Search for a New International System

Global Centre Stage

The crisis in Ukraine has three separate but closely linked causes, which must be understood before any long-term solution is found. The three causes are unstable post-Soviet borders, Ukrainian difficulties in state- and nation- building, and Russia’s frustration with the post-Cold War status quo, believes Dr Alexander Titov, who insists that the search for a new international system is taking shape through this current crisis in Europe

The current crisis in Ukraine is a continuation of the collapse of the USSR along internal administrative borders which were not designed for independent states. Crimea has always been the weakest link in the Ukrainian state. First, because of its arbitrary inclusion into Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, and second, as the only region without an ethnic Ukrainian majority (the Russians making up 60 percent). Finally, the Russian navy base in Sevastopol and the uncertainty over its long term status added to the already tense set of issues which President Putin decided to solve through illegal annexation. This is irreversible now, although its legitimation may be possible later, for example, through an internationally sponsored referendum on Crimea’s status.

Crimea became critical, however, only because of Ukraine’s political crisis. Its roots lie in Ukrainian difficulties in creating an effective state and national ideology able to consolidate diverse ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic regions. Ukraine’s political system of compromises between oligarchs gave it appearance of pluralism, but proved inadequate for long-term development. Economic performance has been woeful and there remain sharp regional divisions in foreign policy orientation. EU’s short-sighted agenda of forcing on Ukraine a definite foreign policy choice with the Association Agreement was bound to cause severe internal crisis and a strong Russian response.

Any solution to the current crisis must, therefore, address Ukraine’s problems. First, in nation-building, this is likely to involve some form of federalisation with autonomy for Russia-oriented regions. Second, in foreign policy, Ukraine’s neutrality must be confirmed. And finally, in economy, the re-establishment of trade links with both the EU and Russia must take priority. All of this can be achieved only through a joint effort by Russia and the EU. However, this has not been the case yet due to the third, and most important, cause of the current crisis.

The present standoff is a result of Russian frustration with the post-Cold War state of affairs. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in foreign policy, known as the New Thinking, tried to replace the Cold War hostility with shared interests and common values. The consequent collapse of the Soviet bloc was seen, however, as the victory of the West, rather than as a beginning of new type of international relations as Gorbachev had hoped.

Post-Cold War Dynamics

As Russia attempted to build democracy and market economy in the 1990s, it believed in constructive relations with the West. However, it was always assumed that some recognition of its special status and interests was due. The West for its part (especially the US) held it self-evident that the Cold War was won by them and acted accordingly.

Russia’s specific concerns centred on the eastward enlargement of NATO. From Russia’s perspective, the old Cold War structure was expanded instead of being replaced with new, all-inclusive security mechanisms. The two waves of NATO expansion in 1999 and 2004 brought it nearer to Russia, a setback to the centuries-old Russian policy of pushing strategic borders away from its heartland. Finally, the Yugoslav campaign in 1999, when NATO ceased to be a purely defensive alliance, confirmed Russian suspicions about the danger of Western interventionism in international affairs.

President Putin attempted to strike a bargain with the US in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, when in exchange for the support for the war against terror (specifically NATO’s operation in Afghanistan), he sought recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in the ex-USSR. However, any effort to carve out a special role for Russia was rebuked by the West, who saw no need to review the post-Cold War status quo with the US as the world’s only hegemonic power.

Thereafter, Russia increasingly opposed what it saw as Western unilateralism in the Iraq war (2003), and the colour revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004). It changed from verbal protests to applying force in the war with Georgia (2008) and, more forcefully, in the annexation of Crimea and the involvement in the Ukrainian Civil War.

Foreign policy was mirrored by Russia’s internal anti-liberal turn. Since 2012, Putin sought to increase autonomy from the West through increased military spending, ‘nationalisation’ of elites (a legal ban for officials to hold financial assets abroad), and anti-liberal legislation (such as the ban on gay propaganda to under-18s much derided in the West). He also pursued closer relations with the non-Western world, for example, by developing ties with the BRICS nations. This included new oil and gas pipelines in the Far East, including the recent $400 billion gas deal with China, multi-billion dollar arms trade with India and China, and establishing a new BRICS Development Bank.

It was in this context that the Ukrainian crisis unfolded. This has been seized by Putin to express his long held resentment, made most notably in the famous Munich speech in 2007, with the failure to recognise Russia’s interests and his refusal to accept the post-Cold War status quo dominated by the US.

New Order in Europe

The Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated that the post-Cold War model of international relations, based on the assumption of Russia’s conversion to Western model or its permanent weakness, is no longer working. What would a new order in Europe look like?

One obvious version would be another Versailles, modelled on the 1919 Versailles settlement. The current sanctions regime pursues this policy by forcing Russia to accept Western rules. The problem with this approach is that a significant country will be permanently disgruntled with the established order. It will seek to undermine it at every opportunity, which in turn will mean instability and substantial expenses (economic, political and ultimately military) by the rest to keep the revisionist power in check.

Historically, this was the least successful system failing in its main aim of preventing another European war. The much discussed need to avoid another Munich fiasco should be, therefore, put in the context of the failure of the Versailles settlement as a whole. As the Munich agreement was the final stage in the unravelling of the Versailles system, trying to avoid that mistake by going back to Versailles does not seem like a wise strategy.

An alternative would be a move towards a new Yalta (after the 1945 Yalta Conference which established post-WWII division of Europe). This would create new spheres of influence with Russia, for example, controlling most ex-Soviet republics. It would be, however, unacceptable, for Western democracies would not deny European nations the right to self-determination. Also, Russia lacks capacity to sustain such division which bankrupted the USSR. Nor does Russian leadership want to abandon its lucrative economic relations with Europe. Most importantly, the Yalta system was based on two factors absent now – a clash of hostile ideologies and a global military-nuclear stalemate.

Another option would be to return to the nineteenth century system of the Concert of Europe inaugurated by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This model maintained the balance of power in Europe through collective responsibility of five great powers. The key to the Concert of Europe’s success was its inclusiveness, based on the recognition that any order would be inherently unstable if a major power was opposed to it. For this to work, Russia must have sufficient incentives to adhere to the new system, without compromising essential Western interests. In practical terms, this would mean an agreement to avoid unilateral actions in areas of mutual interest without prior consultations with the other party. Such practice would have avoided, for example, the current crisis by involving Russia into negotiations over economic aspects of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU. Recent decisions by the EU to address Russian concerns by postponing the implementation of the economic package until 2016 begs the question why the EU refused three-way talks before this escalated into a military crisis.

Creating an All-Inclusive International System

New mechanisms for resolving possible conflicts should be formally entrenched, for example, by giving a reformed OSCE more prominence or creating a new NATO-EU-Russia forum. The key is to have a new all-inclusive security structure which could settle political disputes without resolving to military force or economic sanctions as is currently happening over Ukraine.

Since Russia failed to integrate with the West, there is a void of ideas of how to deal with it. The default reaction is to fall back on the Cold War paradigm – sanctions, containment, and regime change. This approach poses questions about the duration of this exercise. What if the new regime is not pro-Western? Would sanctions continue until a friendly regime emerges? What about security matters such as arms treaties and nuclear non-proliferation, trade issues including energy supplies to the EU, or international problems where Russia is indispensable, such as Iran or Syria?

Given the absence of Cold War style ideological rift between Europe and Russia, and their economic and cultural synergy, a new system is needed for managing their political differences, while preserving cooperation in other spheres. For the US, whose strategic focus is on East Asia and the never-ending problems in the Middle East, a full-on containment of Russia is counter-productive, as it undermines US objectives in those more immediately important regions, for example, by driving Russia and China together.

The economic rise of the developing world, particularly BRICS, will be followed by political clout. The anti-Western radicalism in the Middle East poses another challenge. Neither existing international institutions (themselves a legacy of the Cold War balance of power such as the UN Security Council) nor the post-Cold War assumption of a permanent Western hegemony are adequate for managing new challenges of the 21st century. A change is needed to represent new international realities more accurately.

The search for a new international system is taking shape through the current crisis in Europe. The form it takes is likely to impact how the rest of the world conducts its affairs. Out of possible models, a reinvention of the classical nineteenth century diplomacy seems the most likely long-term solution. However, this will only happen when all concerned realise the necessity of compromise. Judging by rhetoric on all sides, this will take quite a while.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.