The war in Ukraine is challenging the world in ways that we have not seen since the second world war. The war has led to over 6 million Ukrainian refugees, increased danger of nuclear war, and growing food and energy crises. Even more, it has further shaken the principle of state sovereignty and respect for territorial boundaries rooted in the idea that no state can increase the size of its territory by conquest. Overall, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended the unipolar world order that emerged with the fall of communism. In his June 17, 2022 speech to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Vladimir Putin reiterated his view that the unipolar world is not only one-sided and unstable, but it is also ending. As the people of Ukraine continue to suffer as the frontline defenders of liberal values and the principle of sovereignty in Europe, a few issues are important to consider. First, how does the invasion of Ukraine fit into the unipolar modes of oppressions? Second, what form of oppression does the Russian occupation of Ukraine breed in a multipolar world? Finally, what is the path forward for Ukraine?
The Unipolar Word and the Banality of Oppression
The unipolar world emerged with the fall the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989) and the Soviet Union (December 25, 1991) which were seen as the triumph of western liberalism as famously captured in Francis Fukuyama’s idea of “the end of history.” In its orthodox form, the unipolar world is the emergency of the United States as the sole-super seeking what Immanuel Wallerstein called hegemony and the domination of western military, political and economic institutions under what Mark Duffield dubbed as global liberal governance. In a speech to military cadets in November 2007, Vladimir Putin stated that “There are those who would like to build a unipolar world, who would themselves like to rule all of humanity,” which was a veiled reference to the United States. But the unipolar world goes a bit deeper than state hegemony and western transnational institutions when viewed from the lens of oppression. Arguably, unipolarity has its domestic variants in the forms of cultural dominations, such as hyper-liberalism and white supremacy. The key debate about the unipolar world centers on the freedom-oppression continuum. Freedom, both in terms of political liberty and economic and social choices, has been the hallmark of US policies during the Cold War and after the fall of the communism – all systems that are not based on liberal democracy and free market economy are seen as oppressive. But that same issue of liberty exists domestically within the US and beyond. In a way, hyper-neoliberalism and white supremacy, which have been exerted globally and domestically, are themselves modes of oppression in a system in which power is in the hands of a dominant ideology and a majority racial group. Globally, unipolarity is exerted through aggressive economic and political neoliberalism from Western powers in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Domestically, unipolarity is manifested in racial and social injustice.
The tragedy befalling the people of Ukraine can be viewed from both the state-sovereignty and cultural angles of oppression. Both forms of oppression have plenty of recent examples. Indeed, when George W. Bush criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine he mistakenly characterized it as “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq” before correcting himself by saying “I mean, of Ukraine. …. Iraq, too — anyway.” Bush’s Freudian slip affirms what many, including Kofi Annan, have stated that the US invasion of Iraq was unjustified. By the time the US withdrew from Iraq, the people had suffered as much as they did under the oppression of Saddam Hussain. On the cultural angle of oppression, the United States continues to suffer from gross racial and social injustice against black and brown people and other cultural minorities. Perhaps the issue of racial profiling and police brutality is the most vivid manifestation of racial oppression, as evident in the killing of George Floyd. Of course, various other forms of cultural and social oppressions have been going around the world – the Uyghurs in China, Palestinians in the Middle East, and refugees and irregular migrants in Latin America and Africa. All of these, and other cases, point to the banality of oppression in the unipolar setting. Wars and severe sanctions against countries that deny the neoliberal principles of the unipolar world are commonplace, just as racial and social injustices are very pervasive. Interestingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine brings forth both the state-aggression and the cultural angles of oppression. Russian aggression is fused with claims of cultural liberation of Russian people in Ukraine. In the processes, Russia is demonizing Ukraine as a fascist state, which Ukraine vehemently denies.
Unipolarity has been challenged globally and domestically. As it turned out, the end of history was not so much a lasting triumph of western liberalism. Three forms of resistance are worth noting: a) state-resistance and geopolitical realignments, b) terrorism warfare, and c) racial and social justice resistance. At the geopolitical level, China and Russia have gone from embracing liberalism and working with the West to positioning themselves as formidable counterweight to the West. China has done this through unprecedented economic expansion and significant military modernization, while Russia has beefed up its military and strive to foster economic resilience and greater collaboration with China. Both countries have managed to chip into traditional regions of western domination, especially in Africa, and lay the foundation of a multipolar world. Violent nonstate actors have also challenged the United States and its allies through terrorism warfare as most evident in the tragic 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. At the cultural and social level, neoliberalism and white supremacy have been challenged by movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. All of these point to multipolarity, globally and domestically. In the United States, this multipolarity is evident in the wider ideological divide between right-wing conservatives and progressives, as well as the racial divide pitting white supremacy against growing black and brown activism. Multipolarity does not end oppression, but it does transform oppression and the resistance to oppression. Ukraine brings another troubling variant of oppression under multipolarity.
Ukraine: A New Breed of Oppression in a Multipolar World
In a way, Ukraine points to a new breed of oppression in a world in which oppression is commonplace. The Russian invasion of Ukraine dovetail with both the cultural and geopolitical aspects of oppression. Four issues have been advanced to explain the Russian invasion of Ukraine: a) Russian authoritarianism, b) Russian nationalism and dreams for Greater Russia, c) NATO expansion toward Russian boarders, and d) Russian minorities in Russia. While Russia cites NATO expansion and the rights of Russian minorities in Ukraine as existential threats to Russia that justify the invasion of Ukraine, those reasons have been dismissed by Ukraine and its western allies as unjustified aggression rooted in Putin’s authoritarian hold on Russia and Russian ambition to recreate a Greater Russia akin to the Soviet Union.
The invasion of Ukraine is an act of aggression, irrespective of the reasons that explain the invasion. More importantly, it is happening in a multipolar context in which US and western power is being contested, neoliberalism distrusted, and White supremacy challenged. Unfortunately, all three of these elements are negatively impacting Ukraine in a way that is breeding a diabolical form of oppression rooted in a total war of destruction. Russia is challenging both liberalism and the military power of the West as well as Europeanism. At the same time, non-Western countries are seeing the Ukraine war as an European war; and the western efforts to cast the war in more global liberal and humanitarian terms is viewed as Eurocentric and projection of White supremacy. The net result seems to be a proxy war in which western powers are supporting Ukraine to fight Russian aggression while themselves avoiding direct war with Russia, which is dangling its nuclear weapons.
Ukraine is facing a situation of a prolonged war of destruction. While Ukraine is a victim of state-driven aggression, it also risks being seen as an part of an effort to promote liberalism and Eurocentrism in a way that the suffering of Ukrainians has been placed above that of other victims of wars and oppression around the world, including non-White people in Ukraine. Western restrain in its support of Ukraine and lukewarm sympathy for Ukraine from non-Western countries simply throws Ukraine into the long lists of oppressions that have become commonplace. As we learn from other cases, the banality of oppression breeds stalemates that prolong suffering.
A Path Forward for Ukraine
The ideal outcome to the Ukraine war is for Russia to withdraw and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, preferably through popular protests and political and ideological realignment within Russia or a military defeat at the hands of Ukraine. Such an outcome seems unlikely. Because of its nuclear weapons, a Russian loss of the war may simply be in the form of a stalemate in which Russia fails to topple the government of Ukraine or advance its territorial gains, but it keeps causing trouble in Ukraine by holding on to some Ukrainian territory and periodically bombing Ukrainian cities. It will be difficult for Ukraine and its allies to teach Russia a lesson as long Russia shows credible willingness to use nuclear weapons and continues playing the nationalist card at home while maintaining good relations with China. What is extremely worrying is that while a Russian victory is becoming increasingly unlikely, a Russian defeat still seems remote – hence a potential stalemate that perpetuates oppression.
Yet, as bad as it is, this potential stalemate may provide opportunities to resolve the conflict, albeit in a less than ideal way that will affirm multipolarity. Generally, there has been two kinds of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine had held direct talks to negotiate an end to war, but these have not been successful largely because Russia wanted Ukraine to surrender, while Ukraine is not willing to give up territory especially anywhere beyond the Crimean peninsula. The other negotiations are on humanitarian issues, which other countries are very interested in, such as the export of Ukrainian grains, the state of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and exchange of prisoners of war. These limited humanitarian negotiations have resulted in some shipment of Ukrainian grain and freeing of some prisoners. But what other options for a durable solution exist within the context of a stalemate?
A good start will be to go to the prewar grievances expressed by Russia, which was limited to NATO expansion. During his prewar mediation effort, Emmanuel Macron suggested that the West must “respect” Russia as a way to end of the conflict. Macron seemed to suggest that “respect” means understanding Russian security concerns. As he noted, “The geopolitical goal of Russia today is clearly not [to seize] Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU.” Macron further stated that “it is legitimate that Russia pose the question of its own security.” Henry Kissinger has also suggested a similar idea of respect, but one in which Russia may keep a hold on some Ukrainian territory – a suggestion which has been strongly criticized, especially by Ukraine. This issue of respect, centered on Ukraine’s initial willingness to forego NATO membership, may be a place to go back – now that both sides have shown their strength and landed in a stalemate.
Respect, be it in inter-state relations or relations among members of different racial groups, is central to understanding peace in a multipolar setting. Struggles against state hegemony or racial domination are struggles for respect. Of course, respect is two-sided and should be reciprocal. A critical issue here is whether Western respect for Russia will fulfill Ukrainian need for respect from Russia. In his suggestions, Kissinger noted that “Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe” – with the exception of joining NATO. Critical security considerations are pushing NATO boundaries further to Russia as Finland and Sweden are on path to joining NATO. Can a pause to that processes and a future in which Ukraine can be like Finland provide sufficient respect for Russia, Ukraine, and the West? Such a solution will reinforce multipolarity in a kind of new Cold War peace. Perhaps, a broader lesson from struggles against oppression, notably racial oppression, is the “cup half full or half empty” kind of feeling. This is a lesson that Ukraine may draw upon as it too resists oppression. Oppression thrives in conflicts and stalemates. However, stalemate within peace is significantly different from stalemate within conflict.