Calling Russia’s Bluff: How to Analyse and Finalise the Conflict in Ukraine

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


Take any analysis of the war in Ukraine and it is likely to be limited in the following one or two ways. Firstly, it will probably be heavily biased. Commentators often tend to unreflectively follow the official narrative of Washington and NATO, or completely buy into the Russian propaganda. Secondly, most analyses simplify what is a complex problem, looking for explanations exclusively at the international level (the enlargement of NATO) or within countries’ political systems (autocratic Russia). We need a more systematic approach.

In this contribution I borrow from the late American political scientist Kenneth Waltz. In his book Man, the State and War, he proposed to look for the causes of war at three different levels: individual, state and international. Aware of space limitations, I narrow down my analysis to the last two levels. Such framework, while seemingly less exciting than simplistic finger-pointing, may lead to more insightful conclusions and, in turn, better inform any recommendations we may suggest.

Ukraine in the international system

It is a truism to say that states have the ultimate authority in international relations. In contrast to domestic affairs, there is no international police or a court. Everything that exists in international relations is a result of agreements between sovereign states. This simple fact, however, does not mean that states must fight with each other. They can be friends or neutral towards one another. What did go wrong between Ukraine and Russia? There are two competing narratives which seek to explain the conflict at the level of the so-called international system. The first one has been most forcefully advanced by Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago in Foreign Affairs. We can call it a realist explanation.

In short, Mearsheimer argues that the West is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine. The West, and mainly the United States, has provoked Russia by pushing for the enlargement of NATO and constantly trying to extend the Western sphere of influence. While this strategy may have worked with relatively weak President Boris Yeltsin, it has met with inevitable resistance from President Vladimir Putin, whom Mearsheimer calls ‘first-class strategist’.

The second narrative comes from the capitals of many of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, some Western European countries, from NATO and from Washington. We can call it a liberalist narrative. In this interpretation, Russia is becoming increasingly delusional about restoring its position as the world superpower. This camp likes to remind Putin’s words about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the last century. They point to the wars in Georgia and Ukraine as evidence that Russia is increasingly dangerous and not to be trusted. Ukraine, for its part, should be supported in choosing its own future, preferably as a liberal democracy.

Both sides of this debate present enough empirical evidence to make their case. Ultimately, where one stands in this discussion depends on where one sits geographically and economically. Poland, for example, wants to have a stable, pro-Western democracy on its eastern border. Being a frontline EU and NATO country is not optimal for its security. Germany, France and Italy have a slightly different take; because of their location further away from the Russian borders and different historical experience, they feel more secure. Thus, they are more relaxed to focus on bilateral trade with Russia.

US policy seems to reflect the advice of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a National Security Advisor to President Carter. In his book The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski calls for the strong American endorsement of the newly-independent CEE states. Russia’s intentions are hotly debated, but all the evidence suggests that Moscow will be persistent in preventing Ukraine from strengthening its ties with the EU.

Tell me your form of government, and I will tell you who you are

To explain the conflict at the level of the international system is different from looking for the causes of states’ behaviour in their domestic political systems. Unsurprisingly, commentators are similarly divided in how much emphasis they put on the characteristics of the main actors involved in the Ukrainian war, depending on their values and sympathies.

On the one hand, the liberalist camp draws on the old argument that liberal democracies are less prone to go to war with each other and to pose danger for their neighbours. This is why, in this narrative, Russia’s domestic political system is closely scrutinised. Interestingly, there is little disagreement between liberalists and realists that Russia, under President Putin, has become an autocratic state. Hardly anyone attempts to defend Russia as a democratic country.

While consolidating his power, Putin has practically eliminated any political opposition. He has also been consistent in limiting democratic freedoms in Russia. Admittedly, the majority of Russians do not appear to be concerned with this process, which is unsurprising considering the decades of Soviet social engineering. The problem is, according to external critiques, that increasingly autocratic Russia is a threat to its neighbours. Putin has created a socio-political system in which he can do what he wants abroad. In this context, it is understandable that many analyses intend to expose Putin’s intentions.

On the other hand, some realists, together with Marxist intellectuals and far-right parties in Europe, do not perceive Russian autocracy as a problem, at least not in relation to the war in Ukraine. Rather, they point their fingers at the American political system, which, so they say, is dominated by the neoconservative agenda. It is this neoconservative element in American foreign policy which drives this country to expand its spheres of influence around the world. This, inevitably, results in Washington interfering in other countries’ affairs. Russia is a victim in the Ukrainian conflict. It merely responds to the neo-onservative expansion of American alliances and spheres of influence. The closer ‘the West’ moves to the Russian borders, the more reaction we must expect from Putin.

Again, both sides have ample evidence to advance their case. Putin, without a question, has made Russia more autocratic. The Russian army did advance into Ukraine to support pro-Russian rebels in the south-eastern parts of the country. The annexation of Crimea was illegal by any standards. Russia is putting a lot of pressure, including hardly concealed blackmail, to force Ukraine into its pet project of the Eurasian Customs Union.

To this, the opposite side will respond that American foreign policy is no better. They will remind about an unauthorised invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was conducted under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, but in reality was driven by the neoconservative, expansionist agenda. They will also, as Mearsheimer did in his contribution, criticise the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s.

Inside Ukraine

Even when the discussion zooms in on the domestic situation in Ukraine, the arguments remain ideologically-driven and rather simplistic. On the one side, we hear that the people of Ukraine have chosen Europe through mass protests in Kiev, the so-called Euromaidan. On the other side, we hear that those people are fascists.

The truth is that many in Ukraine are tired and angry about the cancer of corruption and nepotism which eat up the country’s fragile institutions. They see how the CEE countries have transformed after the Cold War and want the same path for Ukraine. There are also large numbers of ethnic Russians and many Ukrainians, particularly in south-eastern parts of the country, who believe their future is with Russia, preferably as part of the Russian Federation. This brings me to recommendations.

Recommendations

Based on this short analysis, I reject the idea advanced by John Mearsheimer to transform Ukraine into ‘a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia’. To be more specific, I don’t think it is a bad option for Ukraine, but I believe it is for Ukrainians to decide. If Ukrainians, in their majority, choose to join the Eurasian Customs Union, the West must respect that. Angela Merkel already hinted that she would have no problem with such an outcome. On the other hand, however, if Ukraine chooses to deepen its ties with, and eventually join the EU, Russia must respect that and stop terrorising Kiev.

The sceptics will be quick to point out that Ukraine is, and always will be ethnically and ideologically divided – thus, the buffer country idea. As a result, the outcome preferred in the south-eastern Donbas region will be rejected by the rest of Ukraine and vice-versa. Here comes my second recommendation: If Moscow wants Kiev to offer the Donbas region more autonomy, Kiev should call Russia’s bluff and do just that.

In fact, Kiev should allow the Donbas region as much autonomy as it wants, and preferably allow it to become fully independent. As a Ukrainian-American writer Alexander Motyl points out in Foreign Affairs, this would allow the rest of Ukraine to speed up the necessary reforms and tighten its relationship with the EU. It would also help to develop healthier relations with Russia, which would have no choice but to finally respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

[This article was also published in Diplomatist – India’s magazine on diplomacy and international affairs.]

Russian invasion of Ukraine: analysis from @sotonpolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics and International Relations

We asked some of our postgraduate students in PAIR to share their analysis of the worrying situation in Ukraine, in particular through the lenses of the International Relations theory. Here is what they say:

Charles Webb (MSc Global Politics): Over the past week or so Russian forces have been massing along the border with the Ukraine. Russian forces inside the Crimean peninsula have reportedly surrounded key Ukrainian military infrastructure. On the face of it this appears to be a blatant example of realpolitik. What the Russian Federation aims to achieve, and how, is questionable but what is actually interesting is the reminder of the fragile nature, and concept of, nationalism and ethnicity. The message from elites in the Russian administration is that this move is an attempt to protect “ethnic Russians” from Ukrainian ultra nationalists. Although both sides claim that this latest round of hostility has broken out due to the ousting of “pro-Russian” President Viktor Yanukovych this is just the latest in a long history of conflicts over territory and ethnicity. It is interesting to see the rise of chauvinist nationalism in both the Ukraine and Russia considering their long history of interconnected, and at times interdependent, coexistence. Russia and the Ukraine as we know them today are relatively new social constructs. This, so called, “crisis” is a reminder of the powerful, often irrational, and sometimes fatal, attraction of group identification termed nationalism.

Zhanarbek Janabayev (MSc Governance & Policy): Classic realist John Herz’s (1950) conception of the “security dilemma” seems appropriate in contemporary international relations. After the collapse of the Communist bloc and the dissolution of the USSR prevailed idealistic views were about the future peaceful harmonised world. They assumed the end of Russia’s domination and hegemony in post-Soviet realm. Idealists thought about the failure of the “security dilemma” and that this phenomenon is unnecessary anymore. But the recent events in Ukraine show that idealist’s expectations and predictions are utopian. Russia’s biased interpretation and misperception of Ukrainian democratic uprising against totalitarian and corrupted President Yanukovych caused serious tension between Russia and the West Alliance. Moscow escalates the situation and mistakenly considers the democratic movement as a threat to their national security (idea about possible expansion of the NATO to the East). Miscommunication, mistrust, suspicion, uncertainty and failure of diplomacy triggered Russia-Ukraine conflict. Moreover offensive realist President Putin chose aggressive imperialistic tactic of “first strike” (pre-emptive or preventive attack) and started occupation of Crimea and East part of independent Ukraine. Irrational, inadequate and illogical Russia’s foreign policy against international law might provoke the Ukrainian civil war, Russia-Ukraine war or even Third World War (involving Turkey, Poland, NATO).

John Ackom (MSc Citizenship & Democracy): The actions of the opposition/nationalists to occupy government buildings and streets/parts till the deposed presidents resigns can be explained in the light of realism which see international politics to be a constant struggle or competition in which it is not possible for all parties to benefit; one wins at the expense of the other (win-lose situation). Their decision to engage in dialogue mediated by the European Union, however, can be explained using idealism which thinks that progress is possible through cooperation and that international conflict needs concerted effort from the international community to resolve. Similarly, the Russian occupation of Crimea can be explained using idealism. The theory argues that humans are not by nature evil. Rather, it is the existence of evil institutions like military and ammunitions that provoke individuals and states alike to go to war. By this, the Russians would not have entered Crimea militarily but for their military might. The refusal of the Ukrainian military to surrender in Crimea together with the Russian invasion gives meaning to the realist prescriptions that loyalties of allies should never be assumed. Like Machiavelli, the parties seem to agree that ones national security should never be entrusted to any person (mercenaries).