When I arrived as an incoming graduate student at Ohio State University, I was labeled a realist since I studied extensively under John J. Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. And despite the fact that I find such labeling exercises rather silly (plus, my advisor at both Chicago and OSU was actually Alex Wendt), there was, and still is, some truth to it. Power does matter in international politics and contrary to many others in our field I think that Mearsheimer’s theory of great power politics does make a lot of sense, and it explains large swaths of international politics throughout history.
However, despite the fact that his recent analysis in Foreign Affairs of the causes of the Ukrainian crisis makes a number of good points, most importantly, that Putin’s actions do not necessarily signal an attempt to build a greater Russian empire and that realpolitik matters, it is at the same time wrong.
Seeing reports in the New York Times today on further Russian aggression in Ukraine has me thinking about Ely Ratner and Elizabeth Rosenberg’s recent article
Just as the international community appeared at long last to be taking a stronger stand against Russia, President Putin upped the ante. Unlike its annexation of Crimea, Russia is now in open warfare with Ukraine on its eastern border. There is fresh evidence indicating not only that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by Russian-aided rebels in eastern Ukraine, but also that the Russian military has been firing missiles and artillery from its own territory at targets inside Ukraine proper. Russia has redeployed over 20,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border.
The SA-11 mobile missile battery was supplied by Russia and crossed into Ukraine in a large Russian military convoy a week in advance of the attack, which included additional missile batteries. Radar information, wreckage from the crash, and intercepted phone calls implicate the rebels directly, as well as Russia’s involvement in the cover-up. The crash site was thoroughly tampered with by the rebels, who delayed releasing the bodies of victims and have yet to release the monitoring officials from the OSCE that they have held captive for months.
Russia decided to up the ante of its double game prior to the shooting down of Flight 17, a response to the recent gains the Ukraine military forces have been making against the pro-Russia rebels. In fact many of these rebels are not just pro-Russian, they are full-fledged Russian citizens—including some notorious bad apples that Russia previously used in not so subtle attempts to destabilize former members of the Warsaw Pact.
But just as the EU is about to drop a new sanctions hammer on Russia, the Russians have taken the Putin Doctrine to a new more dangerous level. They have transitioned from weeks of waging irregular warfare against Ukraine to low grade standard warfare, and they appear to be preparing to raise that grade and potentially invade Ukraine Georgia-style. What more crystal clear evidence could there be that western allies have yet to establish conventional deterrence vis-à-vis Russia?
As I wrote a few days ago, a new pattern of warfare is emerging in the Middle East and Africa. This “new blitzkrieg” isn’t really new, but it is asymmetric warfare at its best, pitting swarms of fast-moving, lightly armed fighters operating as a network against hidebound hierarchies of Western-trained and equipped “professional soldiers”. These state forces have a bad track record of crumbling under the tempo of swarming, networked attackers; and the only thing that has proven capable of stemming the tide is early airstrikes followed with a robust military “prop-up and mop-up” campaign, as demonstrated by French and African Union forces in Mali. The outcomes aren’t that great in any of the recent cases – but it’s much, much worse when any regional government has fallen to the non-state forces.
If only present day global competition were confined to the World Cup. But while eyes have turned back to a new crisis in Iraq—something I’m not exactly proud of predicting here—at least there has been progress on the Ukraine crisis, which has gone from boil to simmer in recent weeks. At this stage it has become clear that Russia has blinked, and thus will not be swallowing eastern Ukraine whole. Just as important, we now have clear as day evidence that President Putin’s gambit has failed: Ukraine has not only signed the EU trade agreement that former President Yanukovych walked away from—sparking the crisis in the first place—newly elected President Petro Poroshenko formally asked the EU to open membership negotiations with his government. In other words Msr. Putin may have purloined Crimea, but he has lost Ukraine proper.
Strategically speaking, it matters less that the EU is no longer as rosy about bringing Ukraine fully into its membership fold. After all, previously doing so was one of the major causes of the now receding crisis. It is more important that the EU signed precisely the same trade deal, with the very ink pen that Yanukovych would have used had he gone through with it last year. More important still is the fact that Ukraine continues to tilt west not east, and in landslide public opinion terms. Not only did Poroshenko achieve an electoral landslide, but there even remains a majority of citizens in eastern Ukraine that do not want to be part of Russia.
But the EU has also done something it previously had not: it threatened that a new round of much more punitive sanctions would be levied against Russia if it did not stop destabilizing eastern Ukraine by sending in mercenaries, ammunition, and major military equipment in continual violation of Ukraine’s porous border—this time with a deadline. Defying a host of predictions both in Europe and back in the U.S., German Chancellor Merkel has actually stepped up to begin providing forceful strategic leadership. The U.S. is also preparing a new more punitive round of sanctions. And Putin has foresworn any direct use of force after—blink—pulling the 40,000 Russian troops back from the border.
Predictably, however, at present the negotiations that were underway to extend the ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia—brokered by France, Germany, and the OSCE—have broken down. Poroshenko has rescinded the ceasefire, claiming rightfully that the Russofile separatists have not adhered to it (despite surprising analysts by agreeing to it in the first place). If the Ukrainian military were to make any gains in the fighting, this would lead to additional leverage at the negotiating table—which Russia is already calling for a return to. More importantly, the failure of the ceasefire at this precise point may in fact be good thing. For it will compel the EU and the U.S. to follow through on their sanctions threat, which they may have backed away from had the ceasefire lasted. More spine stiffening in the West is a good thing, something this entire crisis has in fact been good for.
The stability-instability paradox is a concept from nuclear deterrence land: that if two sides both have nuclear weapons that can survive a first strike, it might just create deterrence at the strategic level AND free up both sides to engage in violence at lower levels. Sounds just like an air-headed theory that would never happen in reality because, you know, NUKES!*
* To be clear, I have not studied deterrence theory closely since grad school, so I may not have this entirely right, but I am pretty sure I have the basics.
Editor's note: this is a guest post by Anna O. Pechenkina, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dept of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University. It is primarily a response to an essay Branislav Slantchev recently posted on his personal website.
Branislav Slantchev advocates for NATO troops to be stationed in Eastern Ukraine to preserve western strategic interests in the region. The logic is that if NATO troops establish a "tripwire" in Ukraine, Russia will face a choice of whether to attack western troops and will (most likely) back down. While this describes the world in which I personally would like to live (full disclosure: having grown up in the region, I hope for its western integration), I suggest the West would not want to risk a war with Russia to preserve Ukraine's current territory because in the long run, secession of Ukraine's Eastern provinces will be damaging to Russian, not Western, interests.
"The hour is getting late...all along the watchtower, princes kept the view...two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl."
America and Russia are not engaged in a new Cold War, but Russia is playing the global menace du jour. The U.S. and Europe need to take more aggressive action to prevent the annexation of eastern Ukraine, and time is short. Beyond this crisis the West needs an updated defense posture, but for now the road ahead is clear.
Russia will take as much of Ukraine as the West allows, nothing more, nothing less. Yet few in Washington and Brussels seem to understand this. In recent weeks the view among the cognoscenti was that the crisis over Ukraine was largely over. Yet little in the U.S.-European response has changed. Hence, the incentive structure that failed to prevent the Crimea annexation is not likely to prevent further dismemberment. President Putin views the West as weak, which has kept him emboldened.
[Note: This is a guest post by Joshua B. Spero, Associate Professor of International Politics and Coordinator of International Studies at Fitchburg State University.]
Since the Russia-Ukraine crisis accelerated with Russia’s territorial consolidation in Ukraine, Europe is back on the radar screen as great powers and international institutions struggle to de-escalate this security dilemma. After President Obama’s European trip and coordination with European Union (EU) and NATO leaders on 26 March, the international community should pause to consider that, unlike classic power politics regarding heartland Europe, there might still be ways to avoid zero-sum decisions. Virtually lost in the Russia-Ukraine crisis remains the post-Cold War partnership in the heart of Central-East Europe – the Poland-Germany bridge for East and West. Given the U.S. President’s admonition in Brussels that Russia’s actions in Ukraine underscore its “regional power” status and illustrate its “weakness” toward its neighbors not its “strength,” the quarter century-old Poland-Germany crisis management mechanism anchors heartland Europe’s integration, promotes key consultation with Russia and Ukraine, and helps reduce America’s European role while still tying the U.S. to Europe.
The U.S. and Russia are not engaged in a new Cold War, but Russia is clearly playing the geopolitical menace du jour. The U.S. and Europe are going to need to up their game to keep Vladimir Putin’s hands off the rest of Ukraine. Beyond this crisis the West needs a new defense posture, as the world just entered a new era of international relations.
Just weeks ago numerous observers dubbed the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi “Putin’s Triumph,” when it was anything but that. Russia may have barely edged the U.S. in total medals, but the price for Putin’s orderly Olympics was serious repression, severe environmental damage, and seismic corruption. Then came Ukraine.
Lots of words have been spilled on this Crimea thing, and so it is reasonable to ask whether our opposition to Crimean self-determination might be more about our feelings about Russia than about secession/irredentism.
Note: The following is a guest post from Mlada Bukovansky, Professor of Government at Smith College.
The word freedom has to come into it, when speaking of the Ukraine crisis. It has become exceptionally difficult to use that term without wincing in the post-Bush era, but still I think it needs to be said. I was speaking to my mother about Ukraine and inevitably Czechoslovakia 1968 came up. I could hear in her voice the urgency and echoes of the passion that accompanied our fleeing Prague in August of that year. There would be no more freedom there. She said those who stayed behind were “doomed.” That included her own father, and many other family members besides. My initial reaction to her use of the term – doomed – was to dismiss it as hyperbolic, and that it may be, but I know what she means.
The power politics and legitimacy of the interests involved, the hypocritical orientation to international law by all sides, the lack of will by the U.S., the EU, and NATO to do anything painful in response to the annexation of the Crimea, as well as the assignation of blame for what triggered the violence in Ukraine has been well covered in many threads, from many angles. What is pressing me to write now, though, is the sense that not enough attention has gone to what will happen, and what has already happened, as in Georgia, to the people coming into Putin’s orbit. They are losing their freedom, and by that I mean something very specific. They are losing what can be called republican freedom (again, take your mind off Bush, please) – the freedom from arbitrary power. Because that is what Putin is exercising: arbitrary power with little restraint (I won’t say no restraint). He is of course not alone in this in our world, and there are arguably far worse villains operating with impunity, but he is operating so in Europe, and as tired and elitist a cliché as that may sound, this makes a difference. Because presumably European institutions, as so the American institutions which share their core ideals, are designed to restrain arbitrary power – that is arguably the central and most critical mechanism from which many of our other advantages and capacities emanate.
Note: This is a guest post by John Mueller of Ohio State University.
The ongoing crisis/standoff in the Ukraine relates in some ways to a long-standing debate about the potential connection between economic interdependence and war. The debate is over the idea that the decline in interstate war has been caused by the fact that countries closely linked economically are unlikely to go to war with each other.
On the one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foray in an area of deep economic interdependence doesn’t seem to have been waylaid by potential economic cost considerations. On the other hand, as the value of the ruble tumbles, economic considerations could play a role in keeping the crisis from escalating to a more direct military confrontation. Meanwhile, those contemplating sanctions on Russia, particularly in Western Europe, have been musing about the pain they might themselves might bear if they applied economic punishment to a country they depend on for so much of their energy resources.
There has been a bit of recent news lately suggesting international football* considerations are making the divisions between states greater, supporting the idea that sports might not be the path to peace and reconciliation. While a few cases cannot disprove an idea, recent moves point in a troubling direction for the theory that we can settle differences between states on the football pitch. Relating back to early theories of functionalism, any form of cooperation, even on the sports pitch, might be beneficial to countries at odds with each other. The communication provided through spectacular sporting events might provide pathways for peace. Others might argue that fighting it out on the pitch is better than fighting with guns and bullets. While these ideas might be true in the abstract, it is tough to consider the viability of such proposals if states fail to even meet on the pitch in the first place.
*I was a bit too quick to post last week and had to add quite a few recent events. Nothing changed my original analysis (BV 3/10/2014)
With my most of research right now heavily focused on cyber conflict, it might be useful to review all the news on the cyber situation between Ukraine and Russia. There have been many posts on the Duck and elsewhere (Monkey Cage macro post) covering the conflict (here, here, here, here, here), so I will refrain from summarizing the basics. The cyber situation on the other hand has shown a remarkable amount of restraint, defying conventional wisdom but also following directly in line with my soon to be completed book on Cyber Conflict and forthcoming Journal of Peace Research article (both with Ryan Maness). The restraint point was made early by Mark Clayton at the Christian Science Monitor.
Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine naturally prompted a lot talk about the limits of international law. Eric Posner noted: “ 1. Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine violates international law. 2. No one is going to do anything about it.” Julian Ku argued: “International law can be, and often is, a very important tool for facilitating international and transnational cooperation. But it is not doing much to resolve to Ukraine crisis, and international lawyers need to admit that.” For Ku, the current crisis supports the claims of Rationalist law-skeptics, international law works when legal requirements align with self-interest. Many others, including a good portion of my students see the failure of international law in Ukraine.
*The following post is written by Ryan Maness and myself.
Events are in motion that many thought were past us, part of a bygone era where conventional war still had a prominent place in deciding the course of nations. Having done a great amount of work on Russia’s strategic behavior and use of power (we have a book on the topic under review), we were a bit caught off guard too. Not by the course of events, but that our vision was focused on cyber conflict and thus were distracted from the real world developments.
The events in Ukraine fit a recent pattern of Russia’s coercive diplomacy directed toward the states of its former Soviet empire, more commonly known by Russians as the Near Abroad. Since the Soviet fall in 1991, Russia has been going through an identity crisis. Always regarded as a major power, it found itself weak after the end of the Soviet era, unable to even quell violence in Chechnya. It lost nearly half of its territory and population as the Soviet Union broke up into 15 independent states. Since then, Russia has been attempting to regain its status as a world power, or at least a regional power. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia has used power politics strategies, mainly in post-Soviet space, to carve out its place and dominate a specific sphere of influence.
Lots of folks are speculating about what Ukraine/Crimea/Russia is like, including not Abkhazia. Right now, the analogies that come to mind for me are: coups d'etat and poker.