When people speak of ‘escalating the war in Ukraine’, they commonly refer to the possibility of a nuclear conflict between the West and Russia. But there is another sense in which the present conflict can grow: it can enlarge in scope through the participation of new great power alliances formed to exploit the changed conditions. The collapse of Russia as a great power has kicked off a frenzy of adjustment among other global players.
Consider Europe. Some politicians in France and Germany have long seen Russia as a buffer against the westward march of China on Eurasia’s riches, as epitomized by its Belt and Road projects. They fear that a prostrate Kremlin, or one indentured to Beijing, cannot keep order in the ‘Stans and allow China to extend its influence right up to the border of Europe. Efforts to ‘save Putin from humiliation‘ are all about holding the dragon at arm’s length by propping up Moscow. But other parts of Europe are being driven in the opposite direction, with long time neutrals Sweden and Finland opting to join NATO and nuclear-armed Britain providing interim security guarantees.
China is mentally adjusting to the prospect of being stuck with a dependent rather than a great power ally. Former PRC Ambassador to Ukraine Gao Yusheng, in a private talk, said the game may be up; that despite Beijing’s hopes recent events show that “Russia has been declining ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union … The Russian military’s economic and financial strength, which are not commensurate with its status as a so-called military superpower, could not support a high-tech war costing hundreds of millions of dollars a day. The Russian army’s poverty-driven defeat was evident everywhere on the battlefield.”
Beijing’s immediate challenge is to keep a wayward Moscow from getting into any more trouble. “I think China views instability [as] bad for business,” British Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace said. Putin’s don’t-join-NATO-or-else warnings to long time neutrals Finland and Sweden is definitely bad for business. In the longer term the Russian decline raises doubts about the utility of Beijing’s strategic partnership with Moscow. “The most important shared objective underpinning the China-Russia partnership is the desire to roll back U.S. influence in the world and revise what both see as a Western-dominated international order.” Is the Kremlin an asset or a liability in this regard?
Plus, China’s economic growth is starting to slow down as its debt continues to balloon. If this trend continues Beijing can no longer count on automatically overtaking the US, nor indefinitely serve as the piggybank for Putin. If American economic productivity picks up the Chinese Communist Party will face a serious challenge. But an American economic rebound is by no means a given. Much depends on whether the US political system can reduce self-destructive rent seeking and ideological special interest set asides that slow it down. At the moment, incompetence in Washington is China’s biggest friend.
For Joe Biden, the price of the war has been collateral economic damage, as both the war and sanctions take their toll. “Prospects for the global economy have dimmed sharply on account of the war in Ukraine, the IMF warned … as it cut forecasts for worldwide growth from 4.4% annually as recently as January to 3.6%.” This has contributed to levels of American inflation unseen since the 20th century that will negatively affect not only the Democratic party’s prospects in the midterm elections, but Western security interests all over the world. “A report by a risk consultancy has said that rising fuel and food prices are set to stoke a rise in civil unrest in developing middle income countries, with Egypt and Tunisia among the states which will take the hardest hit.” Southeast Asia will also face social unrest.
The situation was aggravated by Biden’s prewar energy policies and stimulus spending which created weak points that the loss of Russian gas and Ukrainian wheat struck exactly, touching off skyrocketing fuel prices and inflation and foreign crises that could bury the Biden coalition in 2022 and 2024. A cascade of bad news is coming and Biden is already preparing for the possible loss of one or both legislative houses in its aftermath.
President Biden’s legal team is laying the groundwork to defend against an expected onslaught of oversight investigations by congressional Republicans, should they take one or both chambers in the midterm elections — including preparing for the possibility of impeachment as payback for the two impeachments of President Donald J. Trump. … Republicans have also signaled an intent to scrutinize various matters related to the pandemic … And they have listed a series of other topics they intend to dig into, including the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the surge in migration across the southwestern border.
Overall it’s a whole new world for all the players on the planet. The old Security Council members aren’t what they used to be. The only question is: who can adapt most effectively to the changed situation when they all have legacy baggage? In a manner of speaking the present is dominated by zombie empires run by ossified elites committed to 20th century agendas. Moreover US, Europe, Russia and China are all are in demographic freefall by comparison to the global south. With things falling apart, how quickly can they reinvent themselves?
In the broadest sense the war threatens to escalate into a redefinition of the current world order. The risks it is spawning go far beyond the Donbas and the Black Sea. The most critical next event will probably be an internal political development in one of the zombie empires. Will it be upheaval in Russia? Generational change in the USA? Some tectonic shift in China? The revival of old Europe? Or will it be some catastrophe that leaves Nigeria or Indonesia in charge of what’s left? The pundits are torn between both hope and dread for whatever comes next. The only thing one can safely predict about the next few years is that it will be more unpredictable.
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