Boris Mikhailov (born in Kharkov in 1938) is one of the most prominent chroniclers of (post)-Soviet life. His 400-work series “Case History” from the late 1990s is a testament to the socio-political turmoil in corroding Eastern Ukraine, showing outcasts, homeless people, poverty, nudity, sexuality, emptiness, despair, and resignation. These images bring to light a bitter reality that has long been concealed and now, tragically, comes back to the fore.
With hindsight it is always easy to identify the mistakes and false turns one has taken in the past. However, only seldom do we know with any certainty whether an alternative route would have led us to a better present. This is also true for the current situation given the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Again and again, since the recent war started, commentators have bent over backwards in identifying a glaring ignorance and naivety in German and Western politics and society more broadly regarding the nature of the Russian aggression.
Two very different lines of criticism join forces here: on the one hand, there is a reading that the West simply underestimated the aggression of Russia and hence reacted with appeasement and diplomacy where it should have resorted to deterrence and containment much earlier, e.g. at the latest in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. This reading of the war refers to Putin’s speeches and manuscripts, in which he laid down his vision of a new Russian empire and denounced Ukraine’s right to be a state. In the other line of criticism, which comes from a more old school realist geopolitical origin, the West is similarly responsible for the war but for a different reason. Here, it is the West’s, or more plainly the US’s, aggressive policies towards Eastern NATO and EU enlargement that more or less compelled Russia to invade Ukraine to preserve its security interests. In this view, the major fallacy of Western policies towards Russia was the belief that Russia would ignore an independent state on its western borders aligning with the West. These critics, exemplified by John Mearsheimer, refer to Russia’s expressive statements, for instance Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, in which he warned the West away from approaching NATO membership for Ukraine- or Georgia for that matter. They perceive the war with Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as red flags that the West chose to ignore, belying the truth of great power politics.
With the collapse of the East bloc in the late 1980s, there was a strategic debate on how to deal with the Soviet Union in the future.
So, it was either the Western appeasement towards Russia or the Western aggression that provoked this war. These diametrically opposed views highlight that history does not teach unequivocal lessons. We simply do not know whether we would not be in the same situation had the West tried to deter Russia already in the 2010s or had NATO not formally acknowledged Georgia’s and Ukraine’s ambition to become NATO members. In both camps, however, the idea of a cooperative security architecture in Europe has been an illusion at best, and a mistake at worst. However, both miss an important part of history in their assessments, because neither acknowledges the achievements of this cooperative security system.
With the collapse of the East bloc in the late 1980s, there was a strategic debate about how to deal with the Soviet Union in the future. While there were voices that called for a continuing containment of the Soviet Union to make use of its weakness at the time, the prevailing view was that to establish a sustainable European security and peace architecture, the Soviet Union+ was needed as a partner not as a rival. This vision had its basis in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) that had already established common principles for security and peace on the continent during the Cold War in 1975. In the Helsinki Final Act, 35 states from both blocs committed themselves to shared but non-binding principles like territorial integrity and non-intervention, a peaceful settlement of disputes among them, the right to self-determination and fundamental freedoms. These principles were later reinforced in the Paris Charta of 1990, which declared the end of the division in Europe and laid the ground for the successor organization, the OSCE, a standing organization, mandated to further the realization of these principles in the areas of democracy and human rights, in arms control and security and in economic cooperation for the whole continent, i.e. from Vladivostok to Vancouver.
Tensions rose with NATO’s involvement in the Balkan wars and the increasing alignment of Georgia and Ukraine towards NATO and Western Europe.
This move to establish a cooperative security architecture with Russia was the decisive move that allowed for the re-unification of the two German states and the widespread democratization among the Eastern European and Baltic states. Everyone who argues today that making the Soviet Union and later Russia a partner in European security was a mistake should be reminded that without it, we would probably not have seen the swift re-unification or the democratization wave in Europe in the 1990s and 2000s.
There is no doubt that the cooperative security system has crumbled, beginning in the late 1990s and accelerating in the 2000s. One element of this was certainly the enlargement of NATO and relatedly of the European Union in the East. While that was still manageable in the 1990s because NATO did make substantial offers to Russia in return for its acceptance of NATO enlargement - such as the assurance that NATO troops would not be permanently stationed in the new member states - this changed in the 2000s. With NATO’s involvement in the Balkan wars, the increasing alignment of Georgia and Ukraine towards NATO and Western Europa and in response to a perceived lack of great power status, tensions rose. More and more treaties and agreements crumbled and with Putin as a Russian president, the threat of violence re-appeared and then manifested itself in the wars in Chechnya, in Georgia, and in Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022.
Deterrence and force do not suffice to establish a sustainable security system for the future.
So, what can we learn from this history for the future? From my perspective, there are two broad lessons:
First, against an aggressor that is not interested in peaceful relations, neither norms, treaties nor diplomacy will be effective. It needs credible deterrence and a forceful response to counter acts of aggression. Looking at the current war, one has to note the timing of the attack: It was not at a time in which membership of Ukraine in NATO was an imminent possibility. To the contrary, it was already more or less off the table as Ukraine’s president had remarked himself in 2021. So, this war was not justified by an imminent security threat to Russia. Furthermore, Russia’s amassing of troops and tanks at the Ukrainian border in the run up to this conflict and his cold-blooded invasion despite all efforts of NATO, the US, and the European Union and its member states highlight Putin’s despise for international norms. Finally, the timing rather suggests that Putin thought he could have his way because the West was preoccupied with itself: the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, the polarization in western societies regarding pandemic management, and not to forget, the lack of a forceful response in reaction to Putin’s preparation for a war strengthened this belief. Putin was wrong on that account as we know now and he was equally wrong regarding the resistance of Ukrainians and the strength of his own forces.
The second lesson, however, is that deterrence and force do not suffice to establish a sustainable security system for the future. Russia was needed in the past to allow for a reunification of the continent, and to make democratization and liberalization possible. Only by partnering with Russia were all these achievements possible. We will also need Russia in the future. Deterrence alone is a risky business, as the numerous near misses of the Cold War, the most prominent ones being the Berlin blockade and the Cuba Missile crisis, highlight. This means that once this war is over, which could still take a long time, we will have to work hard to rebuild trust in the future and to create new forums and institutions to co-operate despite our differences.
Certainly, this is not a short-term perspective but will take decades. In the near future, we should rather expect a further disentanglement between the West and Russia. This concerns shared institutions such as the Council of Europe, maybe the OSCE and hopefully not the remaining arms control treaties. It also concerns economic ties. The interdependence of the economies crafted during the last thirty years will come to an end. The current sanction regime is a starting point but we will probably see more disintegration. This will happen in particular in critical infrastructures and the energy sector to counter a weaponization of interdependence that Russia has executed of late with regard to its energy exports. Our common endeavor must be to prevent this disintegration from running wild, from destroying all kinds of entanglements between the West and Russia. These entanglements in science, in culture and art are so important for the prevention of a further alienation between the societies, which would make future conflict more probable, not less. Sporadic attacks on citizens or institutions of Russian origin highlight this danger. “Wandel durch Handel”, or peaceful change by trade has not been proven wrong by this war, it just alerted us to the fact that we once knew better that it can’t achieve peace on its own, and that not every form of trade is equally peace prone. Now is the time to make these insights a guide for a new cooperative order, one in which deterrence and co-operation go hand in hand.
Nicole Deitelhoff is Professor of International Relations and Theories of Global Orders at the Goethe University Frankfurt and a fellow in the program “The Future of Democracy” at THE NEW INSTITUTE.