The western-led democracies have condemned the coup, but the Russia-China bloc are supporting it, drawing Myanmar into the axis opposing the U.S. and the West. Similarly, both Russia and China are supporting the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.
Propaganda and Information War
Wars are not only fought in military terms but also across a wide array of domains, including information. Both the Ukraine and Russia have created narrative. Ukraine has broadcast the message that they are defending their homeland, a sovereign nation, suffering a foreign invasion. Russia claims to be annexing a historically Russian piece of land. Putin has stated that he is reuniting Ukrainians and Russians which have always been one people. He also maintains that his fight is necessary for the preservation of Russia, as he accused the west of wanting to erase Russia from the map. The west has portrayed the war as battle against authoritarianism and for the preservation of democracy. The White House issued a statement in February, reconfirming the U.S. support for Ukraine, citing territorial integrity, democracy, dignity, human rights, and “the UN Charter that unites the whole world.”
In its attempt to control the narrative, the Kremlin has shut down newspapers and other media, killed or intimidated journalists, and jailed or otherwise silenced critics and protesters. However, these information warfare efforts have failed, as the U.S. and western allies have managed to present the world with a different picture, painting Russia in a worse light.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) working together with their Ukrainian partner, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), have determined that since the war began, 12,000 Ukrainian and foreign journalists have been accredited to cover the war, exposing frequent Russian bombardment of and deliberate targeting of civilians and journalists. So far, eight journalists have been killed. Twenty-six have been specifically targeted, and 19 have been injured. Russian forces have targeted 16 TV towers, and committed 42 cyber-crimes against media, while shutting down 217 media.
Despite Russian efforts to the contrary, Reporters Without Borders has managed to continue supporting journalists. They have supplied 750 journalists with protective equipment, 91 media with power sources, 28 media with funding, 288 journalists with training, and 129 with financial assistance.
In addition to the official press, social media has also played a tremendous role in this war. Ukrainians have uploaded images of their suffering and published photos and videos of Russian failures. These social media efforts have attracted western support for Kyiv, while encouraging Ukrainians to keep fighting. In the blurred world between cyber and real life, U.S. companies, such as Microsoft, have been able to nullify some of Russia’s advantages in space and telecommunications. Russian entities were kicked off many internet platforms and social media, further detracting from Moscow’s ability to control the story. Furthermore, the largest, most widely read media are owned by the Americans and the Brits. And so, they were able to tailor the message coming out of the war.
Sanctions as Weapons
Although there are two combatants in the Ukraine war, many more countries are involved politically, diplomatically, and economically. Some are providing weapons and training. Others help with intelligence, allowing Ukraine to use their satellite guidance systems. Additionally, the U.S. and its allies are waging economic war against Russia by bringing sanctions.
Not only governments, but also private businesses have joined in the fight by organizing their own boycotts and bans on commerce with Russia. McDonalds and other corporations have pulled out of Russia. Visa, Master Card, and Paypal have suspended service in Russia, making it difficult for Russian entities to conduct international business or to send or receive payments.
The official sanctions, naming high ranking government officials as well as specific companies, are meant to disrupt Moscow’s ability to finance the war. To this end, the foreign currency reserves and other assets of the Russian government and oligarchs have been frozen in foreign banks. Specific sectors of the economy have been completely cutoff from trade with allied nations. The most damaging blow to the Russian economy has been price-cap imposed on the export of Russian oil. Allied nations have prohibited their ships and insurers from engaging in trade of Russian oil which exceeds the cap price of $60 per barrel. Together, these sanctions limit Moscow’s access to hard currency in a world where the ruble is effectively useless in international trade.
On the opposing side, Moscow’s allies, as well as officially unaligned countries, Turkey, India, and Vietnam, continue to trade with Russia. The non-convertibility of the ruble and the inability to use major international payment systems, however, has complicated this trade. Furthermore, in order to convince countries to violate sanctions, Russia has to offer oil at below market prices. Shipping to India adds about $11 per barrel to the cost, nullifying Russia’s additional profits when the world price of oil dips below $70 per barrel.
Rewriting the International Security Architecture
The Ukraine War has caused the realignment of the world’s nations into three categories: the U.S. camp, the Russian camp, and those who refuse to take sides, remaining non-aligned. NATO and the U.S. sided against Russia immediately. This was to be expected, given the U.S. leadership of NATO and that NATO was formed to prevent the expansion of the USSR. However, European nations who were not NATO members also joined the western bloc. The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution condemning the invasion. Among the Asian countries that voted with the western bloc were Singapore, South Korea, and Japan.
Thirty-five countries, however, abstained from a vote of condemnation, three of which were British Commonwealth states South Africa, Pakistan, and India. All the BRICS countries abstained from the vote, including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Western countries, along with western aligned allies in Asia and elsewhere, feel that the west is maintaining a global, rules-based order. Finland and Sweden have asked to join NATO, while the Balkan States have shifted even more towards the western orbit. Many Asian and African countries, however, found it better to remain unaligned, so they could continue to trade with Russia. These nations are not, however, rallying with overt support for the Russian side.
With its chip bans and other restrictions on the sale of technology to Russia, the U.S. is rewriting the rules on Russia’s use of technology and most likely impacting Russia’s future technological development. Drones have played a significant role in the war so far and now it seems that Russia has deployed hypersonic missiles. The chips and other technological inputs needed to manufacture and maintain these technologies are all covered by the U.S. sanctions. At the same time satellites are proving critical as they are being used for imaging and directing fire. Moscow has threatened to attack U.S. satellites aiding Ukraine. Meanwhile, the EU has officially ended its cooperation with the Russian Space Agency. These and other sanctions are expected to cripple the long-term development of Russia’s space program.
Great Power Competition
What started out as a simple conflict between two states over the control of territory, became a great power competition between the U.S.-led west and the Russian Federation. Without firing a shot at one another, the two actors are battling for hearts and minds, to control the narrative, to win-over new supporters, and to establish which is the greater power. Even more, both sides believe that losing would mean a permanent loss of power.
Applying the definition of great power competition: The Ukraine war involves two large nations, the U.S. and Russia, competing for the authority to shape the global security architecture. The U.S. has built a coalition, including NATO, the EU, and far away allies, rewriting the existing global security architecture. In great power competition, two powerful nations compete to set the norms and practices of trade and investment. By organizing a coalition and bringing sanctions, the U.S. has is now dictating the norms and practices of trade with Russia and controlling Russia’s trade with most of the world.
Another aspect of GFC is competition for the development and regulation of new technology. The Russian Spacey Agency has been banned from cooperation with Europe, and Moscow’s access to chips has bas been restricted. Effectively, the U.S. is controlling the development and regulation of Russia’s technology. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Ukraine War is a great power competition which will most likely set the tone for all future conflicts.
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