Russia-Ukraine Clash Marks Beginning of Second Cold War, Consolidating Political Regimes and Regional-Economic Alliances

The claim to being the largest European conflict since World War II has major consequences for the Russia-Ukraine clash on the level of territory distributions, trade relations, and regional alliances.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 must be analyzed in the context of ongoing global transformation processes. If the period between the First and Second World War was only an interruption, the same is also true for the period between the First and Second Cold War,” opines Velina Tchakarova, Director of the Austrian Institute for European Security Policy. In a shifting world order, Tchakarova points to the conflict as “marking a new chapter in Moscow’s geopolitical approach.” Of course, this shift has repercussions for historical alliances and antagonisms between nations, formed in the Cold War context by the split between socialist autocracy and liberal democracy. A report from the Wilson Center concurs, advancing the analysis of experts upon the invasion of Ukraine. Experts have claimed that “we face the real end of (or the confirmation) of the Cold War and its dichotomies. What we witness would be the outright confrontation between civic liberalism and autocracy, or the ‘West’ and the ‘East,'” the Wilson Center reports.

It seems that the Ukraine conflict marks the confirmation of these dichotomies, which are shifting to accommodate the rise of other global powers. “Washington, through its unchallenged global power projection, has shaped both international relations and globalized socioeconomic networks since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Tchakarova writes. Meanwhile, “China’s impressive economic growth has caused heightened expectations of its continued rise. However, it remains to be seen whether Beijing will be able to convert its growing geoeconomic weight and geopolitical influence into global power projection in the future.”

The post-Cold War geographies that the Ukraine conflict traces reaffirm the political gulfs of that order and reconstitute the regional divides the opposed regimes insistently map onto. The West-East animosity has graduated to its 21st Century incarnation, as nations like China emerge as players in the regional split. Tchakarova submits that “China’s response [to the Ukraine invasion] and its overt diplomatic, financial, and economic support for Russia was also noteworthy,” consolidating a regional alignment between the two powerful Eastern nations. As the Ukraine conflict demarcates the contours of new and familiar geopolitical formations, regional players like Russia are coerced into positioning themselves according to political mandates issued from the economic exigencies of nations like China. Russia has cleaved to China as a lone trade partner, thus committing itself to an emergent geopolitical program run by the latter’s trade interests.

Simone McCarthy reports for CNN that “as Russia’s economic isolation in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine pushes it closer to Beijing,” the two nations are making overt gestures of solidarity. The connection is made literal in the construction of a vehicle bridge between what “state media on both sides have called the first highway bridge over the Amur,” the river separating modern Russia and China, McCarthy reports. The bridge was feted by officials on both sides, as well as with a convoy of trucks bearing the flags of each nation.

The bridge “has special symbolic significance in today’s disunited world,” Yury Trutnev, the Kremlin’s envoy to the Russian Far East, clarified for viewers. “It will become yet another thread of friendship linking the people of Russia and China,” he said. The symbolism translates to a real effect upon the trade capabilities of the nations, which will be empowered to transit millions of tons of goods between themselves yearly. “That is likely to further boost bilateral trade between China and Russia,” McCarthy writes, “already forecast to climb as Moscow increasingly looks to Beijing for economic partnership, though questions remain over how far China will go to support its sanctions-hit neighbor.” The partnership remains for China both low-stakes politically and advantageous economically, as a desperate Russia concedes to “meet China halfway.”

But the bridges, “each built in two halves, by the Chinese on one side and the Russians on the other — and the river they traverse also underline the uneasy foundations of that relationship,” McCarthy underlines. Her article stresses the contextual nature of the strengthening alliance, where until recently, “Russia was a bit reluctant…to build this kind of infrastructure, for fear of becoming too dependent on China,” Artyom Lukin, an associate professor of international relations at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, said. “But now,” Lukin concludes, “Russia has no choice.” As global trade networks and political formations continue to polarize, Russia is pushed ever-closer to a rising China in the East.

But perhaps this concurs with Putin’s strategic plan to make Russia indispensable to the U.S.-China rivalry. Russia’s territorial ambitions reflect a desire to “revive a post-imperial state as a great power with a significantly improved position in global politics,” leveraging Russia’s expanded territory towards a power center farther from its historical bases in Eastern Europe and closer to Eurasia. The long-term plan this represents would “reshape European security architecture once and for all,” forecasting Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific as growing centers of strategic concern for the major players in geopolitics.