The war in Ukraine and the Transatlantic Partnership

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, will be remembered among the 21st century’s pivotal events, a turning point in world history.

There is no aspect of today’s international relations and global economy that has not been touched by the conflict and the reactions it has provoked. Barely three decades after the Berlin Wall collapse, a Cold War 2.0 is looming with a global geopolitical realignment affecting world trade, supply chains, and financial networks.

The renowned French anthropologist and historian, Emmanuel Todd, has even claimed that World War III began; he also added that the leaderships involved show a worrisome “nihilistic vertigo”.

The conflict is perceived in Moscow as existential for Russia. However, there are indications that it could be existential for Western democracies as well. NATO’s Secretary General has even claimed that the real risk is not an escalation but a victory of Russia.

Whoever will prevail will get a bigger voice in dictating the future world order rules; particularly, if will continue to be under the exclusive US leadership or will move towards an authentic multipolar setting.

After this conflict, nothing could be the same again; but for transatlantic relations, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a real panacea.

In 2019, then US President, Donald Trump, threatened to withdraw the United States from NATO if its other members had not increased their military spending. He was followed by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who argued that “What we are witnessing is NATO brain death” and that “America’s ally is turning its back on strategic issues.”

In the summer of 2021, then, US, and NATO, ruinously withdrew from Afghanistan. The humiliating exit from Kabul raised serious doubts about the Alliance and it stirred strong transatlantic tensions.

Today the situation has reversed, and NATO members should thank Vladimir Putin’s reckless decision for that. If one were to think of a celebratory moment of the revived transatlantic relation, nothing would do better than a bust of the Russian leader provocatively placed inside the North-Atlantic Council great hall in Brussels with the inscription “The man who saved the Atlantic Alliance” underneath.

Today NATO and the EU are cohesively confronting Russia in Ukraine by providing massive economic and military aid, and the strongest sanctions ever imposed to Moscow. The latter include the end of all Russian oil and gas supplies to Europe, the freezing of as much as $350 billions of Russian funds deposited in Western banks, as well as a significant increase of European countries’ military spending. Germany alone announced a huge and unprecedented €100 billion increase. If NATO further eastward enlargement towards Ukraine has been momentarily stopped, the one towards Northers Europe appears successful with the forthcoming entry of Finland and, if Turkey will consent, Sweden.

President Biden’s brave visit to Kiev on February 20th has been the iconic moment of such sequence of successes.

It should not go unnoticed, however, that the war has triggered reactions which go far beyond the European continent and the transatlantic partnership.

Last May, the Atlantic Alliance launched its new Strategic Concept by claiming that: “The Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area… [and to] the rules-based international order. “

China has now been included in the Concept for the first time by emphasizing that: “[its] stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values… It strives to subvert the rules-based international order… The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation…attempts to undercut the rules-based international order…”   

It was a radical political evolution. If Russia was Europe’s main energy supplier, China is still the EU’s top trading partner, not to mention that it is the United States’ too.

Both NATO and the EU have then embraced not only America’s stance towards Russia, but also its growing concern about China. It is all built upon Biden Administration’s narrative that has framed nowadays geopolitical moment as the inflection point of an epic confrontation between democracies and autocracies.

To confront Russian and Chinese autocracies, the renewed transatlantic partnership is even ready to stomach an increased, dangerous, coordination between Moscow and Beijing, unprecedented since the heights of the Cold War in the1950s and 1960s. NATO and the EU, apparently, are also giving up to the globalization as we have known it for the last three decades. Traditional energy and supply chains are changing or are re-considered, trade routes are re-oriented and words like near-shoring, re-shoring and de-coupling are now frequently used in the economic and trade jargon. 

While the whole outcome and cost of this geopolitical shift are still uncertain, there is no doubt that Europe has already borne the higher price.

The diversification of energy supplies from Russia is presenting hefty bill for European consumers and for their economies’ competitiveness. Sanctions against Russia, and those looming against China, risk putting all supply chains under significant stress and to disrupt a quite fruitful trade relationship. Among this policy shift unintended consequences, there are also higher inflation and raising interest rates. Both could radically change the last four decades economic patterns.

The Chip Act adopted by Biden Administration last October, to stop the selling of semiconductors to China, might trigger a major technological war which could somehow hobble the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution, not to mention the rising tensions about Taiwan.

The so-called IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) recently adopted by Washington to boost the green energy transition is creating strong commercial tensions with the Brussels.

Unfortunately, despite all Western predictions, sanctions have not yet brought Russia to its knees. According to the IMF, in 2024 the Russian economy is even predicted to grow by 2,1%, more than Germany and United Kingdom. 

Furthermore, the sanctions against Moscow have been adopted only by the Western democracies and few other Asian like-minded countries.

The strengthened transatlantic bond, then, has not been matched by a similar increased world leadership of the so-called Global West. Western democracies’ long-held belief that the world revolves around them is challenged. A different world is taking shape. Although confusely, the so-called Global Rest appears on the rise and developing its own geopolitical consciousness. An increasing number of emerging economies are perceiving themselves as alien from many western narratives, visions, and policies, as well as from the tightly Western-led global financial system. De-globalization is looming, and de-dollarization too.

A global poll published on February 22nd has confirmed previous assessments. To a large extent, Global Rest seems believing that “US and European support for Ukraine is driven by the desire to protect Western dominance”. In other words, it would have nothing to do with defending democracy and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

A long list of countries – mostly Global West’s traditional partners – are showing disaffection towards the US-led rules-based world order that since 1945 has been shaping global politics. Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, just to name a few, perceive such order as biased, sometimes hypocrite, and often imbued with double standards; its rules seem formally valid for all but a few selected Western countries. These emerging economies are queuing to join what appears to be the vanguard of the Global Rest, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the G7’s real global alter ego.

No doubt that Russia has been effectively isolated from the Global West; no doubt either that the transatlantic partnership has been strongly reinforced. However, there are also discomforting indications that the Global West appears more and more isolated from the Global Rest. Prevailing against autocracies requires winning hearts and minds globally, as much as among Western constituencies.

The well-deserved condemnation and punishment of Russia notwithstanding, the conflict could have been better used by the EU as a unique chance to give content to its widely claimed strategic autonomy, particularly by pushing harder for negotiated solutions while maintaining the support to Ukraine.

The EU has instead opted for being the US’ junior partner, and a Polish-Baltic traction institution. It is dismaying that even the recently exited UK seems having a greater political influence in Brussels than before.

A quite successful re-strengthening of the transatlantic relationship has been accomplished. It is a crucial outcome considered the uncertain times ahead.

Maybe it could have been achieved better.

If the price that Europe, especially, has paid was worth will become clearer only in the coming years.