The Shock of Ukraine

The EU needs to look again at its relationship with Russia. A relationship is unavoidable; but it should be treated exactly like that: an unavoidable necessity, to be handled witha certain coolness.

If President Putin wanted to shock us, he succeeded. The Russian seizure of Crimea is shocking on four counts. First it breaches of one of the basic principles of international law; second, the discovery that the Russian view of the world is that force and power are the things that count is shocking; third, the Russian lied, and spread their lies in propaganda broadcasts to an extent we have not seen for years; and finally, the Russian policy of promoting instability and chaos in Ukraine is perhaps most shocking of all.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is without a precedent not just in the post-Cold War period, but in the whole post-war period. Crimea has not been a disputed territory, though its special relationship with Russia has always been understood. This was recognized in the agreement with Ukraine on the naval bases; but this agreement also made clear that Russia accepted Crimea as a part of Ukraine. The Russian action is in breach of the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the Budapest Treaty as well as its bilateral agreements with Ukraine. The basis of international order is territorial, and the acquisition of territory by force was something we believed in Europe had been banished to the history books.

States break up, sometimes by negotiation as Czechoslovakia did, sometimes in bloodshed like Yugoslavia. Sometimes incorporation has never been fully accepted as in East Timor. But it is hard to think of another case where one state has taken over some of its neighbor’s territory in the post-war period; this was after all something we fought a war over in the Persian Gulf in 1991, with Russian support.

Mr. Putin, as usual, quotes what he claims to be precedents—the tribute illegality pays to the law. He mentions Iraq (2002) and Libya. I have sympathy with those who say that it would have been better to stick more closely to international law. But in neither case was the acquisition of territory involved. The precedent he gives most space to is Kosovo. Here too neither the US nor anyone else added to their national territory. And the Kosovo declaration of independence came eight years after the military action, following a period under UN supervision, and a multilateral process involving the UN and many countries. The Kosovo story begins in fact long before the military action, and includes many years in which the Albanian-speaking people were treated as second-class citizens. All this is different from Crimea.

What does this action mean? It tells us that the world that Russia wants is one of power and not of law. Power and law are not incompatible— power may be used in accordance with the law and in support of the law. But in the Russian view—it now seems—power decides. Might is right. But it is not. Once you have decided that only power matters there is no longer any sense in talking about right and wrong.2

In this world, there are no rules, and power is limited only by opposing power. This is familiar as the classical “realist” position in international relations, a well-established theory, which applied in practice is capable of producing a nightmare world.

Given these shocks, it is time that we—and this applies especially to Europe—awoke from the dream that Russia is going to become like us in any foreseeable timeframe.

We have become used to a world in which things got better. Almost all of us are more free, more secure, more prosperous than at any time in our history. The tensions of the early days of the Cold War, with the regular crises over Berlin, gave way to the negotiated stability of the Berlin agreements and the Austrian State Treaty. The Soviet Union continued to enforce its will in the Warsaw Pact through armed forces, but kept to its sphere of influence. The state was oppressive, but there was stability. Then came 1989 and we seemed to have a chance for stability with freedom. We hoped that the intelligent and humane policies of Gorbachev would continue, and that little by little Russia would join our world, a more prosperous world in which the basic concepts were legal and economic: contract not conquest. This world is governed by law; and the power that enforces the law is jointly owned, and the society that results is open. Freedom, prosperity, security: they all come from rules.

It turns out that the Russian state does not need to join this world. Russia’s state, like Saudi Arabia’s, is funded by revenue from natural resources, and it does not need to be a part of the capitalist/democratic world.3 The dominant mode of thought in the Russian state is pre-capitalist; exploitation of natural resources is a form of conquest—you tear wealth from the earth as from the hands of your enemies. In such countries, revenue is collected from exported resources. Taxation, and therefore democracy, are less necessary. The idea of empire can still be rational for a country that functions in this way.

Over the years since Putin arrived in power we should have taken better note of Russia’s return to bad habits. Mikhail Khordorkovsky, Aslan Maskhadov, Anna Politkovskaya (killed, mafia style, on Putin’s birthday) Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei Magnitsky, and many more should have taught us the sort of state we were dealing with.

The EU needs to look again at its relationship with Russia. A relationship is unavoidable; but it should be treated exactly like that: an unavoidable necessity, to be handled with a certain coolness. The terminology of “strategic partnership” was always ridiculous. (The EU has only one strategic partner—the USA). Even “partnership” applies only in a limited number of fields, such as Iran or commercial relations—though here too Russia’s record of keeping its commitments is poor— in the WTO, on overflying rights, or in its abuse of health regulations as a weapon against this or that member state.

Doing business with those who lie and break their word requires, at the minimum, continuous skepticism. The benefit of the doubt should be systematically withheld. Whenever we find ourselves drifting towards thinking that Russia is trustworthy or predictable, we should pinch ourselves and wake up. Now Russia has arrears to make good; and they will need a track record before they can be taken seriously as partners.

Most shocking is Russia’s active destabilization of a neighbor. It is wrong to think in terms of a return to the Cold War—nothing ever returns in the same form—but this nonetheless recalls Stalin’s approach to Europe in the first years after the war, when his policy was to wait while Europe fell deeper into crisis, making it into material for a Communist takeover. This is how George Marshall saw Stalin at a meeting with him following six weeks of fruitless negotiation on the future of Germany. Stalin doodled wolf’s heads on a note pad, showing no sign that he thought it urgent to put Germany or Europe back on its feet. On his return to Washington Marshall set in hand the work that became the Marshall Plan—which meant rebuilding Europe without Russia.

The situation today is not the same. In one respect it is worse. Stalin’s policy was passive; but he was a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist, and the previous decade had provided support for the idea that capitalism was doomed to collapse and that conflict between capitalist countries was written into the laws of history. So Stalin was in no hurry. Mr. Putin’s policy includes the active promotion of chaos. Perhaps he understands the West better than Stalin. Perhaps he understands that free and successful countries across the border from Ukraine make people there want the same for themselves; and he fears what would happen if, one day, something similar appeared on his own borders.

In its dealings with the EU, Russia has contested the terminology “common neighborhood.” For the EU side, this was inexplicable; but it may be the Russians disliked the implication that our relations with the countries in between were on a similar footing. It is true that Russia’s history and cultural links with Ukraine go back a long way—but so do those of the Habsburg Monarchy. That there was some kind of contest over Ukraine was apparent from the (failed) Orange Revolution onwards. But the contest was a strange affair because the EU was only half-heartedly engaged. Some EU member states are opposed even to the thought that Ukraine might one day apply for membership (hence their refusal to admit that Ukraine is a European country). The real contest is not between the EU and Russia but between Russia and those in Ukraine who would like a closer association with the EU. The European view has always been that we should not ask Ukraine to choose between Europe and Russia. In spite of everything this remains correct.

Here is another difference in philosophy between the EU and Russia. The EU thinks of countries as equal, free to choose their own future.4 Russia seems to believe in a hierarchy in which strong countries do what they want and weak countries do what they are told. The EU wants strong, well-governed states on its borders; Russia wants weak states, which it can dominate. If the Eurasian Union is based on this logic—an economic version of the Warsaw Pact—it will probably not do well. The test of power in the long run is peace, not war. The men in balaclavas are unlikely to be good at administration.

Our response to all this matters. The threat posed by Russia to an order of law and security needs a response. We need to give Russia incentives to restore legality; and disincentives to go further. Whatever we do should be sustainable over a long period; since it is unlikely that these policies will be reversed quickly.

In the post-war period, Moscow’s policies targeted points of weakness. They all failed: Truman sent assistance to Greece and Turkey where Stalin was helping the civil war in the one and threatening the other. The Berlin was countered by the Berlin blockade—plus a retaliatory ban on trade with the Soviet Zone. The US and others responded with armed force in Korea. And over the time Soviet attempts to incorporate the countries of Eastern Europe into their sphere of influence also failed. Some of the failure was built into the policies: ordinary Germans did not want chaos, and by end of the blockade, they were convinced that the allies, especially the Americans, were their friends. But without the Western, mostly American, response Stalin’s policies might have succeeded.

We have our own weaknesses, of which the most important is our dependence on Russian energy. Much has been done to improve the position of many EU members, but also much remains to be done still.

The most important weakness, however, is the weakness of Ukraine, which has been badly governed ever since it left the Soviet Union (and even worse while it was inside). Borderlands are difficult places. Belgium has been the scene of more battles per hectare than anywhere else on the earth5; Alsace-Lorraine (and the Saar) was a problem for centuries before it became the cornerstone of a solution, and a cause of war before it became a cause of peace. Alto Adige was subject to battles through a thousand years and terrorist attacks until late in the 20th century. And borderlands are all the more difficult when relations between the bordering powers are contested.

Ukraine will need financial help. This will be useless unless Ukraine has a legitimate government that unites the country. Financial conditionality is not enough. If politics remains corrupt, assistance will be wasted. If Ukraine is to be strong, its government needs to respond to legitimate local interests. It may be right too, for the EU to assist with security and justice as well as with economic management. A purely technocratic program will be money wasted; the weakness in Ukraine is political and like the Marshall Plan our response needs to be political.

These programs should also be accompanied by a major media effort. Not propaganda, but reliable reporting.

Whether this can work will depend on finding leaders in Ukraine with courage and vision. Unhappily, post-Soviet Ukraine has been governed in ways that are not so different from post-Soviet Russia. Unless this can be changed, that is where they will end up. Mr. Poroshenko says many of the right things, and he is rich enough to have no excuse for corruption himself. He has a strong mandate. But turning a corrupted state around is one of the most difficult tasks in the world. His job is to re-found the state. For this he will need the courage of a lion and the cunning of a fox.

To repeat, this is not the Cold War. Putin is not Stalin, and Russia is not the Soviet Union. Oil and gas is a big part of the government budget but a decreasing part of GNP. The names of Magnitsky, Khordorkovsky and Politkovslaya should remind us that there is a free society waiting to get out.

Therefore, we should not cut ourselves off from Russia, nor from the Russian people, but we should be careful, skeptical, and less starry eyed in dealing with its leaders.

One final difference from the beginning of the Cold War needs attention. In 1945, the Soviet Union was a world scale power. The threat of a Communist takeover in Europe was real. Communism was strong in many European countries. Today no one believes in Communism; Russia is rather second rate, and has little to offer the world except gas. Putin’s Eurasian Union looks like a further step in retreat. Russia is now a regional nuisance rather than a global threat. It is no longer a serious threat to the USA—though it now challenges the order that America has built. But with Western Europe an established ally, and most of central Europe secure, Washington’s interest in Ukraine is not of the same order as its interest in Western Europe seventy years ago. Europe’s interest however is unchanged: this is to have well governed neighbors. Europe must therefore be ready to take more of the burden. If we do, we can be sure of American support. We will also need courage and vision.

PS: This is a bad moment for Britain to question its own EU future.

Sir Robert Francis Cooper

KCMG, MVO (born 1947 in Essex, United Kingdom) is a British diplomat and advisor currently serving as a Special Advisor at the European Commission with regard to Myanmar. He is also a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and is an acclaimed publisher on foreign affairs.

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