At one glance, Ukrainian crisis that seemed to be merely the country’s internal struggle between two different forms of political philosophies-democracy and autocracy, suddenly started to undermine independence and territorial integrity of Ukrainian state, challenged credibility of western democracies, and in a sense, shook the very foundation of the post-Cold War world order shaped by American power and based on international law. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and following invasion of Eastern Ukraine not only marked the end of the post-Cold War period, but also raised fundamental questions about current international arrangement, viability of global security architecture and capacity of the United States to prevent undemocratic forces from revising fundamentals of the existing world order. While the West is trying to understand whether Moscow is acting out of weakness or strength, Putin’s moves pose a great threat to the independence and democratic development of the Central and Eastern European states, test U.S. commitments to the allies, and, in great part, threaten the very foundation of current international order. Containing Russian adventurism and following systemic fallout will require U.S to increase Russia’s economic isolation, while providing military assistance to Ukraine and other regional allies, as hard power is the only currency respected in Moscow.
The world order we know today was founded on liberal ideas and built around American power. This open and rules-based international arrangement not only brought democracies and market societies closer together, but reintegrated many of former communist states into the liberal-democratic world to make Europe whole, free and at peace. In very short period of time, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and other Central and Eastern European countries managed to transform themselves into law-abiding, full-fledged democracies and started re-exporting western ideals further east. The predominance of the United States power in the post-Cold War period and the willingness of Washington to invest heavily in international system contained existing geopolitical rivalries, defined norms, rules and patterns of relationships among the states.
In this post-Cold War vision of the continent, united Europe with ideologically cohesive democratic Russia represented a permanent and stable foundation for regional peace and security. Unfortunately, Moscow did not live up to the West’s expectations, it failed to build democratic state, play by international rules and become an integral part of Europe that would be whole, free and at peace. Even worse, it transformed into an autocratic and increasingly assertive state demonizing and challenging both western values and democratic form of governance. With the loss of its global influence on the one hand and threatened by successful transformations of the Central and Eastern European states into consolidated democracies on the other, Russian autocratic leadership grew increasingly frantic, fearing that former soviet republics would follow suite and through successful democratization challenge legitimacy of Russia’s corrupt and shady system. This fear of vulnerability, in great part, led Moscow to invade Georgia in 2008 and undermine territorial integrity of Ukrainian state in 2014.
The Maiden events that shook the world and plunged Europe into one of the gravest crisis since the Cold War began as a peaceful demonstration against President Yanukovich’s last minute refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. The Agreement did not have the same magnitude as joining either EU or NATO would have had. Its signature for the country meant nothing more than a hope for membership and was just another step taken towards democratization, modernization, and prosperity. Full incorporation into the European family evidently remained a long term objective, though signing of the Agreement would have accelerated the process of detachment from Russian sphere of influence.
Clearly, modernized, prosperous and westward-leaning Ukraine does not fall in line with Russian political elite’s grand strategy as any success of liberal democratic project in Russia’s periphery is considered as a threat to Moscow’s autocratic and corrupt regime. Thus, there is legitimate fear in Russian political establishment that successful reforms undertaken by former soviet republics might cause widespread sympathy among Russian citizens and subsequently question, challenge and undermine Putin’s autocratic project. Georgia is a perfect case in point. Concerned with the initial successes of Georgia’s modernization, Putin used every tool at his disposal to crash Saakashvili’s reformist and Westward-leaning government in 2008.
Regrettably, instead of translating its rich economic and cultural resources into an appealing soft power and developing an ideology that would attract partners, at least in its neighborhood, Moscow has chosen a destructive approach. It started promoting a thread of dysfunctional states around its borders, while discouraging the West from incorporating them into its political, economic and defense institutions. With disintegrating Ukraine and invading Georgia, Putin challenged the idea of Europe as whole and free, created war zones, buffer zones and a cluster of autocratic regimes in Eurasian Continent – Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Crimea, Lugansk and Donbas regions in Ukraine. Given political uncertainties in the region and the level of Moscow’s military meddling in above countries targeted by Russia, Western governments are reluctant to invest heavily in those states’ political, social and economic development. It would not be wrong to assume that Moscow has found so far a workable strategy preventing the former soviet republics from joining western institutions and achieving meaningful progress towards democratization, liberalization and modernization.
In light of this situation, US effective leadership is increasingly critical. As much as US has been successful together with EU in imposing sanctions on Russian economy, it has equally been unsuccessful in supporting Ukraine militarily. Understanding clearly the depth and magnitude of the crisis is increasingly important for Washington, as failure to stand up for Ukraine, will undoubtedly create crisis of trust in the Central and Eastern Europe and among other unnerved US allies outside of Europe. All will raise major questions about the seriousness, perhaps even the usefulness of US security commitments. Clearly, all US allies will feel directly affected and this could cause a crisis of confidence, possibly leading to degradation of US alliances. Without US military assistance, the violence in Ukraine can easily spill over into adjoining countries. A parallel can be drawn between the occupation of Sudetenland by Nazi Germany in 1938 and Russia’s aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Appeasement at Munich ended in the occupation of a whole set of European States including Russia and unwittingly plunged the world into the Second World War. Although, given US-Russian strategic nuclear balance, a conflict of similar scale seems unlikely in the foreseeable future, however, sizable military conflicts cannot be ruled out.
US last minute refusal to bomb Bashar al Assad’s regime on the one hand, and its reluctance to arm Kiev on the other, can be considered as the main reasons why Washington’s feckless and ineffective foreign policy has been met with concern by US allies around the world. They perceive US retreat from arming Ukraine and ousting Al Assad as a lack of US resolve and leadership. The Central and Eastern European states on the one hand and Japan and South Korea on the other, to say nothing about other powers in Asia and the Middle East, view US reaction in Ukraine as signifying weakening US commitment to the current international order.
Hence, addressing growing challenges posed by assertive Russia requires drastic policy rethinking in U.S. foreign policy community. While sanctions can be effective tools in terms of crippling Russia’s economy in the long term, the economic means alone don’t seem sufficient for persuading Moscow to stop pursuing current aggressive foreign policy, not least because the economic hardship has always been a norm in Russia and the prosperity an exception. Therefore, in order to deter further Russian incursions into Ukraine, contain the rise of undemocratic forces in Eurasia, and maintain its credibility as a reliable partner, US needs to reinstate its Cold War polices of containment and send an abundantly clear message to Moscow that there will be military consequences for crossing the red line in Ukraine. Starting providing Kiev with defensive weapons would be one of such important clear signals.
The article does not represent the opinion of the government of Georgia. The views expressed are solely those of the author.