Europe 2.0 or a March to War

FEATURES | February 19, 2016     

Europe 2.0 or a March to WarThe European peace is logically prior to the Middle Eastern one, and it can only be built trilaterally

Russia’s move last fall to begin bombarding Syria in the service of the government of Bashar Al Assad signalled the merger of two of the three major conflict plates in global affairs today – that is, the merger of the Russia-West conflict with the multidimensional conflict resulting from the general collapse of the Middle East order. (The third conflict plate – still not triggered and still very manageable – is the return of China, strategically, economically and psychologically, to the centre of world affairs for the first time since the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century.)

Alongside considerable track 1.5 work done by our new institute, 21CQ, around the world, in key capitals and at top levels of government, I outlined a possible ‘algorithm’ for resolution of the Russia-West conflict specifically over Ukraine in the Fall 2014 issue of GB (as well as in publications ranging from France’s Le Monde to Russia’s Vedomosti and the Indian Express in New Delhi). That algorithm involved, it is worth recalling, peacekeepers from India (or another neutral Asian country that would be respected by the Russians and Ukrainians alike) in the Donbass, special constitutional status for the Donbass region (in the context of general Ukrainian decentralization) coupled with an indissolubility clause in Ukraine’s revised constitution, formalization of Ukraine’s permanent non-membership in NATO, and removal of sanctions on Russia not related to Crimea. The algorithm also involved the brokering of a trilateral framework between Brussels, Kiev and Moscow, to which I return later in this piece.

Alas, the small window of opportunity for resolution of the Donbass war and the broader problem set within the Ukrainian theatre has now decisively passed. The merger of the Russia-West and Middle East conflicts has put the final nail in the coffin of any possibility of such a ‘local’ algorithm coming to pass. Of course, even before this merger took place last fall, the political and public psychologies in Russia and Ukraine had already hardened away from any such possibility, just as key Western capitals continued to frame the conflict too narrowly and ahistorically to be of any use in pushing Moscow and Kiev to a proper resolution to a tactical conflict before it could become dangerously strategic.

So why are we here, and what can be done now?

The psychological roots of the Russia-West conflict predate the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and also, to be sure, predate the advent to power of Vladimir Putin or his contemporaneous opposite numbers in other countries. Indeed, let me propose that the psychological roots of the conflict lie less in the “end of history” moment in 1991 (when the USSR collapsed) than in the year 1994.

What happened in 1994? For Western strategists and intellectuals, that was the year of Rwanda – a massacre of biblical proportions that Western elites vowed would happen “never again,” especially given that, with the end of the Cold War, there was sufficient strategic leisure and fiscal wealth in leading democracies to allow them to participate in the global generalization of the good life.

For the Russian strategic and political classes, however, 1994 was Chechnya. Rwanda did not make the top 10 list of important world events that year. Chechnya was about keeping together the territorially massive and ethnically diverse Russian Federation – a brand new state (barely three years old) – in the face of significant centrifugal forces that threatened to tear it apart just as Moscow was trying to fashion a new, post-Soviet legitimacy at the heart of Russian political life.

The Rwandan genocide, followed by the Srebrenica massacre a year later, eventually led, through the interposition of the Canada-led International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, to the creation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which holds that state sovereignty becomes conditional or is even nullified to the extent that states cannot protect their populations against, or are otherwise parasitic on their populations through the commission of, mass atrocities or genocide. From Oxford to Harvard and the University of Toronto, in leading Western universities in North America and Western Europe, the number of doctorates produced on the strength of dissertations treating different dimensions of the R2P doctrine is today in the upper hundreds or low thousands. Huge numbers of academic and policy careers have been devoted to the refinement of the doctrine.

Question: how many PhDs on R2P have been produced in the leading universities of Russia or indeed much of the former Soviet space (including, of course, Ukraine)? Answer: close to zero. Russia and the West, therefore, are not only speaking completely different languages (Russian versus English), but about entirely different things. Where the West speaks about what it sees as obvious goods in terms of saving lives (who could disagree with this?) or, more maximally, spreading the good life (or democracy, or democratic alliances), the Russians are primarily exercised by the very fragility of their state, surrounding post-Soviet states, and the global security system more generally. Where the West, in seeking to stamp out evil and injustice, aims for perfection in international affairs and governance, the Russians will assert that the path to any such heaven on Earth travels directly through hell in the form of the destabilization of implicit equilibria in world affairs (equilibria that were already largely torpedoed via the collapse of the bipolar world order) and, more dangerously, war between great powers.

Indeed, this explains to a large degree why Russian intellectual and political elites hardly took notice of what Western elites presumed was, in R2P, an altogether different, even if embryonically different, set of rules or moral norms in international affairs – that is, that interventions against sovereign states were warranted where large-scale loss of life was threatened or actually happening. For one thing, the outcome document of the 2005 World Summit, approved by the UN General Assembly, devotes only three of 178 articles to the R2P doctrine – namely articles 138, 139 and 140. Moreover, one of those articles explicitly states that any potential military intervention under R2P would, without exemption, require UN Security Council approval – which evidently includes a potential Russian veto. From the Russian perspective, then, even given this general international sanction of the R2P doctrine, nothing remarkable had happened in international affairs.

If the Western mind sees a genocide and rightly asserts that this can never happen again, then the Russian retort today is as follows: we can try to prevent or stop it as long as such efforts do not result in a more general war (in which case many more people will die). In the context of the Syria crisis, then, this translates to: there is no ‘life-saving’ moral argument for removing Assad, whatever his crimes (and we speak here of manifestly terrible war crimes), because his removal would lead to even deeper anarchy and more deaths in Syria and the region.

The Russian posture is not born of ideology. It is improvisation built on a far more acute sense of life and death and the consequences of war and revolution than is felt in the West in general, and in North America in particular. It is, as such, not neo-imperial or maximalist, but rather minimalist and survivalist. But it is no less intelligent, and its proponents – lest there be any confusion in this regard – are not by any stretch less astute.

If perfect resolution of any of the merged Middle East and Russia-West conflicts taken separately is impossible in the foreseeable future, then the de minimis goal must remain the same as it is with respect to the China conflict plate – to wit, to avoid at all costs any direct clash between the great powers (between the US/NATO and Russia, between Russia and China, or between China and the US/NATO, or, God forbid, between all three of them). For there will, in the next year, doubtless be more episodes like the Turkey-Russia clash, in the Syrian theatre and beyond, and the prospect of bona fide war between Russia and the West – triggered accidentally or otherwise – is far from negligible in the coming year or two.

The coming year will see not only increasing permutations of clashes between outside players in the Middle East theatre (notwithstanding the various Syrian ceasefire and transitional governance frameworks recently hashed out at the Security Council and also in Munich), but also deep systemic uncertainties in Ukraine proper as well as in Russia. None of this bodes well for a general resolution of these conflicts, particularly in the context of a West that, with some exceptions, remains both clumsy and intellectually non-porous in its posture on the conflicts, and a Russia that no longer believes in an exit from its various crises and has emphasized political consolidation as a default national posture from which to prepare for any eventuality.

Let me propose the following ‘theses’ in a humble attempt to frame an approach to dealing with these simultaneous conflict theatres – avoiding, as is my wont, morality plays and preoccupations with political personas:

Thesis 1: There can be no improvement whatever (leave aside any general resolution) in the Middle East theatre, from Syria to Iraq, Libya and Yemen, without a re-stitching of the ties that bind in Europe. In other words, in order to make a dent in West Asia, the Russia-West conflict in Europe proper must be addressed, and deep trust must be rebuilt between Moscow, Washington and other key Western capitals. Bref, Russia-West reconciliation is logically prior to any potential diminishment in the chaos in the Middle East.

Thesis 2: Ukraine and Russia are, by virtue of the Ukrainian revolution and the Crimean annexation, two houses radicalized. They cannot, for the foreseeable future, resolve their differences bilaterally. And the Minsk 2.0 framework, with its Normandy Four format and trilateral contact group, while a significant advance in the reconciliation process, is too narrow a regime for the deeper Russia-West reconciliation posited in Thesis 1. In other words, Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation can only happen in the context of a larger European reconciliatory framework. As mentioned, I have called for a trilateral framework between Brussels, Moscow and Kiev. This trilateral framework, which we might call ‘Europe 2.0,’ should, for reasons explained in Thesis 4, ideally be brokered this year. The framework would build on and subsume the elements of Minsk 2.0 as well as the recent trilateral gas talks between the three capitals to also incorporate: national security, migration, travel (note the highly irrational bilateral air travel bans recently implemented between Kiev and Moscow), food and agriculture, and, among others, manufacturing and heavy industry. I elaborate on this Europe 2.0 framework – its genesis and its content – below.

Thesis 3: Ukraine cannot succeed, and may not survive, economically without Russian re-engagement. (No amount of Western compensation or interest can make up for Russia’s absence. Period. All Ukrainian elites know this well. So too do Russia’s elites.) For its part, Russia cannot succeed economically without European re-engagement. If the price of oil continues to drop (far from foreordained, of course, on various geopolitical scenarios relating to Middle East stability), then the cost of Russian military engagement in Syria, among many other financial pressures on the Russian state, will act in sharp contradiction with diminishing reserves in the national treasury, and may soon affect the stability of the state. Finally, of course, Europe will continue to suffer economically for the loss of the Russian market – a fact underappreciated in current commentaries on Europe’s economic torpor.

More importantly, Russian collapse – including a collapse that could come in the context of eventual succession to the current leadership – or direct conflict between Russia and the West would likely deal a death blow to the EU-28 as we know it today. (Remember that the death of the EU means not only non-resolution of the issue of Russian soft integration with European structures, but also the unleashing of Germany’s historical security dilemmas at its major borders – the central reason for the original Coal and Steel Community.)

Thesis 4: The trilateral framework must be brokered in 2016. Why? Ukraine could collapse economically this year. It is already approaching political paralysis. A third Maidan revolution, this year, is not to be excluded. A new American presidency in early 2017 – potentially one more dogmatic in its understanding of the conflict, or one requiring considerable re-education in order to get up to speed – could deprive Europe of the confidence (and unity) that it needs to proceed with such a framework. As for Russia, its internal economic stability will continue to suffer with the price of oil, but its political and psychological hardening away from Europe (a posture far less porous than it was in 2014, when Russia was more open than the West to resolution of the conflict) will continue – in part, also, in anticipation of the 2018 presidential elections. We also do not know what will be the prospects for boycotts of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. If there are boycotts, then these will begin to be signalled by different countries in the coming year or so. Such boycotts would only succeed in further pushing Russia psychologically away from Europe, and therefore killing any chances for outside stabilization of the disorder in the Middle East.

The year 2016 will also continue to see ISIS- or Al Qaeda-inspired, directed or affiliated attacks inside and outside of the Middle East. More states, from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, will be tested in terms of their ability to survive the accelerating collapse of the region. (Any collapse or political or strategic destabilization of Saudi Arabia, of course, would quickly reverse the collapse in the price of oil.) The question is whether this region can be dealt with – or whether its growing chaos can be boxed in, as it were – by a Europe that is operating with common purpose, or whether the unravelling of the Middle East will be mirrored by the growing unravelling of Europe’s stitches. Indeed, as I have written in previous issues of GB, in its most extreme form, a European unravelling that issues in war between Russia and the West – the said great power war that should be avoided – could see the bombing of European and even North American cities.

Gorbachev’s Third Idea and Fixing the Present Conflict

First and foremost, in order to avoid further escalation and the very real possibility of accidental or deliberate Russian-Western clashes and the multiplication of contested theatres around the world – that is, beyond the former Soviet space and Syria – we must move decisively into a period of new military and civilian confidence-building measures between Moscow and Washington and other leading Western capitals. These should involve very regular and active information and opinion exchanges about military and political plans and capabilities at the highest levels and down through the respective systems, as well as new joint Russian-Western initiatives and exercises in areas of extant cooperation, such as the Arctic.

Second, we must revisit the late Cold War period to understand that if perestroika and glasnost lost Gorbachev both the Soviet state and the larger contest with the West, then his other major, albeit less vaunted idea remains apposite for purposes of Russian relations with the West today: if ‘Europe 1.0’ was intended to deal with the German problem in the last century, then Gorbachev’s proposed ‘big Europe’ (let us, as mentioned, call this ‘Europe 2.0’) must be built to reckon with Russian integration or reintegration in this century. To this end, the idea of a reasonably common economic or strategic space – or a space of peace – between Birmingham in the west and Vladivostok in the east is compelling and would address the ‘interstitial’ problem that found Ukraine torn apart by the competing gravities of the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union.

For Ukraine is what might be called an ‘interstitial problem’ in modern international affairs. Two regimes or two competing gravities – the EU to the west and the Eurasian Economic Union to the east – pull on a geographic space that is otherwise incapable of resisting (in the case of Ukraine, because of poor governance and weak institutions), resulting in chaos in the contested space and mutual isolation and warfare by other means (for now) between the two regimes. These same gravities, consciously and unconsciously, continue to this day to pull savagely on post-revolutionary Ukraine, which is now all the more weakened by the Donbass war, quasi-bankruptcy, and a vulnerable central government in Kiev.

The Arctic space is another such interstitial theatre that will experience increased contestation by major countries and regimes in the coming decades. What’s to be done? Answer: build strong but flexible tendons to bind the regimes across the contested interstitial space. The Gorbachev vision of a ‘big Europe’ or Europe 2.0, on this logic, was meant precisely for such interstitial problems and the broader challenge of soldering Moscow to a more predictable, less anxious geopolitical logic.

No one today in Moscow or any European capital (or Washington) is seriously speaking about the absorption of Russia into the EU. This has never been on the table. And it is not being proposed in these pages. But what is eminently reasonable, on the Gorbachev logic, is a long-term trilateral framework between Brussels, Moscow and Kiev to begin to address core interstitial issues ranging from national security to energy and microeconomic regulation of products and markets.

The good news is that the seeds of this trilateral framework and an eventual Europe 2.0 have already been planted by the improvised reactions of key countries to the present crisis. The quadrilateral Normandy format Minsk talks between Paris, Berlin, Kiev and Moscow to address the Donbass war and the trilateral gas talks between Brussels, Moscow and Kiev to address Ukrainian and European energy needs are, taken together, today’s equivalent of the six-country European Coal and Steel Community that created the embryo for the far larger and more comprehensive peace in Europe eventually engineered through what has become today’s 28-member EU. The goal now must be to buttress and multiply the tendons and ties that bind, even if the initial centrifugal forces among major players may seem overwhelming. Peace in Europe in our time – and with it, any prospect of peace in the Middle East – will depend on this pioneering work.

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Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief.

(ILLUSTRATION: EDWARDO RECIFE)

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