Since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the conflict in the eastern part of the country has not stopped, leading to the deterioration of Russia’s relations with both Ukraine and the West. The situation took a sharp turn for the worse in February 2022, with nearly 2,000 ceasefire violations in the Donbas region on the 19th alone. On the 24th, Russia announced a “special military operation”, and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict suddenly broke out, shocking the world.
Main roles and interests
The US is the most significant beneficiary of the tensions in Ukraine. After President Biden took office, he maintained Washington’s position of regarding Russia as a destabilising country, continuing to promote NATO’s military deployment in Eastern Europe and using Ukraine to contain Russia. In 2021, US-Ukraine military and defence cooperation accelerated significantly. During the tense situation in eastern Ukraine in April, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations passed the Ukraine Security Partnership Act, increasing annual US military aid to Ukraine from $250 million to $300 million.
Meanwhile, integration between NATO and Kyiv also advanced rapidly through frequent joint military exercises. On the one hand, the West invoked the threat of Russian aggression; on the other, the US and NATO have made clear that they will not send troops to Ukraine to fight Russia. This dual behaviour has conveyed two critical messages to Russia: first, NATO can use Ukraine’s territory to attack Moscow; second, if the Kremlin takes military action against Ukraine, the US and NATO will not participate in the war.
In the short term, the purpose behind the US’ attempt to intensify tensions between Russia and Ukraine were the preparations for mid-term elections. By provoking the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, President Biden could divert domestic voters’ attention away from his poor performance and increase arms sales and energy exports of the US military-industrial complex and energy export companies. The conflict provides the White House the opportunity to elicit favours among American hard-line forces against Russia and attract European capital to revive the American economy. In the long-term, this strategy exploits Ukraine to contain Russia whilst leading Russia and Europe to consume one another through conflict and mutual sanctions.
For its part, Ukraine is the second driver of tensions and biggest victim of the conflict. After becoming President, Zelensky borrowed from his predecessor's pro-Western and anti-Russian foreign policy stance. In 2014, clashes broke out between the Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian eastern civil forces. Eventually, Kiev, Moscow, the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), and the Ukrainian eastern civil forces signed the Minsk Agreements. The Kremlin hoped the Ukrainians would implement the agreements and amend the constitution to grant special status to parts of Donbas, thereby promoting Ukraine’s federalisation and preventing it from joining NATO.
For this reason, Zelensky’s government demanded the revision of the agreements and is now considering re-nuclearization. From the Kremlin’s perspective, urging the Ukrainian side to implement the Minsk Agreements became pointless and began considering Zelensky’s government as a “puppet” of the United States. Meanwhile, Zelensky needed to raise his approval ratings by promoting the existence of an external threat and soliciting aid as well as loans from Western countries and international organisations to maintain its macroeconomic stability. He actively called on Western governments to stop Russia’s aggression and impose sanctions against Moscow.
Russia ultimately escalated the situation from tensions to full-out war: the Kremlin does not recognise the narrative imposed by the West, according to which it “lost the Cold War”. The country hopes to compete against the current hegemonic system ruled by the US by restoring its dominance in the post-Soviet region and reshaping the European security order.
Here, however, lies a structural contradiction. President Putin believes the relative decline of US power and its renewed strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific have provided Moscow with unprecedented strategic opportunities to address its security concerns and pursue its political ambitions. Since Russia’s actions in Georgia, Syria, Belarus, and Kazakhstan succeeded, the notion of a “Russification” of the Donbas has gradually emerged as something feasible in the minds of the Russian political elite.
In early 2022, Russia proposed three requirements to the US and NATO: NATO should stop its expansion, refrain from deploying missiles near the Russian border, and restore NATO’s military infrastructure in Europe to what it was in 1997. However, these proposals were rejected. Against this backdrop, Russia decided to address the security challenges with the primary goal of demilitarising Ukraine and preventing it from joining NATO.
Lessons from the Ukrainian crisis
The Ukrainian crisis is the event that has most significantly shocked the world order since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The problem represents a common challenge to all countries striving for equality, peace, and development.
First, differences in thinking about security are the ideological root causes of the conflict. Conservative forces in the United States claim to be the “winners of the Cold War”. To exalt the significance of NATO’s existence and maintain its unipolar hegemony, they completely ignore Russia’s security concerns and regard it as an opponent and enemy while promoting NATO’s eastward expansion. The pressure at the borders, as a result, has triggered Russia to identify the US and NATO as a primary strategic threat, thus taking aggressive measures to prevent further containment.
Peace needs to be advocated for through the overall national security concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, mutual respect between countries, equal consultation, mutual benefit, and win-win results. Because of this, China maintains that the legitimate security concerns of all parties should be respected, the Cold War mentality should be abandoned entirely, and a comprehensive solution to Ukraine and related issues ought to be sought through dialogue and negotiation in order to reach a balanced, effective, and sustainable European security mechanism.
Second, great power games and blocpolitics have intensified the antagonism and conflict between countries. The disintegration of the Soviet Union left many problems behind, such as territorial disputes, resource disagreements, and ethnic and religious conflicts. Regrettably, most of these conflicts have not been resolved over the past thirty years. If anything, some have intensified and escalated.
Conflicts and military alliances are closely related. For small- and medium-sized countries in the Eurasian region, maintaining friendly and cooperative relations with others is an ideal condition that best serves their interests. Washington and Brussels continue to promote the EU’s and NATO’s eastward expansion, causing friction with Russia, which sees the post-Soviet region as a security buffer zone. As a result, Ukraine has become the victim of the two sides’ competition.
National strength is necessary to effectively safeguard national interests and build a community with a shared future for mankind. The Ukrainian crisis will accelerate changes in power, interstate relations, the international system, and the global order as a whole. The anarchy of the international system, the intensification of international conflicts, and the complexity of the international environment will be severe tests to China’s development. The US regards Beijing as its main opponent and aims to contain it. Some countries have chosen to join the American camp to restrain China, thus tempting — or forcing — the PRC to be involved in conflicts. At the same time, other countries regard the Sino-US confrontation as a period of strategic opportunity and hope to profit from it.
China must objectively and calmly assess the developments in the international arena and larger global order as well as its national strength and influence in order to maintain domestic stability and unity, plan, be prepared for emergencies, and continuously increase its national strength. Only by doing so can China continue to enhance its power and participate in global governance to promote a global order that reflects its own interests as well as those of many developing countries.
An extended version of this op-ed was originally published in Chinese in the magazine 时事资料手 (Shishi Zì Lao Shouce) in February. Translation by Giulia Sciorati