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WILL REALISM PREVAIL OVER BALANCE OF POWER POLITICS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE STAND-OFF?

As political and military tensions build up on the Eastern Border of Ukraine and Russia, the world is facing a significant development in the International Political System: the upending of the international Balance of Power.



There are several ways to predict the outcome of the situation in Ukraine, with the worst-case scenario being a colossal war that would throw Europe and the rest of the globe into a spin. This stand-off, however, reveals the re-ordering of the Balance of Power in the international system - a realist theory of politics that posits that power that is wielded held by a state or several states within a system is checked and balanced by the power of others.


In the simplest explanation of a rather complex concept, the current Balance of Power as we know it fell into place in 1949, after the end of the Second World War, with the emergence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Created by the US, Canada, and several European allies, NATO, the first peace-time military Alliance since, was established to provide security against the Soviet Union’s expansion. When, the then West Germany joined NATO in 1955, The Soviet Union formed a countervailing alliance, the Warsaw Pact. This brought together the USSR and her Eastern European allies. The Warsaw Pact further consolidated the Balance of Power, and largely fueled the Cold War of the 60s and 70s.


With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Warsaw Pact rapidly deteriorated as the economic and political might of Russia waned, and the Pact’s other command economies, including Poland, turned democratic and began to pursue open markets. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the last stroke, and once again, NATO sprung back to its hegemonic position as the custodian on the Balance of Power in the International stage.


Political Scientist Nicholas Spykman once observed that states could not afford to wait passively for the Balance of power to be achieved. Instead, all attempts of aggression by a notorious hegemon must be forestalled. In that spirit, the United States has assumed the superpower responsibility to lead the NATO alliance against the aggressor, Russia, whose expansionist tendencies in the Balkan states are now almost runaway-first with her annexation of the Ukrainian Peninsula, Crimea in 2014, and today, the military build-up in Eastern Ukraine 100,000 troops at the latest count.


The US, the de facto Superpower of the NATO Alliance, has led the 30-member alliance from the front in de-escalating the tensions in Ukraine, rightly taking up the responsibility of maintaining the global Balance of Power. In this effort, the US is playing by the book, mobilizing policies, resources, and military capabilities domestically and within NATO to align with the weaker power- Ukraine- whose sovereignty is threatened by Russia’s offensive actions. In efforts akin to the days of the cold war, Anthony Blinken, the US Foreign Secretary, has, in the last few weeks, led relentless shuttle diplomacy in West and Eastern Europe (Ukraine) in a bid to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty.


As the US talks tough with Russia, her top diplomats hold that a decision will only be made with express consensus with Ukraine and the European allies, against whose backyard a war would smolder. Yet, in the last couple of weeks, there has been a hue and cry by the EU members that the US is parachuting above their heads to negotiate with Putin. This ensued after high-level bilateral talks between President Bidden and Russian leader Putin, presumably with less than consulting with Kyiv or Brussels. The US took notice, and there have been some course corrections with Foreign Secretary Blinken’s just concluded shuttle diplomacy. His first stop was Ukraine, followed by meetings with his counterparts in Germany, France, and the UK. Most recently, Biden and some European allies, including France and Germany, have held talks.


Despite efforts by the US to demonstrate a united front with her European allies, the diplomatic and military mobilization are weakened by a nonchalant European Union whose powerful member states, Germany and France, have grown cold feet, both for different nationalistic and Pan-European interests. This is proving to be a massive headache as unity is elusive in NATO, sadly, before an enemy who is very much aware of the cracks in the alliance. Even worse is the increasing psychological effect on Ukraine, which has watched, with horror, signs of discomfiture among her economically and militarily more powerful western neighbors, notably Germany, who has forestalled arms transfer to Ukraine.


For Germany, the stakes are high domestically. Economic interests, precisely cheap gas supplies from Russia and the multi-billion-dollar gas Pipeline Nord Stream 11 that is yet to go live are dictating the terms of engagement. In an eerie echo of the failed appeasement policy of the 1940s, Germany seems keener on assuaging Russia to keep the gas flowing to her citizens. Couple that with the fact that the country has only recently voted in a coalition government that is, at most, wildly divergent in ideologies. Lousy timing for everyone, as the three coalition parties' domestic constituents, must be appeased on many fronts. This is an extraordinary balancing act.


France’s silence in this saga was deafening until the country took up the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Parliament. In his maiden speech, Emmanuel Macron called on Europe to build a ‘balancing power’, particularly in dialogue with Russia. He proposed a new security and stability order that would then be sold to the NATO allies and negotiated with Russia.


Indeed, by giving the US a wide berth, France is off on a tangent to revive the old-time Normandy Format of negotiations for Ukraine. The negotiations will bring together Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France to resolve Russia’s demands on Ukraine. What about the EU? is this vision shared more widely than we know? After all, was former US president Trump right when he threatened to reduce support to NATO, presumably because the Europeans were not pulling their weight? Is it time now for Europe to take charge of its destiny?


The EU’s internal incoherence on the Ukraine standoff goes beyond Macron’s recent pronouncements. Even worse, the disunity has not escaped the public’s eye. In a recent tweet, a European citizen observed that while Europe’s most extensive republics, France, and Germany, are quickly turning the other eye on Ukraine, Europe’s oldest monarchies of Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands are boldening their response to Ukraine’s plea for military support. To this concerned citizen, the question is who, if not the two republics of Germany and France, should be defending the sovereignty of Ukraine. But what is lost on this observer is the Real Politik that the two republics are grappling with; the insinuation in Macron’s speech as new realities and agenda that require new thinking, security arrangements, and dialogue, preferably steered by Europe, not old security formats.


One of the foremost mandates of NATO is to provide the foundations of collective security that would encourage democratization and political integration in Europe. With the Russia-Ukraine impasse, it is fair to ask whether the reality of Europe’s dependence on Russia’s energy means that Russia has inadvertently, yet successfully cracked the erstwhile stoic Western Alliance. As Russia’s geo-strategic position grows with vast energy resources, when will she stop her ambitions of reverting to the Soviet era map, or even beyond, to restore her former glory on the world stage? Who will stop her? This leads to the big question- will the Balance of Power hold this time? If so, can democracy and the sovereignty of states remain the defining ideal of the Balance of Power arrangement going forward?

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