12th March 2014 – by Stephen Blank - europeangeostrategy.org
A week into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the time has come to consider some of its core lessons for the future of the transatlantic relationship and European security.
First and most importantly, the Ukraine crisis has buried the post-Cold War assumption that war in Europe is inconceivable. Accordingly, the (Western) belief that the world has left Realpolitik has proven both fallacious and dangerous. In fact, the West’s passivity and utter incomprehension of Putin and Russia reveals a discomforting fact: Europeans and Americans are cognitively unprepared to effectively defend the post-Cold War settlement.
The second lesson revealed by the Ukraine crisis is that European security may well be divisible and that Western Europeans and Americans – as has too often been the case – may not be ready to fight for their Eastern European allies. As long as these conditions are operative, Russia will continue to expand its self-proclaimed sphere of influence.
Thirdly, the previous generation’s belief that Russia could be integrated into Europe has imploded. Russia wants a free hand, empire, and great power status. It equates liberal democracy and integration within the West with subordination and thus resists them. Russian power cannot be integrated into a European normative and political order. Instead, Moscow sees the corruption, subversion, and undermining of that order as a key condition for its own survival. This insight leads to the next lesson.
Fourth, Russia’s imperial land and power grabs in Georgia and now in Ukraine; its efforts to undermine security in Moldova and the Caucasus; and its permanent sabre rattling in the Baltics show not only that Russia remains unreconciled to the 1991 loss of empire but something much deeper: Putin and his ‘boyars’ firmly believe that Russia cannot be governed except as an Empire. For the Kremlin, Empire represents the necessary condition of survival against the threat of Westernisation.
Fifth, and critically, Russia considers that the use of force is the only viable way to advance its Empire. As the crises in Ukraine and Georgia show, Russia cannot accept the genuine sovereignty or territorial integrity of any of its neighbours, including Eastern Europe. Thus all of its agreements with them are ultimately merely ‘scraps of paper’. The Kremlin believes it must subvert, corrupt, undermine, or even try to conquer their territories to preserve this ruling elite in power and consolidate domestic support around Great Russian state nationalism. Moreover, the fact that the countries and peoples that stand on Russia’s path are likely to show resistance and that the Russian state cannot cope economically with the burdens of empire reinforces the point that Russia’s imperial drive is interwoven with war.
Only if the transatlantic alliance understands and assimilates these lessons can it successfully roll back the current challenge to European security and restore the basis for a genuinely free and unified Europe. This means the military revitalisation of NATO and its full willingness to uphold its agreements to support Ukraine’s security and integrity, as stated in the 1997 NATO-Ukraine treaty. This does not mean war but a combination of resolute military support for Ukraine, tough economic sanctions against Russia’s government, banking system, and ruble, and the decisive reorganisation of European energy policy. It also means exposing Russia’s undeclared ‘asymmetric’ war on Europe and efforts to corrupt its political figures and institutions. For the EU it means not only devising a package to restore Ukraine to economic health but also practical assistance and a genuine promise of membership on condition that Kyiv carry out the arduous but necessary long-term reforms.
The present crisis has exposed Western reluctance to act on Ukraine’s behalf. This appeasement is wholly misplaced and dangerous. Crimea is only the beginning. Unless the West works vigorously to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity it will face ever-mounting challenges – and not just from Russia. A choice for passivity and appeasement may well relive Churchill’s post-Munich admonition: ‘England had a choice between dishonour and war. She chose dishonour. She will have war’.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council. Prior to this he was a Professor at the United States Army War College. He writes here in a personal capacity only.