How quickly a year goes when the international architecture is coming down around your ears

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its not really the twelve months since Maidan that counts. Sure, that was heady, scary stuff, a slightly compressed version of the astonishments of Tahrir, but with every reason to be aware this time of just how quickly the other shoe was likely to drop. The anniversary of real note will come in March, at one year since we realised the magnitude of that other shoe. To wit – a permanent, nuclear-armed member of the UN Security Council engages in aggression against a neighbouring country. Thump.

I was probably less surprised than some. Before moving to Stockholm in 2009, I’d lived in Finland for five years, where I grew used to neighbourly behaviour ranging from aerial incursions to shock increases in finished wood duties that doubled the cost of a house extension. So when the Swedes suddenly woke up to Russian submarine raids, simulated bombing runs and other anti-social behaviour, it felt a bit like deja-vu.

The difference between then and now is of course Crimea. An aerial incursion on its own is a misdemeanour. But a pattern of incursions by the country that just jettisoned the taboo against aggression is in a different category. And, without justifying Iraq in 2003 for a moment, there really is no comparison. If Bush had formally annexed Saskatchewan to punish Canada for withdrawing from NAFTA, maybe then we could talk.

The silver lining in all this is that Putin’s regime is exposing itself as a rogue government rather than actually rolling back the non-aggression norm. For a sense of what the world would look like if Russia was the rule not the exception, one needs to look to earlier anniversaries. In my research on the Åland Islands of Finland, for instance, I came across a 77-year old article from the Spectator setting out a far more unruly Baltic in which the centrally-located archipelago constituted “the most important strategical issue in Northern Europe.”

At the time, various groupings involving Sweden, Germany, Russia and forces in Finland actively considered occupying and re-militarizing Åland in order to pre-empt the damage that could result from others doing it first. In effect, security was to be won at the expense of your neighbours rather than achieved in cooperation with them. Tensions around Åland never fully went away as indicated by recent revelations (here in Swedish) that Sweden maintained a secret occupation force in case the Soviet Union were to invade Finland.

But we truly are living in a different world now than in 1938, and one in which collective security is being tested as rarely before, but remains an article of faith. A striking example comes from Ben Judah’s recent reportage in Politico on the long lead-up to the annexation of Crimea. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski describes attempts in 2013 by Russia to offer Poland a stake in the partition of Ukraine – an offer that fell entirely flat in a democratic country that had long since oriented itself toward European integration:

Russia has attempted to involve Poland in the invasion of Ukraine, just as if it were a post-modern re-run of the historic partitions of Poland. “He wanted us to become participants in this partition of Ukraine,” says Sikorski. … This was one of the first things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, [soon to be President of the European Council] when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together. Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded.”

The fact that Russia’s behaviour increases and emphasises its isolation will remain cold comfort as long as it remains unclear what Putin really wants. If, as some maintain, he just wants de facto security guarantees, then Minsk II can be the end of the Ukrainian conflict if the West can show enough strategic patience to calm the situation down. If as others claim, he will continue to push as far as he can go on every front, then Western strategic patience will be seen as encouragement. Hard not to be somebody’s useful idiot in this brave new world.

2 responses to “How quickly a year goes when the international architecture is coming down around your ears

  1. Massimo Moratti

    It is a brave new world indeed. I would argue that the erosion of the prohibition of aggression has started well before Crimea and, unfortunately, we, i.e. Western countries, have largely contributed to it. If the Iraq case is different for what concerns the control of the territory after its military takeover, the casus belli for both wars is the same… i.e. a bunch of lies, to put it bluntly. The issue of the weapons of mass destructions served as a casus belli for the American public in the same way as the alleged threat to Russians in Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine, for the public in Russia. This gave internal legitimacy to both Bush and Putin to intervene militarily in another country. It is only the outcome of such intervention that differs: in the Iraqi case the US eventually established a friendly government, while in Crimea Russia went for straight annexation.
    The authorization to use the force under Ch 7 of the UN Charter? A legal nuisance, which was already neglected back in 1999 at the time of Kosovo intervention and a rule that can be overlooked without any negative consequence.
    In this way, the West showed that international rules could be freely violated, the only thing you needed was to build your consensus at home, not to fear some backlash on the internal front. When it comes to this, Putin has some serious advantages, compared to Bush, whose mandate in any case was constitutionally limited to 8 years maximum. Putin internally, doesn’t need to bother about “liberal values”, like freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary or political pluralism. The Russian public is much more fascinated by the idea of the strong man leading the country than by liberal values, the democratic tradition is still much weaker in Russia than in the West. That’s why, as of now, it looks like Putin can continue without too many worries on the internal front.

  2. Thanks Massimo!

    Your point is well taken and there is no doubt that the original sin transpired in 2000, with a slide to illegitimate as well as illegal in 2003.

    That said, whatever bizarre motivations were put forward for the Iraq invasion were at least framed as ostensible exceptions to the non-aggression norm. By contrast, the case of Crimea seems to be the first instance of this norm being completely overlooked, instead of just explained away. The Russian legal case seemed to involve a conscious parody of the already discredited Bush legal case, and actual Russian involvement was denied flat out until it could be safely admitted.

    The step, in other words, from undermining the non-aggression norm by trying to define some forms of aggression out of it to ignoring it entirely based on an argument of “they did it first” seems to me to be significant. And doing so with the explicit intent of permanently expanding your own territory at the expense of your neighbor is also a worrisome precedent. Its hard to imagine so many countries out there harboring secret ambitions to repeat the US debacle in Iraq. However, one imagines any number of authoritarian hearts beating just a little bit faster at the thought of how the Crimean precedent could be put to use right in their backyards.

    Its also not entirely clear that Putin is better equipped to survive the effects of his transgressions than Bush. This geopolitical analysis puts the question of whether his failure to hold the rest of Ukraine may not haunt him as Cuba haunted Khrushchev and Kosovo haunted Yeltsin (both notably, in the context of economic meltdowns):

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