The escalation in Ukraine is worrying to both specialists in International Relations and to the worldwide public. Russia, in a unilateral act unthinkable before 9/11 (or, as some would say, before the Fiscal Cliff), has invaded Ukraine, put under siege military bases in Crimea and asked for a referendum to affirm the peninsula’s independence from the mainland.
All this in overt defiance of the government in Kiev, which the Crimean and Russian governments have classified as “hostile” after the ouster of President Yanukovich.
While Russian tanks without plates were occupying Sevastopol, Putin held a reassuring press conference to claim good will. Each European politician, even the former Italian prime minister Berlusconi, was presenting him or herself as possible mediators between the angry Anglo-American axis and Moscow’s czar, with the intent of easing the international tension.
Empires trying to reach their goals
Reminiscent of the Cold War, European leaders assumed the role of the “good cop” (or of the Venus Goddess, to use Robert Kagan’s metaphor), leaving the role of the “bad cop," the one displaying muscles and issuing harsh rhetoric, to the Americans.
Much like the Arab Spring that took everybody by surprise three years ago, neither the Europeans nor the Americans were ready for such a swift escalation in the Ukraine. It is as though the fall of Berlin Wall had never happened, leaving Foreign Ministers – especially the European ones – attached to their old repertoire of 1970s and 80s diplomacy.
Be it Ukraine, Egypt or Libya: foreign ministers use mediations and sanctions, keep one eye on their economic interest and the other one on maintaining good diplomatic ties, and sometimes call on the American navy to shell some coasts or bomb some roads to accelerate the course of action.
This attitude has made the Ukrainian crisis not only difficult to foresee but also difficult to manage. European analysts no longer think in geopolitical terms like Moscow and Washington do. They may think that, since 2008, a nation can be attacked by rating agencies as much as by armies and forget that geopolitics and power play continue to be of utmost importance.
Over the last twenty years, European politics have ignored classical geopolitics – the battle for seas and rivers, pipelines and nuclear power plants, ships and tanks. Now we are paying the bill for such neglect.
True, the world has changed, it has gone beyond the rift between East and West, Communism and Democracy – and maybe also beyond Fundamentalism and Laicism. These conflicts are now pervasive within national states and across geographical boundaries. They have become global issues; they are cultural conflicts rather than political ones.
These political issues show a renewed willingness of “nations” to be “states,” not just flag-bearers of an ideology or of social models, but entities that consider geopolitics as the main driver for their actions.
Since the First World War, we have grown accustomed to seeing conflict not only between states (like it had been for all of the 18th and 19th centuries), but also as part of a worldwide contest among different ideologies. Germany has embodied Nazism, the USA Democracy, Russia Communism, China Maoism, and Middle Eastern states eventually became the Islamist flag-bearers.
But, after the war in Iraq, this vision has faded away. The public opinion is now realizing that there are no “good” and “evil” empires, but just empires trying to reach their goals.
Putins fears the “domino effect”
This reading can cast a new light on the Ukrainian conflict and the debate surrounding it. Beyond this crisis (the fourth in three years), three important trends are visible: the United States is withdrawing from their role as global police and guardian of democracy; the EU is being unwillingly pushed to be a regional player; and Russia is being reborn as Eurasia’s main regional power. Each of these trends is accelerated by the Ukrainian crisis. A “matured” America has given up the ambition to create a pacific, democratic world and is withdrawing from many theaters of peace and war, particularly in cases when the costs far exceed the benefits. They again prefer to concentrate on the Pacific region and on internal imbalance – this time out of economic necessity, not a political one. China is proving to be a trustworthy regional power as its role during the economic and the latent Korean crisis has shown. Russia’s power cannot be neglected. It is still an economic heavyweight and its importance in Europe and in Northern Asia is widely recognized.
In this world of regional powers, each of them tries to have a certain leeway: the true challenge is to define the perimeter of the respective areas of influence: boundary lines that pass through the Senkaku Islands between Japan and China, that put Damascus as the boundary between the Iranian and the Arab League’s spheres of influence, and put Kiev between Russia and Europe.
Sometime the resolution is “easy,” as the case of Caucasian Georgia showed: a country on the brink of joining NATO, facing war against Russia. In spite of this apocalyptic situation, the crisis was peacefully resolved.
In Ukraine, the situation is somewhat different. Russia is posing a clear challenge to Europe. This is not a diplomatic or economic question, but an affirmation of Moscow’s natural sphere of influence of Moscow. If Moscow gives in, its regional role will fade. Putin fears that this “domino effect,” the same one that doomed Yeltsin, might precipitate his demise.
Russia is looking further West
If Europe can’t find a common answer, if it can’t recognize the big game it is caught in, it will risk a reborn Russia looking far beyond the Dnepr River.
Europe’s position is weakened by the fact that its citizens are going to vote for the European elections in two months and that only after the vote the European Parliament may feel legitimized to say something or a European (Commission’s) President may be willing to act – if only to show that they can fulfill the promise of a new European course. With elections coming up, national governments are strong and the European Union is weak. For Russia it is thus easy to “divide and rule.”
Whoever emerges as the winner of the European elections will have to negotiate a clear border with Moscow and a new balance of power between European regional players – a new “peace for our time,” as former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain put it in 1938.