By Harrison Stetler
“The lack of military response from NATO is likely to embolden a Russian president who takes a fundamentally ‘zero-sum’ approach to international affairs,” wrote Alex Botting in his recent article for World Policy Journal on what he perceives as NATO’s inaction in the face of the Ukrainian-Crimean quagmire.
This rhetoric is by now common parlance among American and European journalists, government officials, and policy experts. In fact, it is simply the embellished form of these by now trite platitudes: ‘It’s the second Cold War,’ ‘this is the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again,’ ‘if we don’t respond firmly we’ll see Russian boots marching throughout Eastern Europe,’ and ‘so Hitler ceased upon the feebleness of the 1938 Munich Agreement.’ In short, it represents the idea that Putin just simply does not want to accept the liberal international order.
Such talk has so permeated the debate in recent months that one is indeed forced to ask: is this 1948? Is this 1962?
When discussing political issues of the magnitude of the recent events in Ukraine and Crimea, it is better to (at the very least try to) start from the facts, lest philosophies, interpretations, and world-views guide the creation of facts. So, let’s start from what can be taken as objective facts— President Viktor Yanukovych, last November, did reject an association agreement with the European Union. Instead, Yanukovych sought a similar alignment with the Russian Federation. Protestors (some with less than savory, far-right political beliefs) ultimately brought down the Yanukovych regime. Russia orchestrated the annexation of the Crimea. And now in the eastern region of Ukraine separatist movements are clashing with Ukrainian national forces.
I began my chronology of this event in November and for that I, like the peddlers of the second Cold War theory, should be scolded. This is in and of itself a projection of perspective on to this far more nuanced scenario—it frames this crisis as a response by a western-leaning Ukrainian populace to the pro-Russian, particular ambitions of President Yanukovyich, thereby situating this crisis directly within the logic of the platitudes listed above. This leads to the conclusion that this crisis has arisen because Yanukovych denied the free-will of the Ukrainian people by leaning back towards Russia, that Putin initiated the annexation of the Crimea to make up for lost ground, and that to not respond firmly is to encourage such dated behavior.
It is the possibility of a Ukraine fully integrated into Europe (especially into a Europe as defined in opposition to Russia) which demands that the current Crimean crisis be sourced not to last November, but beyond, into the deep history of the World Wars, the Cold War, or to the early 1990s when Russia, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, retreated eastward on the promise by the U.S. that NATO would not extend into the post-Soviet space.
We here in New York, Washington D.C., and other major cities in the United States and Western Europe are conditioned to see Russia’s action wholly as an act of aggression, not as an action of an insecure country fearing for its defense in the face of what it perceives as the extension of a political system that serves to exclude Russia from much of its traditional sphere of interest. That Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a zero-sum maneuver, as Botting insists, is true, but the international climate enforced upon Russia, from the perspective of many in Moscow, is understandably just as zero-sum.
Policymakers in the U.S. and Western Europe need to craft a response that recognizes the very ambiguity of this situation. To do otherwise will simply perpetuate the string of events that have lead the facts to unfold as they have. But what of the loaded wording of this term "response?" Perhaps "action" is more evocative of what I hope to say. To use "response" implies that finicky logic that frames this crisis entirely as a Russian action against what are the supposedly natural forces of history, which who could "rationally" deny are pulling the Ukrainian people towards Europe?
To "respond" to this situation demands nothing other than what Alex Botting and others like him are suggesting: a NATO display of counterforce to ensure that Putin does not arrest the "natural" flow of history. On the contrary, a genuine action in response to this predicament will be just as much a process of recognizing the subjectivity and differing perspectives, which have forced this current juncture, as an actual display of NATO power.
There is no code or order whereby or wherein both the ouster of an elected president and the forcible annexations of territory by armed forces are marks of a healthy international system. The tragedy is that in this scenario both have happened and the world is no better off for it; this only demands that something be done by all parties involved. Making matters worse, as the Russian gas company Gazprom begins to cut off natural gas to Ukraine, a move that could impact all of Europe, the issue of how best to "deal" with Russia becomes even more important and the temptation to view this crisis as entirely Russian sourced will be all the more appealing.
It's clear that the situation in Ukraine and the Crimea is undesirable. However, the task for articulating some form of response to this crisis is two-sided: on one hand the tensions which have lead to the toppling of an elected president and to the invasion of a country must be assuaged and acted upon in the short run, but we would be remiss if we did not recognize the broader dialectic which has produced this situation in the first place.
A sincerely zero-sum solution to this predicament would resemble what Anatol Lieven, in The New York Review of Books, calls the "federalization" of Ukraine—that is, the devolution of power from the Kiev government, which has provoked the calls for separatism among individuals in the east of the country, bordering Russia, who see the government’s promise to lean towards the European Union as a violation of Ukrainian autonomy or of Ukraine’s proper alignment toward Russia. The federalization of Ukraine, by giving more power to localities and the provinces, could likewise sidestep the solidification of the country as a fault-line in the "Second Cold War," which so many now take for granted.
More broadly, it is the logic held by many in the United States and policy centers throughout Western Europe and the broader forces abetted by that logic, which must be addressed. What are these broader forces? Surely, much of this situation has been produced by the political machinations of a less-than-democratic leadership in Moscow. But also culpable, and just as zero-sum as Putin’s aggression, is the drive to extend NATO and the European Union in opposition to the Russian Federation. That this behavior is not perceived as zero-sum by Russia is the blindness that has afflicted us here in New York, Washington, Paris, and London for decades.
The deepening of sanctions and the strengthening of NATO or U.S. forces in Eastern Europe may delay the escalation of this situation, but for the dust to fully clear from this conflict it is incumbent upon us here in the West to unlearn this blindness that has so colored American and NATO policy in recent years.
Only when this has been accomplished will a genuine Russo-American and Russo-European détente be possible. In the months and years ahead this will demand an un-othering as geopolitical foe. In short, this means a recognition by the U.S and Western Europe that Russia is a country with a particular history, which has imbued it with particular perspectives, both of which—like our history and our perspectives—inform its political decisions. So long as we cling to the image of Russia as a madman in a vacuum, the situtations in Crimea and Georgia will continue and no amount of counterforce will be able to contain the supposedly wild machinations of Putinism.
Harrison Stetler is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.