The movement of troops is combined with the threat of economic sanctions, and the appeal to international law and institutions are combined with clear examples of disregard for weak states. Indeed, it was worthwhile for international politics to accumulate such experience and tools over several centuries in order for us to wait for a crisis where all these measures would become available to an interested observer.
The dramatic development of dialogue between Russia and the United States over the future of their relations in Europe has the obvious merit of allowing us to see the great powers in international politics for what they really are. Diplomatic pressure from Moscow, which met no less energetic opposition from Washington, created the conditions from which regional politics managed to wean itself after several decades of undeniable Western dominance. It is not surprising that the most common reaction on the part of sincere, although not always sufficiently enlightened ordinary people to current events and statements by the parties is an expectation of a catastrophe, which, in fact, can never be ruled out when it comes to interaction among sovereign states.
Meanwhile, the academic interest toward the diplomatic interaction taking place before our eyes is by no means less practical in its considerations. This is, first of all, because we have an opportunity to observe with our own eyes the inflorescence of phenomena and processes of international politics, fantastic in their diversity. The more surprising is its fullness and the richness of empirical material; that it grew on soil that until quite recently was considered extremely scarce and unsuitable.
However, we can already see that the foreign policy of the great powers, as well as their less significant partners in matters of war and peace, has retained the ability to produce events, which despite having individual analogues in history, wouldn’t allow us to reasonably expect a relatively close repetition of past experience. The main actors — Russia and the United States — have demonstrated a capacity for diplomatic manoeuvring, worthy of the most striking examples of the past, or even surpassing them.
As if liberated from the chains that limited their free movement, the main participants in the conflict turn to an unprecedented variety of means of mutual persuasion, the range of which reflects the richness of the tools at the disposal of the modern state. In their foreign policy actions we see an amazing combination of behaviour known to us from deep history and means created under the influence of completely new processes in international life. The movement of troops is combined with the threat of economic sanctions, and the appeal to international law and institutions are combined with clear examples of disregard for weak states. Indeed, it was worthwhile for international politics to accumulate such experience and tools over several centuries in order for us to wait for a crisis where all these measures would become available to an interested observer.
Apparently, we must start with the fact that the conflict unfolding before our eyes has all the signs of a classic revolutionary situation — one of the great powers, for internal reasons, can no longer cope with the international order, which limits the realisation of its basic interests and the protection of values. The demands that Russia made at the end of 2021 are addressed simultaneously to the substantive and procedural aspects of the entire system of its relations with the West. Although Moscow’s insistence on US commitment to refrain from expanding the institutional and military-technological base of its presence on Russian borders points to a specific territory, the hypothetical fulfilment of these requirements would mean a new interpretation of the rules that determine the post-Cold War European order. Russia does not seek to break these rules, as one would expect a revolutionary power to do, but insists on a shift in emphasis in the 1990 Charter of Paris as a way to bring the political changes necessary to get rid of the injustice shown against Moscow. The United States, in turn, has refused formal decisions on this issue, although it is quite likely that it is offering to adopt substantive commitments, which would assuage many of Russia’s concerns in practical terms.
At the same time, as we know, the US counterproposals, supported, of course, by their allies, are exclusively substantive in nature. Due to the fact that an all-out war does not seem to be a politically rational way to achieve a new balance of power and, accordingly, formalise a legitimate international order, the West sees no reason to abandon its formal dominance and proposes to reduce the practical threats against Russia that it has created over the past 30 years. In fact, we are talking about launching the process of mutual manoeuvring, the only purpose of which is to concentrate forces on the eve of an inevitable collision.
An alternative to such intermediate solutions could be a complete break in relations, but neither side is striving for this — for Russia, the United States and the leading European powers, a complete split goes beyond looking like a dangerous anachronism; it is unacceptable from the point of view of the main goals of their development. Therefore, the West is turning to means of economic pressure as a surrogate for direct conflict, even considering them in a hypothetical scenario where Russia attempts to resolve the Ukrainian problem by force. But here we see that even the most dramatic development of events would not necessarily become the basis for a complete rupture of economic ties. Moreover, China is standing behind Russia, and for Beijing it wouldn’t be difficult to help Moscow in the event of a truly critical situation, with respect to the economy or technology. In such conditions, all parties to the conflict refrain, in fact, from manifestations of genuine “strategic frivolity”, examples of which could be seen during the period of Europe’s slide into the First World War.
Excellent opportunities for propagating social tension and the imitation of struggle are provided by the information area. One of the most impressive manifestations of the current crisis is, of course, the information campaign that is unfolding in the West about Russia’s hypothetical actions on its borders. In recent weeks, this campaign has become so massive that it not only contrasts with the actual military preparations, but has also occupied the place of a separate branch of diplomacy. If in all historical periods known to us, the powers sought to ensure that their military build-up and intentions were taken as seriously as possible, now Russia’s behaviour is extremely restrained.
At the same time, the opinion and considerations of the Ukrainian authorities proper have faded into oblivion for Washington. In this sense, it behaves in the best style of the great powers of the past, when any weak partner was seen as nothing more than an instrument in relations with equals, or at least as a territorial base. But unlike the position of Western Europe during the Cold War, Ukraine now is not even such a base for the United States and its allies. There is little doubt that if Russia recognises the possibility of that country joining NATO, then in the near future its territory will be used against Russian security interests. However, this is not the case now, and the ongoing diplomatic battles are a combat for the future, just as the colonial expeditions of European empires in Africa or the East were often aimed to prevent even the hypothetical seizure of territories by other empires.
It is possible that this is precisely the reason to neglect the opinion of Kiev, which we see now from the side of the United States. Another interesting feature is that the interests of Ukraine itself in their modern interpretation coincide with the desire of the United States to acquire its territory. In the same way, in the second half of the 19th century, English or Russian colonial expeditions in Central Asia proclaimed their goal was precisely to protect the interests of the peoples they tried to subjugate as part of the competition between the two empires.
The examples mentioned here are far from exhaustive in providing a full picture of what is happening. We find the most archetypal images in the behaviour of two rival great powers, but their implementation takes place amid the conditions of a developed procedural and institutional ecosystem of modern international politics. It is impossible now to predict what consequences their actions and decisions will lead to, which in other historical conditions could make the development of events far more predictable.