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The Ukraine problem: Confronting Russian Chauvinism

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Let me try to discuss the implications for the European security architecture of the Ukrainian problem in the relationship of Russia and the West. What we are seeing in Ukraine, in my judgment, is not a pique but a symptom of a more basic problem: namely, the gradual but steady emergence in Russia over the last 6 or 7 years of a quasi-mystical chauvinism. Putin has taken the lead in this and its content is significant for the totality of Russia’s relations with the world, and the West in particular.

Recently, the Russian International Affairs Council, an institution in Moscow composed of very reputable and significant scholars—not dissidents, but independent thinkers, and these do exist these days in Moscow—in collaboration with RIA Novosti and the Russian think tank, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, have come up with in their joint publication an article on Russia’s national identity transformation and new foreign policy doctrine. It reports in some detail on the process of creating a wholly new conceptual framework for defining Russia’s relationship with the world—a relationship that the Russians feel is needed because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the partial disintegration of the long-established Russian empire.

It’s a longish report but it’s worth reading for those who are interested in international affairs. It deals particularly with several key concepts that this new worldview contains. A view of the world created by the need that Russians around Putin and Putin himself have felt for a more comprehensive interpretation of what is the nature or Russia’s position in the world and its relationship with the world and the West in particular. It’s in this context that the Ukrainian issue then becomes significant.

The key concepts of this report are four: first, that of “a divided people”; secondly, the theme of “protecting compatriots abroad”; third and more broadly, “the Russian world” or “Ruski Mir” in Russian; fourth, the importance of acknowledging and sustaining, embracing and promoting “the Great Russian civilization”. I mention this because I think it would be an error to think that Crimea and Ukraine are just the products of a sudden outrage. They are to some extent in terms of timing but it would have been much smarter for Russia to have had what has happened recently occur about ten years from now instead. By then Russia would be stronger, economically more solid.

But it happened and these concepts are important. A divided people is the point of departure for the chauvinistic claim that Russia’s sovereignty embraces all Russians, wherever they are. And that has, for anyone familiar with European history prior to World War II, some ominously familiar sounds. It leads, of course, to the concept of protecting compatriots abroad. And that has special meaning for those countries which do have Russian ethnic nationals living in their society and who border on Russia. The divided people and the protection of compatriots abroad then raises the question of the Russian world. And the notion here is of an organic integral unity between all Russians, irrespective of their territorial location. And that territorial location can be altered favorably by reuniting the Russian people. Think of the Baltic States.

Last but not least is the conviction that Russia is not part of Western civilization. It is also not part of China. It is not part of the Muslim World. Russia itself, it is asserted, is a great civilization. The notion of a “world civilization” emphasizes a set of principles, some of which are not unfamiliar to our society, such as, for example, a strong commitment to a particular religion, but much stronger than in the West where religion is part of a more complex social arrangement. The notion is that the great Russian civilization stands for certain basic values, not only religious, but in terms of interpersonal relationships—for example, condemning some of the changes in the relationship between the sexes and within the sexes that are now taking place in the world. In effect, Russia protects the integrity of certain basic beliefs that have characterized Christianity, but in the Russian view, that Christianity is now betraying its fundamentals. So this is a comprehensive outlook—an ambitious outlook which justifies the conclusion that Russia is a world power. And nothing has hurt Putin more in the international dialogue with the West than the words of President Obama, who credited Russia with being a significant regional power. He didn’t have to say more in order to score a point that hurt.

Understanding the doctrinal framework of Putin’s vision is an important point of departure for dealing with the Ukraine issue. The Ukraine issue is not a sudden pique, but a symptom, as I have said, of a basic problem: the emergence of the policies packaged within the larger philosophical framework. What can we, therefore, expect? If Ukraine, in fact, is its manifestation, that problem will be difficult to resolve. And I think it will take some time to resolve. But, of course, resolution of it need not be a unilateral solution if the West has a stake in it. And the stake has to be, then, crystallized into meaningful policy. The Ukraine problem may fade if it is contained. And especially if the Russian increasingly cosmopolitan middle class, which is surfacing, but is not yet dominant, becomes politically more important, perhaps repelled by its sense of vulnerability and disappointment in Putin, and at some point assumes a more significant political role when Putin has passed from the stage. But when? There is no way of predicting it. It could be soon. It could be a long time. But also a great deal will depend on whether Ukraine becomes a symptom either of a success or a failure of Putin’s point of view. So in brief, the stakes are significant.

In the most immediate sense, the stakes involve, of course, the issue that the use of force in Crimea and the ongoing and sustained effort to destabilize parts of Ukraine pose a threat to the post-World War II notions of international arrangements, and particularly the exclusion of the use of force in resolving territorial issues. That has been a cardinal assumption of the European order after World War II. And Russia has been part of it, including through the treaties that it has signed. But it now is challenging that. That is a significant threat—and broadly speaking, an immediate threat; psychologically at least, but potentially, in view of Crimea, also militarily. It is a threat to the Baltic States, to Georgia, to Moldova. And more vaguely and directly, but perhaps potentially more dangerously than to the others, Belarus, because Belarus does not have any external protection. The others that I have mentioned do, in varying degrees.

It follows from what I’m saying that the Ukrainian problem is a challenge that the West must address on three levels. We have to effectively deter the temptation facing the Russian leadership regarding the use of force. We have to deter the use of force, simply put.

We have to, secondly, obtain the termination of Russia’s deliberate efforts at the destabilization of parts of Ukraine. It’s very hard to judge how ambitious these goals are, but it is not an accident that in that one single portion of Ukraine in which the Russians actually predominate, the use of force has been sophisticated. The participants in the effort have been well armed, even with tanks, and certainly with effective anti-aircraft weaponry. All of that is something that even disagreeable, disaffected citizens of a country to which they feel they do not belong would not be storing somewhere in their attic or in their basement. These are weapons provided, in effect, for the purpose of shaping formations capable of sustaining serious military engagements. It is a form of interstate aggression. You can’t call it anything else. How would we feel if all of a sudden, let’s say, the drug-oriented gangs in the United States were armed from abroad, from our southern neighbor, by equipment which would promote violence on that scale on a continuing basis? So this is a serious challenge. So that is the second objective.

And the third objective is to promote and then discuss with the Russians a formula for an eventual compromise, assuming that in the first instance the use of force openly and on a large scale is deterred and the effort to destabilize is abandoned. That means, in turn, the following: And I will be quite blunt regarding my own views on the subject. Ukraine has to be supported if it is to resist. If Ukraine doesn’t resist—if its internal disorder persists and the state is not able to organize effective national defense, then the Ukraine problem will be resolved unilaterally, but probably with consequential effects that will be destabilizing in regards to the vulnerable states and to the East-West relationship as a whole. And the forces of chauvinism inside Russia will become more strident. And they do represent the most negative aspects of contemporary Russian society: a kind of thirst for nationalism, for self-fulfillment, gratification of the exercise of power. Something which is not pervasive in the new middle class, which is the longer range alternative.

If Ukraine has to be supported so that it does resist, the Ukrainians have to know the West is prepared to help them resist. And there’s no reason to be secretive about it. It would be much better to be open about it and to say to the Ukrainians and to those who may threaten Ukraine that if Ukrainians resist, they will have weapons. And we’ll provide some of those weapons in advance of the very act of invasion. Because in the absence of that, the temptation to invade and to preempt may become overwhelming. But what kind of weapons is important. And in my view, they should be weapons designed particularly to permit the Ukrainians to engage in effective urban warfare of resistance. There’s no point trying to arm the Ukrainians to take on the Russian army in the open field: thousands of tanks, an army organized for the application of overwhelming force. There is a history to be learned here from urban resistance in World War II and most recently in Chechnya, whose capital persisted for three months in house-to-house fighting. The point is, if the effort to invade was to be successful politically, it would have to incorporate taking the major cities. If the major cities, say Kharkiv, say Kiev, were to resist and street fighting became a necessity, it would be prolonged and costly. And the fact of the matter is—and this is where the timing of this whole crisis is important—Russia is not yet ready to undertake that kind of an effort. It will be too costly in blood, paralyzingly costly in finances. And would take a long time and create more and more international pressure.

Accordingly, I feel that we should make it clear to the Ukrainians that if they are determined to resist, as they say they are and seemingly they are trying to do so (albeit not very effectively), we will provide them with anti-tank weapons, hand-held anti-tank weapons, hand-held rockets—weapons capable for use in urban short range fighting. This is not an arming of Ukraine for some invasion of Russia. You don’t invade a country as large as Russia with defensive weaponry. But if you have defensive weaponry and you have access to it and know it’s arriving, you’re more likely to resist. And hence that acts as deterrent and that, in turn, can permit them more effective operations to terminate some of the violence that is being sponsored on the borders between Ukraine and Russia. That, I think, would help in any case to contain the risk and the temptation to resolve this issue by force of arms.  On the Russian side, given the great ecstasy over the Crimean success which was quick and decisive and which encountered no resistance, the temptation to seek its repetition can be quite appealing to a political leader who desperately needs a major success.

However, at the same time we need to engage in some exploration of possible arrangements for a compromise outcome. Especially if it becomes clear to the Russians and to Mr. Putin that either destabilizing Ukraine or taking it by force poses great risks and may not be attainable. Deterrence to be accompanied, therefore, by an effort to engage in dialogue. What should be the formula for such a possible compromise? I think it’s relatively simple: Ukraine can proceed with its process, publicly endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian people, of becoming part of Europe. But it’s a long process. The Turks have been promised that outcome, and they have been engaging in that process already for 60 years. In other words, it’s not done very quickly. Therefore, the danger to Russia is not imminent and the negative consequences are not so destructive.

But at the same time, there should be clarity that Ukraine will not be a member of NATO. I think that is important for a variety of political reasons. If you look at the map, it’s important for Russia from a psychological, strategic point of view. So Ukraine will not be a member of NATO. But by the same token, Russia has to understand that Ukraine will not be a member of some mythical Eurasian Union that President Putin is trying to promote on the basis of this new doctrine of a special position for Russia in the world. Ukraine will not be a member of the Eurasian Union, but Ukraine can have a separate trade agreement with Russia, particularly taking into account the fact that certain forms of exchange and trade are mutually beneficial. Agricultural products, for example, from Ukraine to Russia. Industrial products that Russia needs and are being produced in Ukraine. Not many people realize that some of Russia’s best rockets, most of the engines for Russian civil aviation, and some of the rockets used by the United States, are produced in Ukraine. It’s a profitable and successful industrial enterprise. And that therefore should be continued under an arrangement whereby Ukraine and Russia have a special treaty.

I think something like this might actually at some point become appealing. And it should be surfaced in the context of an open, not covert, effort to convince the Russians that any use of force will have negative, but enduring consequences for Russia itself, not involving a threat to Russia’s security, but involving rising costs of the assertion of Russia’s power at the cost of Ukrainian independence. In my view in that context, NATO should also act somewhat more assertively in reducing the insecurity of those NATO countries that border on Russia and happen to have Russian nationals who constitute on the average about 25% of their populations. I speak specifically of Estonia and Latvia. America has committed its military presence there. I would think it would be very productive if, in addition to America, some leading European states, notably Germany, France, and Great Britain, deployed some symbolic forces in these three countries. So that they’re there too, and not just Americans, on a regular basis. This would reaffirm the fact that NATO stands together. In international politics, symbolism is as important as decisiveness and can avert the necessity for extreme measures.

Given the current consequences of the very massive expansion of NATO in the last several decades to 28 members, it might be also appropriate in the light of the ongoing experience to take another look at the structure of NATO itself. I have in mind, particularly, a review of the historical paradox involved in the very important Article 5. Article 5 provides for the procedure in undertaking a military response to an aggression directed at it in general or at one or two or more of its members. You doubtless recall that Article 5 has a provision that decisions to engage in hostilities by the alliance have to be unanimous. This, in other words, means that every country has a veto. It was the United States that insisted on this provision when NATO was first formed. It insisted on it in order to obtain popular support for NATO in the American congress from the isolationist portions of the American body politic. They feared that an alliance of this sort would violate the American tradition of no foreign entanglements. Unfortunately today, with 28 members of varying degrees of genuine political commitment to some of the security assumptions of the alliance, the situation has become reversed. It is some of the new allies that may be tempted in certain circumstances to invoke Article 5. A unilateral veto would not entirely prevent NATO from responding, because I am convinced if that were to happen after prolonged debates, much resentment, internal threats, the country concerned would be persuaded to join or de facto ejected out of the alliance.

One possible solution might be simply the adoption of the provision that there will be no veto right in the alliance for sustained, enduring under-performers of jointly agreed commitments. Some members of NATO don’t meet their commitments even by remote approximation, and hence their membership in NATO is a free ride all together. Why should a member that doesn’t meet NATO commitments practically in total then have the right to veto the other members’ right to engage in collective self-defense? It’s an anomaly and potential source of gridlock and confusion. As this crisis is gradually resolved, I hope NATO will take another look at it and will also take a look at the issue of additional new members in NATO more critically. It doesn’t follow that a country whose security NATO has an interest in has to be a NATO member. NATO can have an interest in its security, but without having it in NATO. There is some talk of new members in the EU. And perhaps some of these will seek NATO membership, and in recent years some countries have obtained a NATO membership while being territorially remote from the possible conflicts on the East-West dividing line. I think more discretion here may be actually beneficial and some reflection on the subject might in fact enhance NATO credibility and create some pressure on those members who wish to be active members in NATO to do more to meet the commitments they have formally undertaken.

Finally, looking much further ahead, I think that one way or another, with or without a compromise solution, Crimea is going to become a serious economic burden for Russia. There is no way that the kind of economic activity in which Crimea has been able to engage quite profitably—namely as a major destination for tourism, with international liners on a large scale coming into its ports and foreign tourists engaging in trade, buying of souvenirs and so forth—can be sustained. As long as the international community doesn’t formally recognize the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, it means that the exploration of the underwater resources within Crimea’s territorial confines on the sea cannot be undertaken by international companies because they will be subject to suits from a variety of interested parties. In brief, Russia faces the prospect of the necessity of subsidizing on a significant scale economic activity in Crimea to the benefit of its citizens. Prices have already risen three fold since the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. This situation creates a potentially serious liability for Russia, which already is in a relatively weak economic position.

Beyond that, there is the potential reality that I think will become an enduring fact as Ukraine succeeds: that Russia has generated in Ukraine widespread hostility towards Russia on the part of some 40 million people. Unlike many other Slavs, Ukrainians have not been anti-Russian historically. Ukrainian enmity towards Russia is new, but it is becoming very intense. Ukraine will therefore evolve not only into an enduring problem for Russia in that respect, but represent also the permanent loss of a huge swath of territory, the greatest loss of territory suffered by Russia in the course of its imperial expansion. This may in turn eventually begin to work against this new mythology regarding Russia’s place and role in the world, with which I started my presentation. That mythology may be refuted by realities. And this is why I am increasingly hopeful that the new emerging Russian middle class—realizing that the kind of mythology that Putin has adopted, and which a significant portion of the less educated, more chauvinistic Russians, have absorbed and embraced—is a road to nowhere; that the real place for Russia is as an important country in Europe, as a major European country. And they will be reminded of that imperative every time they look to the east and ask themselves: What does China mean for the future of Russia?

Thank you.

Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke on a panel at the Wilson Center on June 16 titled “Mutual Security on Hold? Russia, the West, and European Security Architecture”. Below is a transcript of his remarks.

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