“Russian President Vladimir Putin (back) addresses the Federal Assembly, including State Duma deputies, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and civil society representatives, at the Kremlin in Moscow”
(Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)
“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” declared John Kerry on March 2 as Russia began its conquest of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Though he didn’t intend it, the U.S. Secretary of State was summing up the difference between the current leaders of the West who inhabit a fantasy world of international rules and the hard men of the Kremlin who understand the language of power. The 19th-century men are winning.
In a forceful challenge to the liberal internationalist strategic vision, the Wall Street Journal editorial board claims indeed the strongmen are winning. Welcome to the 19th Century presents a challenge to liberal internationalism that must occur to anyone following recent events in Crimea. In the face of a state wielding power at the end of a gun, what shield is international law or international institutions like the OSCE and UN? What good is the liberal internationalist vision of US foreign policy if it can’t get Russia out of Crimea posthaste?
In the past weeks, the diplomatic watchword on the US and EU’s part has been de-escalation. Convene the parties to the Budapest Memorandum, form a Ukraine-Russia and others contact group, dispatch OSCE or UN envoys to Crimea, have the Secretary-General of the UN use his good offices – the diplomatic routes out of this course towards conflict abounded. Should we blame liberal internationalism for Russia’s failure to take one of these face-saving offramps to further conflict?
No. It is true that Russia has chosen to create difficult to dislodge facts on the ground in Crimea, and done so in place of offers of mediation and diplomacy. But the structures of the international system have helped to clarify the decision Russia has made; the fact that the stated Russian objectives, protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine, could have been addressed using legitimate routes is clear to international system participants. This point is most evident in Russia’s demonstrated isolation on the United Nations Security Council; Russia alone voted against the March 15 UN Security Council draft resolution.
And further, the liberal internationalist institutions have put into sharp relief the conflict between Russia’s recent actions and Russia’s prior commitments. The liberal international order has demonstrated its utility in sharply highlighting how Russia has strayed from the legitimate pathways in pursuing its stated objectives, the well-being of the Russian-speaking population in Crimea. Thus far, no one else has bought the case Russia has been peddling of resurgent, threatening Ukrainian neo-Nazis, Russian-speaker refugee flows out of Ukraine, and the imminent danger to Russian-speakers remaining in Ukraine.
What would winning would look like for Russia? One of Russia’s long-term aims is a successful Eurasian Union with Russia as the central node. A force multiplying international institution serving to give Russia even greater heft on the world stage – paralleling the way that Germany, France, and the UK derive benefit from the European Union. After this intervention in Crimea, what are the prospects for a successful Eurasian Union, for broad, deep, cooperative, integration of prospective members akin to that of the European Union? Post-Crimea, what are the prospects of states clamoring to get into the Russian-led Eurasian Union the way that some states have ardently desired (sometimes for decades) to enter the European Union? I’d say slim and dim.
Current possession of Crimea is a tactical victory for the moment, Black Sea Fleet secure, warm water port access guaranteed, definite benefits to Russia. But notably, these are assets Russia possessed before the intervention. And in terms of strategic victory, securing the Eurasian Union’s future? These military maneuvers have eroded its prospects as an actor on the world stage. What good is a union of states that have been bullied into joining? No more long-term good than the USSR, I’d argue. And supposing one day Russia hoped to have the Baltic states, or Poland tempted away from Western Europe and towards its orbit. What prospect for wielding soft power having exercised hard power in this manner?
The fact that the wheels of liberal internationalism sometimes turn slowly indicates only that diplomacy is hard. Foreign policy coordination, by consensus, among the 28 European Union members is fraught with difficulty in a way that foreign policy coordination in the US never is. There are countries geographically nearer to or further away from Russia; there are countries with deeper economic relationships with Russia and countries fairly independent from Russia as an energy supplier. But given the challenges the European Union has faced over time, the institution will at least muddle through, towards sanctioning Russia for recent behavior.
We already have evidence of the EU’s reaching towards a viable consensus. On March 10 in his oral report to the House of Commons on the European heads of government meeting over Crimea, David Cameron outlined a three phase approach to Russia (Hansard),
first, some immediate steps to respond to what Russia has done; secondly, urgent work on a set of measures that will follow if Russia refuses to enter dialogue with the Ukrainian Government; and thirdly, a set of further, far-reaching consequences should Russia take further steps to destabilise the situation in Ukraine.
Various initial phase punishments are already underway. The prospect of the G-8 turning into the G-7, freezing prospective Russian membership in the OECD, and also stopping negotiations on freeing trade and reducing visa restrictions.
And what of Russia’s ambitions to become less economically dependent on extractive industries? The Russian Silicon Valley, the Russian innovation society, the Russian 21st century enterprise zones? At a White House press briefing Jay Carney posed a version of this question worth considering, what multi-national corporation CEO can look to Russia as a site for investment? These types of decisions are not made with the fanfare of speeches in the Kremlin’s Saint George Hall, or the frisson of flag waving in Red Square. Quietly, deliberately, and with little attention, much like some diplomatic avenues, Russia will be ruled out.
These legitimacy and economic angles underinform from the WSJ editorial’s analysis of liberal internationalism in the face of Russia’s behavior towards Crimea. They are certainly missing from the WSJ’s stark claim “what defines international order is the cold logic of political will and military power”.
Lastly, US liberal internationalists must look beyond the crises of the present day. It is important to remember international law scholar Louis Henkin’s observation, “Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all the time”. Now those “almost” qualifiers are a very big deal; some of the most horrifying behavior by states (e.g. North Korea) and intractable conflicts in the international system lay within those almosts. Moreover, for Russia, for Ukraine, for the near-term prospects for security in Europe those almosts seem insurmountable obstacles to a stable international system. But for the long-term prospects of peace and the US place in the world, a rule-governed international order remain essential.