Ukraine: the seismic event that put the superpowers back into place

  • 2014-05-22
  • by Alexander Zanzer, Ph.D

Those familiar with geophysics understand why seismology and continental drift are connected. A parallel can be easily drawn with geopolitics. If you compare continents with superpowers and earthquakes with more or less important political events like wars and revolution, the analogy becomes even more obvious.

Like with continents, superpowers can drift at an undetectable pace until game-changing events make us remember that the geopolitical world is made out of blocks with smaller countries bound to choose sides, or be absorbed by one or another sphere of influence.

A superpower cannot exist just based on economic successes. Money seeks stability and this stability can only be guaranteed in the long perspective by military power, which is, above all, technically advanced. Because Europe is still not a political union and is without a common strong army, the world only recognizes Russia, the United States and China as superpowers.

Military conflicts have given way to economic competition and globalization has rounded the edges of conflicts. But you cannot hide for long the nature of the beast.


President Putin has managed to make Russia seem as a superpower due to military investments and, especially, the political use of natural resources. But the international monetary system is based on institutions and technological advances totally in the control of the United States. This puts many question marks on Russia's future.

Ukrainian events have as an only advantage in re-establishing the familiarity of the old East-West Cold War stand, with Russia acting like the Soviet Union and the United States trying to present itself as the leader of the free world, a position from which it tries to step down after its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.


European conflicts are physically less dangerous and closer to the interests of domestic voters. Experts on the Soviet Union can finally come back to specially re-created departments of secret services trying to explain, after the fact, why all of this was foreseeable. In fact, the theory of political chaos can perfectly fit the Ukrainian situation. Ukraine didn't have a repressive regime able, with blunt force, to dissolve the discontent of the population. Manifestations have brought regime change before and presented a familiar sight for Ukrainians and visitors alike.


The population saw, in the approach to Europe, a possibility to escape the poverty of the villages, from where many go already abroad to work illegally in Europe. The arrogant way in which Viktor Yanukovich retracted from a European approach made many mad and some desperate. But it is inside his own political party that a change took place.


On Saturday, February 22, the Party of Regions voted to oust the president. To put this in perspective, you must compare it with other similar events. Everybody knows when the French Revolution started, but nobody can really tell when it finished. Till now, Franceis not at ease with the mentality change realized by the taking of the Bastille. The current Ukrainian government only seems established. Every minister is under supervision by people resembling communist commissaries. There, where The Right Sector has stepped down from its anti-semitic past, Svoboda still confuses nationalism with racism.


This unacceptable approach for Europe and the U.S. alike will jeopardize the stabilization of the country. Nationalist movements in Europe had only lately achieved successes by aligning nationalistic feelings with economic goals and self rule, but denying openly every racist and anti-semitic position. This approach has made France's Front National and Belgium's NVA acceptable to its own public as well as credible internationally.


The chances of Scotland becoming independent have increased dramatically when the hate speeches against Britain have given way to economic arguments. This lesson should not escape certain Baltic political parties. It's a make-over which is essential in a modern political environment. Small states are more flexible and should be able to attract, through fiscal and immigration policy, enough investments and other financial means to invigorate their economies. 


Besides, the Baltic States are close enough to Ukrainian events to feel first the repercussions of Russia's response to it's forced isolation. The Baltics must, therefore, strengthen their economies and enlarge trade contacts to be able to absorb the coming difficulties.

Ukrainian chaos will last a long time. As a volcano eruption, it created two islands, the west and east. Russia had to react and Putin had to show his force in order that Russian nationalism and feeling of proud-ness would take the place of possible copycat behavior where manifestations could spill over the border, even in Central Asia. An isolated position is better than loss of control.

Europe in turn saw a way to reaffirm its status as a third power and jumped into the game. The United Sates still tries to retake its international superpower role and uses its secret service, because military intervention will not be sanctioned by its own electorate, to attract Ukraine in its sphere of influence. The superpowers have dug themselves into position.


So what now with Ukraine? Ukraine’s army is practically non-existent. Every region and every important businessman will seek to use the situation to strengthen its or his own position.


Political figures and some oligarchs try to stabilize the situation to their advantage. The general public is confused and it is not surprising that Russian-speaking regions seek stability and higher pensions from Russia as an alternative to an uncertain European future.

In such chaos, it is improbable that a strong personality can emerge to stabilize the country. The only possible outcome is that regions will receive some autonomy. But this is only for the short term. Like Poland in 1939, the regions will fall under the supervision of Russia or the West. Because Europe is too divided and the elections of May 25 will provide a stronger voice to Euro-skeptics, and by this give ammunition to separatists in Scotland, Belgium, Spain and even Italy, Kiev's authority can only turn itself towards the U.S.

The chances that the unrest in Ukraine will result to civil war are small. But the earthquake Ukraine has provoked on the geopolitical scene will have strong repercussions for the region, Europe as a whole, and even create new alliances. The West will have to deal with a new Russia/China axis based on common energy interests, with Russiaas the provider and China as the biggest client.


Europe will need to re-align its interests with the United States, which will lift its barriers to allow exports of oil and (shale) gas to the European continent. As uncertain and possibly dangerous shale gas might be, its potential and scale are the only feasible solutions for economic independence from Russia.

Ukrainian events have put Russia first in political confinement, and then, finally, geopolitically in the East, economically as well as politically.

This geopolitical shift could strengthen, instead of diminish, economic growth. Innovations in energy and military advances could change in the long term the economic status quo, but only if the Cold War doesn't turn warm.

by Alexander Zanzer, Ph.D. Economic and political analyst.

 (This is an opinion piece)