The Hill

The Great Realignment: Russia’s Invasion Leaves Few Sitting on the Fence

Asia-Pacific Security Chair
People gather in front of T-34 tank at a Soviet War Memorial to protest against the ongoing war in Ukraine on February 27, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images)
People gather in front of T-34 tank at a Soviet War Memorial to protest against the ongoing war in Ukraine on February 27, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images)

A month ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping proclaimed a “new era” in international relations. Their joint statement declared a “no limits” Sino-Russian entente would be at the vanguard of global realignment. They never anticipated such rapid change would follow, mostly at their expense.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shaking up the international order, reinforcing transatlantic solidarity and forcing even neutral countries to choose sides. Europe’s about-face has been dramatic. In recent days, Germany has halted its Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, agreed to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT global payment system, and increased its defense spending to 2 percent of economic output. German officials are declaring a paradigm change — and it is not the narrative found in the Putin-Xi manifesto. Whatever happens in Ukraine, Berlin’s pivot to realism is likely to endure, and the NATO alliance will be stronger for it.

But another key indicator of dramatic realignment is the shifting position of traditionally neutral states. For the first time since the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, Sweden is sending weapons to a country embroiled in an armed conflict. Anti-tank weapons, body armor and other military equipment will help Ukrainians defend themselves. Finland also has agreed to provide Ukraine rocket launchers, assault rifles and field rations. The idea that Sweden and Finland might seek membership in the transatlantic alliance no longer seems far-fetched. The European Parliament has recommended that Ukraine be granted European Union

While still militarily unaligned, Ireland — currently a member of the UN Security Council — has roundly condemned the Russian invasion. On Friday, the deputy Irish prime minister called Putin the “Hitler of the 21st century.”

Perhaps most surprising of all the shifts in longstanding positions is Switzerland’s sudden support for EU sanctions. The majesty of the Alps and the passage of time make it easy to forget that the Swiss were locked in protracted, violent conflicts with each other for hundreds of years, and then drawn into European wars and invaded by Napoleon, before the 1815 Congress of Vienna guaranteed the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland. Today, Switzerland is neither a member of NATO nor the EU.

Opting to sanction Russia economically for its invasion of Ukraine represents a radical departure from Switzerland’s 200-year-old position of neutrality — what the Swiss call “sitting still.” Sitting on the fence, rather than taking sides, has allowed Switzerland to flourish as an international hub of finance, diplomacy and tourism. Yet Putin’s military attack on Ukraine, explains Swiss President Ignazio Cassis, is “an attack on sovereignty, freedom, democracy, the civil population and the institutions of a free country.” Switzerland has frozen the financial assets of Russia’s leaders and more than 350 individuals sanctioned by the EU.

The realignment that Moscow’s military action catalyzed is reverberating in Asia. Japan has signed up for unprecedented sanctions on Russia, a neighbor Tokyo long had hoped to sign a peace agreement. Other U.S. allies such as Australia and South Korea needed little prodding to take sides, but Canberra also is sending lethal arms. They understand that a failure to halt aggression in Europe would not bode well for the Indo-Pacific, where probing flashpoints such as Taiwan and the South China Sea could be next in line. As Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said after a telephone call with Putin, “If we allow any change in the status quo by force, it will send a wrong message, not only to Europe but to Asia and the rest of the world.”

Not every prominent actor is rushing to alter his position. While India has moved in recent years to strategically align with the United States and balance China’s assertive rise, the government has refused to condemn Russia’s belligerence. In the face of Putin’s naked aggression, this reserve on the part of the world’s largest democracy is disappointing, especially when neutral countries have found their voice.

Less startling is China’s tacit acceptance of Russian aggression. After Russia invaded Ukraine — following, not during, the Olympic Games in Beijing — China blamed the United States for stoking tensions and suggested America would abandon Taiwan. While Beijing belatedly has called for diplomacy, China needs to choose what kind of order it envisions. Thus far, it is dragging its feet, hoping to protect its strategic partner — while perhaps drawing lessons from its assault — without damaging its diplomatic and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, chaired by China-friendly Cambodia, expressed its “deep concern” over the Ukraine crisis.

In the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “Enough is enough.” That sentiment is driving the great realignment around the world.

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