Cold War has not two protagonists but three or more. The contemporary struggle over the future of Ukraine betrays a similar pattern. The familiar exhortations against Russia refer to the sanctity of international law and the unforgivable violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Yet behind these principles lies a more prosaic reality. Ukraine has become the new buffer nation between Russia and the EU.
By Matthew Parish
Cold War has not two protagonists but three or more. This truism is often missed. The Cold War between 1947 and 1989 was notionally a period of hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which the two superpowers did not confront each directly but instead fought proxy wars through third states. Yet those third states shaped the conflict. Although the European colonial powers were in decline in the second half of the twentieth century, they did not suffer their fates in a vacuum. America’s struggle with the Soviets was a component in the narrative, for the United States saw Europe not so much as an ally but as a buffer territory for the storage of military hardware. The Soviets also embraced a buffer state mentality. Russia has always expected invasions to come from the west. To understand the contemporary conflict involving Russia and Ukraine, it is necessary to understand the tripartite nature of relations between Russia, the United States and the European Union.
The American desire during the Cold War was the same as it has always been throughout its history: not to be a global policeman but rather to be left alone. Its wish to be the unchallenged superpower is driven by the conviction that this is the best way of compelling foreign states to leave it in peace. The United States is a quixotic imperialist: in its desire to avoid foreign entanglements it becomes immersed in them. It is reluctantly drawn into international relations, a realm the nation has barely if ever understood, only when it perceives a threat to the quiet life the United States wants to live apart from other states. This philosophy pulls the United States into conflicts far more often than it would wish.
America’s vision for the world after the Second World War was a short-sighted one: place the Soviet Union at a distance, in an autarchy that would not bother her; weaken Great Britain, so that her empire could never again interfere with America’s trade and prosperity; and redevelop Germany, to act as a buffer state so that the Soviet Union could not expand westwards and threaten European stability as had Nazi Germany. If the Soviet Union could be isolated using strategies of this nature, so that the Europeans were left to deal with her without reference to the Americans, then US foreign policy could be declared a success.
The Americans cared little about what happened within the borders of the Soviet Union, as long as the Europeans served as a buffer for any collateral effects events might have. The Cold War began when the Soviets indicated they were not prepared to respect the post-war division of territory into Soviet and western spheres of influence agreed at the Yalta Conference in December 1943. If the Soviets advanced into Europe then American security would be compromised. The Cold War came to an end only when the constant game of escalation and de-escalation of tensions and military build-up led to the Soviet Union’s demise in the late 1980s following a sustained drop in the price of oil, the country’s main export.
The contemporary struggle over the future of Ukraine betrays a similar pattern, in which there is not one but three interested parties in the new Cold War now emerging. The familiar exhortations against Russia refer to the sanctity of international law and the unforgivable violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in annexing Crimea and encouraging rebel operations in Donbas,. Yet behind these principles lies a more prosaic reality. Ukraine has become the new buffer nation between Russia and the EU. Russia still perceives such a territory as essential between it and Europe. During the first Cold War, the buffer was further west along the borders of nations such as West Germany and the Soviet satellite states in central Europe which had communist ideology imposed upon them. With the emancipation of those states at the end of the Cold War the buffer zone shifted eastwards towards countries such as Belarus and Ukraine that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, now notionally independent but still with the greater weight of their economic and political ties connecting them to Moscow.
In the Russian mind, Europe would like to press the buffer zone ever further eastwards and acquire domination over Moscow and Russia that the Kaiser, the Nazis and Napoleon previously attempted. For the Europeans, and in particular the Germans, the goal is to undermine this buffer zone mentality on the part of the Russians by connecting the Russian economy and sphere of influence to that of the European Union. The Americans have very little interest in Ukraine and Russia’s buffer zone at all, save to the extent that it undermines European stability and therefore draws the United States back into European politics. All these incentives are remarkably close to those that prevailed during the Cold War. The principal misconception in the popular mind is that the Americans have any geopolitical interest in Ukraine other than through their subscription to NATO. If the Ukraine crisis degenerates into a wave of military unrest affecting neighbouring NATO member countries, then the United States might become embroiled in a an armed confrontation with Russia that it does not want. The real driver of crisis in Russia is Europe.
The February 2014 revolution in Maidan Square in Kiev was a curious affair. President Viktor Yanukovich was removed from power even though the next Presidential election was due in January 2015, less than a year away and which Yanukovich was certain to lose. From the domestic point of view, it hardly seemed worth orchestrating a revolution to achieve so moderate an acceleration of an inevitable result. Yet the revolution was driven by EU discontent, because Europe had sought to negotiate a stabilisation agreement with Kiev – a predecessor to EU accession negotiations. Yankovich, under twin threats and promises from Moscow, had repudiated the draft agreement with the Europeans in December 2013. Europe overreacted, encouraging revolution because it was incensed that its project to spread the Union eastwards was being thwarted. In the rush, Russian strategic sensibilities were overlooked. From the Russian perspective Ukraine’s ambiguous polity, between west-leaning nationalists and an ambivalent Russian-speaking plurality in the east and south, rendered the country the final buffer territory against eastward European expansionism. This quality would be lost if Ukraine progressed towards Euro-Atlantic integration. By intervening directly in Ukraine’s politics, Europe encouraged Russia to do the same and destabilised the status quo. The methods of intervention were dramatically different, but that has always been so and the west should not have been surprised by Russia’s martial reaction.
The rest is history. After the EU escalated by fomenting revolution, Russia did the same by annexing Crimea. She then promoted rebellion in Donbas. Europe imposed ever increasing sanctions upon Russia, and Russia sent ever greater military forces into Ukraine. Rhetoric became increasingly bellicose. Russia miscalculated. She thought the United States was leading the complaint against her, while Europe would not react in so hostile a way, valuing her commercial connections with Russia whereas the United States has far fewer such connections to lose. Yet European sanctions ended up being more severe than those imposed by the United States. That is precisely because Ukraine lacks geopolitical significance for the United States, which wants to stay away from problems European. By contrast the Europeans have a distinctive agenda for Russian assimilation to the European model: stepwise absorption of Russia’s near-abroad, commercial and diplomatic engagement with Russia, and use of soft power to develop a Eurasian region under its influence, as an extension of the European Union.
In her battles over Ukraine, Russia thought that the United States was her principal enemy and Europe could be divided. But that assessment misjudged American perceptions of the region’s strategic significance. American actions over the Ukraine crisis are driven primarily by the desire that the buffer zone between Russia and Europe does not again blow up as it has in the past, necessitating US intervention in Europe at a time when it would prefer to focus its attentions upon Asia. Russia does not present a threat to contemporary US interests, but it is an obstacle to the European project of developing liberal social democracy across nations upon its periphery. Hence the European reaction to Russian interference in Ukraine has been more recalcitrant than that of the United States, because Europe is also familiar with the propensity of Russia to opportunistic expansionism to push its buffer zone further westwards. The Baltic States, Finland and Poland have all been placed upon higher military alert in past months lest Russia give any indication of military aggression in the direction of these states using Ukraine as a catalyst.
Russian policy on Ukraine has been broadly successful, notwithstanding the human cost. Ukrainian integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions such as the EU and NATO has been brought to a halt. The Ukrainian economy has been demonstrated as dependent upon the Russian. Europe has been forced to subsidise the Ukrainian state through IMF loans and miscellaneous grants. Russia can turn war in Ukraine on and off as she wishes. However Russia has also learned that she must pay a price for her intervention. Sanctions have caused some damage to the Russian economy, principally by constricting credit from European banks into domestic Russian businesses. The collapse of oil prices has led to the collapse of the Rouble, whose value is inevitably tied to oil in an economy in which hydrocarbon exports are by a long way the principal source of foreign currency.
The cause of falling oil prices is a glut in supply (for which US shale oil extraction is principally responsible) and also in expectations of future supply, as ever more oil fields are discovered worldwide. This is compounded by cooling Chinese and European demand for petroleum products during a period of modest global economic growth. The decision by Saudi Arabia in the 27 November 2014 meeting of OPEC not to cut capacity was presumably driven by a lack of interest in reducing its own market share. The principal beneficiaries of an OPEC production cut would have been the Russian and Iranian economies, non-OPEC members and two of Saudi Arabia’s regional political rivals in the Middle East.
Nevertheless these trends appear exogenous to Russian policy in Ukraine. Oil price-driven economic pressure upon Russia makes the Ukrainian crisis less soluble, not more so. The greater the internal political pressures in Russia, the more the Kremlin may feel motivated to engage in revanchist escapades to divert public attention from domestic economic hardship. There is no obvious solution for Russia in which she gives Europe some of what it wants on Ukraine in exchange for economic relief. This is particularly so given the typically intractable nature of sanctions: once in place they tend to persist for a long time, because if the international community sees that they work it tends to keep them in force as a means of continuing an effective form of pressure.
Regional commentators are expecting a springtime reconflagration of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, after a winter hiatus in which combat is unattractive to either side due to the forbidding weather. Before that happens, the United States should encourage mutual de-escalation. The first tranche of a staged settlement is military détente in exchange for commitments from the EU that Ukraine will not proceed with legal and political measures integrating Ukraine into Europe. Russia currently demands devolution of the Donbas region, but this is not an end in itself. Russia does not want two new provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk incorporated into its federation. The rationale for Russian’s demands for regional devolution, and indeed for the sectarian regional warfare Russia is promoting, is not to dismember the country decisively but rather to prevent Ukraine from integrating westwards. This is maintained by preserving political chaos. If credible commitments against integration can be fashioned, the devolution agenda may be tacitly abandoned. America would welcome any such compromise, as it renders the prospect of military escalation requiring its response less likely and hence advances its strategic agenda of staying out of Europe to the extent possible.
Russia will require wholesale internal political reorganisation before she warms to the idea of gradual Euro-Atlantic integration as a long-term plan for the Eurasian region. That will not take place under the Kremlin’s current occupancy, which appears unlikely to change for the indefinite future. In the interim, a confident buffer zone of neutrality must be maintained to secure peace between Europe and Russia. Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia must form the bedrock of this buffer zone. These countries must be handled with care. No level of economic damage to Russia will blunt her military belligerency in the face of a perceived western geopolitical threat. This does not mean Ukraine need be abandoned. But the country’s economic and political progress must be pursued cautiously. The European powers intervening in Kiev’s precarious politics must always be aware and deferential towards Russian strategic interest in the country, or Ukraine cannot be stable.
There is a vast amount that can be done to support Ukrainian economic, legal and democratic development without supporting revolutionary activities or encouraging the country to sign western-leaning treaties. NATO, the EU and the other tools of eastward development for Ukraine are off the table for the next ten years. Nevertheless similar objectives can be pursued using less coarse tools.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group. He is the author of three books and over a hundred articles about international law and international relations, and was formerly an official in the international administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2013 he was named as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. www.matthewparish.com