While the international system crumbling
The illegal annexation of Crimea and instigation of tension in eastern Ukraine by Russia are rapidly eroding the last vestiges of the international system, created within a hundred years of the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia back in 1648. What is at stake now is not only the fate of the country we know as Ukraine, but the systemic peace and stability. It is an unfortunate yet inevitable conclusion that whenever the world faces such a dilemma, it almost always chooses international stability over the unity of the related country. I am afraid we are again leading towards the same end; that is the division of Ukraine sooner or later.
To recap, the Russian occupation of Crimea and the inability of the international community to prevent it have irreparably damaged one of the last cornerstones of the modern international system: The concept of “territorial integrity” of states. Having faced virtually no opposition in its occupation of Crimea, Russia is now staging a similar scenario in eastern Ukraine. Raids on and occupation of government buildings by pro-Russian groups started with Donetsk on April 6, quickly spilling over to Luhansk and Kharkiv. The interim government has been trying to respond with sending a hastily put-together security force to prevent the repetition of the Crimean incident. While the government, together with the U.S. and NATO, is accusing Russia of carrying out the aggression, Moscow has criticized Kyiv for using armed forces to fuel tensions in eastern Ukraine.
The recent Russian behavior leaves no doubt about its objectives, even though its authorities argue that they have no intention of sending troops into Ukraine. The strong military build-up on the Ukrainian border makes it rather difficult to believe such pronouncements. NATO has, on April 10, released satellite images, taken in the previous two weeks, showing the deployment of Russian troops alongside the border, including armored vehicles, fighter planes and heavy artillery. The Russian claim to protect “the Russian speakers” of Ukraine, if they are threatened, is still on the table.
Although the U.S. has intensified its efforts to step up the sanctions against Russia to prevent its further hostile action in Ukraine, the division between the U.S. and its European allies is damaging the possibility of coming up with a bunch of effective preventive sanctions. Meanwhile, delegates from Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the EU will meet in four-party talks in Geneva this week to find a political solution to the crisis. Yet, they all have different expectations.
While Russia wants to maintain its dominance over a weak and federal Ukraine, the U.S. wants to rebuild its prestige in international politics by stabilizing Ukraine and keeping it within the Western mold. The EU, on the other hand, is trying to maintain stability in its borders and sustain its energy and trade relations with Russia. Finally, the interim Ukrainian government presumably wishes to protect its territorial integrity as well as achieve a modicum of political and economic stability. Nobody is talking about Crimea anymore, which has already become a forgotten issue even for the Ukrainians.
With the raining mistrust among the parties, the expected outcome is not promising. The U.S. and the European countries have yet to find a way to speak with a single voice. Russia has rightly gauged the reluctance of Western countries to get involved militarily. What are needed now are strong political warnings and somewhat harsher sanctions. But even this would not be enough. If the West wishes to see a united Ukraine, to secure the current international system, and save its prestige and lost leverage in international affairs, it needs to back up its words with military means on the ground. Otherwise, the end result is already visible.