|Protests have spread to other regions, and demonstrators have occupied local government offices and regional administration buildings [AlJazeera]
By using the notion of ‘Ukrainisation’ of international politics, this report seeks to highlight the rising tension between Western governments and Russia over the latter’s conflict with the Ukraine. Specific to Ukrainisation is the return of ‘Cold-War’-type posturing and rivalry marked by mutual distrust. In doing this, the analysis looks at the new and old contexts of the rising tension between Russia and Western governments, namely, the US and the EU, and explores the diplomatic impasse and its perils.
Institutional chasm in the world affairs
The Ukrainian crisis has further complicated the shaky order in the global community. In 2013, heated obstinacy of the West and Russia – and their allies – over the Syrian war has given way to languid squabbles in the meetings of various international agencies. In the meantime, at home Russia had been reaping the harvest of its hardened ‘anti-Western’ policy of late. Specifically, Putin’s presidential approval ratings have never been higher. The relative success of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, followed by the subsequent cancellation of the planned G8 Summit in Sochi sought to send the message that the nation that Russia as a ‘super-power’ is finally back in play. The recent jingoism directed against the US and the EU is probably the most flagrant feature of Russia’s anti-Western political rhetoric. The West is similarly engrossed in anti-Russian propaganda.
Both sides are engaged in mutual recriminations of insatiable imperialism, blindly following prompts reminiscent of the ‘Cold War’ era. However, what has aggravated the rising tension between the West and Russia is irresponsible media dramatisation of the conflict and the absence of international regulatory bodies that can ease the tension and provide urgent mediation to avoid further deterioration – especially as international aviation is now at risk as the recent crash of the Malaysian airliner over territory held by pro-Russian rebels is now confirmed to be directly related to the conflict.(1)
The situation has some resemblance to the Cold War – first of all, in terms of the existing nuclear deterrence possessed by both the US and Russia (the Ukraine, too, has a small arsenal of warheads inherited from the former Soviet Union). Unlike during the Cold War era, the world is today globalised and interdependent, and the knock-on effect of conflict and instability is universal, politically and economically. Secondly, under the Cold War’s bi-polar system, the condition of ‘equipotency’ between the then key adversaries, the US and the former Soviet Union, required observance of the norms of international law, and other regulatory mechanisms of deterrence, created by themselves.
In case of the Ukrainian conflict, International law cannot be much helpful when the parties involved routinely trample its norms. The US, for instance, undermined international law, when it invaded Iraq. Claiming in 2002-03 to have ‘incontrovertible evidence’ of weapons of mass destruction in the possession of the Saddam regime at the time. Russia, too, may have failed international legal norms by taking one-sided military action in its annexation of Crimea.
The parties steadily seem to deny each other a system of quasi ‘checks and balances’ to minimise tension, and in worst case scenario contain it. The institutional crisis of the international system reflects ideological and moral crises in foreign policy-making by the major global actors, including the US, Russia, and the EU.
Russia’s ideological impasse?
To understand the ‘philosophy’ behind Russia’s actions, a few words should be said about its present intellectual impasse in relation to statehood. Since 1991 Russia has been searching for a new set of national ideas and values that would successfully replace weakened faith in socialist future. The quest for the new Russian state’s ‘raison d’être’ is yet to come to successful fruition, especially when compared to the project of statehood in since the mid-1700s when Catherine the Great oversaw her country’s ‘golden age’ of expansion and modernisation .
During the Empire, Tsarism and the values of Orthodox Christianity used to be the driving force of the conquests and evolution of the state’s prowess. The excessive conservatism of the monarchs, however, eventually resulted in the elites’ protest as manifested in the 1917 February revolution. In this vein, it must be noted that the February overturn of the Tsar’s rule was staged by the liberal and bourgeois forces, without Bolsheviks’ participation. Lenin, who at the time had been living in exile in Switzerland, was taken by surprise, learning about the overthrow of Nicolas II from the press.
The new Soviet state that grew out of the ruins of the Empire (Tsarist Russia) had drastically different, though very strong and durable ideology. However, state excesses against fundamental human values, as right to life, inviolability of private life, freedom of worship and political beliefs, crushing the very soul of Russia’s society and thus depriving it of the basic spiritual foundations needed for self-preservation. The state’s totalitarian politics was reinforced by tough censorship, creating distrust among the citizens as well as countrywide apathy to public affairs. The ‘collective trauma’ inherited from the Soviet era is the term most widely used to refer to the currently observed civic indifference in Russia.(2)
All the numerous attempts to resurrect the former Soviet Union’s political ideology or to create a new one via references to historical and cultural roots have thus far, more or less, failed. Violent Soviet disestablishment of Russia’s cultural heritage remains an open ‘wound’. Adoption of democracy, obviously, could not easily substitute the old ideology either. First of all, there had been no practical preconditions for consolidation of democracy. What is more important, in this respect, no systematic and far-reaching attempts have been made by the elites to enlighten the masses. Secondly, the way democracy has been practiced by the Western community in its relations with the rest of the world has left an indelible negative impression on the reputation of the whole paradigm – no one truly believed in it.
In 1999 Vladimir Putin took over the country in a miserable state. The leading analysts – even those liberals, who opposed the candidacy of the incumbent president – believe that authoritarianism and ‘the strong fist’ were the only possible means to save Russia from falling apart.(3) Luckily, the rise of oil prices played its role in the economical restoration of Russia. Despite his virtues, Putin is the product of Soviet machinery, deeply affected by the Soviet-American Cold War stand-off, and this may be one reason why he obviously cannot represent transition to democracy. Back in 2005 he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century. And in 2013 he articulated the view that his guiding philosophy was conservatism.
Basically for the last two decades Russia’s philosophic underpinnings in foreign policy have been an extension of the Soviet past. Much of Russia’s actions, from Bosnia and Yugoslavia to Syria and Ukraine, belie a deep distrust of the perceived revised America-centric discourse about NATO, American threat to the world, and a hapless international law regime.(4)
Whether consciously or not, Russian president’s policy is premised on the notion that the process of change in the globalising world is too stormy and it is for the worse. In his opinion, ‘progress’ by meddling in regional and domestic conflicts, and promoting democracy by dictating the rules of economic conduct produce no good in the international arena.(5) Yet, Russia may also be criticised for meddling in the Ukraine through active support of separatists.
In this vein, Putin’s conservatism and his nostalgia for the Soviet past crossbred with Russia’s anti-Western distrust to produce rather nationalistic and revanchist policies. Huntington’s concept of civilizational clash adopted by the US as the main ideological creed in the 1990s found admirers in Russia and was eagerly picked up, for instance emulated by geopolitical ideologue Alexander Dugin.(6) His conceptions, as The Great War of Continents, embed the same ideological stance as that the US Neo-Cons attempted in the realm of foreign policy during the Bush Administration: the righteousness of Self and justification of elimination of the Other. First and foremost, by Other Dugin implies the US. He supports consolidation of presence in Eurasia under Russian leadership. Dugin’s presence in media and his popularity are evident everywhere. For many Russians supporting Putin’s line and his policy preferences are increasingly being confirmed by US aggressive posturing against Russia – such as through the imposition of sanctions.
Noteworthy is the question of Eurasian integration, actively promoted by Russia. Though the Kremlin constantly reiterates its idea that Eurasian integration has nothing to do with the revival of the USSR under the Russian flag, this is exactly what it means for the majority of the population. The Ukrainian crisis threw a spanner in the works. Moscow is interested in involving into the union large and viable states, as Belarus and Kazakhstan. But their presidents, Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev, are hardened politicians, retaining their presidency since gaining independence, who are hardly eager to share their omnipotence with someone else. They watch the progress of Ukrainian crisis with apprehension, publicly refraining from giving their appraisals.
When the three leaders signed the Eurasian Economic Union Treaty in May 2014 to go into effect on 1 January 2015, Astana and Minsk worked hard to avoid specific provisions, further than limited economic cooperation. Commenting on the proposed quasi-state association, Nazarbayev stated that ‘politicisation of the union is inadmissible’.
The bottom line is that the mess with Ukraine gives Russian citizenry a modicum of stability and unity [against the ‘bloodthirsty’ West]. The crisis is not helped by the populist rhetoric used by politicians and perceptions of Russia’s uniqueness and righteousness. Populism partly distracts Russians from turning their attention to continuous domestic failures in economy and in politics, due inability to integrate society and government in Russia. Unfortunately, up to now the leadership has not taken advantage of the mass endorsement to convert people’s sentiments into enhancement of government performance. It creates a huge gulf between public expectations and government policies, which cannot be fulfilled with conceited geopolitical theories by Dugin or focussing of public attention on the questionable project of Eurasian integration.
America and Europe
The Old World and the New World are agonising over Russia’s arrogance in Ukraine. Yet their reactions run counter to their own interests. The partners have no definite long-term or short-term strategy apart from resisting Russia passively. The futility of this approach may have already affected the results of the EU parliamentary elections.
When the conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine flared up with renewed vigour in 2013, some scholars put forward the thesis about the relapse of the not fully cured Cold War.(7) For the last decades the Western world, in keeping up the image of the ‘winner’, has tended to treat Russia as second-class partner, applying to it a sort of Versailles policy (such as the one applied to the defeated Germans after the First World War).
What else could be the chief mission of NATO after the ultimate purpose of its existence – elimination of the Soviet threat – had been reached? Self-perception of ‘winner’ logically seems to have driven the US to keep on expanding the network of allies surrounding Russia, a threat in the eyes of leaders such as President Putin. However, given its solid historical experience and national pride, Russia is not a state ready to consider being a ‘loser’ in the rivalry pitting it against the US. Despite the reconciliatory rhetoric, the US is seen in Moscow to be treating Russia – and the whole world – with a condescending air of superiority.
Despite the agreements, NATO continued its expansion into Eastern Europe. From 2000 to 2005 the US supported a range of bloodless upheavals – the Colour Revolutions – that led to the cosmetic regime change in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Serbia. These revolutions are part and parcel of the US policy of democracy promotion. Relying on the domestic factors – as poverty and corruption – the West resorted to its standard mechanisms: financial and military support, media propaganda, funding of civil society groups, and coaching of local leaders etc. This policy is viewed in Russia as an attempt of installation of pro-Western political leaders, aimed at isolating Russia and even denying it influence in the post-Soviet era.(8)
Among other reference points Russians think of in today’s Ukrainian crisis are the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, by-passing the UN Security Council and Western unilateral support of Kosovo’s independence. The criminality, past and present, of Kosovo’s leadership [according to the Council of Europe report, Kosovo’s PM Hashim Thaçi is one of the main figures in the region organising heroin, human organs and arm trade(9)] is not the key question here. What matters is that the declaration of Kosovo’s independence became the last fatal blow to the Helsinki Accords, which adopted the principle of territorial integrity in Europe. It is the main reference, to which the West resorts when accusing Russia of ‘annexation’ of Crimea. Crimea’s ‘return’ to Russia, in that sense, is illicit to the same extent as was Kosovo’s independence. Hence, both the West and Russia may have lost their moral claim, by appealing to the language of international norms.
Yet deterrence of Russia is not part of Obama’s policy. Quite the opposite, Obama has endeavoured to reboot American-Russian relations in 2009 – which happened after the Georgian war. Perezagruzka was successful, if one considers the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, then the joining of the WTO by Russia, support of the sanctions against Iran and of a common policy towards Afghanistan. However, the US and Russia could not fully overcome their contradictions. The US still pursued democratic change in Russia (see Magnitsky Bill), while Russia could not reconcile itself with the American position towards Syria and Libya. Traditional foreign policy establishments in both states did nothing to ease these tensions.
The US has no further plan as to what to do with the ‘democratically renewed’ Ukraine. The change of the governing elite after the latest elections has not happened. Political adventurism and irresponsibility bode not well for the Ukrainian future. Furthermore, despite the new government’s promises, Ukraine will never become a NATO member for one simple reason: the US and the EU will not risk military escalation with Russia.
The leaders of the EU from their side sought to demonstrate that the project of European integration still has got its head above water. For, the role of the Old World has been gradually decreasing due to deepening economic and political difficulties. Moreover, European unity turned out to be merely theoretical when it came to implementation of common foreign policy or adoption of austerity measures. The results of the May 2014 European parliamentary elections were a blow to the Strasbourg bureaucrats’ policies. Euro-sceptics and anti-EU political parties, such as the UK Independence Party or France’s National Front, received unprecedented number of votes. While the EU institutions are trying to provide $15 billion to support the sluggish Ukrainian economy, Marine Le Pen is explicit in her vow ‘to destroy the EU.’(10)
When asked if Ukraine was able become an EU member, Marine Le Pen commented:
“Obviously not, obviously not! Once again – here, when the European Union promised to let Ukraine become part of it, it clearly contributed to the exacerbation of tensions within Ukraine. Ukraine will not become part of the European Union.”(11)
To sum up, for now, the Ukraine has no prospects of joining either NATO or the EU – and it has never been suggested to pursue membership. For over than twenty years the conflicts that some Western governments get involved in begin with great enthusiasm, and, generally, tend not to justify the raising of expectations. As Henry Kissinger puts it:
“For the West, the demonisation of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.”(12)
As the fighting between the Ukrainian forces and the separatists intensifies, the crisis pitting the sponsors of each, respectively the US and Russia is set to worsen. The East of the country is ablaze, and the newly elected government does not seem to be sufficiently concerned to visit the rebel regions, much less hold a dialogue to search for lasting solutions. Conflict in the Ukraine simply means rising tension between Russia and the West. In 2016 the US will be voting into office a new president; the US presidential election campaign would also affect the situation as the US turns to domestic issues. Up to now, Washington’s rhetoric has not gone much further than rhetoric or media warfare.
It has been repeatedly said by analysts close to the conflict that the West and Russia should refuse to force Ukraine to take sides. It will be better for all, if Ukraine remains a bridge between the two major powers involved in this conflict. Tearing Ukraine asunder only distracts the parties from their domestic problems. In theory, for Russia, the EU and the US, the on-going crisis gives the impression of the presence of stable national ideology, policy or vision. In reality, there is practically no such thing, at least not in Kiev.
In practice, Ukraine – is indicative of the continuous degradation of the global institutions, namely, the regulatory mechanisms for containing conflict and reconciling hostile parties. For many, Russia’s actions embody the challenge to the proverbial Torjan horse of Western hegemony. For others – Russia is itself a hegemon. The simple reality is that all sides have more to lose than to gain, and the drift to further standoff will quicken, especially if the US and Russia do not co-operate.
Copyright © 2014 Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, All rights reserved.
*Karina Fayzullina is a Russian researcher specialising in international relations.
1) On the 18th of July, President Obama said a surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine was responsible for shooting down a Malaysian airliner. The UK government confirmed the information and Russia did not deny it, lending full support to the idea of an international investigation of the tragedy that led to the loss of nearly 300 lives.
2) R. Marsh & R. Marsh J. (2007) Literature, History and Identity in Post-Soviet Russia, 1991-2006 (Peter Lang), pp. 158-161
3) Ekho Moskvy Radio (2014) ‘Interview with Sergey Karaganov’, 26 May, http://www.globalaffairs.ru/pubcol/V-programme-Razbor-poleta-16667 [Accessed: 26/05/2014]
4) Pavlovsky G. (2014) ‘Kremlin: from conservative politics to revolution’, Russian Journal, 4 June, http://www.russ.ru/Mirovaya-povestka/Kreml-ot-konservativnoj-politiki-k-revolyucii [Accessed: 04/06/2014]
5) F. Lukyanov (2013) ‘Uncertain World: Putin Embraces Conservatism as His Ideology’, RIA Novosti, 13 December, http://en.ria.ru/columnists/20131213/185526955/Uncertain-World-Putin-Embraces-Conservatism-As-His-Ideology.htm l [Accessed: 13/12/2013]
6) A. Barbashin & H. Thoburn (2014) ‘Putin's Brain’, Foreign Affairs, March, 31.
7) http://izvestia.ru/news/568861 [Accessed: 31/04/2014]
8) “Template Revolutions: Marketing U.S. Regime Change in Eastern Europe” (with Sascha Krader), Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 5 (3) (September 2008), pp. 91-112. Republished in MRZine, April 4, 2009.
9) P. Lewis (2010) ‘Kosovo PM is head of human organ and arms ring, Council of Europe reports’, The Guardian, 14 December, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/dec/14/kosovo-prime-minister-llike-mafia-boss [Accessed: 14/12/2013]
10) Spiegel (2014) ‘Interview with Marine Le Pen’, 3 June, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/interview-with-french-front-national-leader-marine-le-pen-a-972925.html [Accessed: 03/06/2014]
11) RT (2014) ‘Marine Le Pen: EU robbed us of all liberties, we should fight to get them back’, 9 June, http://rt.com/shows/sophieco/164660-europe-politicans-victims-ukraine/ [Accessed: 09/06/2014]
12) H. Kissinger (2014) ‘To settle the Ukraine crisis, start at the end’, The Washington Post, 5 March, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/henry-kissinger-to-settle-the-ukraine-crisis-start-at-the-end/2014/03/05/46dad868-a496-11e3-8466-d34c451760b9_story.html [Accessed: 05/04/2014]