In June 1900, shots were fired over the walls of the International Legations in Peking. The Diplomatic Corps of Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia, the USA, and Japan defended themselves from thousands of Chinese from the large anti-foreign movement known as the Boxers. Though independently formed, the movement was supported by Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing dynasty, who hoped to regain the position China had lost during the Opium Wars. For 55 days, diplomats and their staff were besieged, fighting together against an overwhelming force, until relief finally arrived; the Eight-Nation Alliance marched through the streets of Peking—or Beijing, as it is currently known—in time to save their compatriots. China was subdued yet again, and the rebuilt Legations Quarter became a bastion of foreign influence for decades to come.
The 1900 siege was one of the most notably incidents of confrontation between China and the West, with military campaigns and periods of passive-aggressive manoeuvring accompanying it. A centuries-old Empire found itself at the mercy of previously frowned upon foreign powers; the Chinese have not forgotten past humiliations. But China could always afford to wait patiently, slowly building up its muscles. In recent years, aggressive nationalism has been on the rise, laying down the ideological groundwork for a new conflict. They may not have been prepared for the West before; they are now—and they are not the only ones.
The ages-old concept of the balance of power is supposedly understood by every international relations student. However, preoccupied with the ideas of globalism, American and European leaders often forget to take it into account when forming their policies. The US, for one, tends to ignore the real reasons behind its opponents’ alliances; similar values play a much lesser role than a practical necessity. So, when Russia flirts with China, it is viewed as a partnership of authoritarians against progressive democracies rather than an attempt to organise a counterbalance.
But what does this have to do with the Ukrainian situation? Ever since the Russo-Ukrainian War began in 2014, it has been a source of constant friction between Russia and the Western block. Back in 2013, Ukrainian President Yanukovich was negotiating an Association deal with EU representatives. If agreed, it would have brought Ukraine much closer to the West—in fact, too close for Russia’s comfort. As a former superpower, she could not allow her perceived opponents to have another outpost at her doorstep; it was a matter of both strategy and prestige. And so, President Putin came up with a counter-proposal, urging Ukraine to join his own Eurasian Customs Union. As it became clear that Yanukovich was about to pull out of the EU negotiations, massive protests broke out in Kiev and then throughout the country. They generally remained peaceful, attended mainly by university students, but the government overreacted, sending in the riot police. The situation quickly escalated, resulting in several months of violent stand-off in the capital’s city centre. In late February 2014, Yanukovich fled, and the opposition leaders took over. Talks with the EU were resumed, and the Association Agreement was signed, defining Ukrainian affiliations.
Russia was left disappointed. Most importantly, new developments endangered its hold over Crimea, a vital asset that Moscow was not ready to part with. Crimea’s capital, Sevastopol, has long been home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet; the peninsula is also considered the backdoor to the Russian South. Thus, in 2014, it was annexed. Soon after, the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine, in Donetsk and Luhansk. Unofficially supported by the Russian military, local separatist forces proclaimed their independence and engaged the Ukrainian army. The fighting continued for years, though not at as high a tempo as during the first several months. The war ultimately provided some advantages for Ukraine, allowing her to boost national spirit, gain international recognition, and train one of modern Europe’s most effective fighting armies. And when the day of invasion came, it was ready to fight.
Many people wonder how something like this could happen in our days. Surely, they thought, civilisation had moved past conquests and into the age of globalisation. For them, territory no longer mattered, zones of influence no longer existed, trade was everything, and missiles were a fancy way to spend a few millions (or billions) while catering to conservative voters. They have forgotten their history lessons—or, perhaps, they never studied history in the first place. But the “Gods of the Copybook Headings” with terror and slaughter return. The glass walls of the 21st century come crashing down under the weight of ageless wisdom: military power is as relevant now as it was a hundred years ago.
Up until early 2022, Ukraine expected much more international support than she got. Sanctions did not seem to achieve the intended effect, and the EU’s officially stated “concerns” became a running joke. There was also a false but common perception that the US and the UK did not do enough to honour their commitments under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994; in fact, they were only supposed to provide assistance if Ukraine “should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.” Yet their rhetoric throughout the conflict gave rise to certain expectations, which were only partially met. Were they right to promise their support while having neither resources nor interest to commit seriously? Some went as far as calling it a geopolitical folly.
This changed in February 2022, when the world pledged its support to the Ukrainian cause. Many countries and organisations offered their support, and Russia drowned in new sanctions. The truth is that Russia is trapped between two worlds as well. Strained relations with the West push her ever closer to China, which continues to grow in power and appetite—a dangerous neighbour, but also a vital partner, especially given the limited choice of alternatives. The balance of power is thus shifted, and Beijing is the only one to benefit. Unfortunately, the current Russian leadership refuses to recognise this reality.
Culturally, Russia is closer to Europe than to the rest of Asia; Moscow and St. Petersburg are European cities, the language spoken on their streets is Slavic, and their churches are Christian. Like an awkward cousin at a family dinner, she had the recognition and uncomfortable acceptance from the other Great Powers until the Bolshevik Revolution turned her into the villain of the 20th century. And when the Iron Curtain finally fell, what remained was the same old Russia: belligerent, somewhat backward and gauche, but aspiring to greatness. Her importance diminished, her empire was lost, and so she jealously guards her past. Perhaps, this is a better approach to take; it is undoubtedly better than revelling in guilt as Western countries do.
Russia’s combative defensiveness puts Ukraine in a peculiar situation. On the one hand, further attempts to get closer to the West, particularly through joining NATO or the EU, will provoke further and ongoing aggression, unless Russia is decisively defeated. No sanctions could ever prevent it, as the Kremlin will always choose strategy over the economy. On the other hand, going back to being a satellite of Russia after several years of conflict with her is not an option. The best policy for Ukraine—and, most importantly, the entire Western world—would be her perfect neutrality.
It is, of course, foolish to expect that Russia and Ukraine could suddenly become neighbourly after years of bloodshed, destruction, and propaganda. Before the war, they still had a chance to quietly part ways. The former wished to protect her zone of influence from the competition, and the latter was seeking her own independent way. As long as Kiev did not ally with the West, both could get what they wanted, and Russian resources would have been freed to reinforce the Chinese border. Now, they burn in Ukrainian fields, paying the price of their government’s miscalculation.
Ukraine does not lose much by staying out of the EU with its overbearing regulations and leftist ideology. Through the Association Agreement, Ukraine already has a high degree of economic access to EU markets. Funding might be useful, but, first, Hungary and Poland have already taken that spot, and second, Brussels will issue reciprocal demands that the Ukrainian government, amenable as it often is, might struggle to try to meet. There are no such objections with regard to NATO. However, its usefulness is limited: Western countries are unlikely to want to rush directly to Ukraine’s defence in the hour of need, and it is hard to blame them. At the same time, the Russian alternative is simply unacceptable; that bridge has long been burned, and even if that was not the case, Russia has little to offer in terms of rule of law and life standards.
Neutrality is, therefore, the most practical course to take—but not now, as Russia has shown that she cannot be trusted. President Putin chose to engage in a full-scale war and met fierce resistance. Ukraine was thus pushed even closer to the West while Russia’s relationships with Europe and America are effectively ruined. For China, those are probably beneficial scenarios. For everyone else, any of these options is a grave mistake.
In June 1900, a tiny force of loosely allied embassies found themselves surrounded and threatened with complete destruction. They had no choice but to team up; they did not just survive but prevailed and won the fight. Today, the Western world finds itself in a similar situation. Asia is rising. Africa contributes to the chaos. We have our differences, and we always will—but perhaps it is time to look around and stop wasting our strength fighting each other.