The collapse in relations between the West and Russia over the Ukraine conflict reads like a textbook example of how nation states get sucked into a conflict which creates its own dynamic from which neither side seem able to extricate themselves. It makes a fascinating case study were it not also that the consequences of a false step would be lethal. It is ironic that this is happening in the centenary of the First World War, also involving the same main participants. At its roots lie some very similar causes, and neither side once again look able to climb down without serious consequences.
It might be useful to look at the different perspectives involved.
Putin and Russia
For Putin, the authoritarian President of Russia, there are various schools of thought as to his policy. He is probably foremost a patriotic Russian who has inherited the Tsarist approach to Russia’s position in the world, with strongly conservative instincts. Thus it is inherent in that tradition to affirm Slav and Orthodox rights against western interference. There is a sense of a desire to restore the old Soviet hegemony over the “near-Russia”, although it could also be that of the Tsars. As Stalin sought to reverse the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918 and the loss of Russia’s western provinces when he could, and as the Tsars sought to unify Slavs under Russian leadership, so too does Putin look to pull Eastern European states away from the western grip, exploiting their energy dependence on Russia.
Like Hitler, he is perhaps also exploiting the weaknesses of his opponents, as he sees them, and taking advantage of the old, long-standing complexities of different nationalities and languages in the various multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic states. Thus he can act as the champion of Russian speakers and take advantage of local conflicts. Thus, to him, the EU and NATO are weak, divided and “decadent”, and, most importantly, afraid of him and his newly re-built military power and uncertain if not reluctant in their response.
As with Hitler, there are those who think he is an aggressive expansionist, a revisionist tearing up the post-Soviet European order. Others see Putin as the victim, a product of western faulty policy-making, stirred into action by the Bush-era disregard for Russian interests and the perceived expansion of the EU and NATO eastwards. For the former, what is needed is firm resolve backed up by a considerably increased military presence. Putin, they say, has to be opposed, as one resists a bully. For the latter, Putin can be appeased and a compromise worked out that deals with the injustice suffered by Russians and Putin reassured as to western aims. The compromise of Munich in 1938 comes to mind.
The Western position
From the West’s point of view, Russia in 2014 has violated the international law principle of national sovereignty, annexing the Crimea from the Ukraine after a nice example of classic maskirova, an occupation by the “little green men” amidst official denials followed by a plebiscite, followed then by a proxy rebellion in two other eastern provinces which has it seems received covert support from Moscow. As Putin has pointed out, this is selective amnesia given the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It should really be “positions”, since the west is divided in its response to Putin. The German Chancellor Merkel has tried to negotiate with Putin, along with President Hollande of France. For Germany, there is the potential if not now actual economic consequences in a damage to the trade links built up with Russia since the end of the last Cold War. Since their defeat in the Second War they have sought to avoid involvement in conflict and tried to build bridges. This was the drift of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik from 1970. Poland, with bitter experience of being invaded from east and west and previously being partitioned between the great powers, is emphatic in securing a NATO presence and in a vigorous response to Putin. Similarly the Baltic States are nervous, they too having been liberated from Russia only to be re-annexed under Stalin. The Ukraine is a recent creation, really consisting of components from Austria, Poland and Russia. There is so much history in Eastern Europe of national and linguistic conflicts, and great power occupation, and re-occupation. Germany, and before that Prussia, and Russia, have a history going back ages of an interlinking of great power interests and local and regional conflict. It is dangerous ground, and so no wonder there are those who look for a compromise.
Viewed from afar, Britain and the US have their memories of how the continental clashes brought them into war, but for them there is the experience of aggressors needing to be opposed because of the alternative impact on geopolitics. Both are reared in the Churchillian doctrines of opposition to the Iron Curtain, Churchill’s term, and maintenance of major troop presences and missile defences in Germany and beyond. However this is currently severely constrained by cutbacks in military spending, especially in the UK, and a reluctance to get involved in further international conflicts after the failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus there is more rhetoric than action, and yet the rhetoric itself can be dangerous, as a recent UK House of Lords report has pointed out.
The danger here is that weakness and a reluctance to act can itself make things worse since there is every incentive for Putin to take advantage of this. For him, NATO and the EU are weak and a threat that needs to be neutralised. He might succeed, since commitment within these two bodies is weak. This too therefore could exacerbate the situation.
In the midst of this geopolitical punch up lies the hapless Ukraine, itself a separate state briefly after Brest-Litovsk and really only since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and potentially split between various ethnic and linguistic components, which the 2014 revolution has since brought into the open. Although in theory the Ukraine’s independence was guaranteed by the major powers in 1994 when it gave up its nuclear weapons, in practice Russia has viewed it as within its “sphere of influence”. When it rebelled against its pro-Moscow President Yanukovych in February 2014 and asserted its desire to draw closer to the EU, as far as Russia was concerned a red line had been crossed and by the end of February the “little green men” were in action. While in the western part of the Ukraine, over half supported the Maiden Revolution, the numbers who did so in the Russian-speaking east were as little as 20%. The potential split within the state became a reality and full civil war broke out.
This time, unlike the Bosnian and Kosovo crises, it was Putin who would be calling the shots, leaving NATO and the EU looking powerless and lacking in credibility. What was a nasty civil conflict is now overlaid with a very dangerous major power confrontation.
There is all the potential in this crisis for a local conflict to generate a major international crisis. What is perhaps needed is an ability to move on from what looks like entrenched positions and paranoid views of one side towards the other and start to adopt a more strategic, longer-term and conflict-resolution style approach. In essence we need mature statesmanship, not the behaviour of injured children. The emotion needs to be taken out of the situation. Anger begets wars.
What is so classic in these situations is that the local conflict keeps flaring up and the big power sponsors keep getting drawn in. Instead, despite what has happened so far, the West could benefit from avoiding taking positions they are not prepared to fulfill, and instead seek to engage Russia around what they might be willing to agree to, while at the same time building up their own power so as to not be bullied from a position of weakness. This means doing things that currently are not being contemplated, such as re-building diminished forces in central Europe and at the same time avoiding bellicose and anti-Russian statements and using conflict resolution strategies instead. It is usually easier to negotiate, as people need to, from a position of strength than that of weakness.
In the UK at least this may in the short term prove hard to do since both defence forces and the foreign office have been cut back so much, yet again evidence of the weakness of the austerity approach as happened in the 1930’s.
We need to learn from history and not be the prisoners of it.