The war in Ukraine has come as a surprise to many. Indeed, observers indicate the turning point it marks in history and the far-reaching consequences it will have. While the events are certainly drastic, it is important to contextualise them in order to see the continuities, and not just the ruptures. Such continuities are observable in at least three aspects: The war itself, the way conflicts are managed and the prevailing world order.
First, the current war in Ukraine is an escalation of an armed conflict that started in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and fighting in the Donbas region erupted. These events were preceded by the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008. What is different now is that Russia has started a military invasion of the entire territory of Ukraine, which also brings the conflict to the doorsteps of NATO countries and heightens its escalation risk. But just as the war in Ukraine did not develop overnight, the tensions between Russia and Western countries have been simmering for a while, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks the latest in a series of escalating clashes over contested spheres of influence.
Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine came as a shock, as many observers were convinced that Putin would try to resolve the conflict through diplomacy rather than a full-blown war, especially given that it involves the major powers. However, while surprising, his use of force is a manifestation of a longer-term shift in how conflicts are managed. While the 1990s saw a high incidence of diplomacy in the form of negotiation, mediation and other peaceful means to resolve disputes, recent years have witnessed an increasing prioritisation of military over diplomatic means. The war on terror has seeded the idea that in some situations, only military responses are viable and unilateral actions tolerable. What is more, the current calls for increased military expenditures in many Western European countries risk to further militarise global politics and stand to erode the very norm these states seek to uphold: that of a peaceful settlement of disputes.
Third, the war in Ukraine is the final, but not the first, wake-up call that we live in a multipolar world order. Such multipolarity is often linked to increased geopolitical competition. Indeed, UN Security Council blockages over Syria have long indicated that the permanent five member states (P5) are fundamentally divided on key issues of world politics. However, the blatant violation of international law by Putin in Ukraine indicates that multipolarity may involve a broader questioning of the fundamental norms that make up the international order. The massive solidarity with Ukraine and the General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s actions show that the vast majority of societies and states strongly denounce violations of international law. But only the events in the next few weeks and months will reveal the resilience of the norms at the core of the current international order.
The above shows that we need to understand the longer-term developments underlying the current war in Ukraine in order to have a sound assessment of the situation and to answer the main question at stake here: How can we adapt current conflict management instruments to the multipolar world order in order to halt the conflict in Ukraine, as well as other existing and future conflicts?