The post-conflict era in Ukraine: how to avoid a New Cold War between Western Europeans and Russia?
The global geopolitical stakes of the conflict
The war in Ukraine confirms that the new geopolitical configuration is characterised by a struggle for the distribution of geopolitical spaces between great powers. On a global scale, this conflict is part of the clarification, by means of the classic military balance of power, of the global geopolitical balance and therefore of its new configuration in the 21st century dominated by three main poles, the triad formed by the United States, China and Russia, and in Europe the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and Russia.
After the refusal of the United States to engage in substantial negotiations on a new European security architecture demanded by Russia, i.e. a halt to the enlargement of NATO, Russia decided to intervene militarily on Ukrainian territory to force negotiations on the neutralisation of Ukraine, to support the territorial claims of the independent republics of the Donbass; to secure the reattachment of Crimea by investing militarily in the southern part of Ukraine to transform the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake
The new division of the zones of influence is thus taking place on the occasion of this conflict: Russia’s military intervention is an opportunity for the United States to seek to weaken Russia through massive arms deliveries to Ukraine, with which it is waging a proxy war against Russia and pushing for a otanization of the EU at the same time;
The operation to neutralise Ukraine will bring part of Ukraine into the Russian fold, but if the European Union stands shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine against Russia over the long term, the US will be able to concentrate on China in the future. Indeed, the US cannot fight on two fronts against China and Russia.
By escalating the conflict, the US is turning Russia into an enemy of the Euro-Atlantic area, which it can keep under its hegemony in NATO, which has regained a defensive role. By delegating the frontline to the EU member states, it avoids a rapprochement between the EU and Russia, in particular the German-Russian circle, and maintains its leadership in Europe. The European Union (EU), without an independent geopolitical strategy, is de facto caught between two crisis arcs (East and South). The European Union becomes a manoeuvring ground between Russia and the United States with Ukraine as a front-state, a mere Rimland integrated in the global strategy of the United States whose objective is the envelopment of Eurasia against Russia and China.
With the massive sanctions, arms deliveries by EU and NATO member states against Russia, there is talk of a NATO renaissance, a strategic awakening of the EU and the emergence of a New Cold War. However, these representations are misleading because they ignore the major geopolitical trends over the long history.
The facade of unity between EU member states over the war in Ukraine temporarily masks the major geopolitical fragmentation trends within the EU that were already in motion. The longer the conflict lasts and the more it escalates, the greater the risk of fracturing the EU into several blocs.
Two main trends are emerging on Ukraine. On the one hand, there are the most Atlanticist states, in particular Poland and the Baltic States, which are promoting a very aggressive line, aligned with the United States and seeking a Ukrainian military victory, a strategic defeat and a weakening of Russia. On the other hand, there are states closer to geopolitical realism, which believe that the end of the crisis will not be military but will involve concessions to Russia, in particular France, Italy and Germany.
Prospects for ending the crisis
From a geopolitical point of view, this means a new geopolitical setback for the United States and NATO, which are losing a front state that they have armed and trained, without formally joining NATO, as an outpost in the Russian geohistorical world to nibble away at Russia’s sphere of influence.
The stated objectives of this Russian operation to sign an agreement announcing the end of the crisis with the Kiev regime have been known since the beginning of the operation[i]. The demands are the recognition of Crimea’s membership of Russia and the independence of the Donbass republics (their entire territory), the neutralisation of Ukraine (through NATO enlargement). It was also stated that there would be no long-term occupation of Ukrainian territory. The denazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine are more vague objectives that are difficult to interpret. This military intervention is therefore limited to achieve targeted objectives and its operational course confirms this.
The most probable scenario is the minimal achievement of these objectives. From there, one can only speculate on the modalities of exit from the crisis and the geostrategic (linked to military security) and geopolitical (the new space order) objectives not explicitly stated by Russia. It is conceivable that the Russian military will withdraw only when it has obtained assurances to implement an exit plan. But as the operations progress, the demands could go beyond that, if the Kiev regime persists in its hard-line posture, pushed by the US to wage a war of attrition against Russia.
On the side of the NATO and EU member states, the delivery of arms, combined with economic sanctions, only aggravate the situation. The stated objective is to put pressure on Russia to stop its operation, and in the longer term to hope for a change of regime in Russia. These two objectives are for the moment illusory.
A New Cold War?
As far as future prospects are concerned, there is now increasing talk of a New Cold War which could characterise the European situation for the next few decades;
However, this representation does not yet reflect the new geopolitical configuration and constitutes an obstacle to thinking about strategic repositioning. Above all, it plays into the hands of the promoters of exclusive Euro-Atlanticism, who seek to make an enemy of Russia in order to keep Europeans under the protectorate of the United States.
A rearmament in geostrategic (doctrines) and military (equipment) terms of the Europeans could only be undertaken with a parallel renegotiation on a new European security architecture, without which, the Europeans risk being stuck for several decades in a new arms race against Russia?. This scenario would be to their detriment but to the benefit of the US and China, whose systemic rivalry could lead to a global condominium. Moreover, the real threat remains to the south. The European Union is mobilising to fund arms deliveries to Ukraine but has been unable to do the same against the jihadist threat in the Sahel and the Middle East, and its ramifications on European soil, aggravated by mass immigration.
There is talk of a renaissance of NATO, a strategic awakening of the EU and the emergence of a New Cold War, but these representations are misleading. . NATO and the EU, which is complementary to it, are in fact weakened because they are losing their offensive role, which was intended to enlarge the Euro-Atlantic area, which is now in geopolitical decline.
It must first be stressed that both NATO and the EU are largely co-responsible for the current situation.
By refusing to set limits to their continued expansion, both organisations have found themselves on the doorstep of Russia, which had announced that intrusion into its near abroad was a casus belli[ii] . The designer of the Cold War policy of containment of the USSR, George Kennan, warned in 1997 that « NATO enlargement would be the most fatal mistake in American policy in the post-Cold War era »[iii].
The European Union is weakened because it is in the process of Otanization, with member states closing ranks but under the protectorate of the US and as a subset of NATO. The EU’s external relations, in particular the Eastern Partnership, a non-explicit antechamber to future enlargements in synergy with NATO, has de facto fallen apart.
Let us recall that in order to preserve their supremacy over the European Union, de facto a zone of influence under protectorate, the United States designated Russia as the enemy in order to tie the EU definitively to NATO, all the more so as there is no independent geopolitical project for the EU, which refuses the concept of multipolarity[iv]. Since it rejects the model of a multipolar world, the EU has been close to the geopolitical priorities of the United States until now by considering Russia as a strategic challenge and China as a systemic challenge. The EU therefore has no autonomous geopolitical strategy vis-à-vis the US.
The EU’s de facto involvement, in synergy with NATO, in this conflict on the side of Ukraine, without a clear strategy and identification of common geopolitical interests independently among Europeans, means a geopolitical vassalization of the EU Member States according to the priorities of the United States, as opposed to strategic autonomy. By deciding to deliver arms to Ukraine, the EU is de facto waging a proxy war against Russia as it is choosing sides against Russia. The EU is turning into a second front line under NATO leadership with the US manoeuvring behind Ukraine against Russia.
From a geopolitical point of view, the EU is content to be a Rimland, a subset of the United States grand strategy to encircle Eurasia, against Russia and China. This situation distracts it from the real jihadist threat in the South, and on its own soil, with mass immigration fragmenting nations. According to this scenario, beyond the EU, it is a trusteeship of the European nations in an exclusive Euro-Atlantic ensemble, dependent on flows to the US, and cut off from links with Russia and possibly China if an escalation occurs between the US and China in Asia and the US pressures the EU to exercise sanctions against China.
As has been said, an autonomous defence policy is further away than ever and European strategic autonomy is obsolete. The EU, which has positioned itself as an empire of norms, is not viable in this configuration, because if it continues to drift as an appendage of NATO, i.e. a front zone of the Western empire under the leadership of the United States against Russia, it will inexorably reinforce its vassalization.
So how can we find a way out and think about the post-conflict period in this context?
Avoiding the worst case scenarios
It would be irresponsible to engage in these two very negative scenarios
– The scenario of a rise to extremes with the risk of an increasingly intense conventional confrontation. The worst case scenario is that of a nuclear confrontation. While this is unlikely, the current period is probably the most dangerous since the Cuban missile crisis;
– The scenario of a New Cold War, where the conflict in Ukraine stabilises in a precarious and temporary way, but the exit from the crisis only leads to the emergence of a new frozen conflict but does not allow for the emergence of a new stable security system in the long term. the conflict could break out again.
According to these two scenarios, the draining of public and private finances exclusively into the military-industrial complex, neglects the major issues such as the need for geopolitical balance and development issues, the environment, social inequalities….
Only an alternative scenario, the negotiation of a new security architecture, would make it possible to promote international cooperation and to face global challenges, such as the challenge of artificial intelligence, the problem of global migration, the new nuclear and conventional arms race in Europe, which in the previous scenarios would once again become the battleground of global confrontation for a long time to come.
The new European security architecture
Yesterday and tomorrow, despite previous failures, there is no alternative to promoting a new European security architecture, because the alternative is further instability, even a rise to extremes and war.
We are in a new geopolitical configuration. The previous phase of globalisation where the sovereignty of nation-states was supposed to be gradually transferred to supranational entities with the primacy of the international legal system is obsolete.
Before this legal paradigm, limited wars in Europe were fought in the name of restoring the balance of power between states. Each conflict ended with an agreement and a redrawing of borders, and a new equilibrium. The Crimean War (1853-1856) led to the Paris Conference in 1856. Today, in order to re-establish a normative system more adapted to the multipolar world, the new spatial order should first be the subject of a consensus between the great powers.
The control of territories is central, in the new configuration of struggle for the distribution of geopolitical spaces and to stabilise the situation, a new spatial order is necessary, to open the way to a new legal order, which will be its emanation.
This conflict is therefore an opportunity to re-establish a spatial and legal order to limit conflicts. Otherwise, the instability will continue, and the conflict will be latent, or even frozen, with no prospect of resolution. Beyond these considerations, it is clear that the acceptance of the new spatial order by the United States and its Western allies is a prerequisite for the acceptance of the multipolar world (the West defined as all the states covered by the global protectorate of the United States, i.e. a notion stemming from the Cold War). The stability of Europe will depend on the capacity to take into account the security interests of all countries, including Russia, and to establish a new European order based on the principle of the indivisibility of European security and not exclusively that of the members of NATO to the detriment of Russia, which resulted from the disappearance of the USSR[v].
The configuration is no longer the same as during the Cold War. The world is multipolar. Uncertainty towards the United States will increase with regard to its guarantee of European security and Russia does not wish to fall entirely into the Chinese fold either. The Eurasian space is vast and allows for counterbalancing alliances, and if we reason over a longer period of time, a rapprochement between Western Europe and Russia would be a scenario more favourable to the interests of Europeans who wish to stabilise the situation in the long term. Moreover, Russia is not giving up on the creation of an « open Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok », according to Medvedev’s expression, including the Ukraine, once the conflict has been resolved[vi].
The consequences of a new Cold War would be disastrous for the EU Member States, with a lasting European fracture with Russia: the nuclear threat, although it seems unlikely, and the risk of geopolitical rivalry with Russia around the EU’s geographical perimeter, because the configuration is not that of the Cold War and the fluidity and precariousness of the situations do not favour the crystallisation of fronts but the multiplication of local conflicts. The proliferation of weapons that will circulate in Europe and fall into the hands of Islamist groups (as in ex-Yugoslavia), the rise in energy prices with American shale gas, the increase in energy dependence on the countries of the Gulf, an unstable zone, the risk of an increase in migratory pressure with the looming food crisis.
In the immediate future, the neutralisation of Ukraine (neither NATO nor the EU), the only solution for a way out of the crisis, should be accepted as soon as possible by the hard-line regime in Kiev, pushed forward by the Atlanticist hawks, not only to reduce the number of victims, but also to avoid reaching a point of no return that would seriously mortgage the future of Europe. Indeed, in order to achieve a sustainable exit from the crisis, it will be necessary to negotiate a new European geopolitical architecture including Russia and Ukraine, to stop any evolution towards an American-Chinese condominium, and not to push Russia too far towards China.
Contrary to the current deadly escalation pursued by the European Union, which is subservient to the interests of NATO and the United States, it would be preferable to move away from this global war waged in the name of the « cancel culture » against Russia, but also against Europe, which is already showing its limits. For this « cancel culture » America, the dream is to form an American-Chinese condominium over the world to preserve its geopolitical supremacy while diminishing the weight of Russia. By first promoting the emergence of a new bipolar configuration, dividing the world into two zones of influence, it will then one day be able to « cancel » China as well, according to the same principle that is applied to Russia by means of the New Cold War concept. It is very likely that this « cancel culture » America will not achieve its goal because China does not seem to want to be trapped by America. Indeed, China would be the next victim on the list of states to be heavily sanctioned. Some EU member states are also already resisting this process of a total break with Russia, which will only aggravate the crisis, especially on energy issues.
If NATO and the EU do not take care of it, this crisis in Ukraine could well be the catalyst of Western de-globalisation and tip the world definitively towards Eurasia. A Europe already too dependent on the US security guarantee would also become dependent on US energy exports and become a periphery of the Euro-Atlantic area.
A way out of the crisis could be facilitated by the prospect of negotiations on a new security architecture. There is no Russian threat to the EU’s borders, this is a conflict confined to Ukraine and Russia’s priority is its near abroad.
The growing rift between Germany and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but also between Germany and France, is therefore likely to become inexorably worse with the crisis in Ukraine. After a phase of unity, the EU will fragment again according to national geopolitical priorities in a Europe that has moved from an integrationist to a geopolitical phase.
The transatlantic front is more fragile than it appears and could crack, as different national interests will inevitably resurface. No state wants to go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine or any of its near abroad, as there would be no US guarantee in this eventuality anyway. The United States is pushing Poland and Turkey as pivotal states against Russia, while France and Germany are each defining a specific posture.
France and Germany, though largely aligned with US priorities at the beginning of the crisis, will inevitably deviate and at some point favour a ceasefire over escalation. Joe Biden’s frankness about regime ch[vii]ange in Russia was not appreciated in Paris and Berlin, as it will only aggravate the situation.
Germany, in its strategic vision as a central power, is positioning itself as a pillar of NATO to contain Russia, but as an economic power, it refuses to do without Russian gas entirely, as it has no alternative. There is a growing rift within NATO between those who seek to return to dialogue such as France, Germany, Italy and Hungary and the UK, Poland and the Baltic states who favour escalation, pushed by the US. However, we can expect many provocations, in order to further sully Russia’s image, to align Europeans tempted by a more independent position and to close ranks[viii].
During the Cold War, when the USSR was designated as the enemy, General de Gaulle proposed the project of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, so today there is no reason not to take up this geopolitical vision and adapt it to the new configuration
Paradoxically, it might be easier to negotiate if the prospect of NATO and EU enlargement is definitively lifted
The « European Europe » from the Atlantic to the Urals anticipated by General de Gaulle can only come into being in a multipolar world based on the balance of power. It is only within this framework that the rooted nations will be able to flourish on a territory delimited according to their historical and cultural heritage, and no longer open to all the winds of globalisation under the sign of the American « cancel culture » and its avatars, unipolarity, exclusive Euro-Atlanticism and ultra-liberalism.
A rapprochement with Russia in the post-conflict period would have the advantage for France and its European partners wishing to finally build a space of continental stability (and not of integration) to promote a better balance between the United States and China. It would also prevent the EU from remaining a periphery of the Euro-Atlantic space while Russia would be increasingly drawn into China’s orbit.
For France, it means avoiding asphyxiation in an American Europe, subordinated to NATO and therefore to the United States, which will be the main supplier of military equipment to Germany, and thus torpedoing the strategic independence of Europeans. This should encourage France to diversify its defence partnerships, notably with Italy. In order to contain the conflict in Ukraine and in the face of states that advocate escalation, a synergy with Italy and Germany to prepare post-conflict Europe will inevitably involve negotiations with Russia.
Overcoming a « New Cold War » should remain the European compass.
[ii] « Russia considers that the policy of enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance supported by the United States and its allies is aimed at encircling it. Whether one interprets this perception as exaggerated or relevant does not change the fact that it must be taken into account. Russia has demonstrated in the conflict with Georgia that an intrusion into its sphere of interests is now a casus belli. » » LE CONFLIT ENTRE LA RUSSIE ET LA GÉORGIE OU LA PREMIÈRE GUERRE DU MONDE MULTIPOLAIRE, Les conséquences géopolitiques pour l’Union Européenne. Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann. Date de publication: 3/9/2008.
[iv] « whereas Russia’s polycentric vision of the concert of powers contradicts the EU’s belief in multilateralism and a rules-based international order; whereas Russia’s adherence to and support for the multilateral rules-based order would create the conditions for closer relations with the EU » https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2019-0157_EN.html