Before Russia invaded Ukraine, I shared a very simple observation. Russia can no more tolerate NATO on its border than the US can accept Russia in the Caribbean. Two mistakes shape the eastward creep of the EU and NATO. The first is a failure to adapt Western strategy to a non-ideological Russia. The second is Western contempt for a seemingly weakened Russia.
As a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy during the Cold War, it didn’t matter that I was studying economic development and trade. Like everyone else, I read Kissinger’s thesis A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822, and Kissinger’s first application of his thesis Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Kissinger’s sage advice mostly derived from Russian and Soviet interactions with the rest of the West has been forgotten at a cost that may destroy Ukraine, and possibly lead to the use of atomic weapons for the first time since 1945.
Kissinger’s analytic view divided the world into legitimate and revolutionary orders. The former is legalistic. When managed well, the legitimate order can sustain peace. During the 1810s, Tsar Alexander I desired to be a legitimate member of Europe. Metternich cultivated the Tsar and bought the Austro-Hungarian Empire 100 years that it didn’t deserve. Alexander’s impetuosity and periodic religious fervour are mirrored in today’s Putin. Metternich never believed that Alexander would be a kindred spirit. He understood that Alexander craved respect due to the importance of Russia’s capacity, and its role in crushing Napoleon’s revolutionary ventures.
Over the past twenty years, Putin was susceptible to the same cultivation. Treat Russia with respect and the rest of the West has a partner in shifting energy reliance from the Middle East, dealing with extremist movements, and economic development across Russia and Central Asia.
Let’s restate that last thought. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) treats Russia with respect and has a partner in shifting energy reliance from American influenced regions, dealing with extremist movements, and extending the One Belt One Road Project across Russia and Central Asia to Europe.
Russia has three possible homes. Russia is a great Western power. Russia, a great power, is allied with a revolutionary PRC. Or, Russia is a neutral great power, but inclined towards the West.
Russia has repeatedly warned the West of its angst. A nation of poets, playwrights, and novelists, Russia has always expressed its concerns in words, and then acted. Understanding the EU as NATO minus three (US, Canada and, recently, UK), Russia has always acted when nobody listens.
Each Russian action, however, takes Russia farther away from the legitimate order of the United Nations and various bilateral treaties with the US and closer towards revolution in the sense of overturning or dismantling the legitimate order. This is not necessarily easy for Russia as she is a co-founder of the order. It took us fourteen years to get here.
In 2008, Georgia was offered a route to the EU. When nobody listened, Russia’s military quashed that. In 2013, the ouster of pro-Russian Ukranian President Yanukovych enhanced the risk of a EU-drifting Ukraine. Russia seized the Crimea and supported separatism in eastern Ukraine. The EU doubled down on its enticement of Ukraine. Slowly, Ukraine has floated towards the EU and, in Russian eyes, NATO.
What would Metternich or Kissinger have done differently? After 2008, the Russian equivalent of the US’s Monroe Doctrine was articulated by force of arms. At this point, the West had the opportunity to cultivate a bridge to Moscow that left former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia neutral. The bridge could have been articulated in shared multi-polar economic development projects.
That bridge, however, was built by the sole remaining communist power and the most revolutionary of states, the PRC.
One can’t change what one broke. But, one can be informed by the fascinating reminders of Russia’s revolutionary and Soviet past. Putin, after all, was a part of the Soviet intelligence apparatus. As Kissinger documented,
“The revolutionary dynamism of the U.S.S.R. and Communist China affects profoundly both the conduct of diplomacy and the conduct of war; indeed, it tends to blur the distinction between them.” (Kissinger, Nuclear, p. 59)
So, if the West now chooses to negotiate with Russia, ambiguity will cloud the discussions to favour Russian objectives. The cultivation of ambiguity, a Soviet and communist specialty, will permeate the conduct of war and Russian speech around the war permitting “the posing of risks out of proportion to the objectives in dispute.” (Kissinger, Nuclear, p. 69) Would the EU or NATO risk a thermo-nuclear war over non-member Ukraine?
Russia takes a utilitarian view of diplomacy and conflict. Russian Foreign Minister Lazarov’s lies have no meaning. His advocacy of Russian security requirements are the point. Ukraine, of itself, is unimportant. Stymied Western encroachment is the objective. Russia, with a GDP less than either the much smaller UK or Texas, is less interested in conquering Ukraine or the economic benefits of “owning” Ukraine. It is happy to deny Ukraine to the West. If it leaves Ukraine, it is content that the Ukrainians will need thirty years of investment to rebuild to their status on December 31, 2021. Of course, some of the Ukraine is gone forever: From Donbas along the coast of the Sea of Azov to and including Crimea. As for the rest it is like James Bond’s line in For Your Eyes Only, Russia says of the Ukraine, if I can’t have it, you can’t have it.
Kissinger, Henry A., A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822 Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., undated).
Kissinger, Henry A., Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1969)