By Nick Krawetz
Yes, Crimea’s referendum was a sham. Yes, Russia has annexed part of a sovereign state. And yes, Western responses to date have been insufficient as Ukraine’s territorial integrity continues to be violated. Contrary to some viewpoints, however, this is not World War Three or Cold War II. Rather this is a blatant power play encouraged by the exercise of power politics and the West’s relative disinterest and lack of a coherent strategy towards the region (including Russia) since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Western world is only now beginning to awake to the risks emanating from its European periphery while becoming more aware of the potential destabilizing effects that threaten European security.
From the Caucasus to the Black Sea basin, regional security has been neglected or simply ignored for far too long. So-called ‘frozen conflicts’ are thawing as long-brewing disputes are simmering and/or already boiling. For instance, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War should be viewed as an acceleration of existing tensions rather than a sudden rupture; relations had deteriorated between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community as a result of many events over the previous decade (e.g., NATO’s eastward expansion, Kosovo’s independence and recognition by many Western states, U.S. anti-ballistic missile defence plans in Europe).
A major incongruity in the framework for ‘settling’ this dispute was that Russia simultaneously played the roles of both peacekeeper and party to the conflict. In fact, prior to the break out of hostilities in Georgia the Russian-led “peacekeeping” operations were only such in name, which led to the marginalization of the UN and OSCE as they were relegated to observer missions. A similar card is being played in Crimea, as Russia is the lone dissenting voice out of 57 countries blocking the OSCE monitoring mission.
The Russo-Georgian War further showed how international norms, structures, and procedures that are designed to maintain/restore international peace and security are extremely limited when one of the protagonists in a conflict is a major international power. Furthermore, the ability of UN Security Council permanent members to exercise archaic veto powers not only contradicts the UN’s expressed universal ideals but also undermines confidence in the UN system.
The cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have shone a spotlight on the incapacity and unwillingness of international security institutions to make a greater commitment, as these conflicts were never made top priorities. This is due in part to the ability of UNSC permanent members to keep issues in which they have an interest away from UN attention. Hence, given the lack of Western focus on the region it is no surprise that Russia continues to interfere in the domestic affairs of countries in its “near abroad.”
Not to mention, Transnistria is a haven for illegal arms trading, human trafficking, money laundering schemes, and transnational organized crime syndicates. Additionally, Russia’s interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has never been impartial and the Kremlin may continue to exert leverage and ramp up pressure on Armenia to join the flawed Eurasian Customs Union.
Simply, latitude towards Russia can no longer be permitted. Continued inaction and passivity of international and European security institutions is bringing into question their viability of being security providers and their ability to make security assurances. The West must shake its complacency in the belief that war in Europe is characteristic of some bygone era.
Assuredly, Putin’s actions are connected to Russia’s relative decline as weaknesses and shortcomings are evident in the political, economic, social, and demographic spheres. These actions also correspond to a long history of Russian paranoia and manipulation of its weak neighbours. In addition, Western actions over the years have also contributed to a sense of increasing Russian insecurity. If Russia’s actions and perceptions are not effectively addressed, Putin’s regime will continue to lash out in defiance of international norms and principles.
In regard to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it is obvious that invasion plans were drawn up months (if not years) ago. No effective Western countermeasure(s) materialized to deter Russia from seizing the peninsula and encouraging Crimean separatists to hold a bogus referendum. Given events on the ground, Moscow clearly has the upper hand strategically. One should assume that Crimea is now lost while realizing that little can be done to return it to Kyiv’s political authority umbrella. Further violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty cannot be tolerated.
The territorial integrity and security of NATO members (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey) have yet to be directly threatened but the possibility of what might happen in the near future is too much to ignore. All NATO members should be taking a hard look at their policies regarding relations with Russia as a result of its repeated acts of aggression. Moreover, the EU should be reformulating its Eastern Partnership (EaP) Initiative as political cooperation and economic integration prospects are becoming jeopardized. Sanctions will not suffice so long as the ultimate end goal remains undefined.
The foundations of the European security framework are being challenged and the full set of consequences for international security (e.g., Iran, Syria) remains to be seen. Relations with Russia need to be reevaluated and a well-conceived and properly resourced strategy towards Russia and its neighbours needs to be developed. The time of neglect and ignorance has passed.