The current system of international relations provides experts and politicians with much food for thought, forecasts, and speculation. Now that long-smoldering conflicts in Eastern Europe have flared up again, one can postulate about the return of “evil empire rhetoric” and the inevitable transformation of the world order that took shape after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Global entropy by no means promotes clarity regarding the future, but the mainstream trend is quite clear: previous configurations are bound to collapse and the status quo will undergo a fundamental change. Crimea is a new page in the system of international relations, fraught with new risks, threats, and challenges.
GETTING INTO ORBIT
Many theories fueled political and philosophical discussions in the second half of the twentieth century, but the global system remains conservative. On the one hand, part of the groundwork was borrowed from the Westphalian system, with its invariable logic of state sovereignty and the accompanying monopoly of government institutions for participation in world politics. On the other hand, until recently the internal logic of the global order had remained under the considerable influences of the Yalta-Potsdam system. Naturally, one of the parties to the global standoff was missing, which automatically resulted in a unipolar configuration.
Since 1999 the world has witnessed the military operation in Yugoslavia, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, and many other crude violations of state sovereignty by the global hegemon. No wonder some countries were keen to position themselves as regional powers to at least guarantee their own security, if not challenge the existing world order. Those countries included (at different times) Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, China, Argentina and, quite naturally, Russia.
Russia’s position in the global system was shaky and uncertain after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia experienced a crisis of ideology and economic degradation, which stripped the country of its status as “the other pole” and as a superpower. That went hand in hand with the preservation of the nuclear missile potential, and Russia’s nearly 500,000-strong western army group left a united Germany only in 1994. There was no clear positioning or a comprehensible, officially proclaimed strategy – the “pro-Atlantic” foreign policy concept lasted from 1993-2000, although since 1996, when Yevgeny Primakov took office as foreign minister, the policy objectively contradicted the real course. Foreign policy remained in a pendulum-like state for a long time, only to stabilize in the mid-2000s. During that period the main parameters were identified of Russia’s new place in international relations. Yet researchers frequently find those parameters too optimistic.
Firstly, despite Russia’s return to a multi-vectored foreign policy, no major confrontation with the United States was on the agenda that might resemble the previous superpower standoff. Against a backdrop of a prolonged struggle to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment and join the World Trade Organization (which required more efforts than Russian-Ukrainian partnership), Russia and the United States cooperated in the development of the continental shelf and U.S. companies established themselves on the Russian consumer market. The aggressive rhetoric of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech pursued the aim of ideological delimitation with the Western powers, which made it possible to achieve a number of goals in foreign and domestic policies without considerable economic losses.
Secondly, Russia’s place in the new system of international relations was related to the architecture inherited from the Yalta-Potsdam configuration and the bipolar world. Quite naturally, the nuclear arsenal could no longer play a key role in everyday diplomatic ties. But, in combination with its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia could retain a high level of influence in world affairs. That the new foreign policy concept clearly points to the need to preserve the current status for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and also to the role of the United Nations as a center for settling international relations is not a formalistic, but the most meaningful remark concerning the up-to-date set of foreign policy instruments.
Thirdly, Russia has tried to regain its lost global status. That struggle has evolved into attempts to establish various partnership structures that would bolster the authority of the Russian Federation as an influential actor in international relations. In 1997, Russia and Belarus signed a Union Treaty. In 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was founded and the treaty on establishing the Eurasian Economic Community took effect. In 2009, Yekaterinburg hosted the first BRIC summit. Negotiations are in progress to expand European integration and establish closer cooperation within the G20 group of countries. In other words, the integration vector of Russian foreign policy was the priority, which merely underscores the certain instability of a self-styled (isolationist) position; collective diplomatic pressure was clearly seen as the preferable option instead of military pressure.
Today international isolation is an unaffordable luxury for any country that (in contrast to North Korea) is reluctant to remain on the sidelines of global affairs. On the one hand, frequent appeals to the collective opinion of allies or satellites stem from the generally accepted trend. Any foreign policy step needs legitimacy at least in the eyes of part of the world community. This rule is strictly observed even when a decision is backed, for instance, by Kiribati, Palau, Nicaragua, and Tuvalu. On the other hand, integration systems objectively provide for resisting potential outside pressures. The key players on both a regional and global scale resort to consolidation to enhance their sizable political and economic potential.
Nevertheless, in 2007 the Russian armed forces took a clear image-bolstering step, largely related to the aforementioned positioning of the country in the political and ideological sphere: long-range Russian aircraft resumed patrol missions in remote regions. Whether this step was reasonable enough from the standpoint of maintaining military parity is doubtful, but the political message was quite clear—“dissenters” declared their desire to challenge the fundamentals of the mono-polar system.
DREAMS OF TITANOMACHY
Whatever configuration the logic of world order might take, it always bears an imprint of dialectics: each system of international relations gradually accumulates inner changes that eventually alter its basis. Within the framework of multi-polar relations new leaders emerge into the limelight slowly but surely. The great powers of the Congress of Vienna are a good example. Inside the bipolar system a global zero sum game is underway. Such games inevitably result in the victory of one of the parties or a split of the world order into dissociated fragments, followed by a return to multi-polarity. The modern global order, which many tend to see as a mono-polar world, in reality is not a controlled and conflict-free environment.
Regional actors get stronger as economic ties become more complex. Subsequently, the “second world” experiences a revival, albeit not within a modern replica of what the Soviet bloc was in its day, but as a conglomerate of forces, such as the EU, ALBA, or the Islamic World, cemented together by Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Turkey. In these conditions, the hegemony of the United States is called repeatedly into question—if not in practice, then at the level of theories and public statements. The typical dynamics of a mono-polar world produces a situation where even those powers that owe their regional leader status to monopolarity become defiant and begin to challenge it. Moreover, the world economy inconspicuously propels such countries as Brazil, India, China, or Russia to leading positions; the capacity of domestic markets alone transforms them into major hubs of international relations, with all the accompanying circumstances and ambitions.
Also, the desire of the United States to enhance or reassert its status as a hegemon systematically creates mounting tensions and conflicts inside the world system. Until recently, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt had been considered traditional U.S. allies within the regions of the Middle and Near East. Relations with Pakistan are in ruins because the U.S. is pushing ahead with its outspoken self-sustained struggle against terrorism. Saudi Arabia is unhappy about the change in priorities in the U.S.’s Middle East policies. And the state system of Egypt is in critical condition. In fact, the United States goes against the above-described integration paradigm.
International policy actors like China, Russia, Brazil, India, Turkey, and to some extent the EU, are ever more often identified as potential rivals of the United States. No doubt this list may also incorporate some ambitious regional players (Saudi Arabia, Japan, Indonesia, and Venezuela), but for various reasons their potential has not yet been tapped to the fullest within the framework of the existing world order. Researchers consider China, along with the European Union and Russia, one of the most important advocates of multipolarity and participants in a hypothetical “Titanomachy” (Battle of the Titans), or a global rivalry for leading roles in international relations. Each of the mentioned parties has its own “vision of the future” and its own ideas of future world politics. The only common trait is their status as “challengers,” “contenders,” and campaigners for reformatting the world order.
Until now the logic of events followed the laconic Latin saying: “What is allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to the bull.” The role of the “bulls” in world politics belonged to countries that challenged the status of the United States and sought to enter into competitive relations with it at the level of public statements, but in reality (fortunately or unfortunately) took no steps that might be proportionate to those of the U.S. Over the past fifteen years, the United States initiated the largest armed conflicts, whereas the French operation in Mali, the China-Japan clash over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, or the pro-Turkish Freedom Flotilla affair drew no major response and have remained on the global periphery. However, the severe laws of global politics put competing powers in a very harsh environment. Just like stock exchange “bulls,” ambitious states have to consistently “thrust up their horns.”
THE CRIMEAN GAMBIT
The surge of tensions in Russian-Ukrainian relations in late 2013 and early 2014 largely resulted from the general logic of a global order where Russia’s outspoken defiance of world leaders (the West in Russian parlance) often triggered conflicts in the post-Soviet space. The conflicts that were sparked and fuelled with the advancement of U.S. and European forces into the Russian zone of influence include Trans-Dniestria, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, the Armenian-Azerbaijani standoff, and the future of the military base in Ayni, Tajikistan. The Ukrainian situation, which started with pro-EU demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square (Euromaidan), was no exception.
At first, Russia followed a moderate policy that enabled the Ukrainians to discuss the problem of economic association with the European Union only in the context of intra-political choice and with confidence in Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich and his regime. In January 2014, Vladimir Putin told a news conference in Brussels that Russia would negotiate with the Ukrainian authorities regardless of the government’s configuration, and European and Eurasian integration vectors might well complement one another. The Kremlin’s stance was as unexpected (from the viewpoint of domestic “hawks,” who deny in principle Ukraine’s right to independence) as beneficial. The political confrontation might have developed into a routine process, where Russian, Ukrainian, and other forces would remain within the legal and diplomatic space. However, the original strategy had to be abandoned as contradictions soared between the Yanukovich regime (which either committed a number of gross mistakes or proved unable to hold onto power) and Ukrainian society. The conflict spilled over the boundaries of legal space and was confined to a string of fundamental violations of the Ukrainian Constitution and legislation.
Whatever the underlying reasons, Yanukovich’s ouster was unconstitutional. While many powers that have employed the double standards tactic managed to easily adapt to the new situation, Russia’s firm commitment to Ukrainian and international law had a boomerang effect, however strange that might seem. The conflict continued to escalate when pro-Russian forces in Crimea violated the Ukrainian Constitution. First, the authorities loyal to Kiev were removed from power obscurely, which placed all powers in the peninsula in the hands of Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of the Russian Unity movement. Next, groups of gunmen wearing no insignias appeared at a number of strategic facilities. The Russian media promptly dubbed them “polite armed men in green,” while the Ukrainian pressed called them “invaders.”
Russia’s policy towards the Ukrainian crisis was gaining steam: Russian flags were hoisted over government and official buildings, and on 11 March the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol issued a rather peculiar declaration, which stated outright that Crimea would be declared independent only if local residents voted to join Russia in a regional referendum. This move openly violated Article 73 of the Ukrainian Constitution and the terms of the Budapest memorandum that Russia signed in 1994. The whole affair went beyond the bounds of legal space.
On 21 March 2014, less than a week after the Crimean referendum, Putin signed a federal constitutional law on the formation of two new constituent territories of the Russian Federation. On 27 March, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine that did not recognize the results of the Crimean referendum and protested Russian policy regarding Ukraine. One hundred UN member-states voted for the resolution, eleven countries opposed it, and 58 abstained.
Internationally, Russia’s actions during the final phase of the Ukrainian crisis (if one assumes it is over) harmed cooperation with the United States and the European Union. Moreover, there was speculation about economic sanctions and strong diplomatic threats. Argentina (once supportive of Russia’s stance on the issue), China, Kazakhstan, and India were not among the eleven countries that opposed the UN resolution. The effects of the crisis on the internal political process are still more significant. While loyally minded citizens are a considerable majority, Russian society is split. Now there are calls to look for the “enemy within,” national traitors, and the “fifth column.”
There is no doubt that a considerable part of the population of Crimea truly welcomed reunification with Russia (even though the Russian Federation in its present shape is not the RSFSR). For them, Russian annexation was a truly significant and highly welcome development. Indeed, it was perceived almost as the triumph of “historical justice.” However, this is far from the only outcome of the Crimean-Ukrainian crisis. Yet so far it is the only positive one.
CHECK AND STALEMATE
Firstly, the price Russia paid for taking over Crimea was Ukraine’s rapid departure from its previous policy of cooperation with Russia and also the soaring popularity of nationalist forces, including the ultra-right. While allusions to “historical memory” and a common cultural heritage can make the situation somewhat less dramatic, one should remember that at the beginning of the twentieth century the Serbs and the Croats—nationalities extremely hostile towards each other today—once shared a common state and disputes between them never went farther than linguistic arguments. Today a large section of Ukrainian society, traditionally supportive of Russia, is emphatically against the annexation of Crimea. According to a GfK Ukraine opinion poll, even in eastern Ukraine Putin’s policy enjoys the support of 31% of the population, while 47% of all Ukrainians today see Russia as a “hostile state” (in contrast to 9% in 2008, according to the Kiev International Institute and the Levada-Center). Practically all the Ukrainian mass media have taken a harsh stance, just as Russian journalists have been one-sided in their reporting.
Secondly, the tools selected to handle the Ukrainian crisis are very indicative. The same enlargement of the EU and NATO, which Russian politicians deservedly refer to in negative and critical terms, was carried out with the use of “soft power” instruments – trade, business cooperation, education, the institutions of civil society, and proactive propaganda through the cultural and entertainment spheres. Regrettably, in the entire history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, Moscow has failed to use “soft power.” Apparently, after resolving the Crimean issue from the position of strength, the opportunities for a “soft” solution have shrunk considerably. Financial instruments have secured repeatedly the empathy of the Ukrainian elites, but the potential of that resource has narrowed considerably amid growing signs of an economic crisis in Russia.
Crimea has found itself in a situation like a bull market (described above): pressured by external factors or those no longer controllable, the actors involved were forced to escalate the crisis.
Russia’s actions did not help to preserve the stability of the world political system. However, the sacramental question arises – should Russia have taken any steps at all to this end? The reply from the domestic political class is emphatic: ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has remained in the formal status of a “loser,” and its place in the current architecture of international relations is extremely disadvantageous. Accordingly, if Russia wants to take a more favorable and decent place matching its expectations, it cannot strictly follow the established rules without a proper say, and the preservation of the current world order is not its foreign policy priority. To an extent, this position is fuelled by controversial statements by U.S. and European politicians, but even those never draw a clear line between the “struggle for recognition” and actions that merely exacerbate the instability of international relations.
Therefore, the earlier asked question should be reformatted to find out to what extent Russia’s actions work towards bolstering its status as a competitive power. Here we are bound to raise issue of “soft power” and the transformation of the world system, partially related with the logic of making the political process more democratic.
The use of force is no longer legitimate like it was in the nineteenth century and, possibly, during part of the twentieth century. We are unable to say that conservative-style action from the position of strength can achieve anything in terms of boosting a country’s position even within the traditional zone of influence. In a world where the main players use finer and subtler instruments of soft power or smart power, a country that relies exclusively on the use of force is doomed to failure. With its own hands Russia is ruining the very same space of partnership its Foreign Ministry has painstakingly pieced together for decades. The cautious stance of Kazakhstan and China on the UN resolution is clear evidence of that.
Contrary to the belief that the role of geographic considerations in world politics has diminished, it is important to point out that the territorial localization of the Ukrainian conflict was one of the key factors. The conflict occurred not on the world’s periphery, where (alas) the Middle East still belongs, but closer to the core states of global order and nearer to Europe. In that sense, statements by some U.S. officials—such as, Zalmay Khalilzad or John Kerry—to the effect that certain actions in Europe are unacceptable in the twenty-first century acquire a very different meaning (devoid of any irony). For instance, during the Georgian-Ossetian conflict no action comparable to the “Crimean” response was taken, although direct military intervention resulted in the eventual separation of territories from a sovereign and independent state. However, even the ephemeral risk of a military conflict in Eastern Europe evoked a response as powerful as the emergence of “polite men in green uniform” in Lower California would entail.
Another negative circumstance contributing to the uncertainty is the rapid erosion of the decision-making process in the United Nations. The mechanism of the UN Security Council was devised in a way to guarantee the interests of its permanent members in any situation. Since the end of the Cold War, however, it has increasingly come under criticism because the Security Council’s composition does not correspond to the modern lineup of forces. In fact, the veto-wielding quintet still enjoys privileges and never misses a chance to put them to use. A number of global conflicts have taken place since the early 1990s, but the current tensions have not been observed until just recently; for instance, Russia’s expulsion from the G8 or the curtailment of various cooperation programs. Therefore there were no major fears that the burden of accumulated contradictions would force a revision of the Security Council’s status and of the rules by which the SC is formed. These days this issue comes to the forefront increasingly more often, and the Crimean affair has certainly made it even more topical.
The last risk in an escalation of the conflict is that Russia, by virtue of its own actions, will lose its strategic position in the post-Soviet space that it has enjoyed up until now. Russia’s post-Soviet place is traditionally perceived as very vulnerable and deficient, resulting from the loss of geopolitical, economic, and other potential after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Bloc. Those who say so surely have a point. But Russia has not yet lost the status it inherited from the Soviet Union. Its system – economic, political, and military-political in particular – has largely remained the cementing force that keeps together the part of the world commonly known as post-Soviet space. After all, researchers never talk of anything like “post-Nazi space” and seldom mention the “post-British world,” although both terms would be appropriate, in particular, in relation to the United Kingdom. In the post-Soviet space Russia has retained the role of a robust regional leader – if not a hegemon – with other states rallying around it. Now that it has taken over Crimea, Russia, as it has been noted, could lose Ukraine and much more. Russia has not been very successful in offering competition to rivals and has lured them into “blind zones,” from which the country is forced out as a consequence of its own actions. The logic of acquiring land for the sake of land or sea for the sake of sea does not work today, since we are no longer living in the era of Maodun, the King of the Huns.
Attempts to question Russia’s status as a great power have evoked a wave of anger in Russian scientific circles and in the press. Legislation has been proposed in the Russian parliament that would punish people who criticize the authority of Russia, the Soviet Union, and even the Russian Empire. Such initiatives bring to mind Russian sociologist Leonid Ionin’s remark: “Anger and wrath (…) control an audience better than reasoning and analysis.” However, as long as “democratic feelings” like that prevail in internal politics, and foreign policy is guided by the principle of “fighting first and then seeing what will come of it afterwards,” Russia is doomed to remain a “contender bull” in world politics with no chance of becoming the Jupiter-like power it wants to be.