Russia’s annexation of Crimea violated the foundations of the post-1945 global order and shattered the fundamental consensus that has so far sustained the Euro-Atlantic balance. In the face of the new uncertainty, we must rethink all major policy options for handling the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Several options are outlined below, in hopes of understanding what each offers individually and in combination with the others.Negotiations. The first option urges us to give more time for the diplomatic process and negotiations with Putin. EU officials and European leaders prefer this course of action, as it’s closest to their methods for managing conflicts within the EU. However, the simple message of the annexation of Crimea was that Russia does not belong in the same legal community as Europe. Pursuing further negotiations that deviate from the EU’s own standards for behavior would merely constitute, to paraphrase Clausewitz, a continuation of bureaucracy by other means.Certainly the West must continue to meet Putin at the negotiating table. Keeping Putin isolated carries high risks, as it increases the unpredictability of his behavior. But we shouldn’t assume negotiations can achieve much; Putin has long since stopped caring about negotiations, diplomacy, and all sorts of agreements.Sanctions. The West can continue to ratchet up the sanctions against the strategic circle of businessmen who represent Russia’s symbiosis of big politics, big business, government institutions, and security services. Putin role is that of Godfather of this unwieldy family. But we shouldn’t expect Putin’s oligarchic circle to crumble under the sanctions, or to change the nature of Russian politics on Ukraine. As the case with Mikhail Khodorkovsky demonstrates, oligarchs who try to play political reformer are treated like traitors and severely punished. Sanctions are, at best, an ambivalent policy.Aside from targeting the oligarchs, the sanctions have destroyed businesses, weakened the economy, and forced Russia into international isolation. But Russia in isolation is not less dangerous to the global order; indeed, its foreign policy profile becomes even more unpredictable.Eurasian Union. What if Putin succeeds in establishing a zone of Russian influence and ensures that Russia politically dominates a future Eurasian Union? The more important question: What guarantee is there that, having a dominion of this kind, Russia would give up future plans for expansion?The West, and the EU in particular, do not have the capacity to create a similar union, even if they agreed that such a project would blunt the force of Russian expansionism. The EU might decide not to oppose a similar project and even offer tacit support for it, but cannot bring it into existence. Were such a zone to be established, it would take a long time to make it work, and thus would not help solve the crisis in Ukraine even in the mid-term. In addition, if a real and strong Eurasian Union were to emerge, it would create entirely new dimensions in the international environment.Another President. If there were a change of leadership in the Kremlin, the new leaders would need a long time to reach the levels of stability and popularity that Putin enjoys today. Such a change is nonetheless possible. Events that might bring it about include sanctions and the collapse of oil prices; both of these developments affect a strategic group of oligarchs. The people in this group are most likely to believe that they have taken a hard, unjustified hit by the West.A sudden change in the Kremlin is unlikely to bring into power anyone dramatically different from Putin. It should not be ruled out, in other words, that Putin’s Russia would survive without her patron’s actual presence. This is highly probable as far as the sensitive realm of geopolitical gains is concerned, which, as Crimea’s annexation shows, is a source of immense national pride.Federalization of Ukraine. The essential part of the federal design lies not in what it offers, but rather in what is left unspoken and concealed. Federalism is a euphemism masking the de facto separation of the country, to be followed up some time in the future by the annexation of eastern Ukraine by Russia. The very term “federalism” is widely misused. It is not necessary to refer to the strong versions of federal contract as per Carl Schmitt or Judge Sutherland in U.S. vs. Curtiss-Wright Corp. to understand that federations have a center, which exercises sovereign rights over foreign affairs and armed forces. If these rights cannot be established and guaranteed, a Ukrainian federation is little more than a hypocritical construction.A disguised federalization will deepen the cracks in the postwar order and pose a challenge to the Westphalian system. There is no assurance that a Munich 1936-type concession would sate Russia’s growing imperial appetite. Tomorrow Moscow may hunger for the Baltic republics, with their large Russian-speaking populations.These are idealized ways for solving the crisis in Ukraine. None of them alone will provide a lasting solution. Nor can they be relied upon for preventing the continued destabilization of the post-1945 European order. Still, is there a best combination of these four options?Let’s imagine that Ukraine takes the federalization route; Russia has a new President; the sanctions have further weakened the positions of Putin’s crony circles; Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and maybe others, too, have joined the Eurasian Union; and the diplomatic process goes on and on.Putting aside the unlikeliness of all these things happening, this scenario still would not ensure that Russia would suddenly start negotiating with the West in the same manner as Western countries negotiate with each other. What’s more, the West would still be ill equipped to handle a future Ukraine-like situation, if one were to arise.On the one hand, the West, represented by the EU, U.S., Canada, and Australia must continue the negotiations as if there were a possibility that Russia would self-contain. Indeed, this is what they have been doing thus far—Merkel most of all. Otherwise all communication with Russia would cease, which itself carries a high risk. On the other hand, the Western world has to admit to itself that reliable diplomatic communications have broken down, leaving us with a politically empty spectacle for which few hold out any real hope.In recent years, we have witnessed an escalation in Russia of what Kennan called the “neurotic view of world affairs” and the expansive atavism of the Soviet type. There are, of course, significant differences between the USSR and Russia that we should note. The Soviet utopia tended to transgress all conceivable limits—political, ethnic, national, demographic, environmental, and so on. The Soviets displaced entire peoples, reversed the paths of rivers, rejected genetics, invented impossible flora, and subjected its own people to systematic annihilation. This multidimensional expansion goes far beyond what Joseph Schumpeter defines as “objectless disposition on the part of a state to unlimited forcible expansion”.These expansive drives faded out after the collapse of the Soviet experiment. Russia’s economic growth during the first Putin government was significant. The country engaged in various international initiatives; ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, became a member of the G-7/G-8, and built a partnership with NATO, including even discussions of possible membership in the Alliance. Russia had parted with its universalist utopian project and agreed to live in a world of capitalist relations. These developments nurtured the impression that Russia had at last found a pragmatic way to secure its prosperity. There were signs of deviation from that new path of development, but they were taken as temporary and insignificant.However, Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine have broken that continuity. They indicate that Russia’s compliance with international order is rather an adjustment of the expansionist mentality to new political circumstances. These events have also prompted calls for a new understanding of developments inside Russia, the country’s behavior on the international scene, and the way in which this behavior should be understood by the West.First of all, in its internal affairs Russia has reproduced elements that remind one of the excesses of Soviet society. There is the grotesque figure of the oligarch, an excess of capitalist success. There is the rapacious exploitation of natural resources. The public adoration of the person of the President resembles the cults of personality from Soviet times. Extreme power is concentrated in the hands of one group, or even one person. The secret services have apparently been revived and have accumulated new powers. Opposition leaders are executed, even beyond the country’s borders. Freedom of press and expression are stifled and drowned out by a flood of propaganda. And so on.Second, precisely because Russia is parting with the utopian urges of the Soviet project, foreign relations and hard geopolitics are now emerging as a permanent field of pressure. We also see here the elements of a vicious circle. On the one hand, Russia had no pragmatic reasons for wanting the wars in Georgia and Ukraine. On the other, there is no compelling internal or external factor to trigger a critical examination of the reasons why these wars were waged. Furthermore neither foreign relations nor geopolitics are open for reflection, debate, or discussion. Thus the overall public significance of these campaigns is destined to remain unclear. The temporary winner is only President Putin’s national approval ratings.Third, the claims that Russia was provoked by the expansion of NATO presuppose uniform rationality in a continuum of international interactions. The very intention to predict long-term Russia’s behavior implies such a continuum. Yet to assume as much is to ignore the idiosyncrasies of Russian activities. In addition, this line of critique can hardly explain Russia’s actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the war in Chechnya, or interventions in other smaller conflicts. Actions like these seem to follow a uniform pattern, but that does not subsume them under uniform causality.The question of why Russia has undertaken these actions, for what reason and to what end, is doomed to remain unanswered. The question is open for academic discussion, but is of little value for policymaking efforts. Rather, the critical issue today is whether and under what conditions Russia’s drive for expansion can be restrained.Mikhail Gorbachev effectively led the Soviet experiment to an implosion by reversing the direction of Soviet expansion and turning it inward, to stir reflection, criticism, discussion, and openness. In the 1980s this was possible because Soviet society was exhausted. Such a development is highly unlikely today. The only thing that could force Russia to become a more reliable negotiating partner is if it were to regain a sense of limits—a sense that is rapidly slipping out of its grasp. Today’s Russia is certainly more aware of the limits of its politics than was the Soviet Union, which offered living proof that losing this basic intuition leads to self-destruction.If we were to construct a strategic package taking all of this into account, it would look as follows.First, the negotiation process would continue in order to prevent Russia’s further isolation, and thus further risk-taking behavior on Russia’s part. It would be supported by sanctions aimed at breaking Putin’s inner circle, which alone can bring about a change of power in the Kremlin. The Euro-Atlantic organizations would also endorse the establishment of the Eurasian Union and build future partnership relations with the new entity.Second, Donetsk and Luhansk would become temporary autonomous zones under international oversight. All other plans and efforts for administrative decentralization or even federation would be dropped. This type of partitioning cannot happen without the consent of Ukraine itself, of course, but the reality today is that there are de facto two Ukraines already.Third, the western part of Ukraine would begin a fast-track integration into the main Euro-Atlantic structures. Ukraine’s Western partners must commit to substantial, reasonable, and well-regulated support for restoring the country, which in 1990 enjoyed an economy roughly the same size as Poland’s but today is nearly bankrupt.Fourth, NATO must commit to protecting the new borders by securing a continuous deterrent presence of military forces in Eastern Europe. This is important for Poland, but is crucial for the Baltic Republics, which face the highest risk of a Russian invasion analogous to the invasion in Eastern Ukraine. The EU would also step in and commit to dealing with military-strategic issues and the partial militarization of Eastern Europe.Fifth, NATO and the EU would develop policies aimed at strengthening the “weak societies” in southeastern Europe. International cooperation within NATO and the EU would continue, following established rules. But it would be complemented by the introduction of new policy measures to strengthen the societal immunity of these vulnerable countries. It is imperative to increase these countries’ ability to resist Russia’s hybrid wars.The items in this package could be adjusted or even extended to include other strategic points. The essential core, however, should target Russia’s lack of a sense of limits in the international arena.Ukraine presents a special case in terms of the Euro-Atlantic order. As the name of the country suggests, this is a boundary area. Ukraine is historically and symbolically similar to the Krajina, the military frontier in the center of the Balkan Peninsula. For centuries the Krajina divided the Catholic Austro-Hungarian and the Muslim Ottoman worlds. The frontier’s stability provided guarantees that the adventurous policies of each side’s opposite number would not create chaos and destruction. Maintaining the credibility of this buffer required continuous and comprehensive efforts on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, the West must make similar comprehensive efforts to convince the Russian side to respect its western boundaries. This need not become a new Cold War. Russia has accepted the basic parameters of the global capitalist environment; a return to a pre-capitalist time does not represent a realistic prospect for Russia.The fifth point of the above set of policy measures requires special attention. The style of Russia’s expansion in Ukraine posed a much bigger challenge to traditional deterrence as stipulated by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Hybrid warfare mobilizes a variety of public resources far beyond the alliance’s current military capabilities.Hybrid warfare targets the weak areas in the economy, the institutional system and the entire public sphere. It includes corrupting political elites, capturing strategic businesses, buying media, financing propaganda campaigns (for example, against shale gas), supporting friendly right-wing nationalist parties, financing paramilitary groups, forging ties with criminal enterprises, and so on. As the conflict in Ukraine illustrates, hybrid warfare has been generally underestimated and requires serious rethinking at policy level.Some of the societies in the former Soviet bloc seem to be good candidates for Russia’s next hybrid war after Ukraine. Applying the metaphor of mafia states, analysts have argued that organized crime is an appendix of the state in Balkan countries like Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Kosovo. Assuming that this argument holds even partially, the impending question is: on which side of the border with Russia or a future Eurasian Union will each country choose to stand? While the Baltic States are directly exposed to militarily threat, the Balkan countries suffer from a toxic brew of institutions, politics, business, and network criminality. These countries are poor, with corrupt elites, and with media controlled by powerful economic groups. Public institutions are subject to constant pressure from criminal-political networks. State-backed infrastructure projects are channels of high-level corruption. And it is not uncommon for whole state institutions to be captured.The result is, for some of the countries in question, a weakening of their sovereignty in foreign affairs. Russian energy projects such as the South Stream Gas Pipeline (SSGP) are a prime example of how corrupt elites in one country work to support Russian expansion from the inside. In some of the participating countries they succeeded in raising the price of the project three times and tried to evade EU restrictions in a bid for further profits. Huge projects like SSGP are in fact a component of hybrid warfare, despite taking place in a non-crisis environment. To secure their implementation, Russia enters into closer relations with influential networks of the “mafia state”. It occupies strategic positions, allowing it to exercise control over the media, the political process, and big business.It is therefore necessary to help strengthen and sustain the societal immunity of the countries in question. The EU helps somewhat through its large portfolio of funding programs, but these programs are politically neutral and thus more oriented toward development; they are not designed to address the problems of weak states and state capture. While creating programs to meet these challenges should be neither too expensive nor too complicated, it will be something that the bureaucratic institutions in Brussels have little experience with. It may be a question of investment, too, but it is much more a matter of policy focus. Hybrid warfare doesn’t necessarily imply a need for a “hybrid defense” (whatever that would be). But it definitely requires hybrid deterrence policies.Vladimir Putin is most comfortable in a world of undefined coordinates, ambiguous negotiations, and plenty of room for expansive maneuver. That is why resolute measures are needed to restore his sense of limits. The West has already paid a high price for failing to develop such measures. If Putin begins to plot new hybrid expansions, he would likely find success in the Balkans, the Baltics, other parts of Eastern Europe, or the Caucasus. If the West doesn’t work to restore Russia’s sense of limits, it will pay an even higher price in the years to come.
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Published on: June 26, 2015
New World DisorderBinding the Bear
A strategy for helping Russia regain a sense of limits.