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A Tale of Two Blocs: How Ukrainian Resistance Unified and Reinspired the Global West

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Zelenskyy visits liberated Kherson, Wall Street Journal, 2022 ©

When Russia announced on January 31st, 2023, that Xi Jinping was going to pay Moscow a visit around the time of the Anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine (Law, 2023), it may have been a shock to some US Foreign Policy analysts or advisors who saw Russia and China as divergent in their aims, and therefore as bendable. But to anyone paying attention, it was a predictable step in China being a far superior power and yet a willing partner in a “Russian World”.

Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian thinker whose primary influences include Martin Heidegger, Julius Evola, and other traditionalists, is sometimes described as “Putin’s brain”. He has been an object of discussion where anti-Western/pro-Russian analysts will brush off or dismiss as unimportant subject of Western paranoia, and who some pro-Western/anti-Russian analysts will give more credit than he is due. What is important, is that as in political parties and organisations within democracies, directions of autocracies are also driven by political thinkers within party or military establishments. What Wang Huning is to the Communist Party of China and what Steve Bannon is to the Trump Organization or Jake Sullivan is to the Biden Foreign Policy team, Aleksandr Dugin would be considered for the Russian Federation and their armed forces. Normally, one would be right to ask why Dugin, a philosopher, even matters. This perspective would be fair, had his thoughts and ambitions not come to fruition since within not only national, but regional Russian policy, including Dugin’s calling for a genocide in Ukraine (Heiser, 2014), (Ragozin, 2014).

Aleksandr Dugin, as he described in interviews with Benjamin Teitelbaum in his work War for Eternity as well as in his own platforms describing the “Fourth Political Theory”, has stated that he is not anti-right, or anti-left, but anti-West (Dunlop, 2004). For Dugin, the moment everything went wrong in history was when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was broken, in his view not tragic because of Hitler’s war of aggression, but rather because it stopped Stalin and the Axis powers from joining together against the West (Dugin, Date Unknown). Now as off-putting as it may be to some, as it is to me, my purpose is not to express our opinion. Rather, it is to say that who Dugin is against and what he is for, is clear. He is for a world order before the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, where conceptions of human rights don’t exist, and therefore is against the seemingly omnipresent “liberal west”.

For leaders in liberal Western societies to have a shot at defeating such a violent idea, they must know what they are for, and be able to defend not only the ideas, but the institutions that enable them. This thinking of “not anti-right, not anti-left, but against the Liberal west” extends to Russian policy in Putin’s idea of a “Russian world” including China and India, as Xi’s China being Stalinist, and Modi’s India being what could roughly be called nationalist-populist may be resolutely against each other, but Russia is willing to see them both as trojan horses against the “West” (Reuters, 2022). Their strategy is clear. However, until the conflict in Ukraine, it seems that the West did not have the same clarity of who they were, and therefore what they were for and what they were against.

It was Ukraine’s courage in resolutely stating, in the United Nations (Leff, Wood, 2022), in their own parliament (Jassin, Banfield, 2022), and to world leaders (Zelenskyy, 2022), that they are fighting for their constitution, their right to exist, and their right to be a part of Europe which forced Western leaders to ask themselves what they are fighting for, as well. Such statements are not controversial when one views the United Nations charter and post-War covenants as the basis for global governance, as they state all countries have a right to territorial integrity and sovereignty. From the Duginist view of the “Russian world”, however, civilization states take precedence over nation-states. With notable exceptions such as the United Nations Command in the Korean War, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Joint Endeavor, the West has abandoned their post-war promise to stop aggressor states when the political cost was too high – whether it be in Rwanda, Syria, Chechnya, or more recently with the PRC’s incursions in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Himalayas. Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the West has operated in a space where they have largely kept their own self-interest in mind – and forgotten their responsibility. It was not only Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that changed this, in fact I would argue it wasn’t since we have had no problem ignoring Georgians, Syrians, Chechens, and Belarusians. It was Ukrainians inability to back down which forced leaders in DC, Paris, Berlin, London, Madrid as well as Tokyo, Seoul, and Canberra, to ask themselves if Ukrainians are willing to die for their country on the spot in the face of extermination and in the name of democracy – what exactly have we been doing for the past thirty years?

In conflicts throughout modern history, there have been situations where a nation was far out-manned, out-gunned, out-resourced, and geographically out-maneuvered but were able to persevere simply because they knew what they were fighting for and knew who they were. Examples include Vietnam facing the United States as a global hegemon in the Vietnam War, and Great Britain who faced the most powerful Empire in European History in 1940. Both cases are a nation fighting for its existence against a chauvinist imperial state fighting for its right to conquer. This knowledge of what a nation is fighting for has been lost among much of the collective west, fat, happy, and suffering from amnesia of the responsibility as liberators while those who they abandon suffer the consequences, whether it be Afghan women once again being reduced to subjugated status, or millions of Syrian refugees fleeing a regime who knew they could not count on Obama to follow through on a “red line” (Morris, T., 2017). It was when President Zelenskyy said his famous words “I need ammunition, not a ride” (Braithwaite, 2022), and Kyiv’s leader stayed with his people, that the collective West was faced with the reality that other people’s nations are not theirs to give up.

The Ukrainian people were going to fight, and regardless of how many times Macron or other Western European leaders would call Putin to talk and play diplomat for the camera (BBC, 2022)., and no matter how many articles written by academics living safely within the West, such as Mearsheimer (Mearsheimer, 2014), Chomsky (Polychroniou, 2022)., Sachs (Hungarian Conservative, 2023), and Baraka (Baraka, 2023) – Ukraine was not theirs to give up out of some obscure and insecure Western or Western-located self-pity. In this sense, Ukraine has reminded the political capitals of NATO what their purpose is. In the past decade, further eroding the fear of the enemies of the West, is the apparent vulnerability of its institutions to external social manipulation and control. In 2015, 2016, 2018, Brexit left the European Union, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States and Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil. As Brexit has not stopped EU-UK security cooperation, and as Bolsonaro, Trump, and pro-Russian populists in countries like the Czech Republic have been ousted (Gosling, 2023), the West has remembered what they see as their duty. The very entity which Putin illuminated as his motivation for invading Ukraine, a so-called strong “collective West” out to destroy Russia, did not actually exist before, but has been electrified by a Ukrainian constituency, political leadership and structure, and military leadership which refused to allow itself become another casualty of the newly embolded strongmen. This forced a collective West once apathetic to civilizations rampaging small nations to reckon with its own institutions.

However, we have seen the infatuation that parties such as the AfD in Germany, National Front in France, and factions of the GOP in the United States have with Russia, and the staunch pro-Russian isolationism they represent. The rise of such parties illuminates the ability of cross-national ideas rather than countries alone to mobilise quickly in the 21st century. In the face of these threats, the United States, the European Union, and their allies have outlined their common goals - but like the relationship between Putin and his lapdogs in the West, the US and the EU must establish similar clarity in a relationship of equal partners.

Establishing this clarity of roles and responsibilities becomes more important knowing that the West’s unity will not remain unchallenged in the face of Russian aggression. Actors within the Trans-Atlantic alliance perceive Russia (and the challenges it represents) differently. While the Ukraine war has obvious global reverberations (International Monetary Fund, 2022), the combat is geographically limited to the East of Europe. By definition, European countries have much more at stake in the conflict than the U.S.

On one hand, when viewed from Washington DC, Russia is a declining great power. Its conventional military is in tatters (Crowther, 2022), as the world has witnessed during the last year. Unable to subjugate Ukraine, incapable of reaching Kyiv (a city less than 400 km from the Russian border), and barely holding onto its meagre territorial gains in Eastern Ukraine, Moscow is far behind the U.S. when it comes to military and economic might. In fact, as examined by Barry Posen, Russia also lags behind the European countries in terms of military prowess - indeed, the main problems for Europe stem not from a lack of material power, but from the lack of coordination among EU member states and their dependence on the U.S (Posen, 2020). In short, America is unlikely to shape its grand strategy around the actions of a comparably weak Russia, but it has set itself to decisively aiding Ukraine regardless. Thus, American support of Ukraine stems from the desire to stand for a noble cause and back the government in Kyiv in cooperation with Western allies against Russian imperialism, not from a need to defend key U.S. national interests.

On the other hand, when viewed from Europe, Russia is currently the largest, most dangerous threat to the continent’s stability and security. To make matters worse, the last year has made clear that Russia is committed to reasserting its long-lost influence in the post-Soviet countries, even if that involves a brutal, self-defeating war. For many countries, especially those in the East with a shared memory of oppression under Communist yoke, Russia poses in fact an existential threat (Krastev & Leonard, 2022). Russian aggressiveness strikes at the core of both the EU and its member states’ national interests. For Europeans, unlike Americans, aiding Ukraine is not a matter only of defending the liberal international order, but of ensuring their survival.

Despite these inevitable divergences in perception, Western unity has remained mostly unperturbed for a year. However, this is not guaranteed in the longer run. The conflict in Ukraine could eventually and slowly morph into an attrition war with little meaningful advances on either side, or even evolve into a frozen conflict - a situation common in other countries in the post-Soviet space, like in Transnistria or in Georgia (Warsaw Institute, 2019). Having such a conflict entrenched in Europe’s Eastern border for years to come will likely lead to rifts between Trans-Atlantic allies, due in large part to the differing perceptions of the war in Ukraine outlined above. In fact, cracks in the Trans-Atlantic bloc are already seen.

There is increasing scepticism in both the Republican and the Democratic parties about aiding Ukraine ad infinitum. Several Republican hardliners, such as Senator Josh Hawley and Marsha Blackburn, have been pushing for the Biden administration to scale back American commitment to Kyiv (The Independent, 2022). Similarly, the Democratic Party is also witnessing a reaction among its more progressive members against the administration’s steadfast support to Ukraine (JPost, 2022). Given these divisions, as well as Washington’s perception of Russia outlined above, it is no surprise that the Biden administration has already privately reached out to Kyiv to inquire about the prospects of a negotiated settlement (The Washington Post, 2022).

American perceptions of Russia must be understood in relation to European capabilities too. Washington is aware that European countries are still pledging considerably less military aid than the U.S. to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. This is despite Russia being far more threatening for European interests, stability, and freedom. The not-so-distant possibility of a second Trump presidency in 2024 would also put pressure on Western unity, especially if he were to galvanise his support from Republican hardliners.

This is where China comes in. As seen from Washington DC, Beijing poses a more credible threat than Moscow in the long run. Unsurprisingly, President Biden’s National Security Strategy, released in October 2022, referred to China as a “pacing challenge”, and hinted that dealing with its rise will be the defining feature of American foreign policy for decades to come. Similarly, there are signals that the U.S. wishes to consolidate the “pivot to Asia” started by President Obama. Biden’s consolidation of the Quad (a partnership between India, Japan, Australia, and the U.S.) and the formation of AUKUS are clear examples that the Indo-Pacific theatre is going to be a priority for the U.S.

Conversely, the Biden administration, while acknowledging the country’s support for Ukraine, considers that Russia is, unlike China, incapable of posing a “systematic challenge” to the U.S., according to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (Defense News, 2022). From the EU, however, China poses a very different kind of threat than Russia. While the EU has been amping up its rhetoric on China (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2022), this last year has made clear that ensuring the survival and freedom of Ukraine is its main foreign policy challenge. Even after the war is over, the question of the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood will linger - and with it, the issue of how to deal with an aggressive Russia.

The U.S. might not be willing to take the lead in the shaping of the future Europe, even as it maintains its leadership in a strong-as-ever NATO. Thus, the EU and its European partners like the UK should step up. As mentioned above, the EU has more at stake with this war and its aftermath than the U.S.: the regional European order emerging from the war should reflect this by ensuring that the EU’s values, priorities, and interests prevail.

Conversely, the EU lacks the military and economic capabilities to act as the main counterbalance to China in the Indo-Pacific - even if it can certainly help the U.S. and its Asian allies. In this case, the threat perception in the Indo-Pacific appears to mirror that in Europe, but in this case, it is the U.S. who sees its interests as threatened by a looming adversary in the form of China, while the EU is, as of today, not a central player in the area.

Going forward, policymakers in Washington and in Brussels would do well to understand that, while the West has proven very resilient, their perceptions of the world differ - and will continue doing so. Based on that divergence of interests and views, an even stronger Trans-Atlantic bloc can emerge: one which is able to address its global strategy through the compartmentalisation of its members’ strengths, and to coordinate accordingly. Committing to the liberal international order and to Ukraine’s freedom and sovereignty should be at the core of a Trans-Atlantic approach. This, however, must be complemented with a realistic, sober assessment of what can Europe do best - and which regions should hold their respective foreign policy priorities.

For Washington and Europe to preserve their shared values, they must also recognize how their differences in geography shape differences in immediate security and economic needs, as well as unique and specific responsibilities when countering what both EU and US institutions have described as long-term systemic challenges.

About the Authors

Juan García-Nieto Tiana is a Research Assistant at ESADEGeo, a think tank based in Barcelona, Spain. He is also the Deputy Head at the Editorial Team at European Guanxi. He has previously worked as an intern in the Union for the Mediterranean and the Cato Institute. Juan graduated from a MSc in International Politics at SOAS, London, having previously studied Law and Global Governance. He is focused on Euro-Mediterranean relations, the Trans-Atlantic alliance, and China. His articles have appeared in The National Interest, The Diplomat and, among others.

Mark Godges (中文名:高勉正) began his bachelor’s study in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California Davis in September 2016, majoring in Chinese, and got a Bachelor of Arts degree in June 2020. He began his master’s study in the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University in September 2020. He continued his master’s study as part of the MPP-SDG Dual-Degree program at the University of Geneva in September 2021. He is receiving both MSc and MPA degrees after defending his respective master theses in 2023. You can find him on linkedin:

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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