The April 17 four-way meeting of Russia, the E.U., U.S. and Ukraine is not your average diplomatic negotiation. In Geneva, the first act of an entirely new play is being performed, with the plot written along the way.
As befits a modern drama, outright farce is combined with profound tragedy — and heartfelt suffering with cheap melodrama. Provincial divas wring their hands and city prima donnas are met with ovations. Menacing operatic villains stroke fake moustaches, comedians perform humorous couplets, and thespians deliver poignant monologues with well-honed inflections in their voices.
The same gun from which everyone fears a fatal shot will be fired hangs in the background, because in amongst the cardboard decorations and fake noses, there are real bullets.
A farcical atmosphere hangs over the central place of action: Ukraine — a country where the same events are repeated century after century, and political style ultimately overcomes the literary.
It’s difficult to perceive what’s really going on when you realize that every turn of events has been second guessed. And if the spirit and atmosphere of Bulgakov’s The White Guard is being recreated in Kiev almost a century later with the farcical Oleh Tyahnybok in the role of Petliura, in the East they’re already playing Wedding in Malinovka, a favorite of generations of Soviets.
The general mood is best summed up by the immortal words of Popandopolous (from Wedding in Malinovka): “I think that we’re on the edge of a grand panic.”
If all of this has the fragrance of Nikolai Gogol’s romanticism — from the atmosphere of Dikanka to the pathos of Taras Bulba — that is because this is the very dish the political gourmets are being offered today.
This scenic surroundings, however, are just a backdrop and catalyst for the real drama, which has rather more serious players. That Ukraine has become the cause of a political knot between Russia and the West is both accidental — and logical. It is an event, the prerequisites of which have been accumulating for over 20 years.
Geneva is the first attempt at serious talks among the major participants, and as they were a decade ago, Moscow and Washington have completely antagonistic positions and are absolutely unprepared for compromise.
Even in the 90s, when Moscow’s foreign policy was at a low ebb and it was financially dependent on Washington, conflict between the two countries didn’t end. But now for the first time, talks aren’t about local issues, however important those may be, but about positions in the global hierarchy. Russia is gambling big, and isn’t prepared to unilaterally “de-escalate,” since it doesn’t recognize the value (or even the reality of stability) established after the Cold War.
The United States, by contrast, sees the global order as its own property, repossessed by right — the rightful victor of the systematic confrontations of the past half century. Any encroachment on the post-1991 world order (and the West perceives the situation as a new order, while the rest of the world increasingly treats it as a transitional phase) is immediately rebuffed. That is only natural, since any revision would be to the detriment of its current leaders.
Because of the rapidity of events, we haven’t adapted to the changes, as many of the practicalities haven’t had time to manifest themselves. We therefore haven’t yet realized that relations between Russia and the West, primarily the United States, have entered a new phase.
The signs of this will soon begin to be felt on the level of everyday life, and will result in the systematic repression of Russia in terms of both military and domestic policy. This won’t be a series of one-off actions, such as when several Russian banks were banished from Visa and MasterCard in order to set an example for everyone else. Now there will be a deliberate series of actions designed to return Moscow to a place in the international order it found itself in after the Cold War. Russia isn’t prepared to return there. On the contrary, it doesn’t consider this long-held idea to be final or logical. As a result, the knot will only worsen.
Of course, there is no talk of military a confrontation, (although it’s no accident that Russia casually reminded Washington of the radioactive dust it could turn America into), but we can expect a host of political, economic, and symbolic measures aimed deliberately at Russia. In the preceding period, much of what we perceived as anti-Russian flack was actually a result of actions taken by Washington in other areas. It’s just that Washington didn’t take Moscow’s opinion into account, considering it irrelevant.Geneva Talks are a fork in the road
One path leads toward a new “grand settlement,” and this is what Russia wants. Calling a spade a spade, Moscow sees a solution to the Ukraine crisis in terms of how the state will be arranged going forward. A neutral buffer country organized on the principle of maximum internal diversity will satisfy Russia far more than its disintegration, or having it disintegrate, with its constituent parts taken over by other countries.
The intention is for the Geneva transaction to be a prototype of how to resolve similar disagreements, as no one doubts that their number will grow.
At the conference, of course, it isn’t the 19th century, and deciding the fate of countries without their participation is no longer possible. Today’s Ukraine is ineffective and not a fully-fledged state, buts its chaos and ambitions are capable of breaking up the game for the major players, even if they try and agree on something.
In order to localize the potential destruction of Ukraine, we need serious cooperation between the United States and Russia, with the active involvement of Europe, which doesn’t possess a coherent political will but is nevertheless instrumental.
On the table is a set of very different but interrelated topics: the structure of Ukraine, its neutrality, all of the complicated issues related to gas (price, debts, transit), and the fate of the political system, or to be precise, elections. Without linking them all together knowing that a complicated exchange of interests won’t work, to achieve anything in this confusing equation will require the greatest diplomatic skill and at least a minimum of mutual trust, something that has not only been in short supply, but can be expected to continue to diminish.
The second fork out of Geneva is a fixed arrangement and a second Cold War.
This route seems much more likely. On top of the collision over the global hierarchy described above, which is itself very hard to resolve, there is a fatal gap in perceptions. In the West, domestic Ukrainian processes are perceived without the necessary adjustments for local absurdity. As a result, the picture painted is more dramatic and dangerous. Russia in turn reacts with elevated drama, triggered by a vicious circle of mental opposition.
All of this is superimposed on the recent situation with Crimea, which touches on the basic principles of the global order and the fundamental question of how to preserve and obtain sovereignty. In other words — problems that were recently considered worthy of investigation only on a local level have become global, and give additional impetus to the irritation that gradually accumulated between the major players long before these events.
The post Cold War system didn’t bring the world into balance. Signs of this abound at every level, from the incapacity of the great powers even to understand the consequences of their actions on each other to the appearance on the world stage of people resembling Cossack chieftain Gritsiyan Tavricheskiy [also from Wedding in Malinovka.]
Everyone senses that something has gone wrong, and there is an instinctive desire to return to a situation when everything was understood and functioned: the salutary “bullet-free war” which was cold, eternal, and ours. More time will have to pass before everyone understands that this isn’t possible.