In the early weeks of November 2021, the international community – especially Ukraine and its NATO allies – was given cause for concern after the publication of detailed aerial photographs of what appeared to be a Russian military buildup along the Russo-Ukrainian border. This mobilization of Russian forces so close to the embattled Donbas region of eastern Ukraine conjured up memories of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, with retired American diplomat Matthew Bryza writing for the Financial Times, “History may now be repeating itself…Russia could be planning to reprise its 2008 invasion of Georgia, this time in Ukraine, where 14,000 Ukrainian lives have already been claimed by this conflict.”
This drastic escalation of tensions may seem sudden or unwarranted, but, upon re-examination of the year’s events within the context of the new cold war between NATO and the Russia-China-Iran bloc, this year has been rife with instances of power plays from both sides which have pushed both major superpowers – the United States and Russia – to step up their competitive efforts. 2021 has thus far proven to be a watershed year in the development of 21st-century politics and diplomatic relations as the sociopolitical disruptions caused by COVID-19 in 2020 are gradually fading away and the pre-pandemic geopolitical situation is once again coming to the forefront with new leadership in the White House and new flashpoints which present new international crises.
2021 started with an abortive attempt by supporters of the isolationist American president Donald Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 United States presidential election, which ultimately resulted in the inauguration of a liberal internationalist, Joe Biden, on 20 January. Just under two weeks into Biden’s presidency, a coup by the Russian and Chinese-backed Burmese military ousted the democratically-elected government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, and both nations vetoed a United Nations resolution condemning the coup. From February to March 2021, a political crisis engulfed a war-weary Armenia as a revanchist faction within the military (backed by the pro-Russian Republican Party, ousted from power in a 2018 revolution) demanded the resignation of the pro-Western Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in what the Prime Minister called a “coup attempt”. This led to Prime Minister Pashinyan agreeing to resign and hold a snap election in June, which his electoral alliance won with a majority of the vote and parliamentary representation in a setback for the pro-Russian opposition factions.
In April, July, and November 2021, the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party lost three consecutive general elections to two successive anti-corruption movements, with the November 2021 election leaving pro-European parties as the top three performers in the election and the once-powerful BSP in a distant fourth. On 23 May, a Ryanair flight carrying a Belarusian opposition activist, Roman Protasevich, was forced to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk by a Belarusian fighter jet in order for the pro-Russian authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to arrest yet another powerful dissident. In July and August, Iran allegedly attacked two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, with two crew members (including a Briton) being killed in the first attack (a drone attack) and a second tanker being briefly held captive by armed gunmen in the second. On 15 August, the United States was humiliated when the Taliban, whose fighters had allegedly been paid bounties by Russia and China if they killed American soldiers, seized power in Kabul after a lightning offensive that deprived the Americans of a major regional ally in Central Asia. On 15 September 2021, the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia entered into a new military pact (AUKUS) with the objective of challenging China’s rising military power in the Asia-Pacific region. Finally, on 17-19 September, Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party won 324 out of 450 seats in Russia’s parliament, the State Duma (in spite of winning only 49.82% of the popular vote) in an election deemed neither free nor fair by the international community, and involving only 38% of Russia’s voters.
What conclusion does this exhaustive list testify to? Each of these events was a shot fired by either the United States-led bloc or the Russo-Chinese-Iranian-led bloc in a global conflict marked by proxy wars, democratic elections marred by foreign interference and rendered critically important due to global ramifications, and changing political situations in countries around the world. By November 2021, it seems that the West is on the back foot militarily as the Afghanistan War ended in unmitigated disaster for the American-led bloc, an emerging separatist crisis in Bosnia has failed to generate serious media or political interest from NATO or the European Union, and the Eastern European partners of the United States are preoccupied with a migrant crisis along Belarus’ borders as Russia prepares what is feared to possibly be a renewed invasion of Ukraine, this time is done with marked soldiers rather than “little green men”. At the start of this year, almost none of this year’s developments appeared to be in the cards, as the worst phases of the international COVID-19 crisis had largely distracted nation-states away from their international squabbles.
Why, then, is Russia preparing for an invasion of Ukraine? From a broad analysis of the aforementioned developments in 2021, Western democracy is fighting back politically rather than militarily. In Armenia, the remnants of the ousted pro-Russian regime failed to regain power either militarily or through democratic elections; Bulgaria thrice voted for anti-corruption and broadly pro-European parties over the pro-Russian BSP, Moldova followed up a 2020 presidential transition from a pro-Russian president to an avowedly pro-European one with a 2021 parliamentary election which saw the pro-European party win a majority, and Germany’s two pro-Russian parties, The Left and Alternative for Germany, lost seats in a general election which partly reversed the far-right’s gains in 2017 and nearly annihilated the far-left. Russia’s campaign of interference in international elections seems to have ultimately failed as national populism in Europe has become associated more with opposing COVID restrictions than with disrupting the American-led power bloc by fighting “globalization”.
Thus, Russia is faced with a situation in which the West appears to be uninterested in military interventions in the wake of the Afghanistan fiasco, yet in which Western democracy has survived the populist wave of the 2010s and even spread to Armenia and Moldova by the 2020s. To Russia, then, the Western bloc appears to be a more powerful ideological threat than ever before, heightening political tensions, while the West’s growing revulsion with military interventions will concurrently enable Russia to make a new show of force by generating crises in Bosnia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with the latter crisis potentially involving a Russian invasion in the near future. This threat of Russian incursions into Ukraine is thus not a sudden or unpredictable one, but merely the next move in a long and destructive game of geopolitical chess between the US-European power bloc and the Russian-led, anti-hegemonic alliance. What comes next is yet unknown, but, whatever happens, it will be only the latest escalation of tensions since 2021 brought the world back into its pre-pandemic global showdown between its two superpowers and their allies.