The more often tensions rise in the Ukraine Crisis, the less alarmed people are by the threats of global war, even as that threat grows in the wake of fleeting peace. Escalating breeches of an international brokered ceasefire and a reported build up of somewhere around 10,000 Russian troops inside Ukraine suggest Russia is planning to launch a major offensive into the former Soviet State.
Although no one knows the exact outcome of the Ukraine Crisis, the flash point for direct Russia intervention is what might be used to develop a viable resolution. For Westerners, the Ukraine Crisis will escalate to an international war once Russian President Vladimir Putin believes he can get away with invading Ukraine. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that Putin truly does believe his involvement in the Ukraine Crisis is a justified preemptive strike against spreading European influence and a silent NATO invasion.
It is important to remember in the aftermath of the Second World War, the US decided to neuter European powers by providing for their national security and suppressing the strength of their armed forces, even throughout the Cold War. Since the September 11th Terrorist Attacks, Europeans have grown increasingly devoted to their national security. This includes Germany, which has since started deploying its military forces elsewhere in the world. Just as the US has struggled to trust Cuba enough to diplomatically reengage the island nation after it held a knife to America’s throat during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Europeans experienced a far greater traumatic experience with Russia and those sentiments still drive the decisions of some policymakers.
From the Russian Cold War perspective the threat of globalized terrorism can appear to be a convenient excuse for a military buildup in Europe. Watching the George W. Bush Administration use the threat of globalized terrorism as a pretext for invading Iraq after Afghanistan following more than a decade of NATO expansion eastward, it is easy to see why the Russians would be troubled by developments that have nothing to do with Russia. Where most Westerners no longer think in Cold War terms, this is not necessarily true of Russians, particularly those in power.
There are many who blame US President Barack Obama for the Ukraine Crisis due to his perceived weakness. Often cited is the fact Putin decided to go to war with Georgia when President Obama was first elected to office. It is, however, important to recognize the election of President Obama also meant the beginning of the end for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Where American war hawks saw the looming shift in policy as a sign of disengagement and weakness, Putin may well have interpreted it as part of an effort to target Russia.
From that perspective, the Russian-Georgian War was both a warning and a strategic maneuver to eliminate a festering national security threat to Russia in order to focus on the bigger threat, i.e. the US. The Ukraine Crisis is, in turn, a response to the failure of the West to disengage from what the Russians believed was a pretext for a Western incursion. Clearly, this does not excuse Russia’s aggression against its neighbors nor does it mean the West should allow Russia to do as it pleases. What it means is that the West must be willing to listen to legitimate Russian grievances and work on resolving them instead of just focusing on the Ukraine Crisis.
If the Russian government is truly taking “preemptive” steps to “defend itself,” the only resolution to the conflict is one where Russia is given the opportunity to resolve its grievances with the West. Listening does not, of course, suggest the West should avoid engaging or responding to aggressive Russian behavior. Western aggression, including perceived Western aggression, would pressure Putin to push into Ukraine in order to reestablish the Cold War-era Era Buffer States it used for protection.
More likely than not, Russia does not consider Europe alone to be much of a military threat. An armed conflict with the US would, however, be a thorough catastrophe for Russia. Attempting to avoid such an outcome, Russia seems poised to utilize the Cold War practice of using proxy wars to avoid direct conflict. Allegations of the Assad regime’s collaboration with the Islamic State to neutralize pro-Western rebels, for example, may well be a sign of a much broader attempt on behalf of Putin to bog US forces down in the Middle East. If Russia is preparing for war with the US, it needs the US to be engaged in combat on multiple fronts. It must also enlist the assistance of a powerful ally like China.
As tensions over the South China Sea linger, the threat of a US-Chinese war increases. Clearly, it is in China’s interests to avoid a conflict with the US, especially if nations like Japan, India, and North Korea become entangled. A best-case scenario would be a standoff between China and the United States with the South China Sea closed to commercial traffic with nuclear weapons deployed around the South China Sea. Truthfully, the Chinese government might see war with its neighbors and the US to be an inevitable conclusion. By establishing the South China Sea as a stable Cold War front, China would still enjoy the natural resources of the South China Sea.
For Russia, such a US-Chinese Cold War would be optimal for its war economy, because it would weaken both China and the US while making China more dependent on Russian weapons. Where the Pacific was the secondary front in WWII, Russian would seek to engineer it as the primary front in a third world war, thus making it easier for Russia to fend off NATO. On the other hand, a US-Russian conflict over the Ukraine Crisis would be better for the Chinese. By drawing US military resources away from the Pacific in defense of NATO allies, China would have an opportunity to dominate Asia. China could then steadily assert its influence without the threat of resistance or reprisal.
That said, war with the US would be devastating for Russia and China while it would be more likely than not that any conflict would spread to multiple fronts. China, in particular, would face civil unrest while its economy would be starved of foreign capital and consumption. Just as Hitler wished to avoid a fight with the US until he had conquered his powerful neighbors, both Russia and China have the same interest. Consequently, the US and its allies have an interest in confronting both Russia and China over their domineering behavior, even if it means risking an East-West Cold War. Confronting and resolving the underlying issues behind the Ukraine Crisis and the South China Sea Crisis is, however, in the interests of all.
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