Re-awakening of the ursine chess master
As Russia has brought to bear its hard power assets in and around Ukraine – conventional military machinations combined with special forces deployment – policy and decision-makers in NATO countries have responded by ramping up sanctions and sending in reinforcements to the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. It is not surprising that analysts most everywhere have been pre-occupied with this spectacle. Many experienced a rude awakening – few anticipated the speed, acuity or sense of purpose which attended Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or could explain the uncertain nature of the West’s immediate reaction.
Whether or not Russia is now stepping back from the threat of armed intervention, will accept the results of the May 25 elections, and is really urging its irredentist allies to behave with moderation, today no one seems entirely sure whether or not another shoe will drop. Even if no further territorial gains eventuate, however, Russia’s designs on eastern and southern Ukraine seem certain to find some form of political expression.
To be sure, European security and international law have been undermined by the Kremlin’s machinations, and the predictability of future Russian behaviour under President Putin is now in doubt.
That said, barring some form of colossal mistake or miscalculation, the possibility of escalation into a broader conflagration is remote. As was the case with events in Georgia in 2008, it will in practical terms be recognized, if not formally acknowledged, that Russian interests in Ukraine are longstanding and deep. The world will not go to war over a re-assertion of Russian influence in the soft underbelly of its European periphery. What amounts to a settling of scores over NATO’s ill-considered and opportunistic overstretch to the east will not lead to open hostilities.
Not least, the significant extent of EU member state economic and political interests in maintaining reasonable relations with Russia will in the end ensure that cooler heads prevail.
Back to the future
What, then, to make of the bigger picture?
While the crisis in Ukraine is not a sideshow, like the events of 9/11 it has played into the hands of those with a defined agenda.
Among members of the opinion-leading community of fearmongers and threat conjurers, the prospect of a return to Cold War comfort likely elicited a great sigh of relief. Bin Laden is long dead, al-Qaeda is dispersed and disrupted, and there have been no large scale terrorist incidents in Western countries for years. Yet just when it appeared that the credibility of the threat represented by religious extremism and political violence appeared to be receding, circumstances have made it possible to dust off the Doomsday Clock and to consider moving the minute hand closer to midnight.
It can now be argued that international security is being jeopardized by the re-emergence of an implacable, if not unknown enemy. And such conditions have evoked a familiar set of strategic prescriptions. Within Western countries, the advocacy of a return to the tried and true remedies of containment and deterrence has become mainstream.
In that respect there is a downside to all of this, but it has more to do with continuity than change. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, in major capitals defence will continue to displace diplomacy or development as the international policy instrument of choice. International policy on all sides will remain heavily militarized, at the expense of addressing competing priorities.
Once again, no peace dividend will be paid.
A costly diversion
Prior to Russia’s gambit, a host of complex and difficult global issues were being left to pile up and fester on the sidelines. Progress in addressing some of the most profound threats and challenges now afflicting the planet – most of which have in common a substantial scientific and technological component – was effectively at a standstill. When it comes to broaching this “globalization suite” of transnational issues – climate change, diminishing biodiversity, environmental collapse, and management of the global commons, to name a few – action in concert has been long overdue.
And here’s the rub: although there are no military solutions to these problems, the lion’s share of international policy funding most everywhere still resides in defence departments.
That disconnect has become acute. Absent collective attention directed at pressing issues of environmental sustainability and equitable development, humanity risks arriving at a tipping point beyond which recovery will be impossible.
Just when an opening for innovative international policy-making might have presented itself, the world instead finds itself sliding backwards into fixed, predictable and obsolete patterns of behaviour. The intellectual structures and assumptions which originated during the Cold War and were sustained through the Global War on Terror – a black and white world view, a simplistic characterization of the threat, and militarization of the international policy response – were never abandoned. Now they have found new life.
The animus? Fear.
The antidote? Security measures.
The real tragedy is not so much that the world has changed as a result of events in and around Ukraine, but rather that it has not.
Armed force remains the order of the day, with resources misallocated accordingly
This model of world order is nothing new.
But its perseverance invites disaster.