Monday, 7 April 2014

On states and quasi-states

States are all equal, but some states are more equal than others - this is the message now projected by the Russian government. Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his German counterpart that Ukraine will need "international assistance" to develop a new constitution, which takes into consideration the interests of all groups inside Ukraine. ( That is, a constitution able to empower Russians in Ukraine.

At the same time, of course, separatist movements have now seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine, declaring their wish for a "Crimean solution" to the alleged persecution suffered by Russians in eastern Ukraine at the hands of the acting government in Kiev. While the Ukrainian leadership is left to fear that Russian military forces, poised and ready at the border, will enter Ukraine to support "the people's will" in a referendum on joining Russia, just as we recently saw in Crimea. (

Will Russian troops cross the border? Most likely not, as things stand, for this time a battle with the Ukrainian military would be almost guaranteed - a fight that Russia could never win even if its troops were victorious on the battlefield. Still, nothing can right now be ruled out as reaction from a Russian leadership that in its actions has recently appeared incoherent, if not unhinged. It is telling that even Germany - so often the mediator between Russia and the West in recent weeks - is now very worried about possible escalation of the crisis. (

For now, though, thoughts on Russian invasion of Ukraine remain speculative at best. Much more likely remains a Russian wish to keep eastern Ukraine unstable, possibly with the use of inserted provocateurs in the region, to ensure that Kiev (and the West) acquiesce in a future Ukraine a la Russe. And this is where we come to the distinction between states and quasi-states.

The distinction between states and quasi-states is not the same as the distinction between great powers and weaker states. The latter distinction revolves around the concept of external sovereignty - the ability to project power, or influence broadly understood, beyond state borders. Thus, Russia is - regionally at least - a great power, just as the USA (and increasingly China) is a global great power. Ukraine is not a great power by any standard.

The former distinction, however, between states and quasi-states has to do with internal sovereignty. That is, with the ability of a state to control events within its borders and, among other things, exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence/coercion. Again, Ukraine clearly is having problems on this front - what with armed groups taking control in Donetsk and elsewhere. Yet whereas Ukraine as a great power would benefit few (and certainly would not benefit Ukraine itself), a Ukraine with strong internal sovereignty - a Ukraine that is a state and not a quasi-state would benefit all in Ukraine and in neighbouring states, too. This seems to self-evident that even Lavrov repeatedly calls for stability and calm in Ukraine. (

And yet, and yet, the only problem with Lavrov's calming words is, as sometimes happens with the Russian leadership these days, the facts on the ground. Scores of people did die in Kiev when the democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, was toppled. The new, acting government did try to enact a law removing official status from the Russian language in some regions of Ukraine. And some people on Crimea did fear that Ukrainian "fascists" (however defined) were ready to attack Russians on the peninsula.

Yet it is not Kiev that sees violence these days, but Crimea - where a Ukrainian soldier was today killed by a Russian soldier ( And where recent weeks have witnessed a large number of well-documented assaults on journalists and those opposed to Crimean secession from Ukraine. And during the battles in Kiev both Russians and Ukrainians died in opposition to Yanukovych - although the Kremlin only remembers the former casualties. The language law suggested by the Ukrainian government was unhelpful, but it was immediately vetoed by Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov. And those violent groups of Ukrainian "fascists" never materialised in Crimea, or in eastern Ukraine for that matter. They have at times appeared in Kiev, though, so maybe we shall expect Russian "peacekeepers" there next?

As a state, Ukraine needs economic and political help to establish its internal sovereignty, its statehood. In this, Lavrov is right. Only problem is that Russian troops right now occupy parts of Ukraine, and remained poised to invade elsewhere. No regret is voiced by the Russian leadership that the invasion of Crimea was required; just a call for Ukraine and the West to accept a fait accompli:

"What can one advise our US colleagues to do? Spend more time in the open, practice yoga, stick to food-combining diets, maybe watch some comedy sketch shows on TV. This would be better than winding oneself up and winding up others, knowing that the ship has already sailed...Tantrums, weeping and hysteria won't help." (

Thus the words of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on the annexation of Crimea. These are not the words of a government interested in strenghtening the internal sovereignty of Ukraine. These are words of a regime seeking to create in Ukraine, and elsewhere, quasi-states constantly on the verge of collapse and dependent on Russian goodwill to survive. This is, with a vengeance, a new version of the decades-old idea of a "near abroad" surrounding Russia, in which Moscow has special interests. And it is a warning that Vladimir Putin's regime will not stop its aggression, in Ukraine and elsewhere, before the West and the rest of the world gives a clear signal that Russia will not be allowed to create quasi-states at its leasure. The sooner that signal comes, the better - for Ukraine, for the West, and for a Russia, which is now heading down a cul-de-sac like never before.

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