One of the very first tasks that we were allotted following the resumption of classes back in September, was to draw what conclusions we could from the Ukraine Crisis. Though these wouldn’t seem very relevant now, I’d still like to share them with the online community. I am a student, not an analyst – not yet, at least – and do not claim to have a very informed opinion.
Around a week or two after I wrote this, I had to defend Russia and eastern Ukraine in a class debate on the subject. It was then that I realized, as I ran out of arguments against my opponents, how the narrative in the international media is west-centric, totally ignorant of the Russian viewpoint. Had I been informed as to the latter, I might have have fared better.
Anyhow, here is my take on it.
Is it the Cold War all over again?
Any confrontation that involves Russia and the US, is reminiscent of the Cold War. And so is the Ukraine Crisis. But it’s not just the confrontation of two of the world’s most powerful states in a conflict that is reminiscent of the mid to late 20th century, it is the mode of that confrontation, that is.
Proxies. That is how the US and then USSR confronted each other in the Cold War, and that is how they are confronting each other, today. The US has sided with the de jure heads of all of Ukraine – the government in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Russia, on the other hand, has sided with ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country that is contiguous to Russia itself and is demanding (at least) autonomy for itself.
The government that was installed after the ouster of pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovich, had the blessing of the West in general, and the US in particular. It is now bombing the pro-Russia rebels who are in de facto control of eastern Ukraine, while the rebels are responding with the help of economic, military, and political assistance from Russia.
In addition to the interests of the peoples of Ukraine, the two major interests at play are: the interest of US to keep Russia from expanding westward into Europe, and the interest of Russia to keep the US from expanding eastward into the intermarrium that borders Russia’s southwest. The two states, then, are protecting their respective interests in the Ukraine Crisis, with Kiev fighting for US (in addition to west- and central-Ukrainians), and rebels fighting for Russia (in addition to east-Ukrainians).
In addition to proxies, Russia may also see the EU’s Eastern Partnership Programme as a sequel to Truman’s Policy of Containment. For, indeed, it has the potential (and all the geopolitical logic) to shut off Russia from virtually all of the countries in its west by stretching an alliance from the Baltic, through the Black, and to the Caspian.
Major shift, maybe?
Another trend that this crisis is backing, is the erosion of the inviolability of territorial sovereignty.
The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia acknowledged the inviolability of territorial sovereignty. The world had to go through two world wars, and around a billion deaths, before that could be fully established. It is the one thing that international organizations – though often branded as selective, biased, and even outright hypocritical (!) in policy-implementation – have always upheld.
However, recent events have shown that they are no longer quite effective in that respect (either).
Russia intervened in Crimea, held a referendum that was not so much as recognized by the Ukrainian government, and declared the implementation of the result that was overwhelmingly in its favour. Meanwhile, the world did nothing. The fact that Russia could cross the border into a territory of Ukraine – no matter how controversial – is proof to the effect that violation of territorial sovereignty is no longer a non-bailable offence. The nation-state as defined by the 1648 Treaty, is gradually getting subordinate on economic (Scotland), sectarian (Iraq), and ethnic (Ukraine) lines.
The whole idea of the nation-state and inviolable territorial bounds was that people would let go of communal identities and interests to embrace one national identity that would be both a source and symbol of national integrity. But apparently, economic interests, and sectarian and ethnic affiliations of a people are now more important than their larger national interests or affiliations.
To intervene or not to intervene, that is (one of) the question(s)…
Should the US intervene, or should it not? It should, because Russia has crossed the proverbial ‘red line’. It shouldn’t, because active confrontation could lead to a nuclear war. The US is under a moral obligation to do both. If the Russian incursion is left unbothered, it could set a dangerous precedent for both Russia and other powerful states with smaller, less powerful neighbours, to follow. And if it does, more forces will be drawn into the conflict, and the death toll will skyrocket.
The stakes of intervening are higher than not-intervening. And when the situation seems to be getting under control (owing to an impending slowdown of the Russian economy), there is hardly a likelihood that intervention will be considered. An important endorsement to that effect would be US reluctance to use the word ‘invasion’ for the Russian offensive in Ukraine, which would not only increase pressure on the US and Ukraine’s other western allies to counterattack, but also bring Vladimir Putin in a situation where exit would be tantamount to surrender.
As it is, Obama under international moral obligations will not intervene. While Putin, concerned as he is only with the restoration of Russia’s lost glory, will continue to exploit the semantic loopholes in international law, and the world’s unwillingness to risk a greater war.