In the torrent of opinions and commentaries on the events in Ukraine and Crimea, and the resulting stand-off between Russia and the West, two actors have languished in the background - the United Nations and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) forum to which Russia belongs. Yet the Ukraine-Crimea crisis in relations between the West and Russia carries important implications for both as the geopolitics of this confrontation unfolds. The BRICS dimension is especially intriguing in ways both direct and indirect. If there was doubt about BRICS being hyped as a geopolitical force, the events in Ukraine and Crimea have confirmed them.
BRICS is a revisionist platform for championing global economic governance reform. To be sure, given the composition of this group, its geopolitical overtones are unmistakable. They generate unwarranted expectations in the international public and media. But the contradictions within BRICS are of such a magnitude and sensitivity that for it to become an openly political force is extremely doubtful. China's abstention on the UN Security Council resolution on Ukraine vetoed by Russia was indicative (very much in line with Beijing's adherence to 'non-interference') as are the low key, essentially noncommittal reactions of the other BRICS.
That said, as a collective platform for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, BRICS does allow ample flexibility for the five to pursue their own strategic compulsions in the service of national interests even if these pursuits complicate the BRICS brand. However, as an economic semi-alliance, BRICS cannot compel a closing of ranks in the cut and thrust of geopolitics. The Ukraine-Crimea crisis underlines these limits.
The rise of the RICs?
Also exposed may be the limitations of the BRICS banking mechanism as, and if, the financial sanctions noose tightens further on Russia. However, if one disaggregates BRICS into its geopolitical components within northern Eurasia, there are some interesting dynamics that may be in play, namely those revolving around the foreign ministerial triangular Russia-India-China (RIC) relationship. Dialectically, the fallout from Russia's alienation from a G-8 reduced to a polarizing G-7, raises the prospect that, tactically at least, Russia, India and China will be playing their own triangular integrationist card within BRICS at Moscow's initiative to offset western mobilization against Russia aimed at isolating it internationally. Neither India or China (nor Brazil and South Africa) will buy into isolating Moscow.
However, the responsiveness of China and India to Russia's overtures will be motivated by a calculus of exploiting US-Russian tensions to their own benefit as they navigate moving closer to Washington as well as Moscow. Thereby, both Asian giants may stand to reap the 'best of both worlds' as the Ukraine-Crimea imbroglio plays out. Russia has every incentive to accommodate them both in the energy sector which, especially in the case of the Beijing-Moscow axis has been languishing in inconclusiveness due to the price of shipping gas to China. This may change.
It could mean greater industrial and energy cross investments between Russia and India as well as between Russia and China within one another's industrial sectors. This will create a north Eurasian integrationist core within BRICS whichever way Moscow's polarized relations with the US and Europe play out. And in that regard, the double-edged sword to a sanctions escalation against Russia may provide mutual incentive for the West and Russia to come to some kind of accommodation.
Six takeaways from Ukraine-Crimea
As it is, the Ukraine-Crimea crisis etches into sharp relief the transitional fault-lines of the multipolar order in the making as well as the missteps of contending camps seeking to shape it. An accommodation between Moscow and the West over the fate of Ukraine and Crimea may actually turnout to constitute the endgame in a Cold War that never really ended. As such, there are at least six takeaways emerging from this renewed east-west confrontation.
First, the crisis in the Ukraine and the secessionist-annexation of Crimea by Russia amounted to an underlining of how the Cold War we thought ended essentially went into remission. US-led western triumphalism and Germany's reunification amid the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet collapse pre-empted a more enduring east-west settlement. NATO did not disband with a new bridging peace and security architecture emerging in its and the Warsaw Pact's place.
The regionally polarized pro-EU/pro-Russian character of Ukraine reflected frozen but unresolved Cold War fault-lines. This is the second takeaway. Rival treaty signings between the EU and Kiev in establishing Ukraine's associated membership and Putin's signing of the treaty annexing Crimea ratify the partitioning of this contested region. Which reveals the third takeaway: the contested geopolitical realigning of inter-state relations in greater Eurasia will weigh heavily on the transitioning global order.
The fate of the Russian Federation is central to this dynamic and is why President Putin has become so defensively aggressive in his gambits. For he has also to crisis-manage his support for the embattled Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, where jihad forces could blowback into the Muslim borderlands of the northern Caucus challenging Russia's stability. This could be compounded by US-NATO disengagement from Afghanistan to Moscow's studied ambivalence. A Pakistani-supported Taliban takeover in Kabul could reinforce the geopolitical expansion of Islamic fundamentalism on Russia's Central Asian doorstep.
Add to these equations a US-EU rapprochement with Iran. This would emerge out of a nuclear deal after which Moscow's relations with Tehran could become more ambivalent with an uptick in energy market competition to the benefit of Europe in lessening dependence on Russian oil and gas – not to mention the looming influence of America's emergence as a major transatlantic energy exporter. These prospects may well figure in Putin's calculus of retaliatory measures Moscow might take in complicating negotiations over Iran's nuclear future if western economic warfare escalates against Russia.
All considered, the Ukraine-Crimea crisis fits within a fluid geopolitical matrix of Russian threat perceptions: possible blowbacks from civil war in Syria; the uncertain stability of a post-US/NATO occupied Afghanistan; an internationally normalized Iran as a more assertive player in Eurasia's geopolitical economy. For better or worse, how Putin navigates this minefield may determine the success or failure of his post-Soviet Eurasianist project of restoring Russia's traditional empire status, redressing his fixation on the USSR's 'catastrophic' collapse.
Thus the fourth takeaway: great power status in Russian terms means securing regional hegemony in its 'near abroad' protected by the strategic depth buffering that sphere of influences guarantee against US global hegemony penetrating into Moscow's domain via NATO expansion. Vice-President Joe Biden's insensitive statement dismissing 'spheres of influence' struck at the very heart of Putin's contempt for American and the western hypocrisy. Given what some would consider the entire world as America's sphere of influence, Biden's dismissiveness was a reminder of a triumphalism that from Russia's perspective cannot be reconciled with how it wanted to end the cold war.
Moscow proposals for a post-Cold War security architecture involving cooperation between NATO and Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have been summarily snubbed even though implanting such a burden-sharing stabilization system in the Eurasian heartland has long been urgently needed. To be credible such an arrangement can hardly be expected to revolve around NATO dominance – especially given European reluctance to allocate expenditures in beefing up national military capacities to sustain NATO.
The burden has fallen on the US, unless Germany in its new found commitment to being more assertive intends to ante up as Washington gears up for major defence spending cuts. Otherwise, the Ukraine-Crimea crisis is a blowback from decades of western arrogance amid Russian feelings of humiliation as if it had militarily lost the cold war. As such, for Putin, a return to bipolarity is better than acquiescing in what still passes for US-led western global hegemony.
Of course the problem here is that Moscow must also share power with Beijing as China begins eclipsing what was once overwhelming Russian dominance of the Eurasian landscape. Putin wishes not to play second fiddle to either Washington or Beijing in spite of the close Sino-Russian strategic partnership leading the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This is why consolidating a Eurasian union and economic community is so existentially critical to his Russian restorative calculus. Hence, a fifth takeaway: the global trend toward regional integration communities and the geopolitical competitiveness this generates in an otherwise multipolar environment.
As Germany has emerged dominant in an EU trying to keep from falling apart while moving to a new level of supranationalism, Putin pursues his own integrationist project. He seeks strategic autonomy between the EU and a Chinese-dominated SCO. This brings up to the sixth takeaway. Russia wants to secure its regional power status within an unfolding reconfiguring of a global order reflecting the regionalization of multipolarity.
The re-emergence of the UN?
In spite of the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine and Crimea, the bigger picture in the Eurasian heartland and adjacent regions in the Middle East and southwest Asia speaks to more convergence than divergence of interest between Moscow on the one hand, and Washington and Brussels on the other. Yet the confrontational divide resulting from Putin's orchestrated annexation of Crimea may only be defused if UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon embarks on a sustained mediatory offensive involving Germany in bridging the White House-Kremlin divide: first to de-escalate the confrontation; then to orchestrate evolution toward a new cooperative security architecture in greater Eurasia: a UN Security Council-sponsored NATO-CSTO-SCO condominium. This would institutionalize Franklin Roosevelt's founding vision of a UN revolving around a US-Russia-China world policing triumvirate.
The symmetry of the US/Brussels-Moscow standoff seems tailor-made for UN mediation in an expanded orchestration of peace and stabilization efforts as the US and NATO wind down their presence in Afghanistan. Combined with a need to break the stalemated civil war in Syria, a UN grand entry into this matrix could potentially rejuvenate its status as the arbiter of global security governance and possibly even open a way for reforming the UN Security Council in a package of interrelated Eurasian regional accommodations.
A UN secretariat sponsored Eurasian security summit culminating a US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan might provide a way for a refocusing of Russian, US and EU energies into a broader regional accommodation with China and India's participation. One outcome might be a Finlandization of Ukraine (and possibly Georgia and Moldova). This should aim to formalize a buffering of Russia's strategic depth in finalizing a Cold War settlement redressing Moscow's isolation in a manner that strengthens global governance overall. There should be a formal renunciation of NATO expansion into Russia's 'near abroad' as part of a comprehensive non-aggression pact protecting neighboring states falling outside the Russian Federation. Such a treaty might involve a formal Organization of Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring role.
Such a UN Secretariat-initiated scenario, backed by the UN General Assembly should be ratified by the UN Security Council. Built into this process could be a P5 commitment to the Council's reform, including greater transparency and accountability to the General Assembly. Culminating this process would be an ending of Russia's suspension from the G8 (though this could happen sooner than later given de-escalating diplomacy already in motion) where it actually constitutes the overlapping bridge between BRICS and the G7.
Who knows, out of this might emerge a win-win for all: a UN-midwifed transition to a post-western multipolar order. Indeed, from an American perspective, such a scenario, as ambitious as it appears, is implicit in the logic of a Ukraine-Crimea endgame to the Cold War packaged into a broader Eurasian peace and security settlement following US-NATO disengagement from Afghanistan. This would have to bring with it a US-Iran rapprochement balanced by an imposed Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
Also implicit in this logic is the domestic US political calculus of an American public tired of America assuming the 'lone ranger' role of world policeman while a major power-struggle ensues between an emerging non-white electorate in the Democratic Party and a resistant to change shrinking but still potent white reactionary constituency within an extremist Republican Party. Call this the unfolding political civil war of 'nation-building at home' linked to a demilitarizing of what will remain a continuing American global hegemony, one but adapted to the checks-and- balances of multipolarity. Seen in this light, resolving the Ukraine-Crimea conundrum is but the tip-of-the-iceberg.
Kornegay, senior fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue-Unisa and Global Fellow of The Wilson Centre in Washington is co-editor of Laying the BRICS of a New Global Order (AISA).