15 Feb 2022

CUHK expert: Russia-Ukraine on brink of war?

15 Feb 2022

More than 100,000 Russian troops are deploying near the border of Ukraine. Although Europe and the U.S. have been trying to settle this crisis through diplomatic mediation, the tensions between Russia and Ukraine are rising. We invite Professor Peter Beattie of the Master of Social Science in Global Political Economy (MGPE) Programme, Faculty of Social Science at CUHK to analyse the reasons which have led to this Ukraine Crisis and the suggested solutions for defusing it. 

Q: In your opinion, what are the reasons/ factors triggering this Ukraine Crisis?

A: I would like to answer this question from the perspective of international relations (IR), which is different from the way this issue is discussed in the media. In much of the media, this issue is discussed in personalized and moralized terms, such as Putin’s desire for power, the U.S. fighting for democracy, etc. However, IR theory uses an amoral approach to explain political issues and thinks solely in terms of power. 

I think that the biggest factor is the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO was founded primarily to defend Western Europe from a potential Soviet invasion. As the USSR was dissolving, the U.S. made a verbal commitment that NATO would not expand an inch eastward towards Russia. However, more and more former Warsaw Pact (the Soviet counterpart to NATO) states entered NATO afterward. Ukraine is the latest such state the U.S. is trying to incorporate into NATO. From Russia’s perspective, there is a hostile military alliance led by the world’s most militarily powerful country getting closer to its borders. This makes the Russian government deeply insecure – just as the U.S. government would feel insecure if Mexico or Canada were to join a military alliance led by Russia or China.

Another factor is the “nuclear modernization” policy started by the Obama administration and continued under the Trump and Biden administrations. This includes building smaller warheads, which sounds harmless at first until you hear military planners describe smaller warheads as “more usable”. The U.S. also withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) under Trump, with Russia following suit. If Ukraine joined NATO, Russia is afraid that short-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles would be placed at its doorstep in Ukraine, where early warning systems would give little time for a response, increasing the likelihood of nuclear war (including if early warning systems malfunctioned, as they have several times in the past). Then Russia’s national security would be greatly threatened. 

And from a global political economy (GPE) perspective, there are also economic factors related to energy and weapons. Russia and the U.S. are major fossil fuel exporters, and one of the big markets for natural gas is Europe. At this moment, the Nord Stream 1 & 2 pipelines directly transport Russian gas to Europe via Germany. As the U.S. is a competitor of Russia in this market, the U.S. would be happier if Germany were cut off from Russian gas and purchased more expensive liquified natural gas from the U.S., shipped via tankers instead. The U.S. is the also the world’s number one weapons manufacturer. The more countries which join NATO, the more the demand for U.S. weapons.

Lastly, there is a historical factor at play. There are some neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine today that take the pro-Western side of the U.S./E.U. vs. Russia divide in Ukrainian politics. From my understanding, these are relatively fringe groups that are unlikely to capture state power in Ukraine. However, it is deeply concerning from the Russian perspective given their victimization by the Nazis. So too, Israel would be concerned by neo-Nazi groups, or China would be concerned by neo-fascist groups wanting a return of the Japanese empire, if they were incorporated into the government and army of a neighboring country.

Q: Do you think the Ukraine crisis could be defused? How will it develop?

A: I think the chance of Russia invading Ukraine is relatively low, as its cost is far too high. The global reaction towards such an invasion would most likely decimate the Russian economy and thereby weaken Russia’s military power to a considerable extent. (But this assumes rationality, sometimes governments do not behave rationally.)

The most likely outcome is a slow, continually simmering tension, but less intense than at the current moment. If the U.S. could offer a trustworthy guarantee that they will no longer push for Ukrainian NATO membership, and that NATO will not expand further, then Russia’s primary national security threat would cease to exist. This crisis could be greatly defused. But that is not what the U.S. foreign policy establishment – aka “the Blob” – is willing to do now.

Q: Apart from US and Russia, what are the influences on global international relations from the Ukraine Crisis?


For Europe

This situation puts Europe between a rock and a hard place. Europeans are not interested in fomenting a military conflict with Russia. They would rather use soft power to influence Russia. But the U.S. government is pushing the E.U. to adopt its more hawkish position. “Why don’t you guys have a fight” seems to be the U.S. position, which would weaken German manufacturing competition and Russian fossil fuel competition, and work out well for U.S. interests. For Europeans? Not so much.

For China 

Some voices in the U.S. claim that the Chinese government is watching this situation closely, looking for “weakness” from the US, and if they spot such purported weakness, they will immediately invade Taiwan. This is classic “crackpot realist*” thinking.

The main point of connection between China and this conflict is that it distracts the U.S. government away from its desired new Cold War with China to focus on Russia. This is a good thing for the Chinese government, according to standard IR thinking.

Along the same lines, it produces an environment in which it makes very good sense for China and Russia to strengthen their relationship. This may also speed up the process of “De-dollarization”. That is the process by which both countries begin to use their own currencies in trade between each other and neighboring countries. The U.S. has been enjoying the “exorbitant privilege” of dollar hegemony for decades; the dominant role of the dollar in international trade and currency reserves means that the U.S. can spend its roughly $1 trillion annually on a military empire without fearing ruinous currency depreciation. If a significant portion of global trade were de-dollarized, this would greatly weaken the U.S. 

Q: How does this crisis affect Hong Kong?

A: I don’t think that there would be any major direct impact on Hong Kong. However, if tension escalates, or if a military conflict breaks out, it will cause greater turbulence in financial markets. Since the major industry in Hong Kong is finance, and volatility is great for traders, the rich would get richer with some minor spillover effects for the rest: higher housing prices (good for the roughly half of Hong Kongers who own property, bad for the other half who do not), more luxury retail sales, etc.


*Crackpot realism: It was the concept defined by the great Texan sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1958. He prophetically defined crackpot realism as when “for the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an ‘emergency’ without a foreseeable end…such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality of their own.”