Putin’s war casts a bright, cold light on a new geopolitical era

Crises clarify, and none more so than the tragedy of war. Wars sometimes directly change the geopolitical trajectory of the world. But they always, as a bolt of lightning illuminating the darkness, make clear the geostrategic landscape around us.

Crises clarify, and none more so than the tragedy of war. Wars sometimes directly change the geopolitical trajectory of the world. But they always, as a bolt of lightning illuminating the darkness, make clear the geostrategic landscape around us.

The seminal global competition of the age was a bipolar conflict between the world’s only two superpowers, the only two countries with a genuine global reach: the United States and China.

However, infinitely complicating things, beneath this overarching contest a series of great powers (unlike in the 1945-1991 Cold War) had a good deal of strategic autonomy, having it in their power to either side with one of the superpowers or follow their own independent/neutralist path.

Before the fighting, great powers Japan, India, and the UK/Anglosphere firmly sided with the US while the EU veered between neutralism and its traditional ties with America, even as Russia oscillated between neutralism and a junior role alongside China.

But war, as ever, has scrambled things, as geopolitics – so often glacially slow – has moved along at a torrid pace where recently weeks have felt like decades.

Three changes in the global order

With the coming of the war, three decisive geopolitical trajectories have changed at the global great power level. The wobbling of both Russia and Europe has come to an end, definitively ending their collective flirtation with neutralism.

First, a vengeful, humiliated, cornered, and economically threatened Russia now has no choice but to definitively side with China, needing Beijing’s help to economically survive the overwhelming American-inspired global sanctions put in place against it, and the effective weaponization of the dollar.

As we recently wrote here, for Putin it is better to be China’s junior partner – Robin to Beijing’s Batman – than to be isolated as an international pariah. So, Russia has moved definitively into Beijing’s superpower camp.

Second, and at the same time, the EU, shockingly, has at last awoken from its generations-long strategic slumber. Pivotal Germany has, incredibly, committed to re-arm (along with Poland and Sweden) which, if carried out in the medium-term, gives the continent the combined military dimension it has sorely lacked since the 1950s.

After years of former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s disastrous, somnambulant energy policy, leaving Berlin utterly dependent on Russian natural gas, painfully a new EU-wide approach to energy—at last taking security of supply into account—is in the works, with natural gas from the US, Qatar and Norway diluting Russia’s stranglehold on a heretofore-oblivious Europe.

Finally, and profoundly, after Merkel’s ruinous flirtation with mercantilist isolationist neutralism, the new government of Olaf Scholz is firmly back into the Atlantic camp, in a way that was unthinkable, even just months ago. The West, with US, Japan, the Anglosphere, and the EU all onside, has a decisive edge over the revisionist autocracies of China and Russia.

For those of us who prefer to live in such a Western-dominated order this is very good news, indeed.

And now the bad news

But there is more ambiguous, even ominous, news beneath this positive geopolitical headline. At the next layer down from the great powers, looking at regional power configurations across the globe, the West’s dominance is not the real story.

For while the West is united, the developing world is hedging over the Ukraine war, and its ultimate strategic orientation. Beguiling India – where Boris Johnson is making an official visit as we speak – is the canary in the coal mine, illustrating that all is not well.

Since the end of the Cold War, and with the subsequent rise of China, New Delhi has steadily drifted towards the American orbit. New Delhi’s strategic fears regarding the threat of Chinese adventurism were decisively confirmed when Beijing attacked India along their de facto border in the Himalayas in May 2020, a clear act of Chinese aggression.

Before Ukraine, due to their developing ties in the Indo-Pacific balancing against the common Chinese foe, India has been increasingly confidently seen as fitting snugly in the overall US-dominated, democratic great power camp.

But the subcontinent has a way of upending facile Western characterizations. Over the Ukraine War, New Delhi – despite a lot of American and European diplomatic pressure – has steadfastly clung to a policy of neutrality, refusing to castigate Russia for its obvious aggression.

Strikingly, India (unlike Japan, the EU, and the Anglosphere countries) has not quickly and reflexively jumped on Washington’s pro-Ukrainian bandwagon.

There are numerous interest-based reasons for this strategic divergence.

First, historically, India long sided with the USSR during the Cold War; support for Russia even after 1991 is a long-ingrained habit.

Second, Russia remains New Delhi’s largest source of weapons imports, even as the US, Israel and France have gained market share.

Third, an oil-hungry and energy-poor India has spotted the chance to obtain Russian oil and natural gas at bargain-basement prices, as the US and UK energy blockade of Moscow comes into effect, and the Kremlin looks to divert its overall energy supply from a suddenly hostile West.

These basic points of national interest were all present before the Russian invasion, but it took the crucible of war for the world to see that maybe India was not yet prepared to march in lock-step with the American-dominated world after all.

Worse, from a Western perspective, India is not alone in disdaining the American lead. Significant regional powers in the Middle East (including traditional US allies Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as usual suspect Iran), and outliers North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and much of Africa, have studiously clung to a path of neutrality regarding the conflict.

In fact, over Ukraine, it would be far more accurate to say that while at the great power level the West is presently dominant and that it is united around a pro-Ukrainian policy over the war, the rest of the developing world, epitomized by emerging great power India, are far from being in the Western camp.

The good news for the West then, is that it is surprisingly united as the new era dawns. The bad news is that the rest of the world has yet to follow its lead. Worse still, the developing world’s two great power champions, China and India, while increasingly hostile to one another, share an antipathy for merely going along with the West in our new era.

It will take realism, and a Bismarck, for the West to maintain its dominance in the decades ahead. But it can and must be done.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home.