Yesterday, I met with a group of analysts from Europe and the US brought to Kyiv by the Public Diplomacy Division of NATO. My remarks were deliberately provocative (I voiced the idea of “regime change” in Russia as a viable NATO policy objective) because I am convinced that actual policies implemented by bureaucracies are generated as compromises between extreme positions. I presented an idea that represents an extreme in the hope that the real policy will perhaps not be as radical as my proposal, but at least will be more proactive than the status quo. A synopsis of my presentation during yesterday’s breakfast meeting follows.
The strategy of NATO, the EU, and the G-7 towards Russian aggression in Ukraine has been reactive. Almost 3 months have passed since Putin’s outrageous violation of the post-Cold War world order. The state of shock in international community diplomatic circles should have worn off by now, but surprisingly, political elites appear to be immune even to seemingly lunatic encroachments on Europe’s established borders. Indeed the fact that Putin’s defiance of international law is so blatant, and the Kremlin’s justifications for such action are so completely unorthodox (patently opposite from the truth), leaves one to believe that the only possible diagnosis for Putin’s state of mind is lunacy.
I will not attempt to get inside Mr. Putin’s head. Multiple publications have appeared on this topic, and none are sufficiently explanatory, nor are they helpful in the long term. Short term tactics require an understanding of the possible moves (and therefore of the motives that determine desirable options) of one’s adversary. But this is reactive thinking. If one is to break out of the paradigm of battle tactics, reaching further into strategy, one needs to look at the war as a whole. What are the aims of the West with respect to Russia?
Clearly, the old paradigm of seeking economic and political cooperation/competition within a set rule framework, and concomitant respect for the mutual interests of international players, is no longer a valid option: Russia simply refuses to play by the rules, and regardless of how much the Kremlin is urged to return to the established institutional framework, mutual trust has been undermined to such an extent that it will never be restored.
Does this state of affairs inevitably mean a return to Cold War styled global separation? This is clearly not a desirable option in western capitals: firstly, because few wish to believe that a real ideological divide exists between Moscow and the rest of the world (after all, the Russians are nominally “capitalist” – just like “us”), and secondly, most recognize that the difference between “Cold War” and “frozen conflict” is semantic rather than substantive – maintaining a status quo of arrested conflict requires continuous effort, life in the disputed territory (i.e. economic and social development) is suboptimal, and risk of return to violence is always high. In other words, if Russia (Putin) is to be contained, the West had better be prepared to pay a very high and long-term price for it.
Is there another solution? From a West European perspective, that question depends on several values-based decisions:
1) Where does the border of Europe lie? Or (put differently) is Ukraine truly European, and is conflict on its border any of Europe’s business? In other words, does NATO, the EU, the G-7, OECD, or any other western institution have any obligation to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine? This issue would be much clearer if Ukraine were a NATO member or part of the EU – clearly then the answer would be “yes” because of treaty and institutional obligations. But under the circumstances, any evaluation of Ukraine’s “European-ness” is dependent on one’s image and understanding of the Maidan – the only instance in history of mass deaths in the name of European values: national self-determination, personal dignity, rules-based government. My previous posts (and my presentation yesterday) have focused on these issues extensively. During the past 6 months, Ukrainians have demonstrated their European-ness more than many citizens of EU countries (including restraining from violence in Crimea); the decision is now up to the Europeans – will they accept Ukrainians as their own?
2) Can Europe tolerate a neo-fascist government in Russia? I thank Prof. Alexander Motyl (a participant in the NATO analyst mission) for this formulation because, in the past, I have not been brave enough to call the current Kremlin regime what it is. Apparently, comparisons between Putin and Hitler are not well received in western intellectual circles these days, but the fact that during the run-up to the EU Parliamentary elections, every single European extreme right party proclaimed support for the Kremlin’s policies towards Ukraine (see Prof. Timothy Snyder’s numerous publications on this), makes one wonder why identifying the Russian as neo-fascist should be considered illegitimate by mainstream politicians. Western democracies have an ugly history of tolerating authoritarianism when it is in their economic interests, and of ignoring atrocities that such regimes perpetrate. This time, will the EU look the other way while Russia perpetrates ethnic cleansing, territorial annexation, and subsidizes terrorism on Europe’s borders? Does Slovyansk (or another city in the Donbas or Crimean peninsula) have to turn into a Srbrenica before the West actually takes a stand, or can we avoid mass killings? Will history books condemn 21st century Europe’s return to 19th century style “Realpolitik”, or will the West do what is right?
3) Is the EU’s proclaimed post-modernist “soft power” foreign policy a reality, or have we in fact become a world where “might mean right”? Putin’s flagrant violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and of the international institutional order have been left mainly unchallenged thus far. Limited economic sanctions have been implemented, Russia has been expelled from the G-7, and its membership in several European institutions has been suspended, but Crimea remains occupied, and mercenary fighters in eastern Ukraine continue to be funded and supplied from Russia. The EU has prided itself on projecting “soft power” (e.g. M. Leonard’s “Why Europe will run the 21st Century” 2005), but soft power only works when one’s neighbors are democracies (i.e. where public opinion matters), and when policy is shaped by rational pursuit of national self-interest (i.e. a regime cares about the economic welfare of its citizens). Although one of the NATO officials present during my breakfast meeting yesterday was keen to point out that Putin enjoys over 80% support in Russia, as anyone who has watched even a little Russian television will attest, it is patently absurd to argue that such support originates from a well-informed electorate. Furthermore, Russia’s economic disparities (even according to official statistics) are so glaring that it is hardly believable that the Kremlin cares at all about the livelihood of average Russians.
Europe’s soft power is based on values – their proclamation, protection, institutionalization in everyday life, and then projection as an attractive example. Certainly, Russia does not (and cannot) offer a soft power alternative to rival the EU. However, if western politicians continue to maintain a reactive stance towards Putin’s “hard power” aggression in Ukraine, the legitimacy of the EU’s soft power will be undermined, as will the political institutions that engender its core. Indeed, some (e.g. Prof. Snyder) have argued that this in fact is the Kremlin’s goal: to undermine the absolute and objective advantage of the EU model, so as to improve the attractiveness in relative terms of the “Eurasianist” alternative political project. From this perspective, Ukraine is a test of the valor of Europe, and of all that it stands for.
For the moment, Europe stands for reaction – and limited reaction at best. Generating a proactive policy requires a goal. Strategy cannot be formed if an “end state to be achieved” by implementing the strategy is not envisioned. This may seem obvious, but it is the crux of the current problem faced by Europeans (and by the US as the senior partner in NATO). Put simply: if the regime in Russia is a problem (globally), then what alternative is more desirable?
This is a question that most policymakers simply refuse to ask. Because Russia has nuclear weapons, and because any alternative to a centralized authoritarian regime in the Kremlin would create a risk of losing control over that nuclear arsenal, one simply does not ask the “what is the alternative?” question. Indeed, this was exactly the motivation behind President George Bush Sr.’s “Chicken Kiev Speech” – delivered in the Parliament of the Ukrainian SSR in 1991, several weeks before the August coup which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to its dissolution into constituent republics. At the time Mr. Bush stated outright that the United States would “never support suicidal nationalists” who questioned the long-term viability of the USSR, and of Mr. Gorbachev as its leader. President Bush turned out to be wrong. Questioning the viability of the USSR is exactly what the West should have done, and then it would have been better prepared when the “evil empire” in fact disintegrated.
However, the analogy is not precise: the dismemberment of the Russian Federation is clearly not a desired outcome for the West. Firstly, the emergence of multiple states on the former territory of Russia, each armed with nuclear weapons, and with nascent governments which may or may not be respectful of non-proliferation agreements is a high risk scenario for each NATO member, and for the alliance as a whole. Secondly, it would take time and effort to arrange for normal trade relations with multiple states, and therefore it is likely that energy supplies to the EU would be threatened if Russia disintegrated. Doing business with two countries (Russia and Ukraine) is difficult enough – the scenario of having to arrange gas contracts with even more supply and transit partners must seem nightmarish to Europe’s energy moguls.
Notwithstanding the growing number of people in Ukraine that see the disintegration of the Russian Federation as a desired outcome of the current conflict in the Donbas, a viable Russia strategy for NATO and the EU (i.e. a policy guided by a desired visionary goal) need not be based on dismemberment of Ukraine’s eastern neighbor. After-all, the international community’s problem is not the Russian Federation as such (as was the case when the USSR existed), rather it is with the Russian regime.
Yesterday I first voiced the phrase “regime change” as a viable end-goal of a NATO policy vis-à-vis Russia. My suggestion was met with a predictable response from the multinational group of analysts whom I was meeting: “Regime change was tried in Lybia and Iraq, and look where it got us?” To which I responded: “True, but look where it got us in the case of Slobodan Milosevic?” Serbs (and Kosovars, Bosnians, and Montenegrans) are certainly better off today without the Balkan dictator – an authoritarian who justified expansionism based on ethno-nationalist fervor, and who happened to enjoy high levels of popularity at the time when he was forced from office. As in the Russian case, it was highly unclear who would take power in Serbia after Milosevic, but that did not stop NATO from doing what was right for Serbs and right for Europe. Of course, the risks were not as high: Serbia did not have nukes…
Several years ago, during an event organized by the Pinchuk Foundation’s Yalta European Strategy, I had an opportunity to chat extensively with Mario David – Vice President of the European People’s Party, and a prominent EU legislator. Recollecting his conversation on EU-Russian relations with a highly placed Russian diplomat (the topic was Latvia) Mario, a native of Portugal, pointed out that “Portugal now borders Russia”. After-all, he told me, EU foreign policy is Portuguese foreign policy…
If I were to engage Mario David today, I would ask him: does the Portuguese border extend southward from the Baltics to Luhansk? Formally – no. Therefore the EU is right to say it has no formal obligation to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. But what about the moral obligation? Many of the protesters who died on Maidan were buried with ribbons marked with a circle of gold stars on a blue background… Should that not be moral reason enough to at least implement a “no-fly zone” patrolled by NATO fighter aircraft over eastern Ukraine?
At the moment, no one is calling for “boots on the ground” in the Donbas (that would be unrealistic anyway), but today’s reports of renewed troop movements on Russia’s western border, and video footage of tanks bearing Russian flags moving through Luhansk oblast, indicate that Putin has no intention of reducing the intensity of his aggression against Ukraine. For the moment he still has the initiative. Some have placed high hopes in President Poroshenko’s peace plan (announced today) which involves Ukrainian troops ceasing hostilities for 7 days to allow Russian mercenaries to leave the country, or to face destruction next week. OK – that’s Plan A, and I genuinely hope it works. But what’s Plan B?
And what is the West’s long-term strategy with respect to Mr. Putin? Containment is an option, but that will be expensive. To maintain its status as a buffer state, Ukraine must become a showcase for EU soft-power, and a huge recipient of NATO military assistance – i.e. a kind of post-war Germany and late 20th century Israel wrapped into one. Can the EU, US and Canada afford to provide that kind of assistance? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just get rid of the threat? That requires guts…
In the meantime, over 150 Ukrainian soldiers have died in the Donbas protecting Europe’s eastern border. How many more must come home in flag-covered coffins before the Kantian moral imperative (so loudly proclaimed as the basis of Europe’s values) is transformed into a policy imperative by NATO/EU/G-7 leaders?
God help us!
Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy