The brazenness with which Russia attacked Ukraine signals that the multipolar world order Moscow and Beijing are seeking may be near — or already here.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seemingly upended the three-decade-long, post-Cold War, international order which the United States (US) dominated. Russia and China have been calling for a new world order, not dominated by a single power, and they want to be at the top of that order. The brazenness with which Russia attacked Ukraine signals that the multipolar world order Moscow and Beijing are seeking may be near — or already here.
The timing is not coincidental. The projection of American power abroad is perhaps at its weakest since the end of the Cold War. There are many reasons for this. To begin with, the US’s miscalculations in Iraq and Afghanistan at the beginning of this century have left the American public wary of foreign interventions.
Second, the country turned inward during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. He questioned alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and abdicated the country’s global responsibilities, including its support for multilateral organisations. Third, again due to Trump, domestically, the US now is more divided than at any point since the end of the Civil War. Vladimir Putin saw America’s inward turmoil as an opportunity to signal to the rest of the world that Russia is ready to counterbalance US leadership on the global stage.
He, however, would not have embarked on the Ukraine project without the tacit approval of China, which is why he waited till the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The Sino-Russia alliance that is likely to emerge post-Ukraine is unlikely to be anything like the old Soviet bloc. It will most likely be a loose coalition between the two neighbours who have had an uneasy relationship. Despite Russia’s superiority in military might, the more influential power will be China, which will most likely be the biggest beneficiary of Putin’s adventure.
For decades, the narrative has been that China’s rise as a global power is a peaceful one. Unlike previous superpowers, Beijing has not overtly fired a single shot against any other nation since it began emerging as a big power approximately a quarter of a century ago. However, belligerent actions against India and Taiwan have unveiled its expansionist ambitions. Because of this, sections of the US foreign policy establishment have been vocal about the need to contain China.
Due to these calls, the US has been beefing up security in the Indo-Pacific, with the creation of Quad and AUKUS. Putin’s war has now turned attention away from China to Russia, and the US attention will now be pulled back to the European theatre. This confrontation will increase Beijing’s influence. And in the face of intensifying US sanctions against it, Russia will be depending on China to bail out and shore up a collapsing economy.
From India’s standpoint, the Russian invasion poses several challenges. On the security front, the economic dependence of Russia — India’s largest defence partner — on China will not be good news for India. The second challenge for India will be in managing its relations with the US, which has become one of its most important strategic partners. When India decided to buy the Russian S-400 air defence system, to be installed on its border with China, the US objected to the deal.
New Delhi has deftly navigated its bilateral relations with the US and Russia, without angering either. If the situation in Ukraine worsens and Washington takes a hard line against Moscow, walking this tightrope will become much more difficult.
India could face another challenge if China decides to up the ante to resolve its border disputes. With the border incursions the People’s Liberation Army troops made in recent years, India would do well to plan for such a scenario. If it did, it is unlikely that Russia will rush to help the country, given its increasing dependence on China.
The Ukraine invasion has thrown the current world order into disorder. How the new order develops and what it will look like will be shaped in the remainder of this decade. This order will be very different from what it was at the beginning of the 21st century.