I remember stepping out of the plane at three in the morning, blearily messaging friends that I was finally home from my week-long escapade in Perth, when news hit in the form of a tweet from the New York Times. While I’d been in mid-air, a civilian plane had been blasted out of the sky. As the details began streaming in, and as I continued scrolling through my Twitter feed, I found myself struggling to piece them together to form a coherent whole. Yet another Malaysian Airlines plane? Hadn’t I taken that flight last December? Wait, what?
Trouble first began unfolding sometime in late November last year with the largest demonstration in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution, but the reaction from the Western world back then was surprisingly muted, met only with the usual gamut of sanctions, condemnations and attempts at dialogue. In fact, it seemed as if they would rather not acknowledge something was indeed going on in that corner of the world, painting a picture of it as an internal political struggle instead.
The downing of MH17 was the game-changer and proved to be everyone’s worst nightmare. In an instant, a conflict that had initially been confined to a particular region was transformed into an international affair. The 298 people on board all came from varying backgrounds, from the Netherlands to Malaysia and even Australia among others, and surely the loss of innocent lives to what has been labelled as a “terrorist attack,” was reason enough to finally galvanise the international community into taking more concrete action.
In the wake of the aftermath, however, it appears that nothing much has truly changed in the West’s approach towards Russia. Granted, a full suite of harsher sanctions has been unveiled, this time targeting not just individuals and corporations but entire sections of the economy. A resolution calling for a ceasefire at the site of the MH17 crash was passed in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), no mean feat considering Russia is one of the Permanent Five and holds veto power. In spite of all this, Russia and the West appear to be heading down a path of no return. Russia’s plea for the UNSC to reinstate the ceasefire which expired at the end of two weeks was blocked by the Western states on Friday, shelling and fighting in the area still continues, and both sides appear to be caught in a deadlock with the likelihood of confrontation growing with each passing day.
Amidst these escalating tensions, one might be tempted to ask – are we on the verge of another Cold War?
After all, if one looks closely enough, some shadows of the past may be spotted lurking in the details. Putin’s insistence on absorbing Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence, particularly in the form of his “Eurasian Union”, seems reminiscent of the USSR’s perceived imperialist foreign policy during the Cold War, in which the USSR invaded neighbouring countries such as Poland and set up puppet governments to run the administration. While it is currently economic in nature, there is no telling if it will expand to include political and military cooperation in the future.
Additionally, Russia may have found an accidental ally in the form of China. Given China’s current standoff with the West over her perceived belligerence in her handling of the South China Sea dispute with various ASEAN nations, and their improved relationship due to the historic conclusion of a US $400 billion gas deal in May, there is enough evidence to suggest that the two countries might consider closer cooperation if it proves to be mutually beneficial.
Still, in spite of this, there may not be cause for worry just yet. Russia’s capabilities are far from that of the USSR’s, which boasted a land army larger than that of the USA’s (in a ratio of around 6:1) and some of the most advanced machinery at that time, not to mention reign over a sprawling empire (albeit dissolved in 1991). Russia simply does not have the ability to project power on a global scale in today’s context. Moreover, a China-Russia alliance – while not improbable – seems unlikely at this point since China will ultimately have to prioritise the interests of her own domestic economy above that of any ideological basis. The EU and USA are China’s two largest trading partners, and it would only be sensible for China to avoid taking any actions that would antagonise them both and alienate her in the process.
At this juncture, it might be prudent to note the recent proliferation of humanitarian crises across the globe, most notably in Gaza and the Middle East. From the shooting of four boys on a beach in Gaza to the now-viral picture of a young boy triumphantly holding up a decapitated head like a prize among a field of fallen bodies, it would be a huge understatement to say that this is a time of unprecedented chaos and pain. And, not unlike the proxy wars of the past, there is no telling as to whether these seemingly-disparate battles will eventually become part of a larger agenda.
As I surveyed the weary faces around me at the arrival hall that morning, it seemed as if many were still blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had struck. In fact, there seemed to be an almost-eerie sense of tranquillity that somehow seemed oddly misplaced. After all, SQ351, a Singaporean carrier, had been mere minutes away from the scene, and I could only imagine how markedly different our reaction would be if luck had not favoured us that day.
Still, vigilance is key. After that wake-up call for Singapore Airlines, they finally changed their flight routes to reroute them away from Ukraine. And while another Cold War may not be on the cards for now, as the world struggles to close this chapter, we must not forget to keep a closer watch on the potential risks identified before they become full-blown and take on a life of their own.