Russia broke the rules in Georgia but did not dispute them. In Ukraine, Moscow is clearly challenging the fundamental ordering principles of the whole of post-Cold War Europe.
I would like to begin by acknowledging that the fate and continuation of the post-Cold War world order are at stake in Ukraine. But I cannot. It seems too obvious that the post-Cold War order in Europe is either irretrievably lost or at least frozen for an unknown period of time. What lies ahead is the great unknown. But the appearance of this unknown will still depend on what becomes of Ukraine and everything associated with it, what lessons will be learnt from current events and how the guilty will be punished, by life or by fellow citizens.
The order in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall was based on three very significant fundamental principles, two of which can be traced back to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, with the third added in the late 1990s. The first principle is the inviolability of frontiers and unacceptability of their violent alteration. Countries and their leaders have tried to adhere to this postulation despite all the turmoil that has occurred, realising that doing otherwise would open a Pandora’s Box. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the former administrative borders between the Soviet states were left in place and essentially no one considered altering these until the Russo–Georgian war of 2008. It was the same in Yugoslavia—when the Dayton Accords were established, it was ensured that the borders between the parts of the federation would remain the same; the only later exception would be Kosovo, due to an unavoidable situation that created mixed feelings in many people that remain to this day.
The second principle, geopolitical in nature, came into the picture at the end of the 1990s when the European Union and NATO were formulating their enlargement principles. According to these, every country has the right to decide its future and, if qualified, join whatever organisations it chooses. Needless to say, in reality matters were not always this simple. There have been many attempts to drag a country into an organisation through the proverbial eye of a needle and to keep others out at any cost. This second principle was not disputed on an intellectual level, and no one in NATO or the EU has tried to come up with an alternative paradigm.
The third belief that has directed life in Europe—also since as early as 1975—is the respect for and protection of human rights and the rights of minorities. Naturally, real life does not happen in a sterile space, where all abstract and noble principles can be applied simultaneously without difficulty. These three principles have also repeatedly conflicted with each other and been shaken up in settling scores. For example, Kosovo was born when the rights of minorities were in an irresolvable conflict with the principle of inviolability of frontiers, and the former won.
These have generally remained the fundamental principles that cannot be overlooked, that are returned to, and that serve as the basis for solutions when life gets complicated.
Russia’s view of these three principles has always been selective. Moscow has always fiercely supported the inviolability of frontiers and rejected interference in internal affairs, and considered the principle sacred. This is what their view of foreign affairs has been based on—it is what the Kremlin has proceeded from in its policy during the whole post-Cold War period. This is precisely at the root of the Russians’ major foreign policy disagreements with the West, be it their attitude towards Iraq, Kosovo and Syria or Ukraine’s Orange Revolution—which Moscow interpreted as Western interference in Ukrainian internal affairs.
By contrast, the second “geopolitical” foundation of world order—countries’ right to choose their own allies and organisations—has never been popular with Moscow. Losing Russia’s “sphere of influence” has been hard to swallow even for many Russian liberals, not to mention others. Yet, since President Yeltsin’s unskilful diplomatic attempts in 1997 to draw a “red line” for NATO’s expansion at the Lithuania–Poland border, Russia has not tried to restate this principle, and has instead simply consistently thrown spanners in the works of “unsuitable” NATO candidate applications.
Moscow has never clearly disputed human rights and the rights of minorities—far from it. But in reality, these principles have taken a secondary position in the service of geopolitical ones, at least since the end of the Soviet Union. Depending on the situation, Moscow sees human rights and the rights of minorities either as dangerous pretexts to interfere in a country’s internal affairs or, on the contrary, as opportunities to stop certain countries from moving in the “wrong direction” geopolitically. Chechens and Albanians living in Kosovo belong in the first category; Russians dispersed around the world are in the second.
Many readers are probably already asking—what about Georgia? Didn’t Russia already break all the aforementioned principles, including those it considers important, by the Russo–Georgian war of 2008 and the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? How do current events in Ukraine and Crimea differ and why are they more important than what happened to Georgia?
It is not yet possible to answer this question exhaustively. At the time of writing, it is not clear what is Moscow’s final intention concerning Crimea and Ukraine, what exactly motivates Russia, how far Moscow will go or what methods it will use. I believe, however, that the main difference between the Russo–Georgian war and events in Ukraine can already be identified. Russia broke the rules in Georgia but did not dispute them. With Ukraine, Russia is directly challenging the rules and, indeed, the entire post-Cold War European order along with the principles that formed it.
In 2008 Moscow “cheated” to stop Georgia from joining NATO (which worked, at least for a while) and to change the regime in Tbilisi (which has still not completely succeeded, despite a change of power). On the other hand, Russia went to a lot of trouble to create a certain context to justify its aggression that would also align with international practice. For this, it was crucial to lure Georgia into launching the first attack. Recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was not a goal but an action forced on the Russians and opposed by its foreign ministry, which minister Sergey Lavrov later had to do his best to explain, claiming that Abkhazia was a completely exceptional case and that recognising it complied fully with international law.
In Ukraine, Russia no longer bothered with context. Moscow did have plans, however—the military strategy for occupying Crimea was clearly developed a while ago, and the logistical context and the roles of key actors were also set; the emphasis was not on whether the pretext withstood scrutiny. The change of power in Crimea was clearly and unambiguously carried out under military control, the referendum was without doubt a legal farce, and talk about protecting Russians was clearly just words. Russia does not care whether the world believes its version of events. Indeed, Moscow more likely wishes it is not believed.
For what is the actual motive behind what is happening? Common sense would say that Russia wants to gain control over Ukraine and is using Crimea as the means to do so. A closer look reveals that this is not the whole truth or even the main part of it. It would have been much easier to achieve control over Ukraine with different measures. The government that came to power after Viktor Yanukovich was brought down is weak; it is legitimate, but it does not represent society the way it should. It would have been very easy for Moscow to play its members off against each other, to bribe them, blackmail them and so on. Moscow could have made Crimea and a large part of the eastern regions unmanageable without breaking international law. Finally, Moscow could have initiated a referendum in Crimea and used it to pressure Kiev and the West. But Moscow has not done anything of the sort. It has continued to escalate the situation, without any real attempt to stop and benefit from this by seeking an agreement on its own terms.
Had Moscow simply wanted Ukraine, it would have made sense to join the negotiations at least by the first week of March and use the panicky and leaderless West to pressure Kiev. In this way, the Kremlin could have achieved its goal without shaking the pillars of the world order—Crimea would have become another unfortunate unrecognised state, and a federal polity would have been forced upon the rest of Ukraine; everyone would have been indignant, but the bitter pill would have been swallowed after a while. Moscow did not go for that option and instead kept escalating the situation—bringing troops to Ukraine’s eastern border, recognising the independence of Crimea, initiating the incorporation of Crimea into Russia … (fill in the blanks with everything that has happened since Monday noon).
Only one thing can be concluded from this—that the Russians do not simply want Ukraine. They also want to deliver a message: that the world order which favours countries’ free will in making geopolitical decisions is unacceptable to them and they will no longer pretend otherwise. Moscow is demanding—not yet directly, but very clearly—the relegitimisation of geopolitical spheres of influence as the principle that directs life in Europe and which was banished into history in the 1990s.
In the light of this, it is sadly ironic to look back at the Georgian conflict and its lessons. Today, many people in the West feel that Russia got away too lightly following its action in Georgia: sterner methods should have been used to make it clear that such ventures were unacceptable. Moscow most probably thinks that the West did not understand anything in 2008. The Russians wish they had been louder and clearer in saying: do not force your way into our sphere of influence with your organisations, values and rules!
What happens next? Again, it is too soon to say. We do not yet know exactly how the West will react: will they accept the terms Russia has set after the first outburst of protests, or will they fight back? If they fight, will it be in earnest for their (idealistic) world order or simply to protect their sphere of influence? These are different matters, although the practical implications might overlap somewhat. We do not know what Russia’s next move will be or what kind of undesirable and unplanned by-products it could bring.
Let me now suggest some things in addition to the world order that might be influenced, one way or another, by the crisis in Ukraine.
Firstly, the most obvious: Ukraine itself. Everything is at stake for Ukraine: its borders, political regime and governance, the existence or absence of geopolitical opportunities—and the Ukrainian national character, which I believe is very important. Since 20 February, when dozens of people died in Kiev, it has been clear that this experience would become part of the national memory and assume mythological status. It will be referred to in the future like Estonians view their War of Independence or the events of 1939. Ukrainians will try to learn the lessons—the way these events are understood—as best they can. The intervening days and weeks have only added new and complicating layers to this forming experience. Even if Ukraine manages to come out of the crisis with its former borders intact (and this is unlikely), it will still be a new country with a character shaped by a traumatic experience. And, needless to say, Ukraine’s relationship with the West will be shaped by whether or not the latter manages to help Ukraine.
Secondly, the West. In recent weeks Ukraine has occupied the attention of President Obama, although overall the US has kept its distance: its attention is elsewhere and the Americans have no clear strategy concerning Ukraine and the whole post-Soviet area. Will the Ukrainian crisis bring the US back to Europe? And not only with intellectual energy but also with weapons? It is possible, but not guaranteed. It appears that even if this happens the majority of further strategy and activity will still fall upon the EU. Having until this point been a technocratic welfare project under the nuclear umbrella of the US, Europe now has to create a geopolitical identity for itself and choose the measures to accomplish it. This is a huge task that can easily fail. If we succeed, it will potentially bring major change to Europe: the contribution and importance of different countries, the necessity and popularity of different types of leaders and so on. It will be a single new Europe, in which we will live.
A lot is at stake for the rest of the post-Soviet area, too. Countries that had hoped to sign association agreements with the EU no longer know whether they can afford it or whether this is too much of a luxury: they are watching carefully if and how Europe manages to protect European choices in its neighbourhood. Members of the Eurasian Economic Union are probably growing more uneasy about their own ties to Russia. However, this should not give the Europhiles much cause to rejoice. Survival strategies that these countries opt for under the circumstances might not be good for anyone—their own societies, Russia or us–or for peace in Europe.
There is almost as much at stake for Russia as for Ukraine—borders, the political regime and the nature of foreign policy. Life has demonstrated that expansionism feeds expansionism. To “protect” a territory that has been obtained by force, another piece of land is always needed—until one faces the sea or someone stronger.
Many people are currently asking what will be Russia’s next target, and many are pointing their finger at the Baltic states, since there are large Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia. I do not believe that the association should be this automatic—it is clear that, while “protecting Russians” has been a convenient excuse in the Ukrainian conflict as in all earlier Russian ventures, the real reason has always been something else.
However, looking at how the Kremlin is trying to mobilise society around conservative and nationalist values—and seeing how easily a large part of society is going along with it—it is not completely certain that there will not be a day when gathering “Russian territories” and ethnic Russians under the Kremlin crown becomes an actual goal. In this context, Putin’s statement about Russia being “the biggest divided nation in the world” sends shivers down the spine.
This kind of politics will probably end in Russia’s collapse, but a lot of unpleasant things could happen in the meantime. It is therefore crucial that this kind of expansionism is nipped in the bud. And that protection of “compatriots” as a justification for invasion is delegitimised for good—not only because no one is persecuting the “compatriots”, but also because even if someone did, it should not be the cause of war. (It seems that, among the large countries of Europe, it is Germany that understands the seriousness of the situation best. Why? Perhaps they have been reminded of something familiar from the past …)
Expansionism and what accompanies it will also change Russia internally. Dissident voices will face more difficulties in being heard, not to mention in influencing politics. Western sanctions that are forcing people to choose between a job close to the government and a Western bank account are, regrettably, widening the gap even more. Many Russians who do not want to be marginal dissidents in their own country will simply emigrate—after all, the borders are open. This means, however, that once Putin’s regime comes down, the part of society that rose to the cause of forming the country (both in Russia and Estonia) at the beginning of the 1990s will be absent. This in turn means that, unlike in Ukraine now, Russia might no longer have the necessary human resources to one day attempt the second coming of democracy.
And lastly, the fate of truth as such is at stake. Is the truth something serious that needs to be taken into account, no matter what? Or will it become something that is always relative, that anyone may twist how they want and can for political reasons?
A dystopia is appearing on the horizon …
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.