Geopolitical Concerns, Economic Interests, And The Battle Of Wills

One of the more interesting aspects of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis is that it is testing how far the West and Russia are willing to go in terms of sustaining economic damage for the sake of perceived geopolitical gains. The crisis is also testing the widely held belief that economic interdependence between major powers will mitigate the risk of conflict.

Of course, even if Russia and the West (admittedly, a loose concept, given the divisions between the US and EU, and within the EU itself) were not strongly interlinked, economically, there would still be substantial reasons why they would not go to war with one another. Most obvious is the sheer amount of death and destruction that would ensue, even without resort to nuclear weapons. Even if a shooting war between Russia and the West were confined to Ukraine, in the same way that the Korean War (1950-1953) was confined to the Korean Peninsula, huge numbers of lives would be lost. So, it is not just economic ties that are preventing a wider war in Eastern Europe right now.

From Russia's viewpoint, Ukraine is of supreme geopolitical importance, owing to cultural-historical, geographic, economic, and military reasons. Thus, Putin's willingness to tolerate a certain amount of economic pain for Russia as a result of his Ukraine policy is rational. There may come a point where Russia's leaders decide that 'enough is enough', but we are not there yet.

By comparison, Ukraine's importance to the West is far more limited, unless the US and EU are genuinely determined to contain Russia. For more than a decade, Ukraine has lurched from one political or economic crisis to another, and has suffered from weak government and high levels of corruption, regardless of whether it was led by a pro-Western or pro-Russian president. Ukraine's suitability for EU or NATO membership has long been in doubt, and its history suggests that it will always have strong cultural ties with Russia. In that sense, bringing Ukraine into Euro-Atlantic institutions is hardly a priority for the West.

The above dynamics point to a battle of wills, and Russia would appear to have the greater will.

Both Russia and the West are at risk of overreaching themselves in the Ukraine conflict. By supporting the separatist rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, Russia is at risk of irreversibly alienating a huge proportion of Ukrainians, making them even more determined to join the EU (and possibly even NATO). At the same time, Putin risks moving Russia into quasi-isolation from the West, at least for a few years, until both sides decide to seek a rapprochement.

The West, apart from causing itself some economic damage, is meanwhile at risk of driving Russia further away from itself, and deeper into alliance with China, which is becoming increasingly assertive in Asia. At the same time, by alienating Russia, the West risks breaking the international consensus on pressuring Iran to reduce the scope of its nuclear programme.

Therefore, much is at stake.