For more than six months now, Russia has been the world’s primary disturber of international tranquility. In March 2014 it used its military forces to invade the Crimean peninsula—a part of the territory of Ukraine, whose integrity Moscow was obliged to respect and protect according to the 1994 Budapest Protocols. This was the first action of its kind that the global community had faced since the end of the 1930s: To be sure, in the intervening years we have seen states split or unite, but until now boundaries haven’t been redrawn through a sudden annexation of one part of a country by another.
And Russia didn’t stop there. Citing the necessity of protecting not its citizens but its “compatriots”—even “Russian-speakers”—it inspired separatist movements in eastern Ukraine and, by arming proponents of self-determination of these areas, in fact provoked a civil war in a neighboring state. Recent statements by President Vladimir Putin—in particular the one stressing that “it’s necessary to start immediately some meaningful negotiations…concerning the political organization of society and the [issue of] statehood in the south-eastern part of Ukraine”—indicate that Russian leader is ready to go further, perhaps even to the point of annexation of at least two major eastern regions of Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk.
The West doesn’t appear to have a clear strategy concerning either Crimea or the future of Ukraine in general, as it has no vision for relations between itself and Russia. The set of options is limited. Sanctions against Russia are unlikely to deliver the deserved result: restrictions on travel and on conducting business activity imposed on a number of high-ranking officials will only help Putin realize his planned “nationalization of the elites”, while at the same time making these elites even more aggressive. Broader sanctions may severely hit Russian businesses, but not Putin’s core support group, consisting mainly of officials, army personnel, those serving in law-enforcement agencies, other employees of the public sector, and pensioners. A military response to Russia’s aggression is out of question: Its new tactics, an undeclared or “hybrid” war, are an attempt to make it look as if it is not a party to the conflict. To recognize Russia as an aggressor at the UN is impossible, just as it is impossible to consolidate NATO countries around resisting a nuclear power whose attacks aren’t directed at a NATO member.
The lack of a clear strategy in response to Moscow’s actions is calling into question the future of the modern world order. If the West silently accepts the occupation of Crimea, it will thereby largely legitimize Russia’s new aggressive policy, opening the path for incorporation ito the Russian Federation of such quasi-states as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, probably Transnistria, and even the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics.” To do so means relinquishing the stability of national borders in Eastern Europe, with all the consequences that might ensue as a result.
The West badly needs a united strategy toward Russia’s moves in Ukraine. Any such strategy should take two factors into consideration: first, the very fact that the Western countries are not ready for a military confrontation with Moscow over Ukraine; second, that a full-scale violation of the principle of the inviolability of borders will cause a chain reaction around the world and lead to a sharp increase in military threats. With this in mind, the West’s strategy should involve, on the one hand, formal concessions to Russia on a number of “symbolic” issues that would allow Putin to claim a kind of victory, and, on the other hand, the creation of new “red lines” that Russia could not trespass in the future. Given that this year’s events in Ukraine may be seen largely as a logical development of Russia’s post-Soviet policy, which has already led to de facto separation of Transnistria from Moldova, and of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, one should focus on how all of these conflicts may be brought into a single, though not classically legal, field. The most important task today is to put an end to the legal vacuum that allows Russia to expand its zone of control in the post-Soviet space.
The Western powers might, to my thinking, declare a series of major initiatives that in the long run might lead to ousting Russians from the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea (and in the future—to reducing Russia’s influence in all unrecognized post-Soviet states); these initiatives might also be seen as both providing certain important concessions to Russia and “modernizing” the system of international law. They should be based on the inevitability of the reintegration of all the disputed territories into the states to which they previously belonged, but this reintegration may be postponed to a very distant future and be orchestrated in a way that allows Russia to avoid the feeling that it has been defeated (which seems to be a highly crucial and sensitive issue). At the same time, I would argue once again, that the “de-escalation” must become a two-way drive: The West needs to find a formula that would exclude any qualification of Russia as an aggressor that has captured a slice of foreign territory; Russia should move away from some of its “principal” claims that cannot be justified from the standpoint of the contemporary international law.
Realizing that much of this might look like pure wishful thinking, I nevertheless will try to present a possible plan of action in several separate stages, each of which may open the way for a serious reduction of tensions around Russia, as well as imbuing a sense of perspective to the West’s actions.
The most crucial point that separates the positions of the parties is their attitudes toward Russia’s actions in Ukraine (both in Crimea and in the eastern regions)—namely, whether they should be characterized as acts of aggression. To break the deadlock, the West must somehow abandon this claim. The only other potential description of Russia’s intervention in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine is that it was a humanitarian intervention of some kind. Plausibly arguing this in the Crimea case should be relatively simple: Crimea is a multinational territory inhabited by both Christians and Muslims, and by Ukrainians, Russians, and Crimean Tatars. It could be argued that the policies of the “radicals” who took power in Kyiv in February 2014 could have led to armed clashes with thousands of victims. In other words, something similar to what happened in eastern Ukraine in July-August 2014 might have occurred as early as February or March in Crimea. Russian military involvement in this case could therefore be portrayed as a “preventive humanitarian intervention” that forestalled mass violence in the peninsula. The same formula could be applied in east Ukraine: Russia sent troops to prevent massive violence against the locals (which actually took place in some parts of Luhansk and Donetsk region) and therefore should not be condemned. Of course, if this route were pursued, all the sanctions imposed on Russia would have to be terminated, and all restrictions lifted.
But all of this could only be done on one and only one condition: The Russians must agree that the accession of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian Federation was hasty and illegal (because humanitarian interventions, whatever they may look like, aren’t supposed to involve the annexation of part of one state by another state), and that the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (as well as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria) will never be incorporated into the Russian Federation under any circumstances.
Of course, such a “de-escalation” would not lead to an immediate transfer of Crimea back to Ukraine: Russia now insists that the current authorities in Kyiv are crude nationalists who cannot be trusted. Therefore, it would be sufficient to obtain Russia’s assurances that Crimea would be given back to Ukraine only upon its incorporation into the European Union, which is a competent guarantor of human rights. Thus the parties might come to agreement on the following formula:
- The West would refuse to recognize Russia’s actions as an aggression.
- It would lift the sanctions and continue to develop a mutually beneficial relationship
- In response to all of this, Russia would agree to transfer Crimea to Ukraine, for example, ten years after Ukraine becomes a full member of the European Union.
There’s something to be gained by all the parties with this formula. The West might like it because it would strengthen its reputation as a defender of Ukraine’s cause. Not only would the West’s refusal to recognize Crimea’s annexation continue; Russia would also “in principle” agree to return Crimea back to Ukraine’s control in the future—something that no one thinks is likely today. Russia would be able to portray this arrangement as a diplomatic outmaneuvering of the West, since few in either Moscow or Brussels believe that Ukraine will ever join the European Union. The United States would particularly benefit from this arrangement, which would force Europe to orchestrate a much more proactive Ostpolitik, since Ukraine’s hopes for restoring “historical justice” would be precisely aligned with the EU’s readiness to expand. In general, this compromise would have to be the result of an impressive diplomatic breakthrough—probably the most significant since the time of Gorbachev’s “new thinking.”
This approach would also find support in many countries of the former Soviet Union, some of which (Kazakhstan and Belarus, above all) deeply fear the new Russian policy. The West, then, would likely find several unexpected allies among the parties of the Eurasian Economic Union now being constructed by President Putin.
The real challenge, however, isn’t only to “unlock” the Crimean problem. The main mission of the new strategy consists, on the one hand, in seriously moving forward the resolution of the “frozen” conflicts of the post-Soviet space, and, on the other hand, in increasing the predictability of the processes driven by the desire of some people to secede from their states—a sentiment that has recently become quite widespread. The experience of the 1990s and 2000s shows us that the destruction of states in most cases does not lead to the formation of stable and successful nation-states. Moreover, if it occurs in regions that some of the great powers consider to be inside their zones of influence, it may easily provoke a fierce struggle around their recognition as independent nations. In 1999 and in 2008, wide-scale military interventions on the part of the central government into the affairs of semi-independent provinces led to the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, and of South Ossetia from Georgia. To date, however, Kosovo’s sovereignty is recognized by 108 countries, while the sovereignty of South Ossetia is only recognized by four. While one shouldn’t make apologies for Russia’s actions in the war of 2008, one should admit that this attitude perfectly demonstrates the existence of “double standards” in modern politics—and the mission of the second phase of changing relations between the West and Russia lies in gradually overcoming such double standards.
Today, with dozens of unrecognized states in existence and the prerequisites for secessionism in many more (along with the accompanying episodes of ethnic cleansing), it may be appropriate to propose the United Nations on behalf of at least four permanent members of the Security Council to adopt a draft statement: the Universal Convention on Humanitarian Intervention. One of the requirements of this document would be the reconstitution of the Trusteeship Council, previously present in the UN system but abolished back in 1993. The general principles of the international community’s dealings with the secessionist territories would, on the one hand, become the recognition of the right of peoples to protect themselves (and to be protected) from genocide and violence (and, consequently, the right of external forces to interfere to prevent such violence from evolving), and, on the other hand, the rejection of any immediate recognition of the independence of the new states in favor of granting them a “transitional” status, in which they become protectorates of those powers which are authorized for this purpose by the Trusteeship Council (to some extent, this system would resemble the practice of “mandated territories”, which was used extensively under the League of Nations).
The majority of newly established quasi-states (like Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea, and, perhaps, the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics”) could be proposed under the jurisdiction of the Trusteeship Council, thereby essentially creating a new international legal order. Russia could get mandates to manage most of these areas, while the mandate for Kosovo would remain with the European Union. Such a status would allow these new areas to become extraterritorial entities, open to visiting and monitoring, with visa-free travel to most countries of the world, possessing the conditions for conducting offshore business with low taxes and favorable investment conditions. Residents of these areas would receive a special UN passport. This would remove the need to illegally distribute the markers of citizenship of other states (as did Russia in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Romanians in Moldova, and so on), and it would do so without limiting local residents’ rights to travel abroad.
This initiative could become the one real positive outcome from Russia’s adventure: that the global community’s reaction to Russia’s behavior would end in the formation of a new international architecture that would dramatically reduce the number of global cases that could become triggers for serious political instability. Refraining from hasty recognition of the newly independent states, coupled with the introduction of twenty- or thirty-year-long “transition periods” would probably moderate the actions not only of those that support separatist movements from the outside, but also of the central governments that resist such movements from within. Given the dynamics of modern integration processes, one can assume that by the end of the transitional period both the central government and the enclave would reside within the same integrated block, making the very struggle for “independence” largely meaningless.
This new political reality again would benefit all parties—but especially the West, which would gain a new tool for influencing Russia and its policies of “managed instability.” Russia, too, would have nothing to lose; in the new environment the confirmation of its success would emanate not from the military control pro-Russian forces establish over a given territory, but from the maximum openness and prosperity of its “client states”—which means, in essence, the shift from using “hard” power to using “soft” varieties. Perhaps this sounds like an exaggeration, but such a tactics could be a powerful tool to prevent regional conflicts in the future and shift the focus towards predominantly economic competitions for new “clients.” It is obvious that in a few decades, when territories passing out of the auspices of the Trusteeship Council would choose their fate, the main question they would face would be how comfortable they feel under one jurisdiction or another. Full independence would almost always be seen as the least preferred option.
The next move could be a crucial international conference on the new security architecture in Southern Europe, bringing together representatives from Russia, the EU, and the United States. The most symbolically-resonant place for such a conference would be the Livadian Palace in Crimea, and the most symbolic time, February 2015. The objective of the New Yalta Conference would be the formulation of the conditions for peace in the east of Ukraine and the elaboration of a common attitude toward unrecognized states or territories outside internationally recognized borders. Crimea, Abkhazia, and other “unrecognized” countries could be turned into “bridges” contributing to co-operation between the European Union, Russia, and other nations of the former Soviet Union.
Today, neither Crimea nor Transnistria nor Abkhazia are on the path to economic self-sufficiency. Thus they will require broad international cooperation, which will require them to overcome their legacies of instability. All Russia can offer to Crimea is new infrastructure and development of a gambling zone; Moscow has neither the necessary funds nor the political determination for anything further. Abkhazia in recent years also has shown that it isn’t any closer to an exit from its postwar crisis; it will never get there without reconciling with both Georgia and the rest of the world. If the great powers agreed to postpone discussion of the status of these territories and in fact to take them under “external control”, with one or another power exerting a dominant role under the framework of common checks, then the situation could change radically. Crimea would be transformed from Russia’s most disadvantaged territory into a kind of “Hong Kong on the Black Sea.” Instead of a gambling hub, it would get industrial parks and transit centers, enjoy Russia’s flat income tax, and offer EU citizens visa free travel and easy access to work permits. In other words, Crimea would become a bridge bringing Europe and Russia closer. Given that no one expects the European and Eurasian Unions to come together anytime soon, Crimea (as well as Transnistria and Abkhazia) could maintain its intermediary role for a long time to come.
Another important objective of the proposed conference might be the signing of a binding agreement on the inviolability of the territory of all states and quasi-state entities in the region. NATO might act as the guarantor of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, taking upon itself the obligations of comprehensive military assistance and support in case of aggression from a third power; this would prevent a situation similar to the Russian intervention in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Russia, for its part, could act as a guarantor of the territorial integrity of the mandated territories for the duration of the mandate, which would prevent a repeat of the Georgian assault on South Ossetia. In fact, the task of the conference should be redrawing the lines of power running through Eastern and Southern Europe, which would secure new borders and frontiers for the coming decades and protect them from challenges arising from either side.
Of course, Ukraine might reject such a proposal; after all, it is the country that stands a good chance of losing (albeit temporarily) a significant part of its territory. But I believe the Ukrainians would eventually come to terms with this. History teaches us that the loss of territory or a military defeat are not obstacles to modernization; indeed they are often a stimulus for it. Taiwan and South Korea are the most obvious examples of how military losses can force nations to mobilize for the sake of economic achievement. Ukraine these days needs not so much its eastern territories, which are stuffed with outdated Soviet industrial facilities and subsidized coal mines, but an internal self-reorganization, reform of its public administration, economic improvements, and a fast-track to economic and political integration into the European Union. The same applies both to Georgia and Moldova. If these countries and their authorities get caught up on questions of territorial integrity to the exclusion of all else, they will risk repeating Argentina’s legacy of failures after its defeat in Islas Malvinas.
At heart, this idea is about something far more important than merely converting a dangerous military confrontation into a spur for political and social reform. Today, neither the West nor Russia is willing to compromise, and no one is offering solutions that would be acceptable to all parties. Under these circumstances, why not postpone the resolution of such controversial issues for years or even decades—until such time as the politicians who triggered the conflicts or were directly involved in them leave the stage? When there are no good options in sight, and when no one is willing to sacrifice popularity or position for the sake of forging new ones, protracted peace is impossible. That is why the West’s strategy toward Russia should probably not be focused on the search for a “final” decision, but rather on developing a mechanism that would allow such decisions to be tabled for the future. Perhaps tomorrow’s leaders will be wiser than today’s.