If Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation of the Crimea brings to an end the Pax Americana and the post-Cold War world that began in 1989, what new European, or even global, order is replacing them? That question may seem topical in the light of Russia’s seemingly smooth overriding in Crimea of the diplomatic treaties and legal rules that outlaw aggression, occupation and annexation. In fact, it is six years behind the times.
To understand the situation in the Ukraine, we need to go back to the Nato summit in Bucharest, in April 2008. There, Putin stated Russia’s opposition to the proposal from President George W. Bush that Nato should take the first steps to inviting Georgia and Ukraine to become members. He found unusual allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, joined by France and Britain, led the opposition to it. The proposal was kicked into touch.
Five months later, Georgia, provoked by Russia’s creeping annexation of its break-away territory, launched an attempt to recover South Ossetia. Five days later, it lost the war to Russian forces — ‘on manoeuvres’, naturally, just across the border. Two Georgian provinces are now sovereign states or, more candidly, de facto Russian provinces.
The moment the Pax Americana’s evaporated was when President Nicolas Sarkozy, representing the French presidency of the EU, jumped on a plane to Moscow to negotiate a ceasefire with Putin on terms that essentially ratified the Russian occupation and annexations. This stopped Bush and Nato from helping to shape the West’s response, which might then have been at least rhetorically tougher.
This shift of power within the alliance from Washington to Berlin-Paris-Brussels was not unwelcome to Bush’s successor. Within six months of taking power, President Obama had cancelled plans for US anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, whose governments had spent much political capital to accept them. In the case of Poland, he made matters worse by informing Warsaw of this decision on 17 September 2009 — the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. It was probably the worst kind of insult: an unintended one.
In July that year, however, 22 alarmed leaders in central and eastern Europe — including Václav Havel and Lech Walesa — had sent an anguished open letter to Obama regretting that his administration was turning away from their region. Was it because he felt that its problems had been solved?
If so, he was wrong on several scores, but especially one: ‘The political impact of [the Russo-Georgian] war on the region has already been felt. Many countries were deeply disturbed to see the Atlantic alliance stand by as Russia violated… the territorial integrity of a country that was a member of Nato’s Partnership for Peace and the Euroatlantic Partnership Council — all in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders.’ This was a shrewd but paradoxical point — and for western Europeans a low blow. What the Havels and Walesas wanted from American involvement was not only America’s greater protective power, but also its tougher attitude to Russian claims on its ‘near abroad’.
On paper, the Europeans should have been more critical than Washington towards the treaty and legal violations listed in the letter. For the previous five years, America’s Robert Kagan and Europe’s Robert Cooper had been depicting a West divided between ‘modern’ Hobbesian Americans, who saw international relations in terms of power, and ‘post-modern’ Kantian Europeans, who saw them in terms of law. Both authors caught the rhetoric of their foreign policy establishments accurately enough. If that picture had been fully accurate, however, the Europeans would have been more indignant about Russia’s violations of international law, and more determined to impose legal and other non-military sanctions in response. In fact, they perfected the techniques of not really noticing such things and, when Russia forced them on their attention, of forgetting them as quickly as possible.
Both Kagan and Cooper had recognised that post-modern, law-governed international society needed a policeman to enforce the rules. But Obama’s America had now gone home. Oddly enough, that too seemed to suit the western Europeans, who proceeded on the radical assumption that policemen weren’t necessary in a Kantian continent. Mrs Merkel quickly smoothed over the unpleasantness with Putin in the interests of mutual prosperity. Her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder appealed to the US to ignore the letter. And Obama more or less obliged by sending Vice-President Biden to smooth ruffled feathers in Prague and points east.
So the Pax Americana faded fast away, but it was replaced not by a Pax Europea, but by a vacuum. Ukraine may decide what fills it.
For Russian policy towards Ukraine also changed in the years after Bucharest. Though opposed to its Nato membership, Moscow initially appeared relaxed about Ukraine’s movement towards associate status with the European Union. It has gradually been redefined as an economic threat to Russia — a redefinition that became sharper when Putin began to construct his own rival organisation, the Eurasian Economic Union.
But it became a crisis only when Putin imposed de facto sanctions on Ukraine’s agricultural exports to Russia four months ago, threatened wider ones unless the country switched from the EU to its Eurasian counterpart, promised support to Ukraine’s parlous budget if it did, and by such methods pressured the hesitating Yanukovych into ‘postponing’ Ukraine’s accession to ‘Europe’.
If matters had been left to political establishments, Putin would have won at this point. The EU, already bleeding subsidies to southern Europe and unwilling to offer comparable aid, accepted its defeat. It was ordinary Ukrainians of every political stripe who gathered in the Maidan to oppose an absorption into a system of neo-imperial bullying.
Even then, a more sure-footed ally than Yanukovych might have saved the day. He had democratic legitimacy, a majority in parliament, and a massive security apparatus on his side. A crowd in the Maidan, however impressive, could not have prevented his pushing through the deal. But he made the classic authoritarian mistake of firing on the protesters without dispersing them. In short order, he lost his support in the country, his democratic legitimacy and his parliamentary majority. He is now Putin’s pensioner.
Despite Yanukovych’s personal contribution, this was a crisis made in Moscow. Putin had overplayed his hand in leaning on Yanukovych. Has he done so a second time in occupying the Crimea?
Most observers seem to think that he has judged his response nicely. By occupying the Crimea, but merely threatening the rest of Ukraine, he will in time persuade the West to treat this outcome as a sort of compromise. Like Georgia’s lost provinces, Crimea will eventually be forgotten by the West, while Ukraine is kept off balance and poor. Besides, the West is said to have no usable sanctions to change this.
This gives the Russian president too much credit for foresight. He almost certainly expected the new Kiev government to be rash, incompetent, divisive and unpopular, both internationally and in parts of Ukraine, to the point where Russian-speaking Ukrainians would rise up against it.
In fact, though these are early days, the Kiev government has been surprisingly moderate and shrewd. Its main error so far was to pass a law removing the status of Russian as an official language — but that error was swiftly realised and the law vetoed.
Otherwise, it has maintained a lively democratic unity; passed a series of reforms leading to a more liberal constitution, fresh elections and a new government; discussed these proposals with great transparency (its parliamentary proceedings are televised); won over the main oligarchs, who prefer even a Kiev regime hostile to corruption to a Putin-esque world in which the government is a rival oligarch; and responded firmly but not rashly to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and other provocations.
It has, accordingly, been accepted as legitimate throughout most of Ukraine even before the elections. Attacks on its supporters, attempts to seize official buildings, demonstrations by crowds calling for Russian intervention there have been seen in some eastern cities, but on a smaller scale than most experts predicted. Most Russophone Ukrainians seem to support Kiev — which suggests that a distinctly Ukrainian nationalism has spread eastwards in the past 20 years. And when they switched sides, the oligarchs ensured that much political and public opinion switched sides, too.
All of which means that there is simply not enough disorder and anarchy in Ukraine to provide a pretext for any further incursion. The main cause of disorder in Crimea is the presence of Russian soldiers imperfectly disguised as terrorists (which itself offers a droll commentary on Moscow’s characterisation of the Kiev government). So Putin’s rhetoric has changed: he now talks in reassuring terms of delaying any incursion and making it conditional upon a breakdown in order.
However, this does not leave him in quite the comfortable position that some analysts suggest. He knows that given the failure of eastern Ukraine to rise, he cannot intervene further without the risk of an endless guerrilla war against a trained enemy in unfavourable terrain. Ukrainians waged such a war against the Soviets for almost a decade after 1945. A repeat of that experience was certainly not in the game plan. But failure to intervene means that a hostile government in Kiev, and its supporters in the Ukrainian diaspora, will continue to feed the international indignation towards Putin’s ‘illegal occupation’.
Crimea as an international controversy may resemble Palestine more than South Ossetia. Simply staying put may be possible; but it may also be painful and costly, especially if western governments feel pressure to impose at least some sanctions.
The customary response to this is to claim that the West simply has no sanctions that harm Russia more than itself. In strict logic, that is untrue: a large range of sanctions is available, from supplying arms to rebels in the northern Caucasus to halting cultural exchanges. But if we exclude these — the first for moral reasons, the second on de minimis grounds — and most other responses now being proposed, then the practical possibilities come down to two.
First, we can impose ‘targeted’ financial and visa sanctions on leading Russian regime figures and their families. That sounds trivial, but as East Europeans can tell you from the Cold War days, it is extremely confining and humiliating. The Russian rich all want to travel, live, and invest here freely. They don’t want to feel like stateless persons. Second, we can repeat Reagan’s anti-Soviet policy of reducing energy prices and thus revenue for the Russian treasury. And unlike Reagan, we don’t need to make special efforts (de-controlling energy prices, doing a deal with the Saudis) to accomplish this. The energy market will soon be delivering a glut of energy to Europeans and competitive rival alternatives to Russian oil and gas. The threat of a Russian revenue crisis is already on Putin’s horizon — Gazprom’s share price has fallen sharply and not just in recent days. If we choose, we can sharpen his anxieties by making deliberate preparations to switch from Russian suppliers to elsewhere.
But do we sincerely want to do so? Much will depend on what we think Putin’s longer-term strategy is. Does he want to reverse the revolutions of 1989 and 1991 and restore Russian control over central and eastern Europe? Or does he have the lesser ambition — itself not an appealing prospect — of creating small wars and irredentist enclaves in countries formerly within the Soviet orbit to keep them under Moscow’s control? It is likely that he does not know the answer himself.
Those who see his current venture as a legitimate exercise in achieving Russia’s security interests have to explain what the limits of those interests are. Russia is already the world’s second nuclear power; it has large, modernised and (it is thought) effective conventional forces; it is a permanent member of the UN with a veto; it is a member of virtually every major security organisation relevant to it except Nato, with which it has a partnership agreement; it sits at the negotiating table in conflicts such as Syria beyond its near abroad; and its troops patrol Crimea and Georgia without the consent of their governments. What more can it legitimately demand?
The problem with the search for perfect security through expansion and buffer states is that every advance creates a new set of threats. Invading Crimea has made Russia a focus of more fear and hostility than before. It is an endless quest. Yet Moscow had already obtained its legitimate security interests in Crimea under international treaties. It would gain the best possible security if it were to join the Euro-Atlantic institutions, especially Nato, but that will have to wait for Moscow to shed its neo-imperial mindset. And that must probably await the departure of Putin.
For some time, therefore, the Pax Europea will have to deal with challenges and probes from a wounded Bear for which it is ill-equipped in every sense. Central Europeans feel this all too well, western Europeans would like to ignore it. Their governments might be happy to reach a modus vivendi that allowed Moscow to quietly manage its former possessions. As Ukraine shows, however, the peoples living under Putin-style regimes don’t like it. And peoples don’t do realpolitik.