The current situation in Ukraine is volatile, fluid, and moving at a breakneck pace, as one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers returns to Cold War form, after a quarter century of relative quiet. However, a couple of clear broad patterns are emerging.
The “Era of Idealism” may be over. “History” is back. I’ve written before about increasing Realism in U.S. foreign policy. It appears that the U.S. is not the only one getting increasingly Realist; so are the other great powers, most notably peer rivals, China and Russia. The post-Cold War international order is now over.
This Crimean intervention by Russia is different on many levels, although few shots have been fired yet. No matter what some might want you to believe, this is not comparable to Afghanistan, Libya or Iraq or even Russian war with Georgia. First of all, the interventions in Afghanistan and Libya were done with UN debate and vote by the Security Council. Iraq and Kosovo were also debated in UN, and each case involved a coalition force combining at least 15 to 25 countries, NATO and non-NATO alike.
In Georgia in 2008, no matter what provocation there was from the Russian side, Russia could still claim that the aggression was started from the Georgian side, and that Russia only acted when Russian soldiers died. No such thing in Ukraine.
If Russia can successfully carve out Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine, and it looks like the process is underway already, it will be the collapse of a principle which was believed to be sacrosanct: that no nation should annex parts of another nation. Even in Iraq, where Americans were known as occupation troops by the opposition, it was known that at some point in time, U.S. and other foreign troops would leave Iraq
That is not the case for Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the breakaway Georgian provinces), and definitely not with Ukraine, if Crimea is annexed by Russia. This is a dangerous precedent, and might be the beginning of an era where great powers will not think twice about starting wars for territory, a trend which was thought to be dead and gone. It is a bit scary and surreal at the same time to read Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, and John Mearsheimer’s early nineties essay on Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.
There’s a method to Putin’s madness. One can see a pattern in Putin’s foreign policy, when it is about Georgia and Ukraine. He is not “unhinged” or “out of the world” as claimed by German chancellor Angela Merkel. Nor he is “evil,” as portrayed by some. He is a perfectly balanced individual, who is extremely shrewd, calculating and cold. He runs his country in an amoral, realist tradition, supporting Assad, band-wagoning with China and Iran, touting global frameworks like a Eurasian Union and BRICS when necessary. And he is not ashamed to use hard power in Georgia and Ukraine.
In the prelude to the Georgia invasion, Russian agencies and peacekeepers actively helped the rebels, who bombed and shelled and then disappeared among the Russian peacekeepers. The provocation reached such a level that Georgian forces were bound to go on the offensive, and invite a full scale and prepared Russian retribution.
We have seen similar instances in Crimea. Comically, Russia has denied that Moscow’s troops are in Crimea: after all, they are without insignia. The evidence indicates otherwise. The camouflage pattern and pixel, the standard issue weapons and accessories, the numbered plates of the armored carriers and troop trucks, all point to a Russian footprint. Not a single Russian-speaking person was threatened or attacked when Moscow poured in thousands of troops in Crimea, and her agencies started fomenting anger and dissent in Eastern Ukraine. Now, with Crimea wanting to secede from Ukraine, it is almost game-set-match for Putin.
Russia is facing what the international relations field calls a classic Security Dilemma. Russia feels vulnerable when the “post-Soviet near abroad” leans West, and militarizes more and uses its hard power more. But this, as if in a chain reaction, makes the Russian “post-Soviet near abroad” feel more threatened in turn, and lean West even more. Vladimir Putin is acting in what he perceives to be the national interest of his country; nothing wrong in that. Whether he is correct in that analysis – whether his actions will be beneficial for Russia in the long term – only time will tell.
This episode also proves that stop-gap management of international crises is no match for a bipartisan “grand strategy,” based on the good old Realist principles of containment, deterrence, balancing and rollback.
A third broad point is not peculiar to the Ukraine crisis, but affects the global response to it. It is time to understand and acknowledge the hypocrisy of anti-war left-liberals, when it comes to Russia and China.
Imagine the outrage if the UK or U.S. poured thousands of troops into some countries, on the pretext of English speaking people feeling “threatened.” We saw the massive protests when France intervened in Africa to stop Islamists and the spread of civil war in Ivory Coast, Mali and CAR. Consider the protests when Indian troops are in Kashmir to deal with terrorists, or Israeli troops in Gaza.
However, we see nothing from Code Pink, when it comes to Russian troops in Georgia or Ukraine. There is no protest from feminist intellectuals when Pussy Riot members are whipped and attacked with chemicals by Russian hooligans. No condemnation or boycott from intelligentsia and university professors when China declares a new ADIZ, or stops other nations from fishing in parts of the South China sea, more than 200 km from the Chinese mainland.
No, StopWar UK comes out with a hilarious anti-Western statement in reference to the Ukraine crisis, blaming the West, in a tone so similar to Bashar al-Assad’s support of Putin, or the People’s Daily in China, that it is almost surreal. Perhaps the funniest of them all: not a single statement yet from Edward Snowden or Julian Assange.
I think the massive silence here speaks volumes: it is more deafening than the combined cacophony and roar of what we are used to. The world should take note.