Russia has been rolling out the humanitarian lingo to justify its ongoing proxy war with Ukraine. It has invoked the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine to carry out incursions to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. It has dubbed its forces there as “peacekeepers” to give them the saintly halo of impartiality. (Though, as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power put it, A Russian peacekeeper in Ukraine is an oxymoron.) Moscow has sent in a convoy of aid, which drew suspicions from Kiev it was a ruse for smuggling arms to pro-Russia rebels, and pledged future such convoys. This kind of death by a thousand “humanitarian” cuts is not unprecedented: the period leading up to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia had an eerily similar feel.
Then, as now, Russia has wrapped itself in lofty-sounding legalese, as if the Kremlin were a branch of Human Rights Watch. Ahead of its 2008 war with Georgia, Russia had deployed over 2,000 peacekeepers to Abkhazia, just within the 3,000 ceiling mandated by a 1994 CIS agreement. It issued South Ossetians Russian passports, thus providing Moscow the ability to invoke R2P norms to protect its civilians under attack (never mind that South Ossetia was a sovereign part of Georgia). Invoking R2P, of course, is not a blank check, as it still requires Security Council authorization to use force. In early 2008, Georgia applied but was denied a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO in Bucharest. A few months later, a Russian MIG-29 shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle, prompting a rapid buildup of armed forces and military exercises on both sides of the border. “The scene was now set for war,” wrote Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin. “Now all that was necessary was the spark to start it.” When war finally broke out, the Kremlin justified it as a humanitarian intervention to prevent a genocide of Ossetians – a misnomer that echoes France’s “pacification” of Algeria.
Behind Russia’s humanitarian facade lies a cold and calculated realpolitik.
Lessons for Ukraine
The buildup to Russia’s brief war in Georgia’s holds several important lessons for Ukraine. First, Russia has been clever in not providing Ukraine, or its Western benefactors, with any casus belli or action-forcing event to trigger too much escalation. At the same time, it is slowly trying to undermine Kievs sovereign grip on the east and thereby create new facts on the ground, as it were. A similar ploy existed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia before 2008. There have been a series of indirect “incidents” between Ukrainian and Russian forces, any of which could be the final spark, not least of which was the downing of a civilian airliner earlier this summer allegedly by pro-Russia forces. A number of Ukrainian military aircrafts have been shot down. Similar shootouts between Georgian and South Ossetian forces in 2008 were what offered the Russians, and Georgians to some extent, a pretext to escalate the level of violence. Unlike Georgia, Ukraine should be wary of engaging Russian forces directly, thereby giving Moscow an excuse to “defend” its fellow Russians with greater force. This would set off what former Ambassador Michael McFaul described as “spiral” dynamics, whereby both sides would prefer peace, but because of saving face, they may be forced to escalate, thus precipitating a larger crisis.
If such a spark occurs and there is a spiral of hostilities that include shows of force, the West needs to provide both sides with face-saving ways to deescalate tensions and walk back bellicose rhetoric. What might make Ukraine feel more emboldened to engage Russian forces would be reassurances by NATO or Washington that it would be protected in the event of larger hostilities with Russia, or even unclear signals of its intention. Maybe the most important thing the West can offer Kiev, as the Georgia case highlights, is clear signals on this front. Mixed signals are a doomsday machine (Arguably the unclear messages given to Tbilisi created a kind of moral hazard). It is important, moreover, that the West simultaneously and publicly provide robust assurances to Ukraine, because any moves that project weakness – or that it is turning its back on Kiev — could also be destabilizing as it could invite even greater provocations by the Kremlin. The worst outcome would be a kind of DMZ-like line along Ukraine’s eastern border – a frozen conflict that, given one false move, could turn hot.
Second, Russia is acting rationally, contrary to world opinion. Its moves and motives may appear extreme to some, but its interests are not unknown. Ukraine has long been a “red line” for Russia, as well as its inclusion into NATO or even its perceived tilt toward the West. Consider how furious Russia got in 1999 when Kiev briefly shut down its airspace as Russia tried to reinforce troop deployments in Pristina (Kiev promptly backed down). The important thing is for Ukraine and its Western backers to act rationally, though forcefully, in response. An indirect cause of the war in Georgia was the perception in Moscow after the Bucharest Summit that the West had abandoned Tbilisi and would not come to its aid in the event of a war. The same mistake should not be made with Ukraine. Arming Ukraine, however, as we did Georgia in the run-up to 2008, also carries risk. Were Russia to decide that war is inevitable, it may wish to fight a weaker Ukraine now than a stronger Ukraine tomorrow. So we should be careful to avoid precipitating a preventive war by playing on Russia’s insecurities as a declining power.
Of course, it is important not to overstate the similarities between Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In Georgia, Russia was solely interested in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, not in gobbling up any more of Georgia proper (though it did seek to unseat Saakashvili). The same cannot be said of Ukraine, which is home to large swaths of Russian-speaking peoples who identify more with Moscow than Kiev. The crisis in Ukraine is more about balance of power dynamics, pan-Slavism, and leaving in place a strategic buffer zone. Ukraine’s geo-strategic location betwixt two large continental powers – Europe and Russia – makes it sui generis, to say nothing of its position as a transit corridor for European gas. Indeed, behind Russia’s humanitarian facade lies a cold and calculated realpolitik.
The way to untie the Gordian knot is to reduce the zero-sum dynamics whereby increasing Ukrainian security comes at the expense of Russia’s perceived insecurity. That’s easier said than done, of course. Taking punitive measures in the form of military maneuvers and firmer targeted economic sanctions to deter Russia from further aggressive moves is a smart approach. The all-hands-on-deck approach by France and others in 2008 to prevent the Georgian conflict from escalating was also a low-cost way to avoid needless spiral effects. Not all security dilemmas lead to war.
Over the coming weeks and months, given the number of spoilers on both sides, there will be several “sparks” that could set off spiral dynamics and lead to potential war. This latest phase of the conflict which already claimed 2,200 lives has an uneasy feel to it. The deployment of Russian peacekeepers and sending of humanitarian aid is meant to intimidate both its Ukrainian neighbor and others (e.g. Moldova) from considering cozying up too close to Brussels or Washington. The parading of prisoners by rebels and taunting of a female spy along a road outside Donetsk has also given outsiders a grim spectacle of the wars barbarism.
Russia can be deterred. At the moment, it is acting much like the big brother, poking its finger in its little brother’s face but without actually touching him, in hopes to either provoke an overreaction, which in turn will justify a beating, or to force him into submission. Nobody is buying Russia’s veil of humanitarianism.
Lionel Beehner is formerly a senior staff writer at the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he was a term member. He has reported from over two-dozen conflict or post-conflict zones, including Iraq, Sri Lanka, and the Balkans. He is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors and is a PhD candidate at Yale, focusing on nonstate actors and the use of force. He taught oped writing for seven years at Mediabistro. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Slate, The Atlantic, and The New Republic, among other publications. He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post’ Monkey Cage and Political Violence @ A Glance blogs. He lives in Harlem, NYC with his wife and two children.
[Photo: Flickr Commons: Thierry Ehrmann]