To have any hope of healing the deep wound in the very heart of Europe that is the crisis in Ukraine, we must first separate two crises that have become intertwined. One is the crisis of Ukrainian statehood. The other is the crisis of Russian relations with the West.
The crisis of Ukrainian statehood cannot, in fact, be resolved by Western intervention. One reason is that even the most generous package of Western assistance imaginable is still an order of magnitude too small to stabilize the entire Ukrainian economy . Another reason is the West’s persistent failure to grasp that the current crisis is not the result of the civil war. Rather, the civil war is the result of the failure to resolve fundamental issues of national identity and statehood in a manner that satisfies both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians. The fateful decision by Western governments to back one interpretation of Ukrainian nationhood in its effort to dominate over the rest merely ensures that this conflict will continue for decades to come.
The second crisis that of Russian relations with the West is the result of the unfortunate decision to hold relations with Russia hostage to the success of Ukrainian statehood. Since the success of a Ukraine identity whose conceptual roots rest in a relatively small and highly localized portion of the population (Galicia) is far from assured, such a linkage can only lead to the deterioration of relations to the point of outright hostility and confrontation. Having put all their eggs in the Ukrainian nationalist basket, however, both the current government in Kiev and its Western supporters now have every incentive to blame Russia for any and all failures.
But while the current crisis has a precise origin—the overnight disavowal by the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland of the February 21 transfer of power agreement signed between president Yanukovych and the opposition—it has been over twenty years in the making.
We are, in fact, now reaping the bitter harvest of a post–Cold War relationship that was cast as a conflict of values. Conflicts of this kind inevitably become existential conflicts, to be seen through to the bitter end, regardless of the cost. Until victory is achieved, it can only be mitigated. The “reset” initiated by President Obama during his first term was just such an attempt to mitigate the impact of the supposed conflict of values, which had spiraled out of control under George W. Bush. Now that it has failed, the United States seeks to return to an earlier model of mitigation that once rallied Europe behind it—containment.
Whether or not this neo-containment will succeed is open to debate. The world is very different today from what it was in the 1950s. While the English-speaking community of nations seems quite willing to follow America’s lead in confronting Russia, many Western and Central European nations (most notably Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) are reluctant to sever their profitable commercial ties with Russia.
Meanwhile, within the CIS, fear of Russian dominance often vies with a certain amount of nostalgia and envy of Russia’s economic success. Those who blame the present crisis entirely on Putin favor expanding NATO and confronting Russian aggression. On the other hand, the disastrous social and economic impact of the Euromaidan has cooled the ardor for EU and NATO expansion among others.
Finally, one should not underestimate the global appeal of the BRICS, a rising economic and political coalition of states of which Russia is a key member. These nations are promoting an alternative to hegemonic stability that many nations around the world find very appealing.
Overall, therefore, neo-containment is not likely to be successful, unless Russia can be portrayed as an inveterate aggressor and a systematic violator of international agreements for ideological reasons, as it was during the height of the Cold War. The obvious absence of such an ideology, however, has lessened the international community’s sense of urgency and reduced neo-containment to constraining President Putin. Beginning with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, U.S. government officials have sought to overcome Europe’s lack of enthusiasm for neo-containment by arguing that Putin’s proposal to create a Eurasian Union out of the current CIS Customs Union will reconstitute the USSR. Most international observers, however, regard the Eurasian Union as a threat primarily to European commercial interests.
Russia’s response to neo-containment has thus far been ad hoc. During the present crisis, Russia has been sticking to the three principles it previously formulated during the conflict with the Saakashvili regime in Georgia, when it also faced sanctions and accusations of aggression. First, Russia will “step aside” from direct confrontation with the West and refuse to be drawn into any military conflict. Second, it will diversify its markets, thereby limiting the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy. Finally, it will seek to “democratize international relations,” a strategy better known as fostering multipolarity.