Russian Roulette – the Kremlin’s Game in Ukraine

Back in the 1990s, debates were impassioned on the so-called “right to intervention”, loudly advocated by Bernard Kouchner during the Yugoslav conflicts and Rwandan genocide. Such a “right” was roundly critiqued by sovereigntists, and in due course, turned around into the notion of a “right to protection” of those at-risk. This in turn morphed into the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) to be taken on by the international community to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.  Endorsed by all member states of the UN at the World Summit of 2005, R2P established, in part, that If any state is “manifestly failing” in its protection responsibilities, then states should take collective action to protect the population.

A major problem with the Russian “intervention” in Ukraine in 2014, was that it was unilateral. Its initial “plausible deniability” long since evaporated, it also caused immense harm on multiple levels, leaving 14,000 dead.  Rather than a victim, Russia was the aggressor, hiding behind a veneer of alleged grievances that it never took up multilaterally, neither in the UN, the Council of Europe, nor the relevant OSCE.  Its actions then and since have violated core norms of international law, including the UN Charter, of which it was a founding signatory, as well as being a permanent Security Council veto-holder, and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994,  for which guarantees Ukraine yielded its nuclear arsenal. Not that some of Russia’s tangential grievances were not without cause, in particular NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999, not sanctioned by the UN and thus perceived by some as illegal.

Other grievances are harder to defend: The canard of NATO expansion ignores its voluntary nature and the fact that those neutral countries on Russia’s periphery – Georgia and Ukraine in particular – have had their sovereignty repeatedly violated. Even Moldova which has no common border with it: the languishing Russian troops that I came across in Moldova’s occupied Transnistria over a decade ago were still sporting Soviet uniforms and insignia, serving to fragment its territorial integrity just as in Georgia and subsequently in Ukraine.

The EU is not NATO

Today, Ukraine had been neutral for the better part of thirty years, and its EU accession aspirations have never posed a strategic threat to Russia. As I and others had pointed out in Belgrade and Kyiv, drawing on the examples of Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden, you don’t have to be a member of NATO to join the EU. Lately, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has again reiterated that NATO has never obliged any country to join, and has expressed strong support and respect for Serbia’s desire to remain neutral and not join the alliance. As for NATO’s Partnership-for-Peace (PfP), even Russia joined in 1994.

Few could have foreseen then that Russia would attack, invade and annex a part of Ukraine twenty years later.  Since 2014, Russia has paid a heavy price, including a degree of international isolation.  And each year, Vladimir Putin’s touted ‘reforms’ resemble Matryoshka dolls: more of the same old lace and lacquer, just smaller and smaller.  But for some of his close associates, the writing is on the wall, and the Emperor has no clothes.  In their appeals against a new invasion, his regime was described on 30 January by over 2,000 of Russia’s top intellectuals, and the hardline warrior, Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, as a criminal enterprise.

Yet, Putin has laid out repeatedly – since at least 2008 and again in a lengthy essay last year – his vision of neo-imperial domination of the former Soviet space, denying the right of true sovereignty to its various nations.  Ukraine he describes as an “artificial state”, and all the other non-Russian FSU countries as “failed states”.  His latest demands stipulate that not only should Ukraine not join NATO (with has  had widespread popular support since the Russian invasion), but that NATO itself should withdraw from all former East Bloc countries, in the interests of “indivisibility of security” – which ramps up the adversarial rhetoric, and is generally unhelpful, even as a bargaining chip.

Putin’s distortion of Russian greatness into aggressive bullying of his neighbors has continuously backfired. His foreign policy, pursued doggedly by the clever Sergei Lavrov, has floundered repeatedly, undermining what should, one would think, be the strategic objectives of Russian society: larger freedoms and guaranteed human rights, energized civil society, greater peace and prosperity, rising living standards, and progressively greater integration and resilience of a diversifying economy into global partnerships. If Russia now claims, as a result of the recent flurry of shuttle diplomacy, that it is at the table again as an equal partner, this is a Potemkin achievement, unworthy of its legacy, resulting merely from brinksmanship and threat. Western references to appeasement are not without parallel to Chamberlain in 1938 and the Anschluss, and embarrassing comparisons for the Kremlin.

Resurgent military prowess is no substitute for its underperforming economy, comparable to Italy’s. But Italy does not need nuclear missiles. Russia has not only the largest territory, but the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, more than half the total. 

Yet, Russians see their freedoms restricted more and more, human rights trampled on by a growing autocracy, civil society activities curtailed, endemic corruption, falling living standards, and sanctions with the threat of even more.  A growing number of Russia’s best and brightest, if not falling out of windows, now live in exile.

Putin’s Crimean gambit, annexation and Donbass invasion of Ukraine cost Russia its exclusion from the G8, and sanctions that cost the country at least 100 billion US$, as well as a decline in GDP estimated variously between 4 and 8 per cent.

Unintended ‘accomplishments’

But there have been some accomplishments he decidedly did NOT intend: he can rightly claim that by invading Ukraine, he has made the single greatest contribution this century to a more robust Ukrainian national identity and determination to defend its sovereignty.

And his recent build-up of offensive Russian military capabilities on Ukraine’s international borders – in sharp violation of his own pandered insistence of European “indivisibility of security” – has mobilized an otherwise-less-relevant NATO to be re-invigorated.

Not only that, but a majority of Europe’s principal neutral countries, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland, are now re-thinking that putative neutrality. The recent fiasco of Russia’s planned missile tests, intended for Ireland’s EEZ but now planned elsewhere (over the most intensive trans-Atlantic cables), has exposed the soft underbelly of Ireland’s dilapidated and under-funded defence forces, and deprived Cork & Kerry’s fishermen of the chance to tangle Russian periscopes in their trawlers’ nets!

He can also claim to have united the EU behind a common cause in defence of democracy, human rights, and self-determination, perhaps more effectively than any recent EU statesperson, Angela Merkel included. Add to that he has provoked a renaissance of the West as a voluntary polity and indeed of multilateralism in general.

Rebirth of shuttle diplomacy

And lest we forget, thanks to his dangerous brinksmanship, Ukraine has made the headlines repeatedly in recent weeks, and hosted a bevy of visiting presidents, prime ministers, and other senior officials from friendly states, along with a significant increase in defence materials, fiscal support, and new bilateral trade deals – unfortunately none of which come from its largest neighbor and former friend, Russia.

The vigorous rebirth of shuttle diplomacy by Western leaders may yet lead to some Kissingerian ‘realpolitik’, but the jury is still out on the fruits of the Macron, Scholz, Duda and others’ efforts – the absence of any significant UN leadership role in this remains lamentable. With Russia chairing the UN Security Council this month, we can expect little traction and a stormy debate on the Minsk Accords scheduled for 17 February, but the revival of the Normandy format may prove more hopeful in that it now has the attention and resurgent commitment of world leaders at the highest levels.

The Kremlin’s rigid ‘red lines’ and stubborn narrative don’t help de-escalate tensions. Putin has also conveniently forgotten that Ukraine did not gain its statehood with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but was indeed a founding and continuing member of the United Nations, albeit under the Kremlin’s thumb.

If Russia was genuinely concerned about NATO “expansion” and wanted Ukraine to commit to neutrality – whether “Finlandization” or some other kind – its first serious confidence-building measure should be to scale back its military exercises on Ukraine’s borders.  It must also commit to an OSCE-monitored timetable for early and complete withdrawal from Donbass within less than 12 months, if necessary in tandem with deployment of an OSCE or UN interposition security force under UN Security Council mandate. As for Crimea, its annexation can never be legitimate in international law given how it happened, and a resolution has to be a matter either of bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine, or submitted to international arbitration under UN auspices.

But now, new thinking is needed in the Kremlin: at least to the level of matching the commitment to the rule of international law, sustainable peace, and prospects for collaboration that the renewed diplomatic engagement and energy of the West’s leaders have exhibited. New thinking, good faith, and confidence-building measures that will revitalize Russia’s underplayed potential for a more positive role in the world, and re-build Ukraine’s battered eastern regions. New thinking that will nurture peace and prosperity for its people and neighbors – not aggression, war, death, and deprivation.

At the least, Moscow should heed the wise advice coming individually and collectively from the plethora of world leaders who have its best interests at heart in our ever-more interdependent world. We need to work peacefully together to solve common challenges and save our planet from catastrophe, not compound things with a major and unpredictable war that violates ever decent norm of that “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…” (as the preamble of the UN Charter reads)