​European security: Ukrainian stress test

Ambassador's view
Dr Alexander Yakovenko, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Deputy foreign minister (2005-2011). Follow him on Twitter @Amb_Yakovenko
​European security: Ukrainian stress test
25 years after the Cold War ended it’s clear that something is wrong with the European security architecture. Otherwise we would have no Ukraine crisis on our lap.

It is an established fact that there has been no formal post-Cold War settlement. And it is a truth, if not universally acknowledged, but gaining support among experts and observers, that this constitutes a major flaw with far-reaching consequences.

Yes, we do have the OSCE and the Paris Charter of 1990, and even the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). But they are all pieces of a patchwork, inherited mostly from the previous era. The Charter is about political commitments of a general nature. The OSCE hasn’t been able to evolve into a full-fledged regional security organization, as provided for in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter. It has stuck at the stage of the League of Nations, as impotent in ensuring equal security for all in the Euro-Atlantic. It even does not have a charter of its own. The NRC has proved to be incapable of being an all-weather forum, first at the time of the Caucasus crisis in August 2008. Since the Rome declaration of 2002 we haven’t been able to get from our NATO partners the definition of substantial forces they promised not to deploy in new member-states on a permanent basis.

This incoherent construction is hugely distorted by the continued existence of NATO, which, bent on preserving its place of privilege in the European security architecture, insists on legally binding security guarantees to be enjoyed exclusively by its members. That is a key obstacle to the declared goal of indivisible security in our region. Thus, we have various levels of security in Europe. Like in physics, difference of potentials generates voltage in the circuit, or tension in the system.

This electricity begets NATO’s eastward expansion, which brings its military infrastructure to Russia’s doorstep. It might have looked like a smart policy of pursuing a dual objective of extending the Alliance’s reach while hedging its bets on Russia. But not now, that the NATO retreats into its cocoon of territorial defense.

Public utilities workers repair a gas pipe damaged during an artillery shelling of Donetsk by the Ukrainian military. (RIA Novosti/Alexey Kudenko)

Lord Hannay (FT, Letters, 16 October) knows better than others that nothing is automatic in international relations. In 2004 he was in charge of the Cyprus settlement dossier and could see that the imminent EU membership wouldn’t change the Cypriot Government’s negative position on the Annan plan. And the very fact of the Ukraine crisis proves precisely that. Either we have a genuine collective security, or we have got something else.

Let’s have a look at history. After the defeat of Napoleon, France, which shed the Emperor’s personal territorial acquisitions, was invited by the victors to the top table of European politics at the Congress of Vienna. That Churchillian magnanimity in victory ensured 40 years of calm in Europe. The Crimean War, which was declared on Russia in the name of maintaining the European balance, resulted in the opposite, opening the door to the Franco-Prussian War and the wrong unification of Germany as a Greater Prussia (not as a federation it became after two world wars).

The Versailles system didn’t follow the Congress of Vienna example. It left isolated both Soviet Russia and Germany. No regional collective security system was designed, with the borders of Germany’s eastern neighbors not guaranteed. The attempts to address this flaw, including the Eastern Pact/Locarno failed, leading to the Eastern European nations fending for themselves, mostly through conclusion of bilateral non-aggression treaties with Germany. The final outcome is known, and that includes the folly of anticipating Germany to direct its aggression eastwards first and the Phoney War.

It is also important to remember, that originally the settlement after WWI was supposed to be on a no-victors-no-losers basis. But the November revolution in Germany helped derail this rational arrangement in favor of the flawed Versailles system. Germany was vilified to play to French and British public opinion to justify the terrible cost of the Great War. The Palmerston Ministry, for the same reasons, insisted, on the humiliating provisions of the Peace of Paris of 1856.

History shows, that revolutionary/violent destruction of constitutional order always leaves a nation exposed to civil war, foreign intervention and all sorts of contingencies. The British saw it in XVII-XVIII centuries (till Bonnie Prince Charlie’s final defeat, although America’s War of Independence would qualify as Act 3 of the English revolution). So did the French in their revolution and Russia early in the XXth Century.

Martin Wolf (FT, 17 September) admits that the West is partly responsible for the present crisis. The West, indeed, ludicrously focused on who would pay the Soviet debt. That petty mindedness and failure of imagination defied the lessons of European history. That is why many believe that the so called “Kremlin policies” are the consequence rather than the reason.

Russia has always been, at least over the past three centuries, a part and parcel of Europe and European politics, sharing in joys and triumphs, as well as tragedies. Our preemptive attack in East Prussia in August (on a much greater scale than the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava) prevented 1914 turning into 1940, with all due respect to the British thin line of defense, which saved the day by its counter-attack near Ypres at the end of October the same year.

NATO Leaders watch a flypast of military aircraft on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. (AFP Photo/Leon Neal)

We don’t want an adversarial relationship with our European partners, for both of us will lose. President Vladimir Putin talking recently to the Valdai Club in Sochi was honest in his assessment of the choice we are facing. It’s either further alienation with broader geopolitical flak, or drawing the line and starting to work collectively to deal with the damage already done in Europe and elsewhere, and putting international response to common challenges, particularly in the Middle East, on a sound legal and policy foundation.

Naturally, it has to start in Europe. The US have developed, under Madeleine Albright, the tactics of constructive ambiguity, which provides enough flexibility for all to avoid painting ourselves into the corner as regards the Ukrainian crisis. But ambivalence in the transient European security architecture, that got stuck somewhere between Versailles and Vienna, doesn’t serve any positive purpose any longer. We need something overarching and cooperative that would leave no space for motives and temptations to shift old divisive lines as a policy by default. It means further institutionalization of the OSCE, our idea of a European security treaty and a joint missile defense for Europe.

The time to act on the lessons of the Ukrainian stress test is now. We know that European transformation of Ukraine cannot be managed unilaterally and on the cheap. As President Poroshenko said, the challenge of reintegration of the south-east, which can only be done peacefully, provides a strong incentive for fundamental reforms. Nobody needs Ukraine as a geopolitical dependency.

Like any crisis, this one represents a rare opportunity to fix what needs to be fixed. All the more so that we know that no military solutions are possible in Europe today, both domestically and internationally. That is what we have in common, in my view, the real tragedy in South Eastern Ukraine, high drama of the NATO summit in Wales, and comedia dell’arte in Sweden’s territorial waters. And even Gideon Rachman’s raising, quite surrealistically, the specter of use of theatre nuclear weapons in Europe (FT, 12 November) proves precisely that.

In much broader terms, the state of European security is just another sign of our region still living in the XXth century. Like the present economic and financial crisis, including banks too big to fail and financial alchemy of the past thirty years, it resists effort to bring it into the new century. It’s also about the state of elites, who, unlike a hundred years ago, have no option of a big war. Hopefully, ushering in another century will be less tragic this time, but kicking and screaming we’ll see a lot. Perhaps, it was the real promise, held out by the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago. Certainly, it was not about construction of new walls, sanctions, isolation and disengagement, which provided the comfort of segregated existence in the century that, has run its course.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.