Monday, September 15, 2014

On Not Doing Stupid Stuff in Ukraine While We Work For Better International Structures


It's been six months since the Russian take-over of Crimea, and Crimea just completed local elections for the Crimean assembly and the local municipal offices along with the rest of Russia. The pro-Russian forces seem to have consolidated political power there in Russian fashion. Compare Reuters and Sofia News Agency. Meanwhile, in Eastern Ukraine the situation is still very much in flux. 



In the Donetsk region, rebels declared an "independent" Donetsk People's Republic. The government in Kiev, too weak to assert itself  in the eastern parts of the country, is attempting to purchase peace by agreeing to provide more autonomy to the break-away regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Legislation was submitted on Monday, September 15, 2014 that would grant these areas "special status" for three years. As the New York Times reports: "The main points include amnesty for those who participated in the “events” in those regions; the right to use Russian as an official language; the election of local councils; funds for social and economic development from the state budget; and the right to form local police forces." 

On Sunday, six monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe came under attack in Donetsk. In the meantime, in the western part of the country, 15 countries are participating in U.S. led military exercises in an effort to support and prop up Kiev. New York Times

Should We Just Accept Russian Dominance of Ukraine? 

John Mearshimer is a neo-realist professor at the University of Chicago. He has an article in the September issue of Foreign Affairs magazine suggesting that, because Ukraine is in the Russian sphere of influence, the West should not attempt to "democratize" or otherwise attempt to ween Ukraine away from Russia. The West should not attempt to deepen ties between Kiev and the European Union, should not expand NATO, and should not promote democracy, human rights, or the rule of law there. The fate of Ukraine should be left to Ukrainians and Russia.

Here is Mearshimer, under the provocative title ("Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault"):
Elites in the United States and Europe have been blindsided by events [in Ukraine] only because they subscribe to a flawed view of international politics. They tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy.  But this grand scheme went awry in Ukraine. The crisis there shows that realpolitik remains relevant -- and states that ignore it do so at their own peril. U.S. and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border. Now that the consequences have been laid bare, it would be an even greater mistake to continue this misbegotten policy.... 
The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play. Abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states.... It is in Ukraine’s interest to understand these facts of life and tread carefully when dealing with its more powerful neighbor.

Say What? 

In the study of international relations, realists like Mearshimer explain that the machinations of countries are rooted in the structural constraints surrounding security competitions among nations. They focus on nationalism, the self-interest of individual nations, the "balance of powers," and they counsel the continuation of viable military frameworks.  It's an amoral, Machiavellian, and ultimately fatalistic and depressing vision of the world. States are naturally and rationally greedy for power; all they care about is their own survival.  In  his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearshimer wrote:
Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive. (P. 35).
In other words, by annexing Crimea and making a power play for eastern Ukraine, Putin and Russia are acting just as you would expect any country to act while feeling hemmed in by its neighbors: Russia is fearful of the growing influence of NATO and the EU with the countries along its perimeter--Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Russia saw an opportunity to push back by seizing Crimea--forestalling a possible future NATO naval base on that peninsula; Russia is now following its opportunity into eastern Ukraine...and the West should lay off and butt out!

This Hits a Nerve with Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong, a political economist at UC Berkeley, posted a response to the Mearshimer article on his blog. 
DeLong, judging from his tone, believes it is borderline obscene to abandon Ukraine to Russian thugs just because those thugs might not like Kiev gradually incorporating with the West. If Ukraine is hoping to make progress by upgrading its democracy and promote the rule of law we should encourage it and facilitate such a transition. Nation states are not abstract metaphysical entitites, says DeLong: at heart Russia is a conglomeration of people, and those people have organized themselves very differently at different times. Brad gives a brief run down of Russian history over the past 800 years that is witty and interesting.

As Al Michaels argues (the producer of the NBC figure skating programs in Sochi), it is not crazy to hope that Putin will be a passing phase; that the people will overcome, leave Putin behind, and that Russia also will rise as a modern democratic republic. Even if the purpose of states is "to survive," there is no rule of nature which says Russia cannot survive by opting to join the modern world and the community of nations. For that matter, just as people join together in individual nation states and agree to recognize a higher sovereign authority (Hobbes), states are in the process of establishing international structures that recognize a higher sovereignty in  international structures. That is, in part, what's at stake in Ukraine. Do we surrender to the amoral thuggish authority of random states--or do we build international structures and the rule of international law to govern disputes. 

DeLong suggests that Ukraine and Russia will stand a better chance to develop into modern democracies and join the modern world if we engage with them and help them do so.
[W]here ... is it written in stone that whoever rules in the Kremlin speaks for Russia–or, at least, speaks for Muscovy ‘Rus–and has the right to install a corrupt thug of this choice in Kiev, or to veto any Kievan government he does not like?
If John Mearsheimer were a smarter man, he would, I think, be speaking not to Obama but to Putin. He would not be telling Obama to cool it on “social engineering” in–i.e., the economic development and democratization of–the Ukraine. He would be telling Putin that the imposition of Soviet puppet regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary produced an enormous running sore and was a long-term source of great weakness for the Soviet apparatchicks who ruled in the Kremlin. And he would be telling Putin that pulling the Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk away from Kiev will do more than anything else could to ensure that those who rule in Kiev will offer him and his successors in the Kremlin as little as possible. And that going beyond that to install and maintain a puppet regime in Kiev will do more damage to the security of Muscovy ‘Rus than almost anything else one could imagine. 

Seeking More Robust International Structures 

It seems certain that the West will continue to try and integrate with Ukraine. The optimist in me says this will work out in the long term if we and the Russians don't "do stupid stuff" along the way. Mearshimer is a pessimist and he would say, "Yes, but this type of security competition always leads to stupid stuff....and hence the tragedy of great power politics."

The way out of this dilemma of the "tragedy of great power politics" is for all nation states to band together and recognize a higher sovereignty in disciplined, workable, and just international structures. It's a work in progress.

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