Russia challenges West

Even as pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine's east are now calling for a ceasefire in Donetsk to avert a "humanitarian catastrophe,” Moscow has called for an international humanitarian intervention in Ukraine’s battle-torn east, a measure that many in the West view as a precursor to a unilateral Russian effort there.

Russian troops have been massing at the border with NATO suggesting Russia has built up about 20,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. Meanwhile, a sanctions war has been brewing as Western sanctions against Russia over its role in events in Ukraine brought retaliation from the Kremlin, with a ban on most food imports from the US and European Union.

Blaming Russia for failing to calm this increasingly violent conflict in eastern Ukraine, the US and EU recently expanded their sanctions against Russian economic sectors, businesses and individuals, targeting the energy, defence and financial industries.

The West has accused Russia of providing the Ukrainian rebels with heavy weaponry, including tanks and anti-aircraft missile systems — one of which, according to western officials, was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17. For that reason, any Russian-led initiative to send a peace-keeping mission to eastern Ukraine is likely to be met with skepticism at the UN Security Council.

In this four-month old conflict, an estimated 1,500 people have been killed so far with no sign of an early resolution. Pro-Russian rebels stormed cities in eastern Ukraine and took over government buildings in April in a bid for independence. But the Ukrainian government retaliated by stepping up operations to retake rebel-held areas following the election of Petro Poroshenko as president in June.

Current events in Europe and beyond are so reminiscent of the Cold War that one could be excused for thinking that it never actually ended. The Russian bear is growling again as imperialist sentiment grows in the corridors of the Kremlin. The Chinese regime is accumulating power at an unprecedented rate.

But it is not simply great power politics that is back in vogue. Russia and China have used their positions in the United Nations Security Council to block almost all proposed forms of intervention and the West, after the debacle of Iraq, is more reticent than ever.

This divided world stands in stark contrast to the situation after the victory of the West in the Cold War. Neo-conservative commentators in the US were ecstatic about a victory they took to be the ultimate triumph of western values, especially of liberal democracy and capitalism. And in a fit of optimism after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared not only an end to ideological struggle, but the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Islamist extremism

His enthusiasm was infectious. Liberals soon began to argue that the spread of liberal political and economic values was important for global security. Consequently, a coalition of liberals and neo-conservatives pushed a global interventionist agenda throughout the 1990s.

This culminated in the Iraq adventure, which was meant to be the first step towards the transformation of an entire region, an answer to the Islamist radicalism being spawned in authoritarian regimes through western Asia. The Iraq War confounded most ideological categories and shattered a lot of myths about the use of force, as liberals found it hard to oppose a war that would remove a genocidal regime from power.

The idea that the democratisation of the Middle East would be the best antidote to Islamist extremism seemed like an idea whose time had come. Yet today, the authoritarian regimes of the region are all stronger than before. Iran has emerged as the strongest power in the region, twiddling its thumbs at the impotence of the West in carrying out its threats over its nuclear programme and charting a foreign policy course that is more ambitious and radical than ever before. The liberal ideology of intervention has proved its limits, and is now confronted with a rapidly evolving reality.

Russia has used the modern lexicon of humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping to disguise its aspirations to reassert its control in what it considers its own backyard, the Caucasus. The old battle lines between Russia and the West are being redrawn, with the faintest of hopes that Russia would ally with the West dwindling rapidly.

Russia has clearly stated its intention to reclaim its position as the primary geopolitical concern of the West. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is taking place in a broader strategic milieu in which Russia has re-emerged as a major player in global politics. It is flush with soaring oil revenues and confident of its power due to its hold over European energy supplies. There is huge support for this among the Russian people who remain nostalgic for their former great power status.

With parts of the Middle East in turmoil, the West seems to be losing its ability to dictate terms to an emerging global order. Europe, in particular, is witnessing a steady loss of self-confidence, turning inward and growing pessimistic about the future.

Vladimir Putin got away with thseizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and now he seems poised to retain Crimea. He continues to push the envelope in Ukraine though it is a risky strategy. The US president has little credibility left after his red lines on Syria were conveniently ignored by the US Congress.

Raymond Aron, the great political philosopher of the last century, was right: “What passes for optimism is most often the effect of an intellectual error.” Liberal sentimentalism about internationalism and human nature led to post-Cold War complacency about its values. This complacency has come back to haunt it, a tad sooner than expected: history is back with a vengeance.

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