Wishful Thinking and Great Power Politics

Today, President Petro Poroshenko signed the EU Association Agreement and Russia has warned of grave consequences. Of course, it was the refusal of Poroshenko’s predeccesor Victor Yanukovich to sign this Agreement last November that triggered the protests that led to his overthrow and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February.

Since then, the veering from angry stand-off to telephone diplomacy and back again between the West and Russia over the future of Ukraine resembles a dialogue of the deaf.

This was underlined this week at an on-the-record debate on the Ukraine dispute at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, in London.

The Russian strategic analyst and former Red Army Colonel, Dmitri Trenin – with more than a hint of irony – bemoaned a surfeit of ideology in western foreign policy. He made this observation in relation to a discussion over whether Russia would ‘allow’ Ukraine to join the EU and/or NATO.

The Canadian Liberal MP, Chrystia Feeland, had argued that Ukraine is in the throes of a democratic revolution and the Ukrainian people have the right to decide if they want to join either of the western clubs. The American Realist international relations professor, John Mearsheimer, insisted, bluntly, rights don’t come into it – Russia is the great power in the region and will wreck Ukraine rather than allow it to make that choice.

The former US Ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, the other participant in the debate, and Ms Freeland were visibly bemused by this argument which was indicative of what I think Trenin was getting at.

Western foreign policy makers seem to be prone to wishful thinking – that the rest of the international community shares their worldview and that values should outweigh core national interests.

This means, for instance, that what Washington sees as its ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia, which, it asserts, will benefit Asia and the US economically and help ensure peace and stability in the region, is seen very differently in Beijing. It is clear that China is suspicious of the ‘pivot’ and many there regard it as an attempt to contain them and stifle growing Chinese power and influence in its own backyard. American policymakers insist this is not the case and express surprise their Chinese counterparts could possibly think such a thing.

In the case of Russia, the Americans and Europeans insist Russia has nothing to fear from a Ukraine that chooses to be in the western camp and that it can be a win-win for all, and this is sometimes expressed as incredulity that Moscow can’t see this.

Cynics may argue that this attitude is feigned given the Americans know they would not accept a country like Mexico allying itself with another great power, but in many cases it isn’t – reflecting what appears to be an assumption in US circles, perhaps resulting from the post-Cold War period of American global dominance, that what is in its national interests is in everyone else’s too.

If you add to this that Washington is also having to adjust to the shift in the global balance of power, which has seen the return of what commentators like Professor Mearsheimer see as great power politics,  when countries like Russia and China assert their interests, it often meets with incomprehension in the US.

As for the Europeans who have spent the last sixty years trying to shed the great power mindset that fuelled two world wars which killed tens of millions, and have concentrated on enlarging the EU by acquiring new members by using the attraction of its economic and democratic values, they are also finding it difficult to adapt to the return to a world of competing powers.

On the Russian side, Moscow doesn’t see the current situation in Ukraine as a potential win-win; in the eyes of the Kremlin it is a zero-sum game. For Russia, a neighbouring Ukraine in the western camp would be a threat, hence its destabilisation of the country since the overthrow of the pro-Russian President Yanukovich.

Given all this, as long as the two sides remain unable and apparently unwilling to see the world from each other’s perspective, whatever resolution is reached in Ukraine, further confrontation between the West and Russia is almost inevitable.

Playing with fire in the Ukraine

Back in 1989, William Lind was one of the team that first coined the term ‘fourth generation warfare’ – referring to low-intensity conflicts involving highly decentralised insurgency tactics, non-state combatants, and strong emphasis on propaganda and psychological warfare.

(In case you’re wondering, first generation warfare was about line and column tactics, as in the Thirty Years War; second generation was more mobile and involved indirect fire but still tended towards pitched battle, as in World War One; third generation was all about manoeuvre warfare that aimed to bypass the enemy’s troops and attack from behind, as well as targeting civil populations, as with blitzkrieg tactics in World War Two.)

Now, Lind observes, it looks as though Russia’s long-disparaged military has learned a few tricks from the 4GW playbook and is using them to considerable effect in Ukraine. Among them: cyberwarfare, strong emphasis on the information campaign, skilful use of special operations troops to grab the initiative (“if an operation fails, Russian prestige is not on the line, because it can deny ownership; if it succeeds, Russia can give the credit to the locals, strengthening the legitimacy of the elements it supports”).

Crucially, Russia’s tactics in Ukraine are also based on “a supportive ethnically Russian population … by leveraging loyalty to ‘Mother Russia’ among ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine, Russia has been able to maintain a light footprint, reducing the diplomatic and economic price of her actions.”

But, Lind continues, this last tactic is very much a double-edged sword for Russia – and here’s his crucial point (emphasis added at the end):

The Russian Federation includes many peoples who are ethnically non-Russian. Others can use them as the Kremlin has used ethnic Russians.

Here we begin to see a lesson from 4GW which Russia has not yet learned: once the disintegration of a state is set in motion, it is very difficult to halt or reverse. Russian actions are destroying an already fragile state in Ukraine. The Kremlin appears to believe it can spur or reign in state disintegration in eastern Ukraine, pushing it far enough to prevent Ukraine from joining the West but halting before the east becomes anarchic. That may be optimistic.

While the West assumes events in eastern Ukraine are driven by Moscow, just as Moscow says events in Kiev are driven by the West, there is increasing evidence that, green men or no, local Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are not taking orders from anyone. Local struggles for power and loot are becoming more influential than any outside actors. A “Brinton thesis” cascade of small coups, leading ever toward the greatest extreme, may already be underway. If so, chaos will spread, deepen, and defy all efforts at control, regardless of who is behind them. Moscow needs to remember that it can no more order the tide to retreat than can Washington.

For states, playing with 4GW is playing with fire. Some tactics and techniques may be drawn from it and used effectively by states. But states need to remember that those tactics and techniques work best in a weakening state and also contribute to a state’s dissolution. The emergence of new stateless regions is in no state’s interest. However clever its tactics, if Russia finds itself facing prolonged stateless disorder in eastern Ukraine, it will have failed strategically. A higher level of war trumps a lower. 

Ukraine: the corrosive effect of hypocrisy?

Much western commentary about the Ukraine crisis has asserted that Russian intervention in Crimea has undermined the post-Cold War order based on the inviolability of borders and respect for the rules-based international system developed after the world wars of the last century and founded on respect for the United Nations’ Charter and other international agreements.

But if this order is being undermined, critics would argue the rot set in some years ago and the hypocrisy of both the western powers and Russia, which has been on full display in recent days, has played a role in its decline.

Since the occupation of Crimea by thinly disguised Russian forces began, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has declared publicly on several occasions that in the 21st century countries should not invade others for trumped up reasons and dictate what should happen from the barrel of a gun. In late 2002, John Kerry was a senior United States’ Senator and he voted for the invasion of Iraq, which after the failure to find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, was justified post-facto by the US administration as a war to bring democracy to the country.

In another critique of Russia’s actions, President Obama, echoing comments by leading European Union politicians, said countries should not be dismembered over the heads of their elected leaders. Yet, in 2008, in a choreographed sequence of events, the US, Germany, Britain, France and Italy first encouraged Kosovo to unilaterally secede from a Serbia, which had been democratic since the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and then recognised its independence. Of course, the context is different from what is happening in Ukraine today, but the principles of the inviolability of borders in Europe agreed between the West and the old Soviet Union at Helsinki in 1975, part of the rules based international order, was breached.

Russia refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence. At the time, Moscow  argued it was a violation of Serbia’s territorial integrity, which it clearly was, and that other states should not recognise a secession that was not mutually agreed – as for example the split between the Slovaks and Czechs in 1993 had been. The Russians also argued it would open Pandora’s Box by setting a precedent that other separatists would follow. The western countries that recognised Kosovo – and not all did – argued Kosovo was unique, sui generis.

Since then, Russia has changed its tune and ensured the precedent it warned of then was followed – by Moscow.

Crimea is internationally recognised as part of Ukraine and Russia specifically guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, but Foreign Minister Lavrov is now indicating that if Crimea wants to secede from Ukraine and even become part of Russia that is fine,  showing Moscow’s commitment to its publicly stated principles can be as elastic as that of its western critics.

Russia had already shown its less than firm commitment to the principle it stood by over Kosovo when it recognised the declarations of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, after the short military conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow which broke out when Georgia took military action against separatist Ossetians in August 2008.

Some commentators shrug this off. They say what do you expect? Might is right and  ‘twas ever thus with the way great powers behave.

But if the world’s leading states, some of which have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which is the body meant to ensure global peace and stability, come to be widely perceived as cynically using and discarding the principles of a rules-based international system when it suits them, then that system, which is intended to protect both the strong and the weak, will be eroded further, and that is not in anybody’s interest in an increasingly contested and unstable world.

It may be that Russia would have intervened in Ukraine anyway given what it sees as its key national interest there, but the shifting standards of those western powers opposing its actions means diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis have been made more difficult and the case against Moscow in the court of global public opinion weakened.

 

Russia looking to capitalise on the crunch

The Kremlin has been shaken by the credit crunch, which hit the Russian stock exchange worse than any other exchange in 2008, pushing it down around 65%. The fall in the oil price threatens to push the economy into recession this year, and Russian oligarchs have seen their fortunes halve.

However, the country is still in a relatively strong position compared to its neighbours, and there are signs it is looking to capitalise on this to expand its economic influence in the region.

For the last few weeks, the country’s largest bank, state-owned Sberbank, has been in talks to buy the troubled Bank Turam Alem in Kazakhstan, which had to be nationalised by the Kazakh government earlier this year. It’s the biggest bank in Kazakhstan, and would give the Russian state enormous economic leverage within the country, at a time when Kazakhstan is wondering whether to join the ruble or to set up a new central Asian regional currency.

In Kyrgyzstan, which has also been badly shaken by the economic crisis, Russia agreed a $2bn loan package and $150m ‘grant’ in February. A few weeks later, the government agreed to close down the US air base at Manas. 

In Belarus, talks with the IMF have stalled, while Aleksander Lukashenko is seeking a further $2.7bn loan from the Kremlin on his visit to Moscow this week, to prop up the central bank’s reserves. There are also talks to sell one of the country’s biggest banks, BPS Bank, to Sberbank.

In Ukraine, PM Yulia Timoshenko is trying to get a $5bn 15-year loan from the Kremlin to cover the country’s budget deficit, much to the ire of the country’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, who compared the potential deal to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

This was after Timoshenko’s government failed to meet the IMF’s targets for government spending cuts in February, leading to the suspension of the second tranche of the IMF’s $16bn loan package to the country.

No doubt the Kremlin will be telling both Ukraine and Belarus that if they want the emergency cash, they need to give Gazprom more control over the pipelines that take the EU’s gas through these countries.

In Hungary this month, where the economy is also in dissarry and the government desperately needs cash, Gazprom signed two important deals with MOL, whereby the Hungarian government agreed to finance the South Stream pipeline from Russia (which will be a competitor to the EU-approved Nabucco pipeline). Details of the deal are shady, but it may have been that the government got some short-term loan in return for supporting the project.

Look, it’s really not easy being a pirate, don’t make it any harder…

From the BBC:

Somali pirates say they have thwarted an apparent revolt by the crew of a hijacked Ukrainian cargo ship, according to reports. An unnamed pirate told the AFP news agency that sailors of the MV Faina tried to “harm” two of their captors.

The ship is carrying 33 tanks and other weaponry and was seized by pirates two and half months ago.

“Some crew members on the Ukrainian ship are misbehaving,” the pirate said. “They tried to harm two of our gunmen late Monday. This is unacceptable, they risk serious punitive measures.”

“Somalis know how to live and how to die at the same time, but the Ukrainians’ attempt to take violent action is misguided.”

He claimed that two of the pirates were taken by surprise when a group of crew members attacked them. “Maybe some of the crew are frustrated and we are feeling the same but our boys never opted for violence, this was a provocation,” he told AFP by telephone.

Another report of the incident, by Russian Ren TV, quoted one of the pirates as saying that the crew responsible would be “seriously punished”.

Georgia and Ukraine barred from NATO

This may have escaped people’s attention (it did mine), but Ukraine and Georgia were told they couldn’t join the NATO club this week, and Georgia was given a bit of a ticking off for its abrupt and dumb escalation of the North Ossetia conflict in August.

The NATO communique said: “we remind all parties that peaceful conflict resolution is a key principle of the Partnership for Peace Framework Document.”

As Liz Fuller writes for Radio Free Europe:

Translated from diplomat-speak into plain English, that reads “The use of heavy artillery against civilians asleep in their homes in Tskhinvali just hours after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced a unilateral cease-fire was a crude violation of our basic ground rules, and one we cannot overlook.”

Fuller adds:

“Equally, if not more damaging to Georgia’s NATO aspirations was the spectacular ineptitude of its armed forces, which proved anything but battle-ready. The country’s two crack U.S.-trained brigades were serving as part of the international peacekeeping force in Iraq during the August war. According to a new International Crisis Group report, “the [Georgian] armed forces and military infrastructure sustained heavy damage during the Russian invasion, revealing flaws in planning, supply, coordination, air defense, and combat communications systems which contributed to quick demoralization of the troops,” who abandoned the strategic military base in Senaki without firing a single shot.