In a new global power shift, defeat in Ukraine may lead to Russia and China defining a new global order in which American values are increasingly irrelevant.
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A Russian victory in Ukraine is likely to change the current world order, three leading Ukrainian political scientists told WhoWhatWhy. These experts see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of a larger, ongoing change in the current world order, with China and Russia vying for more global influence.
“Support for Ukraine is not charity, and it is not about profits,” said Alexei Jakubin, associate professor at Kyiv’s Polytechnic Institute. “It is about global security. It is in America’s interest to continue its support, because what is the alternative? A world in [which] China becomes the global leader and shapes the world in its image?”
Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads Kyiv’s Penta Center for Applied Political Research, pointed out that surrendering to Vladimir Putin now risks a much larger war down the road. “Let me remind you that Putin issued an ultimatum to both the United States and NATO in December 2021,” he said. The essence of the ultimatum was a demand that NATO withdraw its area of operation to the frontier that existed before 1997. That would mean abandoning its commitment to defend Poland, former Soviet countries, and the Balkans, not to mention Finland and Sweden, which recently asked to join NATO.
“If Putin is not stopped in Ukraine,” Fesenko warned, “the risk of global war becomes much more real.” Fesenko thinks that a Ukrainian defeat not only risks increasing Putin’s confidence when it comes to intimidating other countries, but it could also encourage China to risk taking Taiwan by military force.
Nickolay Kapitonenko, an associate professor at the Institute of International Relations at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, believes that the US is too invested in Ukraine to back down now. The US might have decided on a different course of action before the Russian invasion, but it has too much of its global reputation on the line now to risk backing down.
“If Russia wins here,” Kapitonenko said, “there will be negative consequences for American leadership, and its alliances as well as its long-term interests. It will be significant.”
The Road to Chaos
All three political scientists agree that Ukraine’s fate will play a major role in defining the changing world order.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has experienced a largely unipolar order with the US assuming de facto responsibility for providing international stability. US military and economic dominance has declined over the years, not because the US was becoming weaker, but because developing countries and emerging markets were coming online and
offering alternatives to what the US has to offer. Rising powers such as China, India, and Brazil began appearing on the global stage.
According to the International Monetary Fund, IMF, the US’s share of global GDP based on PPP (purchasing power parity) has declined from 21.5 percent in 1990 to 15.4 percent today. In the same period, China rose from 4 percent to 18.8 percent while also expanding its military capabilities.
The decline is also visible among US allies. Data from the IMF shows that for the G7 countries (the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Italy, and France), their share of GDP per PPP has fallen from 50.4 percent of the world GDP in 1990 to 29.9 percent today.
“We are in transition from the Western leadership that followed World War II and the Cold War to a modified international order in which the countries of the Global South, especially China, are trying to pursue their own agenda,” said Kapitonenko.
US hegemony is under pressure and is likely already gone, according to Kapitonenko. The new world order has yet to be determined. Friction results from emerging countries trying to advance their own agendas in a world that is rapidly changing and in which a new order has not yet been defined.
According to the theories of “transition of power,” conflicts arise when new challengers start to edge aside established powers that were previously in control. “The moment when a challenger is closing the gap on the existing hegemony is the most dangerous in terms of probable regional conflicts,” said Kapitonenko. “I think that what we are witnessing in the Russian-Ukrainian war fits the logic that is found in the transition of power.”
Jakubin asks if the world is not already bipolar, with the US and China effectively acting as two superpowers. He pointed out that China is already a bigger threat economically than the Soviet Union ever was. Jakubin thinks that the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war in Israel, and the fact that several African states have recently overthrown their governments may all be signs of a larger global power transition.
“I don’t think that it is a coordinated attack,” said Jakubin, “but I think that we are seeing countries that want a different world order, trying to test the West on multiple fronts. Trying to take advantage of the instability to see how strong the West and especially the US really is.”
Isolationism Is Not an Option
Jakubin suggests that the Russian invasion of Ukraine provided the spark that led to a standoff between the West and its competitors on the world stage.
Ukraine has historically been important for strategic reasons. Countless wars have taken place in this borderland between Western and Eastern Europe. Russia has always considered Ukraine important because of its fertile agricultural land, industrial capacity, and geographical position.
Jakubin argues that Putin knew that he couldn’t build a new Russian empire without possessing Ukraine. He saw an opportunity when he perceived the West to be weakened and on the decline. He made a miscalculation, however, when he thought that he could conquer Ukraine in only a few days. He also underestimated Western resolve.
“Putin didn’t understand that Ukraine had changed, especially after the Maidan Revolution in 2014,” said Jakubin. “The Ukrainian people and their politicians changed.” Ukraine’s willingness to fight and the West’s readiness to provide support both came as a surprise.
Nevertheless, what was initially presented as a limited military operation turned into a test of the world order that until then had been led by the US. So far, the US has provided $44.2 billion in military assistance, including tanks, missile systems, and ammunition to Ukraine. Even more important, Jakubin said that the US has put its reputation on the line. If Ukraine is defeated, America will also look weak as it did after its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
With President Joe Biden facing growing Republican opposition in Congress to extending more aid to Ukraine and former President Donald Trump boasting that he could arrange a deal between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Putin in just 24 hours, the future of US aid to Ukraine looks less than certain.
The notion that the US should avoid foreign entanglements isn’t new. George Washington also advised against foreign entanglements in his farewell address in 1796.
But the three Ukrainian political experts we interviewed maintain that isolationism isn’t possible anymore, especially when the US is being challenged on multiple fronts. Fesenko pointed out that the US tried isolationism during World Wars I and II but was forced to become involved in spite of its reluctance.
“ [Washington’s] words were in another historical era and have lost their relevance,” said Fesenko. “This is the era of globalization, and America is the world leader.” Fesenko added that global stability is based on a foundation that depends on American leadership. If the US withdraws from the world stage, chaos will follow.
“It is not America that is interfering in the affairs of Ukraine,” he said, “but Russia. And Russia has decided to interfere by waging war. The United States and the European Union are helping us to withstand the Russian invasion. … They are not only helping us but they are also defending democratic values in Europe. There must be forces in the world that defend international law, democratic rights, and freedoms, and oppose authoritarian empires that promote the rule of might.”
Kapitonenko said that the US is fighting right now so that it will have a place in the world order that will emerge when the dust finally settles in the current transition period. If it doesn’t defend its position in Ukraine, it will look weak, and that will empower other countries, such as China, to challenge the West.
“I think that in the long run, isolationism will damage American interests more than the risk from any possible engagement,” Kapitonenko said. “It is a choice between different types of risks.”
The Type of Engagement in Ukraine
Jakubin said that it is a mistake to oversimplify the situation and to think that the West is fighting a united alliance between countries such as Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and other countries in the Global South. These countries have very different interests, but for now share the temporary goal of confronting the Western-led world order.
If the US doesn’t remain engaged, the consequences are likely to be a dangerous period of transition characterized by numerous wars until the dust finally settles, and we find ourselves in a world dominated by the Chinese.
“If the US wants a stable world and a say in what happens, if it wants stability at home, then it needs to invest the resources to help Ukraine, to help Israel, Taiwan, and other allies worldwide,” said Jakubin. “It is all connected. I ask again, what is the alternative for the US? Some chaos around the world. More instability with regional powers trying to reshape everything and a Chinese-led world order in the end.”
Jakubin believes that without American help, countries such as Ukraine will fail, unable to keep up the fight. An American withdrawal from Ukraine might force Zelenskyy to negotiate with Russia on Russia’s terms.
Fesenko pointed out, “The aggressor country — Russia — exceeds [Ukraine] several times in population, army size, and economic potential. Without external support, it will be extremely difficult for us to survive. And if Putin wins Ukraine, then he will go further, with a high probability — to the Baltic countries, to the countries of Eastern Europe.”
“If China sees the weakness of the West,’ he added, “it will begin to solve its Taiwan problem militarily and then it will dictate its will in the Pacific region, and in other regions of the world.”