On your article, I find it interesting on a number of points. I think you are absolutely right to note that Russia is not the only cause of instability in eastern Ukraine. Recently, some observers - notably Ben Judah in the New York Times - called for military assistance, and troops, from the West to Ukraine. Among others I was not convinced how such a step would enhance Ukrainian or indeed regional security. Similarly, I cannot help but see your point that NATO has been anything but a passive bystander in relation to Ukraine. As with the EU this problem began years ago. Ukraine was de facto refused entry to NATO while at the same time the country was expected by NATO to come closer to "our" side, leaving Ukraine in a dangerous limbo. In retrospect, it is perhaps not surprising that some members of the Russian elite perceived a battle - bloody or otherwise - was taking place with the West on the future of Ukraine.
You suggest that NATO has an identity crisis. Few observers, I believe, would fully disagree with you here. Following the end of the Cold War during the 1990s NATO was, for most intents and purposes, simply another Western "club" which former socialist states could join. Subsequently, events in Kosovo and Central Asia have given NATO concrete jobs to do, yet it probably remains most correct to say that these were American projects with a NATO sheen - "coalitions of the willing," indeed, which, certainly, was never the point of NATO where members of course are expected to help each other when they otherwise might be most unwilling to do so. Now, the fear might remain that Ukraine, and Central and Eastern Europe more generally, is the latest American project into which the rest of NATO is being dragged. Clearly, you have a good point in stressing that the Ukrainian military has been responsible for civilian deaths in eastern Ukraine – and that some of this responsibility might constitute war crimes. Arguably not the best partner for NATO to arm.
With all this said, however, I still do take issue with some points in your article. You mention that the fighting in Ukraine is NATO’s “proxy war,” just as you suggest NATO is “beating the war drum.” Now, in order for this to hold up, I think, one of two conditions would have to be fulfilled. Either, NATO would have to have actively helped to start and expand the war in Ukraine; or the mere existence of NATO would have provoked the war in the first place. I am afraid I do not see either of these conditions in place here. That NATO should actively have started and/or expanded the war in Ukraine does not seem to be the message from your article. And, certainly, all signs during the toppling of Viktor Ianukovych showed that NATO (and Russia) were taken aback. I appreciate that some Western politicians, such as John McCain, actively and vociferously campaigned in Kyiv for the removal of a democratically elected president. Yet McCain, for all his follies, does not represent NATO. The organisation, in fact, kept very much in the background until Crimea had been annexed by Russia. The second explanation, that the existence of NATO has provoked this war does ring true for me, but only in the limited sense, I hinted at above. The fact that NATO for many years has been unwilling to state clearly whether Ukraine belongs inside or outside the organisation (or even the “sphere of interests” of NATO) is a contributing factor to the war. Yet, from this point, I cannot conclude that Ukraine and Europe would be better off if NATO disappeared. On the contrary, I believe that NATO now needs to assert itself and its mission in a much clearer fashion than before.
Ian, I do not believe in a Europe, or a world, that is divided into “spheres of interest,” belonging to a range of great powers. Now, I do not claim that your article is advocating this – yet the elite of Russia is, and so are many observers in the West for whom the actions of Russia today are understandable and must be taken into account. Right now, this almost seems to be the dominant tone of the debate in my Denmark. Still, if we are not to have “spheres of interest” as the founding norm of international relations, of what should such a norm consist? Well, I fear that the least bad option here for me remains the norm of state sovereignty. This point comes with a number of caveats, the largest one of which is that I remain a strong believer in humanitarian intervention when required. Humanitarian intervention has been somewhat discredited following the debacle in Iraq (and elsewhere), yet its necessity in rare circumstances remains. Hence, it could be argued that the elites of Russia, having witnessed the violent deposition of Ianukovych, honestly feared that Ukrainian nationalists would assault Russians throughout Ukraine, including in areas with an overwhelming Russian population, such as Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Reports from the UN soon pointed out, that Russians in Ukraine were not threatened by Ukrainian nationalists. The interim government did suggest a law to remove Russian as official language – a suggestion, which a sensible interim president immediately discarded. Ukrainian nationalist candidates had no chance in the subsequent presidential election. Thus, I cannot agree with your assertion that Ukraine has done little to diffuse nationalist tension. Certainly, though, the subsequent war has increased the presence of intolerance in Ukraine, and there is no doubt that very worrying nationalist, racist and other forces now fight as paramilitaries for the separatist and government sides alike. Having said this, however, I fail to see that NATO support for Ukraine equals Russian support for the separatists. All accounts I have seen indicate that conditions in the separatist-held areas have remained dangerously lawless, even when Ukrainian troops were not near. With the deplorable exception of Odessa, this has not been the case in Ukrainian-held territory. Certainly, Ukrainian shelling of civilian areas has been a substantial part of the reason for the lawlessness in eastern Ukraine. Yet the difference remains that Ukrainian military personnel can (and absolutely should) be held responsible for all war crimes committed. The West must insist on this; and while I am not overly optimistic about this happening, at least in the state of Ukraine there is someone to hold to account. Whom do we hold responsible on the nebulous side of the separatists?
But leaving all this to a side for the moment, let us assume – for the sake of the argument – that Russia had somewhat humanitarian reasons to enter Ukraine. Let us agree that the war has cost immense suffering for the civilian population of eastern Ukraine. If, under these circumstances, Putin’s Russian military now entered eastern Ukraine, and Crimea, just to stop the fighting and to hold the Ukrainian regime to account, then the intervention might be justified. Forget for the moment that Russian military assistance has inflamed the fighting for months; forget, likewise, that Russian soldiers and equipment have been part of the fighting for a long time, too. If the Russian regime wants to ensure peace and tolerance for all in Ukraine then Russia, as a neighbouring state, might do well in ending the fighting now – and NATO, by extension, might do well to stay away. In fact, if Russia can begin to play the role of guarantor of stability and civilian safety in the post-Soviet region – if Russia can help to guarantee that the populations of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states can enjoy the sovereignty of their increasingly well-governed states – then NATO should perhaps be drawn back, slowly dismantled, to be gradually replaced with negotiations for pan-European security stretching this time really from the Atlantic to Vladivostok. Certainly, the USA would probably be happy to turn his full attention to China and what promises to be some tense years in East Asia.
And yet, Ian, this is not the Russia of which we today can speak. Russia did not insert troops on Crimea in order to force Ukraine to treat the inhabitants of the peninsula better. Instead, Russia promoted a Crimean political party with 4% support from the previous local election to the role of governing force capable of developing an unfree, unfair referendum that justified the first land-grab in Europe since the Second World War. This is not Kosovo – it is not even Abkhazia and South Ossetia for here, at least, the contested areas are recognised as sovereign by Russia. A small difference you may think, yet states whose sovereignty is recognised have a tendency to gain more and more autonomy for themselves; something arguably visible with the two republics in the Caucasus. Yet not with Crimea, which has now become the symbol of the simple premise that “might makes right.” And a world built on such a premise, the Soviet Union and Russia until quite recently clearly understood, is a dangerous world in which states with justification can look anxiously for the possibilities and dangers of conquest.
Now, you and I of course both know that many other factors besides sovereignty guard international stability. Some international institutions, for instance, have shown an ability to solve international disputes with a minimum of tension. Arguably, NATO does not have a good record here; not least due to the exclusive, militarised nature of this institution. Thus, it might seem sensible to dismantle NATO and replace it instead with a body of understandings and treaties that could foster a pan-European security framework, including Russia. Yet, for me it is today difficult to see how such a framework could be created. The elite of Russia today has substantial resentment for the West. In Moscow, there is a clear feeling that the West has treated Russia poorly since the end of the Cold War, and that the West seeks to keep Russia down whenever possible. The merits or otherwise of this impression are moot, yet there is little doubt for me that Russia’s elite saw the deposition of Ianukovych in precisely this vein. Clearly, the activities of NATO during the last decades have contributed to this Russian wish for revanchism, yet removing NATO now would not convince elites in Russia of the beneficence of the West. Unfortunately, for the time being, the resentment will stay in place. It will also be accompanied by a search for justice for Russia; a belief in Russia that there is a just place for Russia in the international system and that Russia should seek this place with whatever means possible. Now, unfortunately, beyond the idea that Russia should be a great power with a regional sphere of interests what would constitute a just world in Russian optics remains rather vague. Consequently, while Russian diplomatic and military manoeuvres in and around Ukraine have often been tactically sound, on a strategic level they have been haphazard. Yet even if a clear Russian strategy for a just world order could be conjured, this does not imply that neighbouring states and their populations should acquiesce. Populations of regions such as Crimea and the Donbass might wish for independence – and this might conceivably be accommodated through democratic means such as is happening shortly in Scotland – yet Russia, just as other actors outside Ukraine, has no right to force this through. And right does matter if we are not to start doubting the entire post-World War II web of (admittedly very constructed) borders – or perhaps have a look at the North Caucasus?
Even though the elite of Russia today is revanchist in relation to the West, and seeks to create a just (as opposed to an ordered) world – and even if we assume these are developments to be resisted by the West – it does not automatically follow that NATO is the instrument with which to check the Russian state. In many ways NATO is a poor instrument for the task. Being blatantly unwilling to send troops and serious military equipment to Ukraine, NATO is reduced to strengthen its presence in its existing member states such as the Baltics and Poland. I am not quite convinced that an increased NATO-presence in Central and Eastern Europe will sufficiently comfort local regimes, who may still fear Russian attacks through non-traditional means, such as by the recent kidnapping of the Estonian security official. Yet NATO remains the least bad option here; at least for the time being. If NATO were disbanded now, a belligerent yet floundering Russia would be opposed by a range of European states, which in many ways are equally floundering and could quickly become equally belligerent, squaring up to Russia. A pan-European security agreement would be ideal, yet I for one see no reason why the current Russian state should be trusted to adhere to such agreements or to respect for sovereignty, for that matter. Unfortunately, in the foreseeable future this lack of trust might well grow.
This is because, I believe, the nature of the Russian state and its development. Russia today is increasingly becoming a fascist state. Mind you – not a Nazi state, although these two terms are often confused, especially in Russia. By a fascist Russia I mean a Russia that has the state (and the leader) as the highest ideal, that favours corporatism and a modicum of expansion in the surrounding region, that is increasingly militarised, and that shows signs of chauvinism. Conversely, racialism and worldwide expansion are irrelevant here. (My apologies for spelling out such basics to you, but I have come into the habit of closely defining fascism, before people accuse me of comparing Putin and Hitler; Putin and Franco might be a better bet). This is relevant here, because such a Russia will increasingly be distanced from the European community of values (and yes, I do believe such a community exists). Possibly, Russia might drag Belarus away, too (although I doubt it), but an iron wall of incompatibility and perhaps incomprehension is being constructed between Russia and the rest of Europe. The existence of NATO certainly does not prevent this development, yet – I believe – the absence of NATO would today not prevent it, either. Instead, unfortunately, the West is forced to retain NATO for the simple reason that lack of trust and mutual understanding between Putin’s Russia and the West will remain for the foreseeable future and, at least, as long as Russian state ideology remains fascist. This is not a shout for all the glories of “democracy,” (however ill defined) but simply my conviction that some basics of Western political ideology – including a respect for individuals and a non-militarised solution to problems in the areas surrounding “us” – are going to, and should, remain. And if I take this normative position I cannot possibly accept any international imposition of a Russian fascist state ideology. This does not mean that the West by force should seek to change Russian ideology – an impossible and in many ways pointless task – but it does mean that we should recognise our fundamental differences with the Russian state of today, and take the necessary precautions against Russia, such as by ensuring the Baltics, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania that their right to sovereignty will be ensured by the EU and, yes, by NATO.
On a concluding note, however, this leads me to a final concern. Leaving Ukraine to a side, it remains unlikely that Russia would openly intervene in NATO member-states. Low-level provocations will remain yet, frankly, Russia can ill afford a long-lasting dispute. Already, Western sanctions are hurting a stuttering Russian economy much more than Russian sanctions are able to hurt the West (a Russian halt to energy transfers to the rest of Europe would be similarly catastrophic for the Russian economy in the medium term). So some sort of modus vivendi will probably be found as the shooting dies down in Ukraine (Donbass as the next Transnistria remains quite possible). Nevertheless, in such a modus vivendi the Russians will remain “others.” Not such a big problem for the many talented Russians living and working in the West, who should easily be able to carve out a position for themselves, and not such a problem for those people living in Russia who agree to support the glory of the Russian state with their existence. Yet what to do for those people in Russia who do not support the state above all else; who do not see Putin as the ultimate leader; who seek to be politically, economically, culturally, gender-based different? Well these Russians, on whose behalf the West for so many years has been willing to shout, will now be left on their own. Lumped together, by the West, with other people in Russia in the category of “others” / “outsiders” / “barbarians.” These people in Russia may well be forgotten in the coming years. And that would become yet another tragedy in this sad tale.