Lessons from the Ukraine Crisis

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.











The unspoken supposition at the heart of Western international relations for twenty years is that we have abolished war between civilised nations.

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There has been good reason to think that this is true. The refracted sunlight thrown onto the murk of grim, attritional third-world wars by the rolling news media has persuaded us that war is a miserable enterprise that profits nobody. Our own experiences in Afghanistan have taught us that even a coalition of the richest, best-equipped and most technologically accomplished nations now lack the will to pursue conflict in the face of opposition at home and abroad. A generation in Europe who have known nothing but peace have extrapolated out their experience as the normal state of human affairs, and are rather surprised whenever this conceit is exposed. For all these reasons, we are now confounded by events such as those in Ukraine to an extent which our ancestors would have found exasperating.
There has been a great deal of discussion in the last week over the seismic nature of events on the Crimean peninsula. On this issue, the consensus is wrong. There will be no great war over Ukraine, no great change of course for the great nations of the world. What the Russian intervention in Ukraine and the West’s subsequent failure to act despite claiming that this action breached all of its principles indicates is that several trends which have been obvious for some time in foreign policy are now well established. This essay will explore which these are and why these have come about.

The failure of British foreign policy

British foreign policy has completely failed in wider Europe. The diplomatic map of the continent following recent events shows a strong Russian-German axis, which British foreign policy has always been designed to prevent, while France sits as an impotent economic fief of her eastern neighbour. It is possible to contend that ensuring a balance of power in Europe should no longer be one of Britain’s strategic ambitions. This is a position founded on optimism and which rests upon the assumption that unity between the other major European powers, with their vastly superior capital, manpower and productive potential would be beneficial to a Britain that must compete with them economically, offer a coherent scheme of national defence, and attempt to promote its values and interests on the continent in the teeth of such a group. This, in turn, is plausible only if nations have abandoned their centuries-old habit of seeking to impose themselves on the domestic policy of their neighbours, an assumption rather undermined by Russia’s actions towards its satellite states in Georgia and Ukraine in recent years.
The failure of the Anglo-Russian relationship is a good example of the power of institutional common knowledge over pragmatism and common sense which I wrote about last week. Following the end of the Cold War, there was a golden opportunity for Russia to be re-integrated into European affairs. Britain and Russia, as two powers whose destinies are inextricably interlinked with Europe’s but which are not European – Russia having a Slavic population and Britain being an island with fonder cultural links with North America and Australasia – have natural common cause in seeing a Europe that is stable and peaceful but that is not politically federated or dominated by one other power. The courage with which Russia threw itself into free market reforms and the dignity with which it unwound its communist-era legacy has not been acknowledged by British politicians. Instead, the institutional view of Russia as an implacably hostile state has been perpetuated in Whitehall, and has now, thanks the boundless efforts of Western politicians to provoke that country, come to pass.

In the institutional view, the most valuable end to foreign policy is the creation and propagation of additional multi-lateral institutions (by necessity seldom democratic in the normal sense of the word). In encouraging the satellite states of Russia, former USSR members with juvenile political institutions, to join NATO and to move towards membership of the EU, the states of the West were acting fully in accordance with doctrines of institutional capture rather than common sense. Given the geographical proximity of these countries to Russia, as well as their cultural status within a Russian zone of influence, it was deliberately antagonistic to invite Georgia, for instance, to join NATO, an organisation established with the purpose of opposing Russia. It was also strategically foolish – not only, as the Georgians were to find out, did that nation offer no conceivable material benefit to the other members of NATO, it proved impossible to defend when Russia decided to assert itself. The charade of bringing it into a Western orbit achieved absolutely nothing other than bloodshed and mayhem. It is saddening, if not surprising, that a similar situation has arisen in Ukraine.

This is a dispute of realpolitik, not of values. Placed in the same situation as Russia – a former colonial territory moving towards an opposing ideological bloc – the West has acted in an identical fashion. The wars in French and Dutch Indo-China, the invasion of Grenada by the United States, the wars in Vietnam and Korea – all represented an identical push to maintain by force a recognised zone of influence against a territorial and ideological foe. Without any viable means of supporting the insurrections they inspired, the EU and NATO nations owe a great deal of culpability for the foreseeable consequences of the social unrest which their actions engendered (it should be noted that, as the Guardian reports, this social unrest is not universal – not one poll this decade has shown public backing for NATO membership, and while Ukrainians may be tantalised with offers to join the EU, the domestic politics of Northern European member states preclude this possibility for the foreseeable future).

Evolution, not revolution

[pullquote]The United States has proved an extremely unreliable friend to the groups it encouraged rhetorically and to whom it gave the appearance of a hard backing.[/pullquote]So if we are witnessing ‘a little local difficulty’ rather than a shattering revision of the global order, does the tension in the Crimea teach us anything about the slow grinding tectonic shifts in the world’s political landscape? I would argue that we are. There are three critical points. The first is that the result of President Obama’s pivot towards Asia is now being keenly felt in the remainder of the world. For the second time in a year, America has proven itself unable to impose its will in international affairs despite expressing a clear preference for an outcome in a conflict. On the first occasion, President Obama asserted that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would unequivocally lead to military action, before failing to take any such action when it was proven to a reasonable standard of doubt that such weapons had been used. On the second occasion, he has warned Russia of dire consequences for intervention in the Crimea, before watching the de-facto annexation of that province and resorting instead to talk of “de-escalation”. The United States has proved an extremely unreliable friend to the groups it encouraged rhetorically and to whom it gave the appearance of a hard backing. Having failed to act when called upon, it has cheapened the value of its guarantee.

This butter fist behind the velvet glove approach has had two important impacts. The first is that it makes the world structurally more dangerous – although each individual conflict de-escalates, the transgressors play for higher stakes on the next occasion, content that America has no practical means of honouring the words of its statesmen. The second is that it is a major contributor to what will be an increasingly unstable Middle East. The balance of power in that region, between the Islamic hardliners in Iran and the wealthy, sparsely populated states of the Arabian Peninsula is maintained thanks to the implied guarantee of support for the latter group from American arms. If this support is liable to consist in its entirety of a grave-looking president making beautiful speeches from the safety of Washington, then it is highly unlikely that this balance can be maintained, particularly given Russia’s support for Iran. This, in my view, is a major global political risk with potentially ruinous consequences for the world economy.

The second tectonic shift in international affairs is the resurgence of the Russia-Germany axis, with the German government making clear that it will not act in any meaningful way against Russia. This was not a situation that arose by design, however fondly the German president and her Russian counterpart may remember their salad days behind the Iron Curtain. German coalition politics dictate the necessity of handing control of her energy policies to Russia, where 35% of her power supplies originate. Thanks to Germany’s failure to plan for energy independence, she is now forced to walk in lock-step with Russia. This need to compromise may also be connected to a similar historical approach to the importance of volk – inasmuch as German indiscretions have historically, with varying degrees of credibility, been tied to a need to incorporate or rescue German minorities in other jurisdictions, the Russian action in the Crimea rests upon a similar justification. Neither nation is a historical part of Latin Europe, and both operate with quite different conceptions of what constitutes diaspora and what protections the mother country ought to extend to them. It is entirely possible to foresee a future in which Germany becomes severely disillusioned with the European dream, particularly if and when the entire monetary and fiscal policy apparatus of the EU becomes directed to the assistance of its many weaker states rather than its strongest one. In such a circumstance, the Russian alliance with Germany may feel constrictive to those states sandwiched between them, much as it has done through history.

The third shift should be in our conception of the relative roles of hard and soft power – as the revolutionaries of the world have proved remarkably adept at finding worse replacements for bad governments in recent years, it is worth remembering that those replacements arrived in power by force of arms. Western nations, and European ones in particular, have persuaded themselves that soft power exercised through culture and the media is the equivalent of the hard power exercised by soldiers with guns. To this end, the British prime minister tweets pictures of himself looking concerned on a telephone while the Russian president rolls tanks into a neighbouring country. In Syria, in Libya, in Egypt, terrifying governments have been replaced with something worse because that is what happens at times of revolution – those able to impose structure on a vacuum are not armed with Facebook accounts, they are armed with Kalashnikovs, and without recognising that hard reality, we irresponsibly place in jeopardy the lives of all those we encourage to take a stand against tyranny without offering military support.

Worse still, there will come a time, and soon, when Europe’s military weakness will start to harm its ability to defend itself. At present a major illusion sustains it: the idea that ‘come one, come all’ and that an attack on one member would produce a declaration of war by all the others – this has been demonstrably untrue at every point in the EU’s military development and is particularly obvious now that Germany has decided to mollify Russia in order to maintain its gas imports. It takes one demagogue to smash this consensus. Turkey has a standing army of 700,000, and could quite plausibly annexe up to the Austrian border without any significant consequence. A likely and foreseeable event? No, but it takes one madman, and history suggests that these are not in short supply where public office is concerned. Part of the art of statecraft is guarding against this possibility, and in this regard modern Europe leaves a great deal to be desired.
It is seductive to believe that mankind has progressed beyond the need for standing armies and hard power. In some parts of the world, it arguably has done. The problem is that this can never be enough. For all the time that the wicked are armed and able to operate in a chaotic environment of our own creation, then those countries which believe themselves to have the left the armed vigilance of their forefathers behind as a barbaric relic must revisit it. As the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, this is a lesson we are learning at someone else’s expense (again) – for our sakes it must be a lesson we take on-board.

Image credits: banner; Merkel; Vietnam; UAE; Cameron; Putin