As asserted previously in my piece There will be no BRICS laid in Ukraine, the Cold War never ended. It went into remission as western triumphalism overwhelmed a prostrate post-Soviet Russia. Fast forward to 2014, one hundred years after the Great War, the first of two European civil wars. Are we on the eve of yet another? Not hardly. But Russia is no longer prostrate, though it is no paragon of economic health either. It is an economically weakened Europe that is trying to find its way toward a new enlightenment amid the rise of a reactionary populism fascism wrought by German induced austerity.
Revisiting Russo-German questions & China
Now we have two big questions wrapped in Cold War revival: the German Question revisited linked to the future of European integration and a renewed Russian Question upon which the wider future of central Eurasia is contingent. In fact, given the transatlantic dimension that automatically intrudes into this equation of question marks, what emerges is a US-Russia-German triangle with the future of Ukraine at the epicenter in determining historical contingencies in this part of the world.
On the periphery of these Russo-German questions wrapped in a triangle is yet another triangle: US-Russia-China. China, by omission or commission determines the balance of power in the other triangle within which answers to these questions are to be found. On current reading, it seems as if Russian President Vladimir Putin may have maneuvered himself and Russia into a cul-de-sac. Based on his ruthless threatening of Ukraine's territorial integrity, he could end up with the worst of two worlds. This has to do with the balance he must strike between European Russia's civilizational compulsive drawing it toward Europe and his need to avoid subaltern dependency on a rising China. Given the polarizing alienation of the West sparked by his secessionist-inspired annexation of Crimea, Putin may already have robbed himself of his latitude in negotiating his strategic partnership with Beijing.
The Western sanctions backlash seems to be propelling Moscow into settling a decade-long gas pipeline negotiation standoff with China on Beijing's terms – a major skirmish in the greater Eurasian economic integrationist sweepstakes. Beijing, meanwhile, has remained cautious to closing ranks with Putin in his confrontation with the West over Ukraine, something that may auger ill for the geopolitics of Putinomics. It means that, in burning his bridges with a Europe motivated to embark on an energy independence strategy facilitated over the next several years by the US, Russia cannot fully rely on falling back on its strategic partnership with China in offsetting this loss. It may have to concede greater Chinese dominance in greater Eurasia via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
This is because, according to left-wing Indian expert on Russia and former diplomat, MK Bhadrakumar in Indian Punchline, China is 'calibrating' its distance from Moscow. "Indeed, China has been consistently reluctant to allow Russia to figure as a factor in the crafting of its 'new type of relationship' with the US. There is a fundamental contradiction here as well. Whereas Russia is a dissatisfied power in the contemporary world order, China is a stakeholder and has no gains to make out of chaos and disorder." (italics added) As such, if push comes to shove, China may eventually 'pivot' into President Barack Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Beijing thus may "be hard pressed to take an open stance upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine." After all, these are default international principles with Chinese characteristics are they not?
Herein, then, may lie the Sino-Russian calculus guaranteeing eventual implementation of the Geneva 'breakthrough' intended to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis. Without a de-escalation there seems little likelihood Putin will ever be able to smoothly pull off his Eurasian union gambit.
This seems aimed at carving out strategic geo-economic space between the European Union (EU) and a Beijing-dominated SCO – which, in turn, contains the seeds of a Ukrainian settlement that could conceivably end the Cold War on terms boding well for a more widely-applicable Eurasian stabilization. If, however, the Geneva agreement fails to gain traction, then political pressures on an allegedly 'weak' Obama (which tempts for an essay all on its own) and NATO guarantees a progressively calibrated response which, in fact, is already underway. This involves a more effectively 'feminist' mixing of hard and soft measures and maneuvers than the counterproductively 'masculine' hardline stance that some within and outside the Obama administration are calling for. Obama's more nuanced Kennanesque approach, over time, may erode the authoritarian underpinnings of reactionary domestic and regional Putinism. The more confrontational approach of Washington hardliners will assuredly play into Putin's agenda of mobilizing his neoimperial-nationalist apparatus for a revived Cold War long-haul.
Multilateral dialoguing toward a Eurasian security community?
Given the protracted nature of the geopolitical power-struggle underway, this will postpone urgently needed geostrategic adjustments in posture that would seem imperative in consummating a real post-Cold War settlement. Realistically, Obama has got too many domestic and foreign policy fish to fry than to be fixated on countering Putin on what is, after all, the Kremlin's regional turf.
Ultimately, the key is a guaranteed halt to further NATO expansion and/or some new partnership arrangement between NATO and Moscow's Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) extending to the SCO given what will be the urgency of stabilizing a post-US/NATO occupied Afghanistan. This is where, if Obama and Secretaries of State and Defense John Kerry and Chuck Hagel can muster 'the vision thing,' Washington might exploit Beijing's proffered "multilateral dialogue mechanism" for defusing the Ukraine crisis. This will likely require substantial cognitive re-engineering in Washington given the thinking of liberal pro-NATO expansion establishmentarians like former Clinton ambassador to Russia, Strobe Talbott.
In a recent interview on BBC's 'Hard Talk,' Talbott told Steven Hacker that Putin's salami tactics in Ukraine, leading to the detachment of Crimea, vindicated the Clinton administration's induction of the Baltic states into NATO. In the process, he dismissed the venerable George Kennan's passionate anti-NATO expansion position as understandable since Kennan was against establishing NATO to begin with. Thus was Talbott inadvertently revealing how the Cold War never really ended.
Why, after all, was there a need to continue NATO's encroachment when President George Bush of Herbert Walker vintage had reached an understanding with Mikhail Gorbachev ruling out NATO expansion while Talbott says this was indeed needed as a hedge against what he considered to be a 'security vacuum' in need of filling post-Gorbachev? This time around, it seems crucial that a legally binding settlement be reached, perhaps in the form of an EU and/or NATO treaty with Moscow imposing an internationally recognized stamp on an end to the East-West Cold War.
Obama has already rhetorically put an end to NATO expansion (Herbert Walker Bush-Gorbachev revisited) on the table. However, this seems more a move out of tactical expediency under the pressure of fast moving events than as an element of a carefully thought through geo-strategy in coming to terms – long-term – with the Kremlin.
This is why the Geneva Accord, already in a seeming state of disarray (as Obama & Company anticipated), is insufficient to guaranteeing a stabilization of Ukraine with broader geo-strategic peace and security resonance in central Eurasia and why someone needs to take Beijing up on its "multilateral dialogue mechanism" – and dialogue to what end? To ending the East-West power-struggle, once and for all, and to building a greater Eurasian Security Community (ESC).
ESC would be inclusive of a strengthened EU (meaning that Bonn allows the strengthening of the European Central Bank for starters), a confederally Findlandized Ukraine with links to both the EU and a Eurasian Union linked to a tripartite NATO-CSTO-SCO partnership backstopping what will be a protracted stabilization of a post-US/NATO Afghanistan extending into defusing a jihad under seize Pakistan (which is where everyone's attention should be riveted per The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014 by Carlotta Gall and Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding by Husain Haqqani). Indeed what one is looking at in such a scenario is almost a domino-like trajectory given the inter-linkages in Eurasian conflict systems.
An Indo-Pakistan grand settlement involving a demilitarizing of Kashmir, replete with autonomous 'shared sovereignty' between New Delhi and Islamabad could lay the ground for reintegrating greater South Asia – and India's liberation from Sino-Pakistan 'encirclement.' Even incentivizing Beijing to secure 'One China' settlements in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan based on applying the democratic cultural pluralism principle would have relevance to advancing a greater ESC. This might ensure the 'Asian Century' moving from the realm of utopia to something approaching reality based on intersecting multi-regional integration.
A neo-Brzezinskian Cold War settlement?
The geopolitical-security fragmentation of the Asian landscape precludes any realizing of Asia's potential in as much as other regions of the world will certainly not be standing idly by waiting for Asia to become globally hegemonic. Indeed, given Africa's economic surge, it may be more accurate to contemplate an increasingly 'Afro-Asian Century.' Otherwise, all one has to do in placing the future in perspective is to consider the possibilities of inter-American integration stemming from a concluding of Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations for triggering a North American consolidation alongside hemispheric integration that could come from an eventual ending of the Cuban embargo to get the drift of historical contingencies in the making.
As an aside, the Cuban question is yet another 'Cold War endgame' in need of brainstorming. But that is another piece altogether. For now, the centerpiece of any Eurasian geostrategic security system would seem to have to revolve around some kind of stabilizing architecture joining NATO and the CSTO emerging out of a 'multilateral dialogue' beginning with Ukraine and extending to include the SCO in a tripartite ESC. This is not an entirely new idea. Its origins are in "What Next for NATO?" 'kite flying' by Democratic party geostrategic guru, Zbigniew Brzezinski in the September/October 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs.
However, negotiating the geo-economic framework of a Ukrainian settlement will be critical in evolving such a new security architecture since resolving EU-Russian contradictions over economic linkages are at the heart of ending the destabilization of southeastern Ukraine. A federalized Ukraine would enable this region of the country to partake in Putin's Eurasian union while the rest of Ukraine carries forth in its association with the EU. Who knows, such an arrangement (albeit a de facto partition) could conceivably even evolve into a broader EU-Eurasian economic partnership approaching a vision held by some of a 'common market' extending from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Here, geo-economics are intimately intertwined with the protracted geopolitics of a vast strategic landscape.
Will Lady Sing the Blues?
Slotted into this picture would have to be an eventual resolution of Syria's civil war. It affects the positioning of Turkey as well as Russia within the Levantine intersection between Europe, the Middle East and central Eurasia along with a P5+1 nuclear settlement normalizing everyone's relations with Iran. In the process, Tehran is reintroduced back into energy security geopolitical-economic equations. All in all, there is a mother-load of contingencies that could be riding on China's "multilateral dialogue mechanism" depending on how serious Beijing is/was in throwing this undefined embryo into the maelstrom of politics surrounding the Ukraine crisis.
Will there be any takers? A signal for Ban Ki Moon to do some mediatory shuttle diplomacy? An opportunity for Angela Merkel to advance Germany's stated intentions of developing a more forthcoming diplomacy? Or for Obama to offset his conflicted relations with a macho Putin by burnishing he and Xi Jinping's 'new type of relationship' between Washington and Beijing – provided China really wants to assume some co-responsibility? The moment seems pregnant. But the possibilities could yet become stillborn. In short, the Cold War won't be over 'til it's really over, 'til somebody's 'fat lady sings' – hopefully not the blues!
Francis A. Kornegay Jr. is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue and a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.