The competing narratives by the US and the West, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, on the unfolding Ukraine crisis are starkly different. Far from easing, the tensions seem to have risen by the week as the crisis escalates with pro-Russian militants in the east attacking and seizing government offices, the Ukrainian government responding by sending in commando units to retake them, killings (some involving obvious brutal torture) on both sides, highly demonstrative military exercises by Russia near the border, and further tightening of US and European sanctions. It is a genuinely worrying sequence of events, the most serious crisis in US-Russian relations since the Cold War. The deal agreed to by the outside powers has been resisted by some of the local factions inside Ukraine. Let me address the issue through three key questions.
Should Ukraine be the organising principle of relations with Russia?
Does the West want to make the fate of Crimea, and by extension, of Ukraine, the central organising principle of structuring relations with Russia? Based on the inflated rhetoric of some western leaders and excitable commentators, the answer would appear to favour sentiment over strategy. Sentiment might motivate the West to formulate a Ukraine policy and base relations with Russia accordingly. Realism dictates that the West should first formulate a Russia policy, and then address the Ukraine crisis within that strategic framework.
There is a serious imbalance of interests for the two sides. For Russia, the loss of Crimea in particular would pose an existential threat, with its Black Sea Fleet headquartered there and access to the littoral states. Ukraine, too, is a core value owing to the national identity being tied up in the common history, linguistic and ethnic ties of kinship, and as a buffer state. For the West, it is an optional addon, with no core interests engaged whatsoever. The Crimean referendum may have been held in undue haste, under the duress of foreign occupation, and the lopsided result is highly dubious, both empirically and legally. But does anyone seriously doubt a genuine referendum would produce the same outcome?
The West doesn’t have divine dispensation to decide which territorial unit or ethnic group, in which country, may or may not determine its own destiny. Vladimir Putin’s full-court speech in the Kremlin on 18 March is very revealing. He claimed the mantle of historical, religious, military (the Russian soldiers who had shed their blood for it), ethnic and democratic (via a referendum) legitimacy for the return of Crimea to the motherland. Unlike “the well-known Kosovo precedent”, where NATO used deadly force without UN authorisation or treaty agreement with the host State, Russian actions had not involved any firefight or human casualty at all. Pointedly saying that “we remember 1999 very well”, he declared: “This is not even double standards; this is… blunt cynicism.”
If Ukraine had kept its nukes, would it still have Crimea?
Some commentators have been quick to pronounce that if only Kiev had kept the substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons (1,900 strategic, 2,500 tactical) it inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union, instead of relinquishing them in 1994, it would not have lost Crimea because the weapons would have functioned as a deterrent to Russian invasion. Wrong. All that a Ukrainian bomb would have done is to add yet another layer of extreme hazard to an already volatile crisis.
The bombs were not, in fact, Ukrainian. Russia retained full command and control. Kiev never had access to the authorisation codes necessary to launch them.
But let’s accept that in time Ukrainian scientists and engineers would have been able to overcome the technical difficulties and acquired operational control. They would still have faced substantial legal and political difficulties. The Non-Proliferation Treaty recognised only five legitimate Nuclear Weapon States (NWSs): China, France, the UK, the US and the erstwhile USSR. Legally, even as a successor State, it is hard to see how Ukraine could have been accepted as a NWS within the treaty. Russia, backed by the West, would not willingly have surrendered its nuclear stockpile to an independent Ukraine. Rather, Ukraine would have struggled to survive as an international pariah State and its subsequent history would have been so different that the deterrent claim for the events of 2014 cannot be constructed as a credible counterfactual.
If Ukraine had emerged as a nuclear-armed State, Moscow likely would have kept a tighter rein to ensure it stayed pro-Russian and the trans-Atlantic allies would have been far more circumspect about interfering in its internal affairs to overthrow the elected pro-Russian president through street politics.
Moreover, even if Ukraine had the bomb, facing the same existential threat, Russia could still have annexed Crimea. Would Kiev really have risked its own existence and escalated to a nuclear war in response? This does not make any strategic, political or even common sense. We also have the example of Kargil in 1999, when nukes did not deter Pakistan from clandestinely capturing Kargil, nor India from launching a massive and successful conventional assault to retake it. In 1982, non-nuclear Argentina was not deterred from invading the Falklands despite Britain having the bomb. Rumours of the death of the nuclear disarmament cause from ‘Ukrainitis’ are much exaggerated.
Is Russia still a great power?
Is Putin proclaiming revanchist geopolitical ambitions of recreating historical Novorossiya, or protecting core geopolitical interests of today’s Russia? Great powers rise and fall on the tide of history. Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands are mere detritus of great colonial powers washed ashore and bleached into nothingness on the beaches of history. Britain and France lost their empires but pontificate and bluster as if they are still great powers. The onward march of history does not respect political correctness. On the contrary, history can be very harsh and unforgiving in inflicting severe punishment on those who get it wrong.
Historical power transitions are rarely peaceful. Russia was exceptional in the manner in which it acquiesced to the terms of its defeat in the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev had agreed to the peaceful unification of Germany in 1990-91, and to united Germany being a NATO member, by withdrawing Soviet troops from East Germany on the clear understanding that NATO would not expand eastwards.
Instead of being sensitive towards Russia’s predicament and respecting agreed understandings on limiting the eastward spread of NATO and Russia’s remaining legitimate interests as a shrunken and diminished superpower, the West repeatedly rubbed Russia’s nose in the dirt of its historic defeat. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general, memorably described its purpose to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Soviets out. An alliance in search of a post-Cold War enemy and mission, NATO’s purpose seems to have mutated to keep the Americans in, the Russians down and the UN out.
As NATO’s relentless expansion crept ever-closer to Russia’s heartland, Moscow was going to feel cornered and push back some day, somewhere. Ukraine in 2014 proved to be the place and the time. Putin recited a litany of historical and recent grievances, slights and humiliations by a West still pursuing “the infamous policy of containment”. Anyone with common sense could have foreseen the consequences of their provocative anti-Russian policies and actions. He insisted that “Russia’s interests must be taken into account and respected”. The interests were translated into demands from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Ukraine must have a federal constitution with substantial administrative autonomy for the regions, protection for Russian as an official language and a constitutional prohibition against Ukraine joining NATO.
Numerous objective metrics of power — population, area, GDP, military power (except for nuclear weapons) — show a steady decline in Russia’s major power credentials. Is it in temporary or terminal decline? Putin has been immensely popular because he has revived dreams of Russia as a resurrected great power. If his core animating beliefs and actions are wrong and Russia is, in fact, in irreversible decline as a great power, his country will pay a terrible price for the annexation of Crimea and a new-found assertiveness in confronting the spectre of NATO encirclement in Russia’s near-abroad: territories where once it was impossible even to think of challenging Moscow’s writ.
Since the 1990s, the West has dealt with Russia dismissively as a loser while treating China with the respect due to a major rising power. If Russia’s revival is sustainable and its post-1991 travails prove to have been a passing phase in history, NATO allies will pay history’s heavy price for having misread it so badly. Meanwhile, Russia retains considerable capacity for mischief on a whole range of global issues, from veto power in the UN Security Council — which will deny Washington the much-coveted cover of legality for use of coercion — to playing the spoiler in any number of trouble spots, from North Korea to Iran, Syria and the Arctic.
The West’s fading capacity to impose double standards
The West itself is experiencing a slow and most likely irreversible decline relative to the rest. To grasp the double standards of power and inconsistent enforcement of principles on State sovereignty, territorial integrity and the right to self-determination of a defined group of people, bring all the following elements inside the frame of one big picture: China and Taiwan (characterised by preemptive appeasement of feared Chinese responses); Israel and the Palestinians; Serbia and Kosovo, 1999; Iraq, 2003; and Ukraine and Crimea, 2014.
Some years after leaving the office of US president, Bill Clinton said that as the top dog in the world, the US faced a fundamental choice. It could make every effort to stay top dog. Or it could use its unchallengeable dominance to create a world in which it was comfortable living when no longer top dog. The evidence would suggest it chose the former. We may not return to global stability until such time as there is a course correction in Washington’s default policy settings. As with national and global surveillance, Americans have fallen into the trap of interfering anywhere and everywhere not because it is right in principle or serves a coherent strategic purpose, but because they can, insensitive and indifferent to how threatening their actions look to others.
The West is losing its ability to impose its will, policy preferences, values and double standards on the rest who are demanding their due in writing the rules of the game and designing and controlling the institutions of global governance. The new structures of cooperation and/or conflict will depend far more on how westerners readjust psychologically to their loss. And on whether the major western powers, especially the US, retreat from their addiction to foreign invasions, habitual interference in others’ internal affairs, and bullying as their default instinct when others espouse different values and refuse to kowtow to western dictates. The reassertion of western exceptionalism carries significant implications for the rising powers. According to former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, “the West’s bullying instincts” based on “unbridled self-righteousness and arrogance” must be countered by the rising countries by building their own political, economic and security networks to sustain a multipolar world.
The US must cede strategic and economic space to Russia, China, India, Brazil and the like. In his Kremlin address last month, Putin was careful to single out and thank China for its appreciation of “the full historical and political context”, and India for its “reserve and objectivity”. The US’ relations with China have hardened, partly from neglect and partly from Beijing’s prickliness in perceiving an attempt to contain China. The Bush era saw America expend much blood and treasure in the Iraq war, only to deliver the country strategically to Iran. Will Obama be midwife to the delivery of Russia to China? Washington also permitted a sharp downturn in relations with India over the unnecessarily provocative arrest of its deputy consul-general in New York.
For over two decades after the end of the Cold War, the US behaved as though it could forever impose global norms on everyone else, but exempt itself from whichever norm, wherever and whenever inconvenient. Its addiction to deploying international law to enforce compliance on others but setting it aside as inapplicable to its own actions is now bringing copycat consequences home to roost, with Russia and China mimicking US behaviour. Putin mocked the US charge that Russia had violated international law, saying, “It’s a good thing that they at least remember there exists such a thing as international law.”
If recent trends are reversed and the trans-Atlantic alliance does manage to re-establish primacy, it will be able to impose double standards on the rest of the world again. But this could prove a dangerous illusion. It would be better for everyone if instead the West collaborated with the leading lights of the rest to recreate structures of world order in which everyone is an invested stakeholder but even the great powers are constrained by peremptory norms.