The crisis in Ukraine proved once and for all that the era mistakenly referred to as “the end of history” was a mirage. Peace and democracy did not become ascendant. Rather, the world had temporarily entered a period of unipolar power, during which time other large nations had not given up their intentions for power. They were simply rebuilding.
And now Ukraine is rebuilding. “I have no doubt that the biggest, most dangerous part of the war is already behind us,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on September 24. After an aggressive push by Russian troops in the east, Ukraine has been forced to consider a peace deal, the details of which are up in the air. While Poroshenko proposed allowing the separatist regions limited self-rule, the governing entities of the rebels maintained support for independence. Tough U.S. sanctions still apply, but President Obama offered lifting sanctions in his speech at the UN if Russia backs a deal, a position that Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk opposed in his speech that day.
The situation is constantly shifting and will continue to have ramifications for some time, no matter what becomes of the proposed agreement. But what is certain is that Russia’s actions have caused a dangerous precedent, and we can’t rely on the idealistic view that developed countries will honor peace or international standards.
The post-Cold War order after the collapse of the Soviet Union was essentially a hegemonic peace under Western liberal democratic guidance. That hegemonic peace is now collapsing with the rise of China, decline of American dominance, and Russia’s revanchist resurgence. Russia was always revanchist, even during the heady days of Yeltsin, but it lacked the capability to do anything. Now, with a former KGB agent as president, a former cold warrior is returning to form, and the peace and order in Europe is again threatened. While this is causing surprise to analysts worldwide who predicted the Russian demise due to economic malaise and demographic decline, the revival of a revanchist Russia was inevitable and was predicted by political realists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
Russia suffers from what is known in international relations as a security dilemma. With the economic rise of a new Russia under Putin, it inevitably needed to remilitarize and break free from what it perceives as a humiliation of the post-Cold War order in its immediate neighborhood. That remilitarization and rhetoric threatened the neighboring smaller nations, which wanted the West to balance Russia, which in turn threatened Russia, creating a vicious cycle.
The first flashpoint occurred when Russia broke protocol and launched a “defensive invasion” of Georgia, under the pretext of protection of Russian peacekeepers and humanitarian intervention. It came full circle with the annexation of Crimea and covert war in Eastern Ukraine.
Never since the Second World War was the territory of a sovereign nation dismembered and annexed by another sovereign nation, as Russia did in Crimea with impunity. This is a dangerous precedent with long term ramifications. The established norm since the Second World War that nations will not annex territories of other nations was broken. If tomorrow China-Japan or China-India conflicts takes similar turns, the world can only look back to this day as the start of the trend — and to Russia as the first post-modern imperialist of the 21st century.
The Ukraine crisis also shows that long-term, bloated military alliances are hopeless in face of asymmetric and covert wars. Deterrence doesn’t work while fighting “little green men” without insignias or flags. Policymakers should be spending less time on rhetoric and more time formulating a strategy to counter these threats. One thing that democratic western governments cannot do is send soldiers to harm’s way covertly without insignia. If the soldiers comes home in body bags, it will be too much for a democratically elected government to handle. Russia and other autocratic states have a distinct advantage in this area, as they can suppress media and dissent brutally. When the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, an NGO, raised concerns about injured soldiers in Ukraine, the Putin administration quickly declared the group a “foreign agent.”
The only way to deter Russia is to push up the cost to them of these covert interventions with military action as well as sanctions. International politics is based on perception and resolve. If the costs paid in lives of Russian soldiers can be notched up to a punishing level, then maybe in the future Russian policy elites will think twice before such adventures. Sadly a lot of innocent lives will be lost.
Finally, Western governments, especially Canada and Spain, where military spending is no more than 1 percent of GDP, should stop neglecting their own military and realize the inevitable truth. In fact the Baltic states are already making some changes on that front. Latvia and Lithuania plan to increase defense spending as a percentage of GDP to 2 percent by 2020, in line with the NATO target that many NATO countries fail to meet.