Tuesday, May 17

Ukraine has become the focal point of the new tug-of-war between East and West

  • Øyvind Østerud

    Professor of Political Science, University of Oslo

Volunteer Ukrainian forces train in a park in Kiev on Saturday, January 22 this year. In fear of a Russian invasion, several civilians have joined Ukrainian reserve forces.

Both Russia and the Western powers are responsible for the deadlock.

This is a chronicle. Opinions in the text are at the writer’s expense.

It must be well done to find a great power that has put the neighboring countries’ unconditional right to self-determination before their own security interests.

Former United States President Bill Clinton’s security adviser Charles Kupchan said in a 2007 book: “The United States would hardly sit and watch Russia build alliances with Mexico and Canada and place military installations along US borders.”

In 1962, the United States responded with blockades and threats of extensive military countermeasures if the Soviet Union did not withdraw its missile arsenals from Cuba. The year before, the United States supported an armed invasion attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Cuba’s right to self-determination came into the background for more urgent considerations.

During the Cold War, the superpowers tacitly accepted that the other party had a sphere of influence in its immediate areas. The Soviet Union sent in the Red Army to crush insurgency in Eastern Europe. The United States repeatedly intervened in South and Central America if a government attempted a land reform or something else that tasted of socialism.

Set aside international law

Later, both China, the United States and Russia have set aside international law when the policy of interest so requires.

China has settled in the South China Sea despite international court rulings in favor of the Philippines and other neighboring countries.

The United States invaded Iraq without a mandate from the UN Security Council in 2003.

NATO bombed Serbia without UN support in 1999.

In 2008, a number of Western countries recognized Kosovo as independent, even though the secession did not take into account the international law requirement of a negotiated settlement with Serbia.

Russia violated international law when it annexed Crimea without international approval of the referendum procedures and without an agreement with the Ukrainian government.

Sevastopol in Crimea was the seat of the most important base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. A clear signal from the 2008 NATO summit on membership for Georgia and Ukraine ran counter to Russian security interests. In addition, there was consideration for the large Russian-speaking ethnic groups in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. These groups saw the new nationalist government as a threat when it came to power after the demonstrations in Kiev in the winter of 2014.

The power struggle in Eurasia

In a broader context, the Ukraine crisis is an expression of the power struggle in Eurasia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Russia is trying to rebuild some of its old position of power in the immediate area after the irreversible loss of control over Eastern Europe. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century,” Putin said in a speech in the spring of 2005.

The Western powers, for their part, will expand the security zone to the east after the Iron Curtain was lifted through Central Europe in 1989-90.

The new eastern states are seeking a strong foothold that can stem Russian pressure, not least the former Soviet states, which have large Russian-oriented minorities within the borders.

Painted into a corner

Today, everyone has lost.

Georgia must find itself in Russian control of the breakaway areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Ukraine is more divided than ever; the uprising in the east expresses lasting enmity. According to US and European democracy indices, Ukraine is in 79th place. According to international corruption targets, the country was in 129th place out of 180 countries by 2020, not far ahead of Russia.

Russia has painted itself into a corner by making official demands on NATO that the Western powers can not possibly accept in any kind of agreement.

The Western powers and the United States, for their part, have promoted NATO enlargement as an unconditional matter of principle, impossible for Russia to accept. In addition, pressure on Russia has pushed the country closer into military, economic and political cooperation with China.

Thus, the United States risks having to fight on two fronts simultaneously, contrary to strategic advice from European allies such as France and contrary to American diplomacy when Kissinger and President Nixon “played the China card” to strike a wedge between China and the Soviet Union in 1972.

The tug of war between east and west

Both Russia and the Western powers are responsible for the deadlock.

Russia has waged extensive warfare in Chechnya, rattled weapons along its borders and built alliances with authoritarian regimes in what they call their immediate homeland.

The Western powers have enlarged the EU and NATO, regardless of the reactions this creates in Moscow.

Ukraine has become the focal point of the new tug-of-war between East and West, with its central strategic location. The tug of war has been recreated between regions and factions within Ukraine.

Could have been more diplomatic

The American historian Mary Sarotte has recently published an in-depth history of NATO’s eastward expansion following German reunification in 1990, based on released sources (Not One Inch, 2021).

It began with a verbal commitment from former US Secretary of State James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO should not be expanded “an inch to the east.” This was never a formal agreement, although Russia has felt betrayed since.

The intention was to reassure Gorbachev that the incorporation of East Germany into the West would not have too far-reaching consequences. Western leaders believed that no binding promise had been made, and Baker himself quickly supplanted it.

In the mid-1990s, President Clinton said that NATO could be expanded without conditions and as far as former Eastern states would like. This is an example of the importance of domestic policy in foreign policy. Clinton wanted to show firmness and drive ahead of the 1996 new election.

Sarotte’s main point is that enlargement could have taken place in a far more diplomatic way, more open to Russian considerations and with built-in restrictions similar to the self-imposed restrictions on bases, nuclear weapons and exercises imposed on Denmark and Norway after NATO accession in 1949. Russia, which great nuclear power, can not be pushed to the knee.

More fluid, unstable situation

Maybe it could have gone better than what we see today, maybe not.

It is certain that the immediate reflexes of the great powers have led to a more fluid, unstable situation than during the Cold War – a struggle for spheres of influence and politics of interest without mutual acceptance of the rules.

Ukraine and other countries in the surrounding areas do not benefit from this either. Everyone has lost.


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