How Ukraine’s crisis surprised the naive West World Economic Forum, Flickr
Vladimir Putin surprised the International Community with his actions in Ukraine. How will Europe and the US respond to the Ukrainian Crisis?

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” – Francis Fukuyama, 1992

With the implosion of the U.S.S.R. and the end of communist rule devised by Lenin, the U.S., proud winners of the ideological confrontation, viewed themselves in a hegemonic position on the globe, without anyone who could face them and with no apparent challenges in their ownership.

People became convinced that the communist giant had been slain in mortal combat, and no one really backed the hypothesis of another Soviet rise once Russia was sentenced to lick the wounds caused by its own venom.

Capitalism had won! 

And, according to Fukuyama’s followers, the defeated ones had no alternative but to adopt the Western mentality and join the so-called global civilization. At least, this idea was assimilated into Western public opinion and nurtured by the American administration.

In practice, the U.S. has always acted with the intent to limit to the maximum the young descendant of the unsuccessful Soviet Union, the Russian Federation. Consider this: why not put an end to NATO, when the communist bloc collapsed? Not only did the U.S. not disband the organization, but also strengthened it, advancing the lines eastward and obtaining membership for former members of the Warsaw Pact, contrary to the agreed position between Americans and Russians.

But, as a boxer fallen in the ring, Russia rose again. And while the U.S. turned its back and celebrated the knock-out, Russia stood up and again showed itself to the Western world, still blind with collecting the spoils of the Cold War. Humiliated, trampled upon and discredited, the Russian Federation was accumulating anger and recovering its fragmented power.

Russia sided with the Americans in the 1990 Gulf War, but opposed the intervention in the former Yugoslavia only a few years later. In the seat of power, the U.S. ignored Russia and acted unilaterally. The Russians were not taken seriously. They returned to show solidarity with the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks. And so, the Americans did not bother too much with the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 and just started to deal with a little more caution with Russia when the latter vehemently opposed a possible intervention in Syria.

When in early 2014, Ukraine collapsed, so close to the U.S.’s European ally and to NATO’s borders, it was suddenly realized that Russia could no longer be treated like an angry teenager.

The reaction to the current crisis in Ukraine had some difficulties by the fact that public opinion generally didn’t understand well what the Ukrainian real aims were when overthrowing the ruling power, besides the opposition to the corrupt government of Yanukovich. Was it a pro-European revolution, following 2004? Was it an anti-Russian movement? Or a revolution for a free and independent Ukraine?

The media in the West did not lose much time analyzing these issues in the early days after the military siege of Crimea. They spread the message to the people, with some levity and a degree of irresponsibility, that an armed conflict was imminent. The Russians could not go unpunished; they were the bad guys, and they would pay for it.

"The Second World War also began with an annexation by Hitler” said several American and European leaders and commentators. The West had to act! But the situation has been dragging and Western action was marked by unsuccessful negotiations and derisory sanctions. It turns out that the public did not take too seriously the consequences of their words. They spoke of war as a trip to the park.

This is a typical behavior of a generation fully rooted in Fukuyama’s vision. For the Westerners, the Russians had to realize that there was no alternative to capitalism and Western democracy. It seems contradictory to say that a believer in a generation of unchallenged global Western civilization could expect a war with the Russian Federation. The key point for this reasoning lies in the concept of war and how it was shaped by the end of Cold War and communist threat. War for the West may indeed have been traumatic, as in Iraq, but is based on the premise that the good guys will always win, for sure.

In another historical period any Westerner who heard the word “war” would tremble from head to foot. Nowadays, there is no rival to the West and therefore no danger. Russia occupying Crimea? So, it is thought, there must be a conflict; but in it the assumption that a set of military parades or daunting airstrikes would culminate, of course, with Russia surrendering to the evident superiority of the West.

A few days later, people realize that Russia is back, has a modern and numerous army, with military bases scattered everywhere, has an economic and energy system that has Europe hostage, is based in strongly rooted civilization, has a territory rich in resources and has a huge desire to take an alternative model to the West.

The Western public opinion retreats and the climate of suspicion and mutual fear increases. They start to remember nuclear weapons and the old scares of an imminent Third World War. The ghosts of the Cold War may be back.

Over time and after the necessary distance, we can better analyze the situation and try to realize what the future will hold for the distribution of power worldwide.

Whether by inertia of the European Union, or by the mismanagement of U.S.’s hegemonic power after the collapse of the USSR, or by a long process of Russian ascension, the truth is that the crisis in Ukraine triggered a new system of ideological confrontation and power between the two blocs, spurred by the fall from power in Kiev, the referendum in Crimea and pro-Russian and pro-Western demonstrations in the country.

The crisis of Ukraine could to become, in later historical analysis, only the warhead element of a new historical cycle very close to the Cold War. That is, the future of Ukraine as a country, regardless of its revolution and even assuming a compromise between the U.S. and Russia, will no longer be the central concern in the international community.

The weakness of the European Union in dealing with this before, during and after the crisis, demonstrating its problematic status quo through the absence of an ambitious and effective European joint plan, again leaving things to the American older brother – all this shows that it is also just a pawn in this new two-sided game and reinforces the idea that, without a unified federal power, Europe cannot act independently in the international system, and is forced to align with the U.S. And again, the new global confrontation is based on a conflict on the European continent.

It is therefore essential that Europe finally reforms itself and exercises leadership, to be able to act and decide independently in its own geographical area. Only thus can be avoided another period of ideological confrontation and a new tug of war between the Americans and Russians.

It is up to the U.S. and Russia to understand their position in this new so-called bipolar international system, since there are other major players on the globe such as China, India, Brazil, Japan and (we hope) Europe, and to act in order to reduce the current climate of tension. And above all, the two have a responsibility not to use the conflict within Ukraine as a proxy, providing credible instruments for the people to choose their own destiny, without pressures, threats or inducements, with the greatest beneficial outcome for its multiethnic society. Otherwise, one runs the risk of making Ukraine another Berlin Wall. 

The major focus of uncertainty, if we return to a Cold War period, concerns the fact that, unlike the post-World War II period, there are now more alternative models to U.S. and Russia. And the pan-European model must demonstrate that it is the most credible in its own continent.

The article is written by António Saraiva Lima, Project Assistant at the Project for Democratic Union. 

Edited by: Lisa Enocsson