By Uldis Blukis
Western reactions to the Ukrainian crisis have been all sticks and no carrots—warnings, demands, and sanctions responding to Russia’s initiatives on the ground in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But from both sides, the propaganda has been a black and white blame game. Russia paints itself white and the West black. The West, government and media alike, has simply reversed the colors and the blame. It is heartening that recent diplomatic efforts seem to be moving toward some short-term multilateral results.
I suggest that the West could respond less reactively and more proactively, in pursuit of a protopian vision of peace—better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today. Specifically, the West could adopt a proactive policy to prevent, or at least minimize, Russia’s aggressions in the long term. The initial counter to Russia’s unilateral aggressions could take the form of proposing negotiations on multilateral procedures consistent with international law for dealing with problems in present and future contested areas.
The international legal problems that have emerged in Ukraine relate to humanitarian aid (those controversial Russian convoys); safeguarding civilians whose residences have been shelled; protecting minority rights of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in Crimea, and Russians in Ukraine; surreptitious military aid from Russia to rebels in Ukraine; secession referenda (March 2014 in Crimea); and, most threatening of all, the unilateral redrawing of borders through Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The major problem is the unilateral violation of international laws and agreements.
When agreed upon, procedures in a contested area could be implemented under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the United Nations. The negotiations could encompass all stakeholders—states and non-state actors, including minorities, pro-Russian groups in Ukraine, and non-governmental organizations.
Such negotiations, a “Helsinki 2014,” could promote democracy and peace in a fashion similar to the Helsinki Agreement in 1975. This product of East-West détente was negotiated in a tense atmosphere of Western skepticism about agreements with the Soviets. It proved to be a proactive policy document. In its first two decades, the human rights provisions and the non-violent dispute resolution mechanism established by Helsinki 1975 helped the Soviet Union transition after 1991 to a mix of democratic, transitional, and authoritarian countries.
Helsinki 1975 has promoted a little-recognized long-term trend—a decrease in human violence. Helsinki 2014 could do so as well. It would add to the growing variety of proactive non-violent approaches for dealing with potential and actual conflicts, as well as post-conflict problems that have been developed mostly in the UN system, some together with cooperating NGOs.
The most dramatic, and increasingly successful, non-violent approaches frame the UN efforts—an increasing number of nonviolent revolutions against authoritarian or corrupt regimes. While this trend can be seen in successful revolutions, such as that in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union in 1986, there are also more ambiguous examples. The peaceful anti-government demonstration launched on November 21, 2013 in Kiev, Ukraine, for example, was answered by a brutal governmental response. It ended in February 2014 with aggressive action on both sides, as Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovych fled from Ukraine to Russia. The message was simple, but graphic— the non-violent trend can be reversed.
Why are proactive policies more talked about than practiced? There are major limits on proactivity. First, the capacity of Western governments to practice proactive policies is too limited, for the policies require more complex planning and implementation than reactive policies and the relevant academic or on-the-job training is largely inadequate. A second limit is the West’s uninspired leadership—a protopian global peace vision could remove the limit.
Still, the limits should be pushed, if for no other reason than to seek global peace via proactive policies like a potential Helsinki 2014. Global peace and security should take priority. They trump the also necessary efforts to reign in Putin’s regional misbehavior in Ukraine.
A more peaceful atmosphere would allow the world to more effectively address three security threats, which if left unattended could pose destructive consequences to civilians. First, violence that confronts Russia and the United States raises the admittedly slow probability of a global nuclear war. Second, there remains the very low probability of a large asteroid hitting the earth. The United States shot itself in the foot when, in response to the Ukrainian crisis, it ceased cooperation with Russia on both threats.The third and final threat is already upon us—during the 1970s, human civilization probably became unsustainable due to the overuse of the earth’s finite resources. Humanity urgently needs to return to a state of sustainability. Peace, facilitated by the Helsinki 2014 negotiations, would help ease the return.
Uldis Blukis is a professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and a former Latvian diplomat at the United Nations.