The narrative of universal human rights did for the Soviet Union. It’s the biggest threat to its successor, muscle-flexing in Ukraine.
Russia has amassed troops in Belarus and Russia along the border with Ukraine. It has recognised as independent the eastern republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and is preparing to send troops there.
Russia did the same thing in Georgia—recognising the republics of Abkhazia and Ossetia, dispatching troops and issuing Russian passports to the inhabitants. It has also illegally annexed Crimea. There are likely to be more military clashes on the border with the Ukrainian-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine and further incursions. Even a full-scale conventional invasion seems possible.
Up to now, conventional war has not been the style of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The Russians have previously talked about a ‘new type of warfare’ or ‘non-linear war’, which involves special forces, local militias and what they call ‘political technology’—for example, cyberwar or disinformation campaigns on ‘social media’. These have all present in the Donbass region.
What is more, Ukraine has thousands of troops prepared for resistance; hence any war is likely to be bloody and prolonged. So what are the Russians up to?
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The Russian regime
One school of thought takes Putin at his word and views these latest actions as a response to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the encirclement of Russia by western troops and missile systems, and the possibility that Ukraine and Georgia might join NATO. The opposite school of thought asserts that Russia is a revisionist power seeking to protect a sphere of influence comprised of autocratic regimes, within the former Soviet-aligned eastern bloc.
Russia’s behaviour has in reality everything to do with the nature of the political and economic regime and Putin’s preoccupation with staying in power. The Russian regime is typical of a contemporary phenomenon which admixes crony capitalism, authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism. This mixture can be found, albeit in very different forms, in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Narendra Modi’s India and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, in Hungary and Poland, as well as in the ‘Brexit’ and Donald Trump impulses in the United Kingdom and United States respectively.
A major concern of such regimes is that democracies abroad might offer an example to emulate, while division, disruption and polarisation elsewhere help shore up a legitimising domestic narrative. In the case of Ukraine, where Russia’s oligarchs are deeply entwined with their Ukrainian counterparts, there is considerable fear of the transparency and anti-corruption measures democratic reform might bring.
It was Russian intervention to prevent Ukraine signing a European Union association agreement in 2013—which would have involved new rules around corruption—that led to the Maidan protests and subsequently to Russian support for separatists in the east and the annexation of Crimea. The consequence has been a protracted, destabilising conflict, which has slowed down reform in Ukraine. The recent support for Belarus in pushing migrants to the Polish border can be seen as an attempt to expose the hypocrisy of the EU’s support for democracy and rights and a way of maintaining a tension which serves both regimes well domestically.
To what extent can it be argued that NATO expansion contributed to Putin’s paranoia? Undoubtedly, it was a mistake. At the end of the cold war, there were high hopes for demilitarisation of Europe. The Warsaw Pact, the military alliance of eastern-bloc countries, was dissolved. Yet NATO continued and, indeed, expanded—partly in response to requests by newly democratised central- and eastern-European states but also reflecting pressures from what used to be called the ‘military-industrial complex’ to sustain declining demand for military investment.
But NATO expansion is a pretext for Putin. Even without it, the Russian regime, as constituted, would have found some other excuse for its aggressive behaviour, although that might have proved more difficult.
Where the west does bear some responsibility is in the economic policy it pursued after the end of the cold war, although this was welcomed by the new, post-Communist regimes. It was the high point of market fundamentalism. Neoliberal strategies of public-expenditure cuts, trade liberalisation and privatisation did not produce the ‘bourgeois’ capitalism liberal democrats had anticipated.
Rather, in most cases—and especially in Russia—they resulted in a criminalised, kleptocratic autocracy. Privatisation turned communist bureaucrats into oligarchs, amid unemployment and extreme inequality.
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What is to be done?
So what should be done now? Strengthening Ukrainian defensive capacities is important, as is economic support to Ukraine to underpin public resistance; the Ukrainian left is calling for debt cancellation. Dealing with Russian dark money in the west (especially in London) and reducing energy dependence on Russia, including cancelling the new gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2—which the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, today put on hold—would also be positive measures, reflecting the goals of economic reform and social justice as well as our climate-change obligations.
It is not evident that the sanctions under discussion—such as on the SWIFT mechanism for financial transfers, excluding Russia from the dollar-led banking system—will help. In most other cases, such as Venezuela, Iran or Syria, such sanctions have tended to hurt ordinary people more than elites and provide a convenient scapegoat for the regime.
What is missing so far from western responses is an emphasis on human rights. If aggressive behaviour abroad is linked to repressive and predatory behaviour at home, then human rights must be central.
Russia is affiliated to the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose members are committed to observance of human rights. These organisation should be given a much more prominent role in the discussions around the crisis.
Russia should be called to account for human-rights violations, as should other dominant powers. There is a need to draw public attention to such violations, to raise issues of legality, to impose targeted sanctions on individuals responsible and to find ways to protect and strengthen civic spaces across borders.
In the Donbass and Crimea, for example, Russia claims to be protecting the human rights of Russian speakers. The international community should demand that Russia respects all human rights in those places where Ukrainian speakers or the Tartar community have really suffered and where property has been arbitrarily confiscated.
Rethinking Europe’s security
In the end, the only way to stop Putin is anti-war pressure inside Russia but this is only possible if every arena for human-rights activities is no longer squeezed. There is thus also a need to find ways to support civil society within Russia itself. A growing anti-war movement there needs to build links with anti-war movements elsewhere.
Above all, what is needed is a rethinking of Europe’s security arrangements, along the lines of the Helsinki Accords of 1975 rather than classic geopolitical alliances such as NATO. The accords were composed of three baskets.
The first component was the prevention of war—the need for acceptance of the territorial status quo, defensive postures and arms control and confidence-building measures, all of which could be advanced today. The second comprised economic, social, cultural and environmental co-operation; there is an urgent need to co-operate on global planetary dangers, such as climate change and pandemics. And the third basket was human rights.
In such a rethinking, it might be possible to adapt NATO as the military arm of a pan-European security arrangement, dismantling offensive capabilities, strengthening purely defensive postures and helping to damp down conflicts. This would create a framework so that, if and when a democracy movement develops inside Russia, it could be invited to join as well.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on the LSE blog