War in Ukraine: the Failure of International Institutions in the Face of Prolonged Imperial Collapse

August 12, 2014

By all appearances, Russia has completely abandoned its call for Ukrainian federalization, despite the fact that until only recently it had been the focal point of Russia’s Ukraine policy. The reasons for this are fairly clear. But what concept/plan has come to replace it?

The plan is not that Russia will recognize Novorossiya. If it was going to, it would have done so earlier to at least save some lives, following a script similar to what happened in Crimea. Now, it is far too late for such an outcome.

Three months ago, I suggested that Moscow should try to freeze the conflict and steer it toward a long-term “cold” scenario, similar to other frozen conflicts across the former Soviet space. The Ukrainian conflict points to a wider geopolitical process: the continuing dissolution of the Soviet Union. This ongoing collapse, including border change and the creation of new political geography on former Soviet territory, is a relatively neutral/unbiased process. It has its own logic, and its own ups and downs. But it is also a lengthy and undeniably painful process. Some countries will inevitably lose while others will gain, and the borders that were once internal divisions of the Soviet Union will be in flux for a long time to come.

This process (only natural following the end of an Empire) is not only fully legitimate and historically based, but it has been going on for almost a quarter-century without any objection from the West or from the world at large. Imperial collapse can be slow and excruciating, as the West knows all too well. But in this case, we have yet to see any signs that Moscow will pursue the slow, frozen-conflict approach. It is clear that today, neither Kiev, nor the West, nor Novorossiya will agree to have the conflict frozen so easily.

It seems that Moscow severely underestimated the stability of the new Ukrainian government. The conflict in eastern Ukraine will not cause the Kyiv government to collapse. Instead, sending Russian troops into Ukraine, in support of a group that Russia itself has not recognized as legitimate, would lead to global consequences on a scale too terrible to imagine.

Vladimir Putin is set to give an address in Crimea this week to Russian deputies and members of the administration. Many in the international community are convinced the Russian leader is stuck in a deep political trap that has no good solution; every possible step would be a bad one. Will Putin be able to pull off a flashy exit, as he did in Syria? As most of us know, Putin’s unpredictable and unexpected moves have become his signature style— made possible by the fact that he is in no way constrained by Russian political institutions.

Unpredictable behavior by individual politicians in the global arena is what usually elicits the largest disapproval from the international community. But it is precisely Putin’s unpredictability that many are counting on today—the chance that maybe he’ll do something, like throw a political curveball—although few, if any, think he actually will. The hope is small, to be sure, but there is not much else to hope for that could lead to a civilized resolution to the Ukrainian conflict. Our international structures have once again failed to solve the problem. Meanwhile, we are being pulled even more forcefully into a new standoff, the scale and consequences of which neither Washington, nor Brussels, nor Moscow can predict.

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