The Ukrainian crisis will inevitably end with a redistribution of Europe
Thirty years ago, we woke up to a world in which the Cold War and the Soviet Union were history. The titanic ideological struggle of the 20th century ended with the victory of liberal democracy over totalitarian communism less than 50 years after the crushing defeat of an equally loathsome fascism. As local ethnic wars were brewing in the Balkans and the Caucasus, conflicts between great powers had been banished from the European continent. As the only remaining superpower, the United States has had the opportunity to reshape the European security order to foster lasting peace and ever greater prosperity.
Today we greet the New Year against a backdrop of growing tension and potential war in Europe. that of Russia military accumulation along the Ukrainian border and fierce anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric have sounded the alarm bells about an impending Russian invasion. In an effort to deter Moscow, the United States has worked to rally its European allies and partners to a set of punitive sanctions should Russia attack. While threatening to use force, Russia insisted that negotiations, first with the United States, codify a new division of Europe, pushing Russia’s sphere of influence westward by Europe, to undo what it sees as a 30-year offensive that has brought hostile Euro-Atlantic institutions to its doorstep.
The United States has agreed to talks this month, but there is no obvious way to overcome what appear to be irreconcilable differences between Washington and Moscow over the foundations of European security.
Has there been another path over the past 30 years that would have led to a more hopeful present? A decision to fully develop the Partnership for peace – who brought together all the countries of the region, including Russia, in a structure built around the main NATO countries – gave Russia a greater interest in the system? the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have laid the foundations for a pan-European security structure in which Russia has fully invested? If not avoiding NATO expansion but rather a slower pace, would it have provided a greater opportunity to change Russia’s assessment of the alliance and even offered a way credible towards the accession of Russia? We will never know. History does not admit the subjunctive mode.
But we’re probably talking about the degree of rivalry between Russia and the United States, not about a missed opportunity for partnership. It was only a matter of time before the long-standing American effort to expand the domain of democratic states in Europe, as a pillar of its security, ended up crashing against Russia’s historic effort. to extend its security perimeter as deep as possible in Europe to protect a political regime which is fundamentally alien to the dominant norms of Western Europe and stands aloof from the historical trajectory of European development towards ever greater democracy.
Once Russia began to recover from the deep political and socio-economic crisis of the first post-Soviet decade under President Putin, the only question was when and where Moscow would take a stand against what it considered like Washington’s encroachment on its security. It is in fact remarkable that Russia has only thrown the gauntlet now, when its margin of safety in Europe is the narrowest since the Russian Empire was established 300 years ago and entered the European system. balance of power.
With this in mind, today’s events are just the latest version of a three-century contest between Russia and Europe. The dividing line between Europe and the Russian sphere of influence in Europe has shifted west and east over time due to periodic weapons testing. The results were codified by treaties at the end of the military struggles forged at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, the Berlin Congress in 1878, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Yalta Conference in 1945, and Helsinki Final Act in 1975.
What is unique about the current situation is that Moscow insists on redrawing the map of Europe before a major weapons test, not after one. If the United States (and the West as a whole) engages, the result is unlikely to be a stable security structure with a clear dividing line, but rather one in which the competition for Ukraine – across which the line will be drawn – moves into a different phase, focused more on shaping the country’s internal development through active engagement inside Ukraine, rather than force of arms from outside.
The United States and its European partners will seek to consolidate a pro-Western Ukrainian state that can be fully integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions, while Russia acts to prevent such consolidation and firmly draw individual pieces of Ukraine into its orbit. The challenge is to reduce the risk that this fight will end in a test of arms and build one in which victory instead comes from the constant accumulation of additional advantages over time.
This result should not exceed the capabilities of diplomats today. But that will require them to put at the center of the negotiations not irreconcilable questions of principle but pragmatic measures to defuse tensions. Neither side is about to capitulate, but both are likely to agree to measures that meet their minimum security needs, while leaving open the possibility of achieving their ultimate goals in the future. So that diplomacy begins.
Thomas graham, a distinguished member of the Council on Foreign Relations, was Senior Director for Russia on the staff of the United States National Security Council during the administration of George W. Bush.