The Ukrainian invasion: the world stage without a lead?

Apostolos Thomadakis considers conflicts of interest in countries’ responses to Putin’s attack on Ukraine, and discusses an apparent void in effective and strategic European or global leadership on this crisis.

Although countries around the world have implemented unprecedented and expansive sanction packages, these have not been enough to deter President Putin from continuing his invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions are important, but without a clear strategic plan they can be rather meaningless. With energy prices skyrocketing, raw materials being traded as global commodities, transport costs rising dramatically, and the largest wave of refugees since World War II, we face a perfect storm.

Europe, in particular, is experiencing its largest humanitarian crisis for decades and the post-Cold War security order is under pressure. In this context, there is a need for greater ambitions and to do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Putin’s attack. Leadership is vital. Yet, it seems we are short of leaders both in Europe and the wider world.

In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a historic U-turn when he decided overnight to set up a EUR 100 billion fund for military and defence spending. In addition, Germany has decided to treat energy as a national security matter and wean itself off Russian natural gas. Despite this, however, the Chancellor is not so much at the forefront of developments, as scrambling to respond to them. He is leading a diverse political coalition in need of institutional transformation and national cultural renewal. If Germany overcomes these hurdles, it may yet re-emerge as the European and global leader it was during Merkel’s days and boost Europe’s strategic independence.

In the UK, although Brexit gives Britain the opportunity for flexibility in managing international crises, the country’s current political landscape does not help in formulating a clear and realistic Western response to Putin. Russia’s invasion offers Prime Minister Boris Johnson an opportunity to atone for the scandal of the lockdown parties at Number 10, but there remains an absence of planning for the future within his Government.

In the US, even though there is a clear consensus that it will not go to war with Russia, there is a sharp divide between Republicans and Democrats, which undermines American leadership. On one hand, Republicans accuse President Biden of failing to confront Putin while some may even prefer to let President Putin succeed. On the other hand, Democrats are satisfied by Biden’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine. As a result, at a time when the Western world, and especially Europe, is confronted with a major security threat which will affect the daily lives of citizens, the American President and his government are followers not leaders. Like in Europe, US sanctions are also undermined by the USD 74 million per day the US spends on Russian oil and gas.

In the Middle East, the stance of Israel and major Arab countries demonstrates the problems posed by US foreign policy in the region. Israel, for example, which is busy coordinating its military activities against Hezbollah and Iran, has had strong ties with Russian military authorities since Netanyahu took office. At the same time, Israel is a strong ally of the US and has very good military relations with Ukraine. When Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked to increase oil production to help offset the effects of sanctions on Russia and thus ease prices, he decided to side with Russia and abide by OPEC+ quotas.

Another long-term US ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), initially abstained on the United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due to its energy relationship with Russia. While the UAE eventually supported the Resolution, it shares a strong opposition to the American-led world order with Iran, which unsurprisingly abstained from condemning Russia in the UN. 

Turkey follows a rather more opportunistic path, and the war in Ukraine is a balancing exercise between Washington, Moscow, Ukraine and Europe. President Erdogan tries to keep everyone satisfied without disappointing anyone. Despite being a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member and having condemned Russia’s invasion to Ukraine, Turkey will not put its strong political and economic links with both Russia and Ukraine at risk. Turkey has not sanctioned Russia nor closed its airspace to Russian aircrafts, but has supplied armed drones to Ukraine.  

China, which regards the US as a power in relative decline and the EU as an entity that is unable to effectively leverage its economic power, is an ‘ally without borders’ to Russia. This means that China has not introduced sanctions against Russia, and has offered Russian banks access to its cross-border interbank payment system (CIPS). However, the Chinese government will not risk the country’s own financial interests, nor its commercial ties with the US and Europe. President Jinping may want to help Putin, but it is in his interests for the war to end as soon as possible.

Perhaps one exception in the gloom of pervasive lack of European or global leadership on this crisis, is President Macron. Although his efforts to prevent the war failed, he sees the war in the long run and realistically analyses the situation. It is no coincidence that he is the only European leader to have kept a direct channel of communication open with President Putin, while he has actively advocated on the need to further improve the European security,  defense and autonomy. The vision is clear: lay down a path that will strengthen Europe’s stature on the world stage and shore up its self-reliance, especially on energy.

Dr Apostolos Thomadakis is Researcher at the European Capital Markets Institute (ECMI), an independent research institute run by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo taken in Bratislava, Slovakia by Michal Matlon, from Unsplash.

One thought on “The Ukrainian invasion: the world stage without a lead?

  1. This analysis is an overview of the situation at the diplomatic level. It would have benefitted from consideration of the military support being given to Ukraine, in particular from the USA and the UK. In that context I think we can argue that there is not a lack of leadership – although there is clearly scope for more to be done.


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