Not every war impacts the international system. As tragic and destructive as Russia's invasion of Ukraine is, it is unlikely to have a lasting effect on global history.
A war is like an earthquake: it can be devastating and its human toll can be tragic. It can occupy the airwaves and cyberspace, monopolizing the collective consciousness and conscience of the citizens of the world as they gaze sadly upon the ruins.
But not every earthquake disturbs the tectonic plates enough to reshape them; likewise, not every war impacts the geopolitics and the larger reality of the international system.
It is tempting to think that Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty means a return to the paradigm of the previous Cold War. It is natural to once again cast Russia as the main villain of the story of planet Earth. Many have done so. Chris Cillizza, the editor-at-large of CNN, is among them. He believes that we owe an apology to Mitt Romney, a Republican senator from Utah who in 2012—then as the nominee of his party in the presidential election—called Russia the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, and was mocked by many, including his rival President Barack Obama, who said: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
“But today,” Cillizza argues, “after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into eastern Ukraine, Romney’s comments look very, very different. And by ‘different,’ I mean ‘right,’ as even some Democrats are now acknowledging.”
It may come as a surprise to Cillizza that one person who does not agree with Mitt Romney circa 2012 is Mitt Romney circa 2022, who criticized President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech for focusing too much on Russia and ignoring the US’s real number one geopolitical foe, China. In a statement, the senator wrote: “Yes, Russia is the problem of today. But we must not forget that China is operating in the background and remains the problem of tomorrow. The President only mentioned China twice in his speech tonight. We must not fail to acknowledge that China is on a quest to become the world’s economic, military, and geopolitical superpower. Nearly every strategic decision we make must be looked at with the lens of our competition with China.”
Present Romney is much closer in his understanding of the geopolitical reality to consensus among experts and scholars than Past Romney. If there is serious disagreement among scholars of international relations regarding our current situation, it is about whether we are on the precipice of a new Cold War or in the midst of it.
But no one seriously considers Russia to be anything but a minor player anymore. The main antagonist (or protagonist, depending on your point of view) is now China.
China was a poor and severely underdeveloped country back in the 1970s, mainly because of the ideological and disastrous leadership of Mao Zedong. That began to change when Deng Xiaoping came to power and enacted reforms, creating a pragmatist bureaucracy to lead China based on technocratic principles. China began to rise in power and influence and will soon be considered a superpower on par with the United States. Like the USSR before it, China defines itself in opposition to the US in all areas of interest and also normatively. The US knows this and has been preparing for a powerful China since the administration of George Bush the senior. But it was during Obama’s presidency that the US realized that China should occupy the center of the US geopolitical strategy, and both of his successors have followed the same route. For Biden, the main objective of US foreign policy will remain countering China’s rising influence.
Because of this, there has been a shift in the importance of Europe. During the previous Cold War, the border between the two blocks was in Europe. But now it is clear that Europe is just not that important. Now Indo-Pacific is the most vital region in the world, and therefore Japan, India, and Australia are now the most important US allies and not Europe and NATO members. The US is now courting Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore to join it in opposing China. European share in the geopolitical stock has fallen because Europe is now far from the main rival—it’s now better situated to be a buffer zone and not much more.
Russia itself is now merely a sidekick to China and is no longer considered a major player. Biden did not immediately install a non-acting official to lead the State Department’s Russia desk, and his administration did not bother to create a cohesive Russia strategy before Putin began amassing troops at the border. The Biden administration’s actions clearly showed that Biden, like Obama and Trump before him, did not consider Russia to be a major player.
Will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine change all that? This is an earthquake that might get worse. The US and Europe will—reluctantly—impose crippling sanctions on Russia which might harm their own economic recoveries as well, thanks to disruptions in the energy market, if Putin does not back down or attempts to completely occupy Ukraine. If Putin has lost all semblance of rationality and invades a NATO member state, there might even be war. Such developments will have steep human costs and might cause a great global crisis, but it will not have geopolitical implications. The tectonic plates are affected by Xi Jinping, not Vladimir Putin.
For the US, and even for China, and for the geopolitical game of checkers that they play, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is merely an annoying distraction. The US wants to keep the military and economic costs as minimal as possible and return to its machinations in the Indo-Pacific region as soon as possible. China fears a premature showdown with the US and will not risk much in supporting Russia.
For a different opinion on the likely geopolitical impact of the invasion of Ukraine, see Marcus Johnson, “Cold War II would mean more money for defense“
Russia under Putin is now what we call a “troublemaker actor”. It will be ignored and considered unimportant unless it forces the great powers to pay attention by making trouble. This can be interfering in the American or European elections or it can be stirring the pot and increasing tensions and worsening the disputes and at worst invading a neighbor. But Russia will cease to be important and to occupy the attention of the great powers as soon as it stops making trouble.
Maybe this is why Putin is acting the way he is: we know that he considers the downfall of the USSR the greatest tragedy of history and he has been doggedly pursuing a nationalistic dream of restoring Russia to its previous colonialist imperial Tsarist glory. Maybe like all narcissists, being ignored is a worse fate to him than being hated and vilified. Or maybe he simply feels that as a minor player his nation will have a harder time achieving its interests and goals. In the end, the explanation is simple: this is Putin trying to become important again, to impact the geopolitics, to shift the tectonic plates.
But reality does not care for our ideological dreams and nationalistic aspirations. The invasion of Ukraine will be remembered for many things, chief among them the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians in the face of an invading force. But it will, most probably, not be remembered for affecting the geopolitical trajectory of the international system.