The international environment that produced the First World War exactly one hundred years ago was a struggle for “places in the sun” as countries competed for colonial lands. The settlement after the war was complicated by secret agreements to redraw borders and acquire territory. Efforts to end such land grabs once and for all—the tales of misery of which constitute far too many pages of the history books—came up short with the failure to forge a stable peace and a viable League of Nations. Following the even greater death and destruction of the Second World War—a war fought for Lebensraum of both Slavic and Asian varieties—the nations that had vanquished global aggression adopted the UN Charter, an international framework that had as its most basic principle the solemn vow that never again would countries have any right to acquire territory by force of arms.
And yet, today a founder of that organization—and a permanent member of the Security Council member no less—claims to have annexed part of a neighboring state and is engaged in a large-scale buildup for a possible assault on eastern Ukraine. One can concede that the West overplayed its hand on the eastward expansion of the European Union and even be very understanding of Russia’s historic desire for strategic depth and suspicion of the West and yet judge that what is happening to be absolutely wrong. One can be an ardent proponent of Goodwin’s Law on overuse of the “Munich” analogy while also remembering the adage about “when the shoe fits” especially given the cascade of lies and denials from Moscow first acknowledged as deceptions in Crimea and evidenced now by the current sightings of advanced Leopard tanks and other sophisticated equipment near Donetsk. Those very tanks are today grinding in their tracks the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, and a long list of treaties and accords from 1991 through 2010 in which Russia affirmed to honor—and yes, guarantee—the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Two decades of international agreements between these two states are being observed in the breach, as worthless as recent assurances that incursions were not taking place, that the September 5 ceasefire would be observed, that cessation votes would not be encouraged, and that the results of the recent national election would be honored.
While not a member of the European Union, Ukraine was an original member of the United Nations. While not a member of NATO, the conditions under which Mr. Putin has assigned himself a right to intervene in neighboring states is a direct threat to many members of NATO (e.g., the Baltic States) who are well justified in raising concerns under Article Four of the NATO Treaty. Although not a formal treaty with an obligation to come to Ukraine’s defense, the United States (along with the United Kingdom and, yes, Russia) was a guarantor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and is also a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, in the spirit of which the U.S. gave this pledge in return for Ukraine giving up the world’s third largest inventory of nuclear weapons that it had inherited upon the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
If the international system that has produced the longest era of peace between major powers and by far the greatest prosperity in human history is not worth defending, then nothing is. Although decried as weakness by some who mistake bombing for strategy, the international community is trying hard not to repeat the somnambulism toward destruction witnessed a hundred years ago. Direct military aid to Ukraine, as some in the incoming Republican Senate majority seem to favor, would be outside our treaty obligations and ill-advised. On the other hand, the current international sanctions regime, while having a bite on the Russian economy, seems to be delinked from a clearly stated set of objectives or strategy. Ratcheting up sanctions in the abstract is clearly not having the desired effect on Russian behavior and runs the risk of losing adherents if played out over a prolonged period in which most western economies are performing poorly and the Ukrainian economy is in a freefall. There is also a great risk of hostilities breaking out by accident or miscalculation as Putin plays an increasingly wide ranging and dangerous game of provocation or in the form of another MH-17.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has taken the lead and has been relentless in trying to establish a dialogue with the Russian president, including a four hour one-on-one meeting in Brisbane last week. Yet those talks, for a lack of a better phrase, have become a floating crap shoot without context or an apparent end game. The time has come for the Atlantic Community to lay the cards on the table and conclude a grand bargain with President Putin encompassing all of Europe, including the integrity of a neutral, more decentralized Ukraine, and which addresses the legitimate issues and security concerns of the Russians. Such a system would include firm security commitments backed by credible capabilities as already exist within NATO. And, yes, a place like Narva is inviolate under Article Five.
The failure to end the armed subterfuge and mendacity, however, should be met by a move from the rather limited sanctions in place today to a regime that is more comprehensively backed by a public diplomacy campaign aimed at exposing the kleptocracy of the current oligarchic regime. While some bilateral energy sharing arrangements have been made, Europe has also been remiss in not forming an energy union. Putin must be made aware of the dangerous game which he is playing, a game which extends well beyond the severe contraction of the Russian economy. Russia’s energy transit lines and military industrial complex are vulnerable in Ukraine. President Putin should also be careful in creating precedents that he may regret in Kaliningrad, Blagoveschensk, and the Russian republics—the majority of which have populations with ethnic Russians in the minority. There can be no peace in Europe without Russia as a partner, and today the peace and security in Europe is very precarious as the script from a hundred years ago is being re-enacted. In the decade and a half prior to the outbreak of war, Czar Nicholas II had called a series of conferences aimed at forestalling disaster. He failed and was swept aside. His successor in the Kremlin should take a page from history.
David W. Wise, a retired businessman, is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London).