We no longer have the certainties of the Cold War, but we do maintain its dangers after an illusory period of apparent monopolistic security. Understanding this confounding reality may be the key to defusing the contemporary European crisis. Where one frozen conflict can be unravelled through confidence-building measures, so might many others. The United Nations has a massive amount to do, and it requires ambitious and brave leadership. It has it. Let the work begin.
By Matthew Parish*
Viewed through the lens of history, Europe has never been an easy place to maintain the peace. A lazy scholarly temptation might be to focus excessively upon the apparent armistice between rival Great Power interests in the aftermath of the Second World War, premised upon an uneasy compromise of territorial domination pragmatically drawn between Churchill and Stalin on the fringes of the Fourth Moscow Conference in 1944. Regrettably, Roosevelt was excluded from the crude geographical division of territorial spheres of influence that perhaps the twentieth century’s two most Realist statesmen agreed when, according to Churchill, he proposed a series of divisions of influence in various countries in eastern Europe and Stalin apocryphally agreed by marking the handwritten document with a tick.
To the extent that this document had binding force, it was not by virtue of the reciprocal honour and respect of its draftsmen. Rather it was motivated by the mutual threat of nuclear annihilation. Perhaps the only positive externality of the Cold War was that borders were respected, and the peace preserved, because geopolitical rhetoric was so severe that all parties feared devastating nuclear warfare of such magnitude that everyone would be destroyed.
But Europe’s peace was not always kept in so logically rigid a fashion. The Westphalian Peace, that concluded decades of intermittent conflict between city-states by seeking to cement an international legal concept of territorial sovereignty into European international relations, did not finally achieve effective fruition without the threat of nuclear holocaust. Between the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the First World War, Europe suffered from over 150 wars and conflicts. Europe’s borders are fundamentally disputed, and they always have been. It is replete with diverse national and ethnic interests, and it is unfortunate to observe that there is always a potential for conflict as a seemingly natural extension of their recurrent political confrontations.
In this sense, Europe is unusual. A number of particularly successful powers have rubbed together far too closely, such that there is no one perennially dominant Great Power exercising suzerainty over the European landmass. At different times the Spanish, French, Germans, Americans and Russians have all exercised dominant spheres of influence over substantial parts of the European continent in a fashion that defies the Westphalian paradigm. As the authority of one continental empire has waned, another has waxed. Ever since the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, competition for European geographical and political dominion has proven inexhaustible and timeless.
This state of perpetual conflict was brought to a temporary conclusion at the end of World War Two because Europe had been destroyed. Therefore one external Great Power took temporary control over western Europe, while another – the Soviet Union – took control of the east. Therein lay the peace. The European Union was one of the offshoots of this unusual compact. The European Union was not an empire. It was a confederation of states that volunteered to pool sovereignty in the interests of mutual economic advantage. The traditional dynamics of mutual inter-state hostility, driven by a security dilemma in which each state fears that its neighbour may become more powerful than it and thereupon invade, became obsolete because the military dynamics of the Cold War guaranteed the peace. European states no longer needed to prioritise relative military and economic superiority compared to their neighbours. Instead they could focus upon joint pursuit of the common good, because their security interests were guaranteed – or at least, taken out of their hands – by the two Superpowers and the stability inherent in their rivalry.
This benign confederalist project of voluntary European economic integration fell into decline once the balance between Superpowers had been disrupted upon dissolution of the Soviet Union. What became the Russian Federation went into temporary retreat. A whole society collapsed. For a decade or more, Russia ceased to be perceived as a credible military threat. The corollary of this was that the premise of European peace, namely mutually assured destruction, began to be undermined. For economic reasons, Russia disposed of many of its satellites, that became independent. A number of them dissolved into traditional European wars of a kind not seen during the Cold War.
The confederalist premise of European integration also collapsed at the same time. The European project began to acquire understandable, if unfamiliar, expansionist overtones. Degradation of the principle of sovereign unanimity in any further steps towards the pooling of sovereignty was first mooted in the Treaty of Maastricht, shortly after the end of the Cold War. Once unanimity was abandoned, confederalist voluntarism ceased to be a tenable axiom for the European project, since ex hypothesi majoritarian voting upon further stages of European integration meant that a plurality of larger countries had at least the potential to impose their will upon smaller ones. Moreover the distinction between European economic integration and sovereign security interests began gradually to erode. Eastern European member states rushed to join the European Union not purely because they anticipated economic growth but because they saw EU membership as a security umbrella. The roles of NATO and what is now called the European Union became ever less distinct. With the dissolution of rival Superpower threats of mutual destruction, the security dilemma returned and any step at economic integration began to be refocused through the lens of a potentially revitalised military rivalry.
Were this logic to be followed to its conclusion, it might explain the angst currently experienced in Eastern Europe over the security threats perceived to be exerted by the Russian Federation. To understand what is happening in Ukraine, the Baltic States, Finland, and a host of other European buffer countries adjacent to Russia, it is necessary to twist one’s mind almost to achieve the impossible and construe a sense of mutual miscomprehension. For the European Union, the principles of economic development mandate expansion of European values to the financial benefit of all. To some in the east, the same expansion could represent a threat since it potentially indicates a return to the security dilemma of relative military and economic power. The result is that Europe’s edges are at risk of crumbling. Some fear that the Westphalian compact could be unravelling once again. That compact was always weakest in the east of Europe, because that region was dominated by Russia. The confederalist voluntarism underlying Westphalian and EU ideals was not so fortified in the East, because voluntarism assumes a stable balance of power and there was not one.
In the post-Cold War war world, a precarious balance has therefore been upset and a dangerous precedent is at danger of being established. Many European countries have latent historical border disputes that erupted after the shift in the balance of power that the post-cold War world entailed, and nobody quite knows how to resolve them. Appeals to Westphalian sovereignty have achieved little in South Ossetia, Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestr, Abkhazia or Donbas, even where Westphalian principles were explicitly prescribed in the now neglected treaties formalising dissolution of the Soviet Union. This is not the first time that a confluence of international and domestic political forces have precipitated ethno-nationalist eruptions of violence or engagement of military force in the aftermath of collapse of a political federation. Yugoslavia, the Sublime Porte, Austria-Hungary and the British Empire all harbour illustrative equivalents in the history of their dissolutions. In some cases, as with the division of the Raj into India and Pakistan, the solutions were extremely bloody.
In the aftermath of the Cold War the general habit seems to have been tacitly to agree that disruptions are caused by the break-up of monopoly power are treated as frozen conflicts, in order to further a disquieted sense of palpably temporary peace. The “frozen conflict” model of resolving border disputes in the aftermath of federal collapse is, to put it mildly, controversial. In one sense it plays obviously into Russia’s interests, since a country with a boundary dispute with its neighbour cannot under NATO’s own rules join that organisation. Given the threat Russia perceives NATO to be, the strategic value to her of rendering borders of neighbouring states subject to frosty uncertainty is manifest. On the other hand, frozen conflicts are better than hot ones, as I can attest from my own experiences as a peacekeeper in the Balkans. No matter how unsatisfactory Bosnia and Herzegovina’s current unwieldy government structure may be, it is immeasurably better than the wholesale neighbourly slaughter that engulfed the country in the first six months of the war beginning in 1992. 70% of the war’s estimated 100,000 deaths took place during that early stage. The rest of the war was mostly stalemate. The final episode of mass atrocities, in July 1995 (including the Srebrenica massacre), took place when it became apparent that a peace was about to be externally imposed and hence ethnic cleansing suddenly acquired a perverse and revolting tactical urgency.
In light of this geopolitical conundrum, how do we go about resolving Europe’s frozen conflicts, and unwinding of the latent crises we see engulfing Europe to an ever more alarming degree? This challenge might occupy the wisest of sages for millennia. But we do not have millennia. The arc of recent European history is bending in a distinctly disagreeable direction, as confrontation between heavily armed nuclear powers reappears as a recurrent concern of geopolitics. Yet frozen conflicts can be resolved, and some of them can be resolved relatively easily. If this can be achieved, then the dangers of nuclear confrontation, and the alarming rhetoric recently infecting international relations, might be defused. Resolution of frozen conflicts might be a prescribed medicine as a mutual confidence-building measure in a series of confrontations the genesis of which is the crisis of confidence created by the end of the Cold War. On some analyses, the Cold War was a comparatively a safe place. The post-Cold War world, with a renewed sense of Russian might and superiority, might be perceived as less so.
It is obvious to any realistic observer that some of the frozen conflicts existing in Europe are easy to solve, subject to domestic political pressures that can feasibly be defused. It would be imprudent, however, for any diplomat to state which ones are easy to resolve: for as soon as one were to identify a candidate conflict, it would immediately become irresolvable. The reason for this is obvious. Frozen conflicts are conflicts that nobody wants: otherwise they would not be frozen. The fact that they are frozen indicates a tension between states’ genuine international interests and their domestic political imperatives which preclude the sort of patient negotiation characteristic of an honest broker, that mutual national interests suggest should not just not be a frozen conflict but should not be a conflict at all. To negotiate or conduct diplomacy in public plays straight into the hands of the domestic political interests that render rational negotiation and alignment of sovereigns’ strategic interests so intractable. Soon everyone is talking about principle. Multiple appeals by Great Powers to inconsistent and competing senses of unyielding principle are one of the many roads to Gomorrah in the conduct of international relations.
But look at the facts. Ukraine may look like one of the most intractable frozen conflicts: the Russians will not pull out of Crimea; one or more paramilitary governments are in place in the Donbas; the west’s position is unbending. Nevertheless consider the following comments of UK Permanent Representative Matthew Rycroft to the UN Security Council:
… it is vital that all parties engage seriously in the process and implement the Minsk agreements. The Trilateral Contact Group, the Trilateral Working Groups are essential mechanisms for making this happen and their roles are clearly spelt out in paragraph 13 of the February Minsk agreement [setting out a peaceful resolution for the Donbas conflict in Ukraine]. We need all parties, both Russians and Ukrainians, to engage these groups in a genuine and constructive way.
A return to violence and conflict would come with a terrible human cost for all sides, and it would represent a further attack on the rules-based international system that we have shared and valued for the past seventy years. We all depend on that system; enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.
It is hard not to perceive these comments as realistic and wise. And now compare them with the statements of Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vitaliy Churkin:
… nobody seems to be interested in freezing the conflict in the southeast of Ukraine, and instead wishes to leave its final viable settlement to the political will of its participants. In my opinion, the Ukrainian crisis is much easier to resolve than that in Syria.
The Security Council’s support [for Minsk-II] is very important in itself, because it creates an international legal basis for peace that nobody can easily abandon, and indeed the parties ‘performance of their legal obligations must take place. In the adoption of the [Security Council’s resolution on Minsk-II, supported by all P5 member states including the United Kingdom] the US delegation played a positive role, even though there were some very sharp disputes at the outset about whether such a resolution was appropriate at all.
[On Minsk-II], there were discussions. And in the course of these discussions, the Security Council called for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements in full. This is our position.
Perhaps most revealingly, Churkin is noted to have observed:
The language of diplomats is different from the language of politicians, and each of those is different from the language of soldiers at the front. This is nothing unusual. It does not follow that there is an insurmountable contradiction in substance. Warriors want to win. Diplomats are trying to smooth things over … Politicians are somewhere in the middle, gaining political points on both … diplomatic and military fronts.
It is somewhat unusual, once the rhetoric is stripped away, to find such significant co-alignment of views between British and Russian Permanent Representatives to the United Nations. Sometimes diplomatic monologues must be read through special glasses. Once they are, the genuine strategic interest of ostensibly hostile parties might be revealed as substantially more co-aligned than one might think. Therein lies the skill of diplomacy: to perceive what the casual observer might overlook, because while the narrative is tailored to the domestic audience, the international strategic interests may be quite different.
Now let us consider the terms of the Minsk II Peace Agreement. There are some real confidence-building measures in implementation of Minsk II. For all the mutual explosion of hostilities, the following casual observations are worth bearing in mind.
1. Some commentators neglect to note that that the Minsk II-prescribed immediate and full ceasefire in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, and its strict fulfilment as of 00:00 midnight EET on 15 February 2015, was in fact complied with by both sides.
2. Minsk-II prescribed effective monitoring and verification of the ceasefire regime. There is no reason why this cannot be done. While the result of the world is focused elsewhere, the time may be right for the parties to engage constructively and rationally. This is often easier absent the glare of international publicity. Hence a lull in attention might transpire to be a glorious opportunity.
3. Minsk-II also mandated a dialogue to start on modalities of conducting local elections. This is eminently achievable. Nobody has tried to do it as propitiously as might be appropriate with effective neutral coordination. Local elections were done in Bosnia, and they worked. It can work elsewhere, particularly in an environment where ethno-religious hostilities are far less pronounced than they were in the Balkans.
4. Minsk-II provides safe access, delivery, storage and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy, based on an international mechanism. The United Nations can play this role. It has being doing so to a limited degree, but not enough. The reason for that is that international civil servants fear embroilment. It just needs courage.
5. The warring parties agreed to refine the modalities of a full restoration of social and economic connections, including social transfers, such as payments of pensions and other payments (income and revenue, timely payment of communal bills, restoration of tax payments). Again, this can be done. It’s just technical. It needs tax, fiscal and revenue experts. The United Nations is replete with such people. Their expertise can and should be put to good use.
6. Minsk-II agreed that questions related to local elections would be discussed and agreed upon with representatives of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group. Elections would be held in accordance with relevant OSCE standards and monitored by OSCE and ODIHR.
7. The parties have also agreed to intensify the work of the Trilateral Contact Group, including through the establishment of working groups on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. This work, naturally undertaken through a multilateral organisation such as the United Nations, will be conducted by a group of officials reflecting the composition of the Trilateral Contact Group. The excellent work of OSCE in coordinating the ongoing efforts of the Trilateral Contact Group must be expanded and built upon, and this is a role for the United Nations. It is heartening to see that the Trilateral Contact Group continues its activities and meetings in a constructive and impartial strategy to preserve long-term peace and achieve and implement the principles of justice and humanitarian rights that all members of the United Nations rightly aspire to.
Political events often have long lead-in times before their full consequences are understood. The collapse of the Cold War political order was one such event. The eventual rearmament of Russia, a resource-rich nation and one of the largest countries on earth, with the benefit of hindsight was inevitable and all of those, this author included, who did not anticipate it earlier might now feel somewhat abashed. Nevertheless it is a reality we all must face. We no longer have the certainties of the Cold War, but we do maintain its dangers after an illusory period of apparent monopolistic security. Understanding this confounding reality may be the key to defusing the contemporary European crisis. Where one frozen conflict can be unravelled through confidence-building measures, so might many others. The United Nations has a massive amount to do, and it requires ambitious and brave leadership. It has it. Let the work begin.