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The Ukraine crisis and NATO’s fast-approaching moment of truth

Has Russia finally overshot its objectives in dealing with its “near abroad” with an armoured column advancing into the Ukraine? J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the impact as NATO is set to have its big annual conference later in the week.

Back when the Organisation of African Unity first came into being back in 1963, it undertook a kind of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach to any of the kleptocratic, authoritarian regimes from among its ranks, in order to achieve the greater goal of continental unity. That was not really much of a surprise. It was, of course, a very deep bow of respect in the direction of the idea of the complete sovereignty of the nation-state, first given life at the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648.

But beyond this notion, the signatories also agreed that changes in the borders of its members by virtue of force – even though all of those borders largely reflected the absurdities of decisions made by European statesmen over brandy and cigars while writing up the Treaty of Berlin – would be off the agenda for the foreseeable future. This would be the case despite the fact that most of those borders split clans, tribes, nations, languages and ethnicities between two or more colonies or protectorates – and often brought together unrelated groups with long histories of mutual antagonisms within one European possession.

As a result of this understanding at the OAU (and then continued in the AU), virtually no African border has substantially changed since 1960 – save for the initial division of the British Cameroon mandate between newly independent Nigeria and Cameroon as a result of a plebiscite, the recent division of Sudan into two nations, the eventual divorce of Eritrea from Ethiopia, the partial retention of some of the small islands in the Comoros by France, and the merger of the British and Italian colonies of Somalia – oh, and that very problematic absorption of the former Spanish Sahara into Morocco.

Similarly, in the aftermath of World War II, the European international norm also evolved that national boundaries would not to be changed by force of arms – used by an outside power, regardless of any changes in the domestic politics of the nation concerned. This came about in response to a recognition the unilateral annexations of nations – as with the Sudetenland and then the entirety of Czechoslovakia, and then the partition and conquest of Poland – were crucial drivers of the collapse of the European system in 1939 and the onset of World War II.

But in the post-war era, once the new international boundary lines were drawn at Yalta and Potsdam for Europe, the continent’s international boundaries have remained essentially just as drawn. The World War II allies withdrew from Austria, but the territorial integrity of that nation remained whole. Minor adjustments, such as the final determination of the city of Trieste and its immediate hinterland, as part of Italy and not Yugoslavia, were possible, but that was about it as far as territorial changes in European national borders.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of fifteen new nations from the wreckage, the reunification of Germany, the division of Czechoslovakia into two new nations, and the disintegration of Yugoslavia into seven separate states. But in all these cases, the divisions – or reunifications – took place within the confines of the international boundaries that had been ratified in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Now, however, it has become apparent that from the time he first became Russia’s ruler, a decade earlier, Vladimir Putin has been unwilling to follow the directions in this European operators’ manual; that and the lesser global role history has dealt Russia, at least in comparison to superpower status held by its predecessor state, the Soviet Union. Putin has, after all, been quite vociferous in saying repeatedly that the worst tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse and subsequent break-up of the old Soviet Union, rather than point to any of the cataclysmic wars and genocides of that century.

And so, when Russia carried out its relatively bloodless annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from the Ukrainian successor state earlier this year, it was argued away by some that Putin, was simply taking advantage of significant chaos in the Ukrainian state in the wake of the Maidan movement, and that in any case, the ethnicity of most of the people there were now largely Russian – and they belonged back with Mother Russia. Moreover, this annexation, per the Russian rhetoric, was simply some territorial housekeeping after the peninsula had so insouciantly been transferred to the Ukraine while it was still an constituent part of the Soviet Union – apparently in recognition of the Ukraine’s suffering during World War II, if Nikita Khrushchev was to be believed.

Back then in 1954, it didn’t matter all that much since the movement of the Crimean Peninsula from the Russian Republic to the Ukrainian one was simply a change in a provincial border inside the USSR itself. When it went the other way in 2014, from Putin’s perspective at least, the West could huff and puff as much as it wanted, and could impose pretty much whatever economic sanctions it chose, but here was Russia welcoming back a lost shard of the motherland – and that was just how it was going to be.

However, this unanticipated move drove a sharp stake right into the broad, post-war governing principle that international boundaries don’t get overthrown in Europe without considerable consultation, lengthy negotiations and broad agreement. As a result, this has generated a slow but increasingly fearful feeling that Russia was just not willing to accept that post-war consensus about borders after all. The Russian response to such views, at least up until now, was effectively the diplomatic equivalent of: “Tough; suck it up, guys”.

For some of the more credulous, the Russian efforts have been presented as a way to achieve a pre-emptive blockage of any takeover of Ukraine by a pack of skinheads and neo-Nazis, as well as any Ukrainian efforts to join NATO or the EU, despite the fact that neither body has received an actual request to join. In any case, such membership applications come with a long checklist of conditions – and they are subject to extended debates among the respective current members before a new member is invited into the party. That said, the increasingly pro-western Ukrainian government evolving out of the Maidan protests indicated that such was its long-term hope, even if current European realities precluded that, in order to garner economic benefits from closer association with the West.

But then, pro-Russian separatists in the eastern edge of Ukraine began their revolts, egged on by Russia, supplied by Russia and – reportedly – increasingly reinforced by them as well with those hard men in those insignia-less uniforms. Then the planes began to be shot out of the air – Ukrainian military craft, transport craft, and then the shooting down of a civilian airliner on a regularly scheduled flight to Malaysia.

By this point, increasing Western sanctions began to be put in place, significantly weakening the Russian rouble, deflecting new foreign direct investment, encouraging capital outflows and – most recently – leading to retaliatory sanctions against some imports from the West, especially foodstuffs. And overhanging all of this has been the threat that Russia will use its vast exports of natural gas to Western European nations as a way to leverage acceptance of its territorial ambitions in Ukraine.

Most recently, news reports are speaking of a large, powerful Russian armoured column equipped with many tanks, moving into Ukraine from the south-eastern frontier. If the armchair strategists are right, while this movement could well help ease pressure by Ukrainian forces on the pro-Russian separatists in places like Donetsk, a still more ominous possibility is now presenting itself as well. Moving across the southern coast of Ukraine, the armoured column could secure substantial land access to Crimea (something that does not effectively exist now) for Russia – and even, if circumstances permitted, to drive on to Odessa, the Ukraine’s major port, and a city with a significant Russian speaking population as well. (Odessa had been established at the end of the 18th century by the czarist Russian empire on territory seized from the Ottoman Empire and then built as a port and naval base to allow Russia to project forces into the Black Sea littoral.)

Returning to the map table, if such a movement actually were to happen, it would then be a relatively “simple” matter to link up with the pro-Russian rump Republic of Transnistria, a statelet carved out of the eastern edge of Moldova and bordering Ukraine. Moldova is yet another successor state from the Soviet Union. It is possibilities like this one – admittedly only conjectural so far – that have pushed NATO member states like the Baltic Republics, Poland and Romania to insist upon a higher level of public commitment by the alliance as a whole towards the defence of their territorial integrity under Article 5 of the NATO Charter.

And all of this, of course, comes along just as NATO is about to have its next annual summit. As the Economist reported on it, “As originally billed, the summit looked likely to be a humdrum affair. But a meeting of the NATO alliance in Newport in south Wales on September 4th and 5th, intended to mark the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, now looks likely to be one of the most important gatherings in the organisation’s 65-year history. From the moment in March when Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, sent his troops into Crimea, thus beginning the first forcible annexation of territory in Europe since the second world war, it has been clear that NATO is back in the business it was created for: collective territorial defence.”

The likely rhetoric and reaction from NATO at this meeting (as well as the gradual but increasing pressure from western economic sanctions) is probably not what Vladimir Putin and his circle originally anticipated from the West. Even if the Russian leadership hadn’t thought mere economic and financial questions outweighed the political and security ones; from their speeches, articles and interviews, it seems they somehow expected that the West would effectively acquiesce in some incremental territorial nibbling for the sake of the global financial system and international trade, and that Russia would be able to go a significant way towards rebuilding hegemony over its “near abroad”. But, now, perhaps they have overstepped a bit and triggered precisely the kinds of responses they were afraid of in the first place – a Ukraine increasingly tied to the West, a more rigorous NATO alliance, and, perhaps, even an emboldened, resolute Barack Obama now prepared to lead the West on this question. DM

Read more:

  • NATO flexes its muscle memory in the Economist;
  • Nato rapid reaction force to be ‘ready at very short notice’ at the Financial Times.

Photo: Outgoing NATO Secretary and General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives a press briefing ahead to NATO heads of states meeting in Wales, at international press center in Brussels, Belgium, 01 September 2014. The United Kingdom is hosting the NATO Summit of Heads of State and Government at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, on 4-5 September 2014. The NATO Secretary General will chair the meetings. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET


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