A Principled Approach to Russia

After the Second World War, the West and the Soviet Union agreed to not use force to change boundaries. Could that agreement be resurrected to dissuade Russia of further encroachment in Ukraine?
By: /
April 25, 2014

When one gets an invite to take a paid trip to Paris for a few days, one tends to say yes. The German Marshall Fund is hosting an event on Transatlantic Security this week and after just the first dinner of the conference, I have reached the conclusion that this trip is worth my time, the jet fuel, and even the carbon emissions. Why? Well, the event is off the record so I cannot get into details, but the evening’s dinner centered on the crisis in the Ukraine and between Russia and NATO/EU/the rest of the planet. And the conversation tonight among people far smarter and better connected (most do work or have worked for various governments and international organizations) led me to thinking about two basic dynamics: the short term vs the long term view of foreign policy and the intrinsic value of Ukraine vs. larger principles.

Someone suggested that Putin has won the battle but is likely to lose the war, if one thinks about Crimea versus the larger effort to return to “Great Power”/influence status. This and other comments got me thinking: democracies and alliances tend to be less agile than authoritarian leaders (Russia’s democratic status is a wee bit suspect and electoral politics does not really seem to be motivated Putin), so they get out-maneuvered at the start of a crisis. However, democracies tend to win the wars they fight and alliances have often been on the winning side of things for much of the past two hundred years—from Napoleon’s defeat to both World Wars to the Gulf War of 1991.

Why? Well, democracies might just be more selective about the wars they fight since politicians hate to lose elections. A different logic is that democracies can extract more resources and fighting power from their societies because legitimacy and representation work better than coercion in these endeavours. Yet a different logic might be that advanced democracies have “better” civil-military relations—coups can be mighty distracting to the task of governing. Alliances do well in wartime because more is more—combining the power of multiple countries may not be so efficient, but even quarreling allies may accumulate more combat power than countries largely operating on their own.

So while we can be very frustrated with how things have played out thus far, we might have good reason to believe that Putin’s momentum will eventually ebb. Indeed, once we take into account the other dynamics, it becomes not just a hope but pretty logical that Putin’s Russia may face some serious constraints as the situation in eastern Ukraine plays itself out.

The second dynamic is when we think about the worth of a place (even thousands of miles away) and the status of a conflict. Remember, the United States was committed to Bosnia not because then-President Bill Clinton cared about Bosnia but because he made a commitment to two NATO countries, France and Britain, that he would deploy 25,000 U.S. troops to extract them if needed. Once that became a real likelihood, Clinton chose to use those troops to enforce a peace instead. The Kosovo air campaign was almost entirely about maintaining NATO’s credibility rather than about the plight of Kosovars. Indeed, NATO members also bled in Afghanistan not so much because they cared about Afghans but because they were keeping their commitment to a NATO partner that had been attacked.  We find repeatedly that countries spend vast amounts of money, risk the lives of their soldiers, and even some political careers because the alliance itself is valued.  That is what should assure the Baltic States and Poland now. For Ukraine, there is little comfort in being outside of the NATO alliance.

But there is a larger principle that Kyiv and its friends ought to highlight during the current episode of violence and Putin’s power play: the death of the Helsinki Accords. In 1975, the Helsinki agreement between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Europe recognized existing boundaries and essentially produced a settlement from the Second World War. The key ingredient was that force could not be used to change boundaries. Of course, force has continued to be used to change boundaries—secessionist movements that use violence fit in this category. However, since Helsinki, no country in Europe has used force to change boundaries and gotten away with it except irredentist Armenia and, well, Russia over Georgia, Abkhazia, and now Crimea. Still, the recent events are perhaps more blatant and some people in the room tonight suggested that Helsinki might, indeed, be dead.

It seems to me that highlighting the death of this seminal agreement should be used as a mechanism to dissuade Russia of further encroachment in eastern Ukraine. Most countries in the world are opposed to the use of force to change boundaries since they see themselves as being on the losing end of such transactions. This is something that three of the BRICs can agree upon—India, China, and Brazil (China sees Taiwan and various islands as already theirs), as well as much of the rest of the world. Recognizing Russia’s irredentism would serve to isolate Putin just a bit more. Of course, there are differences among countries how best to penalize Russia (and for how long). But tying Putin’s efforts to Helsinki is more likely to attract support from countries that have no real history, relationship, or interests in Ukraine on the basis of the inviolability of sovereignty.

And this is where democracies, alliances, and principles might fit together. Democracies often have different interests including their varying dependency on Russian imports, but they share “values.” NATO is not just a military alliance but also of coalition of the like-minded. So, perhaps one way ahead to win the longer, larger war is to focus on the principles that bind us rather than the interests that might divide us.