As the world slides into a new Cold War, democracies and authoritarian states must determine what they want from each other and what they owe each other to enable constructive cooperation. Democracies cannot simply say that time is on their side and that they just have to stick to their principles until authoritarian regimes collapse. It is easier to imagine the end of the planet than the disappearance of authoritarian governments.
The current focus of tension is Ukraine (although it could easily have been Taiwan). This “undeclared war” has been raging since 2014, when the Euromaidan movement led to the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea and occupation of the eastern Donbass region. While the West accused Russia of illegally seizing the territory of another sovereign state, Russia claimed that it was taking back part of the motherland.
These opposing narratives reflect historical differences. Russian policymakers—and many ordinary Russians—never privately acknowledged that the country had lost the Cold War, because this would have meant accepting that between 1989 and 1991 the global balance of power shifted sharply in favor of the United States. and their European allies.
(Also: Why a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine raises fears of war)
Meanwhile, Westerners are so used to seeing the Cold War as an ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, or between democracy and dictatorship, that they were unable to understand it in terms of balances of power. Part of the balance was nuclear, but a large part was territorial. After World War II, Russia sought to create a buffer in Eastern Europe against Western invasions—the most devastating being Hitler’s 1941 attack on the Soviet Union—that dotted its history.
Between 1989 and 1991 that buffer became the new eastern front of the West. Non-Soviet members of the Warsaw Pact, whose inclusion in that agreement was far from voluntary, flocked to NATO, a military alliance established to counter the Soviet Union.
This is the basic background of what is happening today in both Ukraine and Belarus. Russian officials have long feared that if the West actively encouraged them to do so, those countries would join the exodus to NATO.
Russia he always considered Ukraine to be within his sphere of influence. Until 2014, the Kremlin micromanaged Ukraine’s domestic politics to ensure the country remained aligned with Russian interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently declared that “the true sovereignty of Ukraine is only possible in association with Russia”, affirming and denying in the same sentence Ukrainian independence, a precedent set by the treatment that the Soviet Union gave its satellites. in Eastern Europe.
There is certainly a lot of toska (approximately a melancholy longing) in the Russian attitude towards its separation from the Ukraine. But we must never forget the role that Ukraine (and Belarus) have in the calculations of the Kremlin’s balance of power.
Former British and European Union diplomat Robert Cooper argues that Western states are “not interested in acquiring territory”, but this ignores the fact that missiles can be placed on the territory. If Ukraine becomes a NATO member, the alliance’s eastern front would be several hundred kilometers closer to Moscow.
Ideas about international relations in the West followed a different historical path than they did in Russia. From the French Revolution onwards, national sovereignty emerged as one of the central principles for the West. In the interpretation of US President Woodrow Wilson, this meant national self-determination.
The main idea was that in a world where everyone had the freedom to decide their own future, balances of power and spheres of influence would not be necessary. It would be inherently peaceful. In the name of this principle all European colonial empires were finally dismantled.
In 1795, Immanuel Kant longed for a federation of democracies as a guarantee of “perpetual peace.” More modestly, then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in 1999 that “spreading our values makes us safer,” implying a commitment to support or bring about “regime change” when it arose. the opportunity.
(Also read: Russia-Ukraine: the map showing the most recent troop movements)
It does not seem that these two positions – security guaranteed by a balance of power and security guaranteed by democracy – allow much room for agreement: they seem to be enemies of each other. Clearly, in any system that seeks to maintain a balance between great powers, some countries will have less self-determination than others.
But today’s hybrid international system includes both balance-of-power deals and initiatives to “spread our values.” In this very unstable combination lies the main hope of establishing a modus vivendi that allows cooperation between democracies and authoritarian regimes on existential planetary issues such as climate change.
One way forward in Eastern Europe would be for Russia to relinquish territorial claims to Ukraine and Belarus in exchange for the West’s guarantee that they will not be allowed to join NATO. This would, in effect, create a neutral military zone between Russia and the West.
There is a lot of ‘toska’ (melancholic longing) in the Russian attitude towards its separation from Ukraine. But we must never forget the role Ukraine (and Belarus) play in the Kremlin’s calculations of power.
With the NATO issue out of the question, both countries could develop economic and cultural ties with the EU, or be absorbed into Russia if they so decide through an internationally supervised referendum.
Belgium offers a useful background in this regard. When Belgium was withdrawn from French control after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the victorious major powers incorporated them into the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands, intended to help check any future attempts at expansion by France.
The Belgian revolution broke out in 1830 in support of independence, which was granted by the Great Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia) in the 1839 Treaty of London, on the condition that Belgium remain neutral in perpetuity. Although Belgium, unlike Switzerland, did not want neutrality, removing it from the discussion between the great powers allowed the new state to benefit from a peace guaranteed by international law.
Of course, there is no such thing as perpetual peace. Belgian neutrality was interrupted by Wilhelmine Germany in 1914. However, the agreement made the country war-free for 75 years. Equally creative diplomacy regarding Ukraine currently offers the best chance of turning an undeclared war into a declared peace.
– © Project Syndicate – London
Robert Skidelsky is a member of the British House of Lords, he is Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick.
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