Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine

The War in Ukraine in a Transitional World Order

February 23, 2024
Robert Legvold

The fundamental questions raised by the war in Ukraine are like the two sides of a coin: on one side, there is the overarching but largely ignored question of how the war is reshaping an international system released from its moorings and lurching in uncertain directions; on the other side, the elusive but no less consequential question of how this untethered international system is affecting the course and prospective outcome of the war. The answers to both questions put the war’s historical significance into perspective; they also provide a basis for the U.S., Russia and China—the three key actors in this nexus—to formulate more far-sighted foreign policies going forward. What these actors, along with the EU member states, do or fail to do next in the Ukraine war will be crucial in determining its outcome. But whether and how the three address the destructive interaction between the war unfolding in Ukraine and an international political system in transition will be crucial in determining the character of the world to follow.

The War’s Effects

The Russia-Ukraine war’s destabilizing impact on a shifting world order resonates broadly, but particularly in five respects. 

First, it has accelerated and deepened the growing polarization in international politics. The China-Russia pairing has tightened. While not the “no limits” partnership that “surpasses an alliance” proclaimed on February 4, 2022 and, notwithstanding China’s apparent displeasure over President Vladimir Putin’s gamble, the war has underscored and deepened their anti-West posture, and intensified their economic and military cooperation. The refrain they sound in tandem of an arrogant, interventionist, but fatally declining U.S.-led West has grown shriller. Total bilateral trade reached a record high of $190 billion in 2022, up 30 percent year-on-year, and increased a further 26 percent to $240 billion in 2023. This includes a 50 percent increase in commodities, including metals, trade in 2023 over the pre-war level, and oil exports to China that in 2023 topped that of Saudi Arabia. China, in turn, became the number one supplier of automobiles to Russia, with a 50 percent share in all cars sold in Russia in the second half of 2023.  

Military cooperation between Russia and China that before the war was expanding in scope and scale has been strengthened. Joint military exercises, including in March 2023 in the Gulf of Oman and in June 2023 in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, have become larger and more complex. They now practice the integrated use of their military equipment and logistics, the creation of temporary joint command centers and the development of systems to share command codes. The same increasing sophistication is true of the combined air and sea patrols they conduct in East Asia and the Arctic, as well as the technically advanced character of the military equipment they share and, in some cases, jointly produce.

At the same time, the war has drawn the United States and its major allies closer together than at any time since the height of the Cold War. The unity forged around the “economic blockade” they have created to hobble Russia’s war effort—more than 10,000 sanctions designations against individuals and more than 4,000 against entities, more than $320 billion in Russian sovereign and private assets frozen—vastly exceeds any punitive regime imposed upon the Soviet Union. NATO, faded and in disorder before the war, has been reinvigorated and expanded. Since the invasion, the alliance has: added and enlarged multinational battlegroups forward-deployed in Eastern Europe, transforming its rapid Response Force from 40,000 to a planned 300,000; approved new tailored regional defense plans; designed a Defense Production Action Plan focused on joint procurement, enhanced interoperability and increased production capacity; and strengthened its numbers with the addition of Finland andsubject to approval from HungarySweden’s membership in the alliance.

By underscoring the distance separating a large portion of the Global South from the United States and its European allies, the war has given further impulse to the polarizing trends marking current international politics. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, roughly two-thirds of the world’s population reside in countries that have not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or supported sanctions against it. Among these countries, “the concerted Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” former top British diplomat David Miliband has written, “has thrown into sharp relief the occasions when the West violated its own rules or when it was conspicuously missing in action in tackling global problems.” The U.S. and European response to the Israel-Hamas war has made sharper yet the sense of hypocrisy and double standards evoked among a majority of the 134 members of the G-77 by the West’s priorities in the Ukraine war. 

The war has also drawn Russia closer to the so-called rogue regimes of Iran and North Korea, producing what some are calling a “Russia-China-Iran axis,” as well as driving Russia and North Korea into a working partnership. Iran has been transformed from an object of concern and the basis for cooperation with the West in the effort to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) into a key partner supplying drones and munitions for Russia’s war effort. North Korea, kept at arm’s length before the war, as the six-party talks struggled to constrain its nuclear program, has been embraced as a source of over a million artillery shells and other munitions; Russia, in turn, is reportedly aiding North Korea to put its first military reconnaissance satellite into orbit. Pyongyang now speaks of a “three-versus-three new Cold War structure”—the United States, Japan and South Korea versus Russia, China and North Korea. 

Second, the war in Ukraine has driven far deeper the U.S.-Russia cold war underway since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the events that followed, with grave consequences for an unsettled world order. Any prospect of managing an increasingly complex and dangerous multipolar nuclear world lies in ruins. The United States and Russia still possess more than  11,100 of the more than 12,500 nuclear weapons in the world. Without their leadership, there is little chance of tackling a changing nuclear reality marked by: a growing set of destabilizing technologies; cyber and space as new war fronts; renewed competition between offensive and defensive weapons; and burgeoning U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China nuclear arms races. The Ukraine war has, for the moment, ended half a century of U.S. and Russian efforts to regulate their bilateral nuclear relationship, as well as casting a shadow over when or whether they will resume.

As significant, the war has challenged the fundamental concepts framing today’s nuclear world, raising questions about assumptions surrounding nuclear deterrence, doctrine and strategy. Conventional wisdom had it that nuclear weapons would prevent conventional war between Russia and the West, and, while it has prevented a direct conflagration, it has not prevented a high-intensity indirect conflict. Some Russian voices insist that nuclear deterrence has failed, because it has not prevented large-scale U.S. and European support for Ukraine in the war and should, therefore, be restored by the actual use of nuclear weapons. The Russian leadership’s frequent and reckless nuclear threats have stirred concerns about the possibility of nuclear war and made palpable the risks attached to the Russian, U.S. and Chinese shift toward nuclear strategies and weapons designed for limited use in a conventional conflict.

So too has the struggle against climate change been disrupted by a deeper U.S.-Russia cold war, the war’s product. The leadership of the U.S. and China, as the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitting countries, is crucial if the potentially existential threat of climate change is to be mitigated. But Russia as the fourth largest also matters greatly, particularly in managing the effects of climate change in the Arctic. The Biden administration originally made partnering with Russia to address this issue one of the major areas where the two countries would cooperate. The war has crushed this idea. 

Third, the war will leave in its wake a new military front in Europe, stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea with an added 830-mile Finnish border. One way or another, Ukraine will be part of NATO’s security perimeter and Belarus, a more integral part of Russia’s. Efforts to strengthen NATO forces and refurbish hollowed-out Russian forces will be the preoccupation of the respective sides. The idea of a Euro-Atlantic security community reaching from “Vancouver to Vladivostok”—a promise regularly repeated by Russian and Western leaders in the first two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but which died in 2014—will give way to its opposite. European security, the West will insist, must be built, as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock puts it, “against Putin’s Russia, not with it.” It will be pan-European security without the security architecture once hoped for or with enhanced security architecture only on the Western side.

At best, the two sides will have the choice of whether they want the military confrontation to be with or without guardrails: that is, whether they can muster the will to introduce, at a minimum, a set of risk reduction measures (such as deconfliction hotlines, military-to-military contact and dangerous incidents avoidance agreements) and, at some point, more ambitious transparency, monitoring and other confidence-building measures; or whether they intend to let the confrontation run free with all the risks characterizing the most dangerous moments during the original Cold War.

Fourth, the economic warfare unleashed—that is, the West’s vast application of sanctions with the added tumult of supply chain disruptions—has seriously eroded an already compromised international liberal economic order. The impact this is having on trade, capital and energy flows, along with the institutions that facilitate them, promises to be more lasting than the immediate economic misery caused by the war—even though food insecurity, in particular, has not been minor in many parts of the world. The estimated number of people suffering from acute food insecurity in countries monitored by the UN World Food Program jumped from 193 million in 2021 to 258 million in 2022, a figure that increased to more than 333 million in 2023.

The wide-ranging economic rupture provoked by Russia’s invasion, however, will leave a far larger imprint on the structure of, and dynamics within, the global political economy. The abrupt reorientation of Russian trade with the United States and EU countries is the lesser outcome. In 2023, U.S.-Russia trade in goods was down by more than 80 percent compared to 2021; the more important EU-Russia trade, by 75 percent, including an 80 percent drop in EU energy imports. The radiating effects from the unprecedented extent of sanctions imposed upon Russia matters more. They start with the impulse given to the de-dollarization of international trade, particularly trade in commodities. Prior to the war, up to 80 percent of Russian imports were denominated in U.S. dollars or euros. By the end of the first year of the war, Russian imports invoiced in yuan increased from 3 percent to 20 percent and those in dollars and euros fell to 67 percent—imports from China in yuan grew from 23 percent to 63 percent. While the flight from the dollar and euro in Russian trade has been exceptional, something similar on a smaller scale is occurring elsewhere, particularly among the BRICS member states, including China-UAE, China-Africa and Russia-Iran trade. Moreover, the West’s collective freezing of Russian Central Bank reserves has led to unease in the wider international economic community. Were the G-7 and EU via Euroclear (the securities depository that holds around two-thirds of these Russian assets) and other depositories actually to seize these assets and to use them to support the war in Ukraine, the shift among states outside the G-7, EU and its allies to an alternative—such as China’s Central Depository and Clearing Company—will intensify. Cutting off 10 of Russia’s largest banks from the SWIFT payment messaging system has also likely increased the incentive of countries that see themselves at similar risk, as Agathe Demarais notes, “to design alternative financial mechanisms that would be sanctions proof.”

Thus, the cumulative effect of the economic warfare unleashed by the war in Ukraine is contributing to de-globalization and the fragmentation of the global political economy, reinforcing the disruptive impact when supply chain efficiencies are subordinated to security preoccupations and creating financial system instability. More generally, it is also shifting the focus from social funding to defense spending, impeding progress on the environmental front by revitalizing coal production and, as noted above, destroying any prospect of cooperation between Russia and the West in the Arctic, as well as adding to the economic burden of the world’s most impoverished societies.

Fifth, and crucially, the war has altered an unsteady world order by undermining its core rule, namely that territory must not be seized or borders changed by military force. Violation of another country’s sovereignty is often said to be the fundamental rule that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has trashed, but this has been so often trespassed by others, including the United States, that it can scarcely be considered the core principle sustaining global order. However, if Russia’s military invasion and annexation of Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern provinces embolden others, including China, to satisfy their territorial ambitions in a similar fashion, then a tenet critical to the stability of whatever international order lies ahead will be lost.

The Global Context

On the reverse side of the coin—i.e. the effects of a mutating international political system on the war in Ukraine—the picture is far more complex and indeterminate. It is the first war, albeit indirect, between the major powers since the two world wars of the last century. Like them, it is both a source and a product of the transformation underway in the international system. The war as a source of this transformation is reflected in the five effects of the war outlined above. Together, they have added to the turbulence of an unsettled international order, intensified great power rivalry, eroded global governance and further weakened the readiness of major players to address the 21st century’s global existential threats. 

The war is a product of an evolving international system, first, because structural features of the prior bipolar order no longer prevent a major actor like Russia from doing what it has done. In the original Cold War, the balance of power and the implications of a direct military conflict between the two sides prevented either major power from militarily invading a country of strategic importance to the other. The collapse of the Soviet Union left in its wake newly independent countries outside alliances and in limbo, but strategically important to both Russia and NATO. Overt military aggression, as the Ukraine war illustrates, became thinkable as a means of pursuing a major country’s strategic objectives. This new reality is what makes the Taiwan issue so perilous—a country whose de facto status is contested and that is, as MIT’s Caitlin Talmadge and Brendan Rittenhouse Green of University of Cincinnati have well argued, militarily of great strategic significance not only to China, but also to the United States.

Second, in the evolving order that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia initially set about redefining its relationship with the West by struggling to integrate with the West when it was not feasible to integrate into Western institutions. Under Boris Yeltsin and during the first years under Putin, Russia’s leadership sought partnership with the West across a range of issues and forms of economic and military cooperation. But following NATO’s decision to enlarge in 1997, Russia’s willingness to pursue closer relations with the West acquired a new security requirement—namely, no further NATO expansion to Russian borders—and that was unacceptable to the West. Putin’s savage and tragic decision to force the issue buried any lingering thought of a “Western orientation” for his Russia. However, it has also produced a Russia fundamentally different from that in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union—perhaps even from the Russia that existed up to the eve of the Ukraine war—because the war has crystallized grievances and an inchoate notion of the threat posed by the United States and its NATO allies into something far larger and more primal. Whichever may be the better explanation for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022—whether as the brute action of a revanchist power determined to crush Ukrainian statehood and restore as much of the old empire as possible or as the reckless act of a state with an overwrought security agenda, determined to ensure that Ukraine never enters NATO—Putin and his inner circle appear now to frame the war in transcendent terms. The war, they claim, has become secondary and merely a staging area for executing the West’s goal of eliminating Russia as a cohesive, functioning state and a sovereign international actor. 

This, as many Western analysts argue, may only be a ploy to rally public support for the war, but a sizable part of the foreign policy elite, including a number who deplored Putin’s decision to invade, now embrace the underlying argument, and, indeed, have given it a wider compass and greater coherence. Three co-authors—Sergei Karaganov, Dmitri Trenin and Alexander Kramarenko—writing under the auspices of the Russian Foreign Ministry, cast the war as a “critical actuator” affecting what they see as the fundamental dynamic shaping the coming international political order. This, they write, pits a West clinging to its global hegemony and arrogated right to set the rules, dictate values and exploit the wealth of others against a “World Majority” of states set on achieving “full-fledged sovereignty that is not constrained by Western dogmas, institutions, and rules.” Russia-at-war provides a model of “sovereignty, economic self-sufficiency, spiritual and cultural identity”—what Putin calls a “civilization state”—leading the way. Together with the other BRICS member states—a grouping, more populous and economically dynamic than the G-7, they underscore—it is the strategic bellwether of a new order. 

This is a conception of large historical trends, however flawed, that doubtless resonates with Putin and his circle. More important, it fits with the views of the Chinese leadership and that of leaders in a substantial portion of a so-called “World Majority.” As a result, it not only complicates the context within which the Ukraine war is unfolding, but that of the world to follow.

Third, in the original Cold War crises, Berlin in 1948, 1958 and 1961 and Cuba in 1962, only parties to the crises mattered. Now third parties do. The current and future actions of China, India, Turkey, and perhaps Brazil will affect the course and outcome of the Ukraine war. Their role in abetting or constraining Russia has been a factor shaping the war’s development from the beginning and they, singly or in some combination, could be crucial in determining the way it ends. And Kyiv, over four meetings, has sought to secure support for its 10-point peace plan from national security advisors representing as many as 83 countries.

Finally and most importantly, an incipient U.S.-China cold war already weighs heavily on the international setting, and how it plays out will decide the character of the global order to come. If what lies ahead is a slow but steady slide into a full-scale cold war, the result will be a world resembling that of the second half of the twentieth century, only in a more destructive and dangerous form. The markers and elements of one are already in place. They are evident in: the increased centrality of the military dimension, including its nuclear sphere, and the U.S. focus on China as now the “pacing [military] threat;” in the politicization of economic relations and the transformation of economic interdependence into a security priority; in the recasting of technological competition into one of deep strategic rivalry, energizing techno-nationalism in both countries; and in the competition for control of international institutions or, alternatively, in the creation of parallel competing institutions. A U.S.-China cold war, as during the original Cold War, would engulf and reshape the entire international system—its institutions, alliance structures, economic flows and zones of conflict.

The two countries are not there yet, and both sides insist that they cannot afford and dare not risk falling into one. But neither is doing much to reverse the momentum in any of the many areas fostering the deterioration, and the existential view that each side has of the struggle makes it hard for either to alter fundamentally the current trajectory. Even now, however, the war in Ukraine is adding impulse to the trend and, in turn, suffering from its effects. By drawing Russia and China closer together, feeding their dyspeptic narrative about the West and sustaining their growing economic and military cooperation, the war has reinforced the suspicions and tensions already battering the U.S.-China relationship. In turn, the state of U.S.-China relations diminishes China’s readiness to play a more active and constructive role in winding down the war.

Policy Implications and Options

If leaders in Russia, China, and the United States look hard at both sides of this coin, they should want to rethink the course they are on. The change needed, however, requires a broader perspective and longer-term vision than currently exists in any of the three capitals. Still, it cannot be in the interest of any of the three to risk the security ruptures and unaddressed global existential challenges of an increasingly polarized international political system. Nor can it be in their interest to leave unregulated an increasingly unstable nuclear world with multiplying actors in intensifying arms races, threatened by new destabilizing technologies; or to allow a further fragmenting of the international financial system; or to contemplate a Europe at or near permanent war; or to accept a return to an era where force determines borders and settles territorial claims. And it certainly cannot be in their interest to see the world solidify into a new bipolarity driven by a U.S.-China cold war merged with that between Russia and the West. 

That said, the idea that leadership in the three countries would look beyond the urgent issues that currently preoccupy policy and focus on the larger grim picture is simply quixotic, unless each does what is rarely done, i.e. to suspend their basic assumptions about what drives the other side’s behavior and test how much common ground can be found. The leaders of all three countries have come to view the other side not merely as a rival with troubling competing interests, but as an adversary bent on dictating the rules of a mutating international political system and, in order to do that, determined to contain and diminish their country.  

Obviously, leaders in none of the three countries will fundamentally reorient their foreign policy, but there is room for meaningful adjustments were each to weigh more carefully their long-term interests against their short-term priorities. For example, Russia’s leadership might want to rethink holding any prospect of nuclear arms control talks with the United States hostage to an end to U.S. aid for Ukraine in the war, unless it believes that, in contrast to the United States, it can more easily weather a nuclear arms race or fare better in a nuclear war. China’s leadership might want to reconsider its aversion to providing the transparency necessary for a productive strategic nuclear dialogue with the United States if this precludes the prospect of finding common ground, yielding a genuinely safer nuclear relationship. U.S. leadership might want to resist the building pressures to design its nuclear forces based on worst-case analysis, if the hurdles this creates prevent Russia and China from seriously considering steps to address the new threats to strategic stability in a multipolar nuclear world.

U.S. leadership might want to consider how it could use its sanctions regime against Russia to create positive incentives, encouraging a more constructive Russian approach to the war in Ukraine, if it weighs more carefully the longer-term secondary effects that its massive punitive use of sanctions may have on third-party trade relations and international financial institutions. Chinese leadership might reconsider its aggressive tactics in waging technological competition with the United States and its use of its Belt and Road Initiative to disadvantage the West if, as a result, it fosters an economic environment far less favorable to China’s economic development than the one from which it has benefitted so handsomely. Russian leadership might want to reassess how radically its actions have curtailed its economic options when measured against what better access to global markets, including those most technologically advanced, would mean for Russia’s economic future.

Russian leadership might give more thought to trimming its objectives in its war against Ukraine and showing greater flexibility in their pursuit if it hopes to see a post-war European order less hostile than it will otherwise be. U.S. leadership, when the war in Ukraine reaches its dénouement, might revisit policy shortcomings that pre-2014 contributed to the failure to build the Euro-Atlantic security community that all sides repeatedly said they wanted, if this time it hopes to see fashioned arrangements and mechanisms capable of transcending a deeply divided continent. China’s leadership might give more careful thought to the tradeoff between its short-term, timid, Russia-humoring approach to Europe’s drama and its long-term stake in a Europe stable and at peace.

In short, whether the leaderships in the three countries are prepared to frame their choices precisely in these terms, the stakes involved surely require that they try harder to reconcile their approach to the imperatives of the moment with longer-term goals addressing the larger risks that await them. None is more critical than that of a U.S.-China cold war as destructive as the current U.S.-Russia cold war. The nightmare scenario is a war over Taiwan and, if Bloomberg Economics is correct, nightmare it would be at a cost of “around $10 trillion, equal to about 10 percent of global GDP.” However, short of war, a cold war strategic rivalry between the two countries—representing about 40 percent of global GDP—engaged in vastly more intense military competition and facing off in the world’s trouble spots, will deform the international setting, circumscribe the choices of all players and leave a political landscape littered with landmines. Russia’s leadership may want to pause and consider whether over the long-run it wants to return Russia to the 16th century—when, before Tsar Ivan IV, the country did not have a serious “Western option”—and to become China’s permanent junior partner in a destructive U.S.-China cold war. 

The key actors, however, are the United States and China. If the leaders of the two countries refuse to take seriously what a genuine U.S.-China cold war would mean and, in narrow-minded fashion, keep to their steady-as-you-go course, they are playing the odds poorly. If they listen to what China specialists are urging, they stand a better chance of averting what neither country wants. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd calls for a “managed strategic competition” with rules designed to prevent the two countries from lurching into war. His rules include: both sides abstaining from cyberattacks against critical infrastructure; the United States “strictly adhering to the ‘one China’ policy;” China dialing back on provocative military exercises, deployments and maneuvers; and China ceasing further militarization of the South China Sea, reciprocated by a reduction of U.S. and allied operations in the area. 

Cornell University’s Jessica Chen Weiss implores the United States to abandon “the logic of a zero-sum competition,” and to establish as its policy’s “lodestar” the “world that the United States seeks: what it wants rather than what it fears,” judging the success of its policy instruments by “whether they further progress toward that world rather than whether they undermine some Chinese interest or provide some advantage over Beijing.” The advice, however, applies no less to China. She writes: “And rather than looking back nostalgically at its past preeminence, Washington must commit, with actions as well as words, to a positive-sum vision of a reformed international system that includes China and meets the existential need to tackle shared challenges.” Here too, China must reciprocate in kind.

GMF’s Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Columbia University’s Thomas J. Christensen argue that to be effective a U.S. deterrent strategy designed to prevent China from invading or blockading Taiwan must be accompanied by assurances, such as making clear that the United States opposes “a political move by Taipei to pursue independence” and, in strengthening Taiwan’s defenses, avoiding “the impression that it is moving toward restoring formal diplomatic relations or a defense alliance with the island.” So must China balance deterrence with assurances, and for that Beijing needs to back off from its increasingly aggressive military actions that “have fueled fears that Beijing is shifting from a policy of deterring any pursuit of independence by Taiwan to compelling unification through coercion or military force.” They add: “When Beijing fails to reassure Taipei that its military preparations are not a harbinger of a coming attack, it undercuts incentives for people in Taiwan to support moderation by its political leaders.” Is anyone in high office in Beijing and Washington listening?

For the leaders of the United States, the EU and Russia, what to do now to achieve what for them will be an acceptable outcome in the Ukraine war understandably commands their primary attention. Given the stakes that each sees in the conflict and the harsh realities of the war yet to be overcome, their energy and attention are, indeed, taxed. But if they—and here China also figures centrally—are to acquit themselves on the level at which history will judge them well, somehow they need to raise their eyes to the fateful interaction of the war unfolding in Ukraine with an international political system stumbling toward an uncertain future.  


Robert Legvold

Robert Legvold is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus in the department of political science at Columbia University.

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, unless otherwise stated. Photo by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license.