Germany is the new Norway.
Running between Russia and the West, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier have consistently advocated dialogue and mediation since Russian troops invaded Ukraine last week. Merkel has stressed that the Russian move is illegal under international law - and although her overall approach to Russia right now does seem rather moderate there is little reason to think that Merkel does not believe in international law.
Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - the old warhorse always present as Putin's diplomatic face - appeals to the West to consider the fate of ordinary people in Ukraine, and not just Cold War geopolitics. A cynical laughter may be forgiven here from anyone who remembers Lavrov's limited interest in the fate of ordinary Syrians, Libyans...Russians.
Yet, if Lavrov, and Putin, do not give a toss about the fate of ordinary people in Ukraine why do they keep bringing them up in their statements? Let us imagine for a moment that Putin and his administration defended Russian invasion of Ukraine by looking at the world, Western and otherwise, and saying: "Yeah, so what? Sod off - we're powerful and we're gonna trample Ukraine underfoot just because we can. And you can't stop us." Again, observers might be forgiven for saying that this is what the Russian government is doing in practice right now.
Nevertheless, words do matter. And it is obviously very important for Putin right now to say that Russia is fulfilling a humanitarian mission; that Russia is upholding Russian, Ukrainian and international law. Even though no one in the West believes him - and people in Russia, including his diminishing group of admirers, know him for being a tough guy - not a penpusher. So why this desire to be "legal"?
There are probably several reasons for this. Putin and his elites might genuinely fear for the safety of Russians in Ukraine. OK, that is perhaps a stretch, but Putin has long showed an unwavering belief in his own ability to fix any bit of the world of which he does not approve. And he certainly does not approve of the current administration in Kiev. Also, for sure, Putin wants to prevent succesful revolution in Kiev giving anyone similar ideas in Russia - even though such a revolution would be highly unlikely to succeed in the foreseeable future. In addition, of course, Putin and Lavrov have retained the old Soviet habit of "double-speak" - you must use the correct, legal and accepted words even if everyone, yourself included, can see facts are very different.
And still, and still...the West is doing the same. OK, it is never easy to own up to your own weakness and NATO right now does look about as scary as Elmer Fudd... The West cannot simply go out and say it does not have the stomach for a fight, military or otherwise, with Russia - and US mid-term elections are due this year - and "it's all the economy, stupid!" Yet this incessant need to present statements on conferences, fact-finding missions, dialogue - does that not remind us of something? Yes it does - the League of Nations.
Now, the parallel should not be taken too far. Russia is not interwar Germany, despite Putin refusing to be housetrained (can't he just go back to wrestling bears and posing semi-nude with walruses in Greek urns, or whatever he's been doing in recent years to combat his mid-life crisis...). And while the League of Nations really was good at making bad fighting worse, recent years of mediation have seen some successes (including, perhaps, Iran?). Certainly, let the Russians and the Ukrainians talk together, preferably over a lovely meal and unsullied by Russian boots on the ground. But no one is actually talking with people in Ukraine right now.
Perhaps what we are seeing is the triumphant rise of an international society? If that is correct, such a society will be dominated by great powers - but that does not mean that recent simplistic analyses predicting a new Cold War are correct. What we are witnessing is quite different.
We have great powers now - global, such as the USA, and regional, such as the EU and Russia. These powers are not, though, engaged in a naked power struggle for world domination (or whatever general debate wants us to believe). Instead, the great powers want to create and develop an international society under their tutelage. Look at it as a Concert of Powers, if you like, as in post-Napoleonic Europe. States should make the world go around in order to preserve as much peace as possible in an unstable world. Non-state groups quickly become terrible terrorists, and as for "market forces for good" the less said the better after 2008... The great powers create institutions in which they can participate on a more or less equal footing, such as the UN Security Council, and they make sure that each power has a veto on matters they consider of vital interest (however defined). All this may not create a better world, but it preserves the one we have (more or less, anyway). Crucially, it has little to do with aggression and fear; more with Russian, American and EU elites understanding each other very well and being ready together to create a framework of law within which they can all operate.
Well, this sounds rather nice, does it not? It might well help to avoid war today. Yet it, curiously, means less freedom and influence for medium and small powers than during the Cold War. Then, Ceaucescu (and no, he is not really a comforting example) could disobey the Soviet Union, as could Tito to a much larger degree - because they knew Moscow feared that these states would turn to the West. In South Vietnam, the USA faced a similar dilemma. Some more or less unsavoury regimes were thus preserved. But they may also be preserved today; as long as they have the protection of a great power. The problem is, no great power wants to upset the situation so if a state wants to free itself from one great power, no other great power is ready to listen. Nobody is listening to people in Ukraine right now - the West is not listening to Kiev and Putin is not listening to Yanukovych, let alone to the Crimeans... Instead, Ukraine is almost becoming a Mandate state. You know, the sort of state administered by the great powers as much of the Middle East once was. And that did go very well in the end, did it not...