The present US-led global order is facing stiff challenges from several directions. The main challenge comes, of course, from China which surpassed the US economy last year in purchasing power parity terms and may do so in nominal dollar terms some time in the second half of the next decade if present trends continue. However, China remains far behind the US in military power and capabilities. It will not be till the end of the first half of the 21st century that China will be able to achieve parity with the US in military power. But there are other changes taking place on the international scene which should be a source of concern to the US. Perhaps the most important one of them is a re-assertive Russia. The growing Western strategic expansion in Eastern Europe at the expense of Russia has finally caused Moscow to hit back in Ukraine, thereby, upsetting American calculations. It is quite clear now that Russia under President Putin is no longer prepared to play a passive role in the face of NATO’s creeping expansion in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine where battle-lines have been drawn between pro-West and pro-Russia elements. It should also be obvious that an assertive Russia would carry grave implications for the present global order, especially if it joins hands with China as appears to be the case at present.

But let us first see what has really happened in Ukraine. The negotiations amongst the United States, the Soviet Union, and West Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, led to an agreement on the Soviet military withdrawal from East Germany and German reunification. In return, US officials hinted to Moscow in February, 1990 that NATO would not expand eastward. But there was no formal written agreement restricting NATO’s expansion into Easter Europe following the German reunification. Contrary to the understanding, howsoever informal and non-binding, given to Gorbachev, NATO added 12 East European states in three rounds of enlargement in 1999, 2004 and 2009 subsequent to German reunification in October, 1990. Russian leaders and scholars complain from time to time about the alleged betrayal by the West of the promises made to Gorbachev. Russia failed to react strongly to NATO’s eastward expansion because of its weakness and because none of the new NATO members shared a border with Russia.

It is against the bitterness that the Russian leaders and officials feel over the alleged betrayal of the promises made in 1990 that one should look at the tragic drama unfolding in Ukraine. Distinguished American scholar John J. Mearsheimer in an article entitled “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault”, which appeared in the Foreign Affairs issue of September-October, 2014, stresses that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the (Ukraine) crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” Putin decided to take a firm stand against further eastward expansion of NATO when the alliance declared at its summit in April 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine, which share borders with Russia, would “become members of NATO”. Similarly, the EU also unveiled its Eastern Partnership initiative in May 2008 to integrate countries like Ukraine into the EU economy. As Mearsheimer notes, Russian leaders view the EU plan as hostile to their interests.

It was for these reasons that Putin reacted forcefully to the Washington-backed coup in Ukraine in February, 2014 to overthrow its democratically elected and pro-Russian president Yanukovych and replace him with a new government in Kiev that was pro-Western and anti-Russian to the core. This is understandable since Ukraine serves as a buffer state for Russia. No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy till recently moving into Ukraine. Washington should understand this logic since it does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, much less on its borders. Unsurprisingly, Putin reacted by taking Crimea and working to destabilize Ukraine’s pro-West government.

Despite Russian opposition, the EU has continued to push its Eastern Partnership initiative leading to the signing in June, 2014 of the economic agreement, that Yanukovych had rejected earlier with the new pro-Western government in Ukraine. Similarly, NATO foreign ministers at their meeting in June, 2014 declared without mentioning Ukraine that the alliance would remain open to new members. In view of the clash of the West’s policy of expansion into Ukraine and Russia’s stand to maintain its buffer status, the prospect is of the worsening of the crisis. It is, therefore, far from certain that the peace plan signed in Minsk on 12 February would help stabilize the situation in Ukraine unless better counsel prevails on both sides.

The relentless pursuit of an expansionist policy by NATO at the expense of Russia carries within it the seeds of enduring tensions between the two. Russia has been a great power for more than three centuries, playing an extremely important role in the regional and global politics. Its enormous territorial mass in Europe and Asia, its huge conventional and non-conventional military arsenal, its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and its vast natural resources provide it with great political and economic clout despite the known weaknesses of its economy and administrative system. Russia, under Putin’s leadership, is now in the process recovering from the strategic dislocation that it suffered following its defeat in the Cold War and reasserting what it considers its rightful role in European and global politics.

In view of Russia’s formidable potential and the different options at its command, the attempts by the West led by the US to control it through economic sanctions are likely to fail. European dependence on the Russian gas alone is a sufficiently powerful tool to neutralize to a large extent the impact of these sanctions. Besides aggravating tensions, they would push Russia into a closer strategic partnership with China which itself faces growing US-backed challenges to its security in the wake of the rebalancing of the US forces in the Asia-Pacific region. The net result, therefore, would be a reinforced strategic partnership between China and Russia to counterbalance the threat posed to their national interests by the US and its allies. Russia would also be tempted to seek friends and allies in other regions of the world to strengthen its security and geopolitical position.

These developments would have far reaching repercussions on the global order and even for South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia regions with which our national interests are deeply engaged. Pakistan must watch and analyze carefully the emerging trends in international politics, especially the growing entente between China and Russia, to safeguard its own security and promote its economic prosperity. The evolving situation calls for not only the strengthening of our strategic partnership with China but also the building up of friendly relations and wide-ranging cooperation with Russia and Central Asian Republics. Fortunately, there is an awareness in Moscow also of the need to develop friendly relations with Pakistan. I noticed it during my meetings with the senior officials of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow sometime ago. While strengthening our links with Russia and Central Asian Republics, we should also remain cognizant of the importance of our friendly relations with Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president  of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.