• Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

The Accidental Re-birth of the Western Alliance

ByIssy Clarke

Apr 14, 2022
Putin at desk

This article was originally uploaded on the 19th March

There are many things Putin probably didn’t anticipate when he mounted his full-scale invasion of Ukraine last month.  One of these is the extent and efficacy of Ukrainian resistance which has turned what he planned would be a swift annexation into a potentially lengthy war of attrition.  The other is the revival of the Western alliance.

After years of strained relations within the Western Bloc, trapped in a stasis of perpetual discord over Brexit and the isolationist policies of the Trump administration, it finds itself in almost total unanimity on the two big questions it has been confronted with by the war.  All want to provide Ukraine with support.  None are willing to involve themselves directly in the war against Russia.

Whether or not one agrees with this policy – and it certainly has drawn many detractors criticising the West’s failure to come to the direct aid of Ukraine – the degree of unity between Western partners is undeniably the highest its been since 9/11.

Economic sanctions are the main weapon in the West’s arsenal, and have traditionally been seen as a meagre answer to hard power.  However, with the full backing of the EU, the UK and the US, they carry enormous bite.  According to Bloomberg, the value of the Russian rouble has fallen by 28 per cent this year, and Russia’s GDP for 2022 is predicted to plummet by 9 per cent by the end of the year – for context, the economic contraction during the first year of the pandemic stood at 2 per cent.  Western businesses, ranging from Nike to McDonalds, have decided to close their shutters to Russian markets – a potent symbol of Russia’s economic isolation.  Putin’s decision to resort to nuclear sabre-rattling betrays his insecurity – an economically isolated Russia will find it difficult to amass the resources required for a sustained war effort, as well as the public quiescence once faced with rising prices and shrinking consumer markets.

The crisis in Ukraine has illustrated that the institutions which govern the liberal international order are still relevant, because the values which underpin them have remained unchanged.  Concerns about the future of Western co-operation and the NATO alliance have multiplied in recent history, against the backdrop of fraught tensions between the UK and the EU during the Brexit years, and suspicion of American leadership following the isolationist policies of its former president Donald Trump.  However, the emergence of the most urgent threat to democracy and basic freedoms in recent history illustrates the remarkable durability of the rules-based liberal international order. 

Of course, the relationship is not seamless.  Western unity behind economic sanctions has snagged on the issue of the extent of European dependence on Russian energy – almost half of all the EU’S oil and gas supply flows from Russia.  In contrast to Britain and the US who have levied a total ban on Russian oil imports, the EU have only managed to commit to lowering their dependency on Russian energy by two thirds within the next decade.  The presence of Germany looms large in the EU’s decisions.  Its dependency on Russian gas outstrips that of the other major states within the bloc, and it has been unwilling to completely halt construction of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline set to run between Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea. If the war rumbles on, the pressure on European gas supplies will increase and will lead to higher prices, which will in turn risk probing tensions with its American and British counterparts who are less dependent on Russian energy. 

But if there is one thing that the West has demonstrated in its response to Putin’s war, it is that it retains the ability to act effectively and decisively through its collective institutions when faced with a common threat.  Europe has been given a nasty shove forcing it to re-evaluate its economic ties with Russia, and is scrambling to diversify its gas supply by looking to the US and Saudi Arabia.

The invasion of a sovereign, European state has reminded the West that its interests remain more attuned with one another than they are different.

This follows a long period of a growing tendency amongst Western policy makers and commentators to dismiss NATO and the Western economic system as anachronisms of the Cold War.  On the contrary, they have become channels for Western values to translate themselves into concerted action in support of its shared values.  Whether this action is sufficient is another question.

Image courtesy of kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons