By George-Vadim Tiugea*
War in International Relations
Since the most distant times, wars have represented the main tool of regulating inter-human relations. As stated by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, man in his initial state was a rather violent animal (homo homini lupus) and, for this reason, the rule of war reigned in relations with his peers, within which the strongest managed to impose his interests on the weakest. Based on the principle of natural selection, this framework was closer to the animal kingdom than to a society in the true sense of the word.
However, due to the learning capacity inherent in human nature, the weak began to coalesce against the strongest in order to succeed in facing and even defeating him, and sharing the subsequent benefits. From here emerges one of the basic principles in traditional international relations, namely the balance of power.
Humanity has progressed a lot since those times drowned in the mist of time. Wars have changed, under the impact of technological innovations, and so have their rules. The various civilizations that succeeded each other in the history of mankind managed to improve and perfect what Chinese author Sun Tzu called “the art of war”. By bringing together large masses of armed people and forming formidable armies, various peoples held supremacy over important regions. At the same time, however, diplomatic negotiations appeared, which had the role of reconciling different and even conflicting positions by offering mutual benefits which avoided important losses of each party in case of armed conflict.
After the conclusion of several international treaties (Tordesillas, Zaragoza, Westphalia), an international jurisprudence was created, even if only in the initial phase and marked by spectacular betrayals and reorientations. With the emergence of Humanism and the Enlightenment, this emerging jurisprudence was marked by the idea of a certain universal justice and equity, so that the premises of a “universal society of nations” (envisioned by German philosopher Immanuel Kant) were created, which would have lived in peace, avoiding warlike solutions and emphasizing dialogue. For the time being, what developed was the so-called “European concert”, by which great powers agreed not to expand too much to the detriment of each other, in exchange for maintaining their aristocratic internal orders.
Unfortunately, some time had to pass until the dream of a world organization that would protect the integrity of component entities (states, peoples, nations) became a reality. The League of Nations was a first failed experiment after the first world conflagrations of the 20th century. On its ruins appeared the United Nations, which was an oasis of hope for pacifists, but disappointed many of their expectations during the Cold War, when its effectiveness was minimal. However, the international legal framework was much better regulated, with UN-mandated missions appearing to calm conflict situations around the world.
However, despite these positive developments, the great powers continued to look out for their own interests, resorting (even after 1990) to the UN only when it was in their interest or in blocking their rivals. This diminished the important role that the UN should have played and continuously undermined the effectiveness of a post-war international order. Nevertheless, the emergence of nuclear weapons at the beginning of the Cold War and the formation of powerful military alliances such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact, made classic war too costly for major international actors and thus reduced its incidence, leaving more room to proxy wars. Other countries chose to favor enhanced cooperation and even a shared form of sovereignty in the economic and political spheres, under the form of the European Union.
The end of the Cold War, characterized by the implosion of the communist camp led by the Soviet Union, brought new hopes for the development of a true world community under the banner of liberal democracy. Former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe joined NATO and the European Union. Thus, some authors were tempted to consider that humanity had reached the “end of history”. However, the resurgence of terrorism in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the presumed hegemonic power, made people realize that conflicts had just turned into a new phase of asymmetric wars. The US led “war against terrorism” was joined by many nations of the world, but failure to address root causes of the phenomenon (such as poverty, development gaps, lack of education, weapon exports and colonial inheritance) led to incomplete victories against organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh) and to the proliferation of weak states (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, among others) especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
In the meantime, some international actors decided to return to military interventions in order to assert their predominance in certain strategic regions. This was the case of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo (1999) or Russia’s military operation in Georgia (2008), both justified by humanitarian grounds (protection of endangered ethnic minorities) and resulting into de facto independence of secessionist regimes. Nevertheless, these had limited purpose and were quickly regulated at international level by diplomatic settlements of a kind or another. In 2014, following the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine and an imminent Association Agreement with the EU, Russia claimed the new Kyiv regime was no longer legitimate and decided to annex Crimea, thus violating the sovereignty of a neighboring country, previously recognized by the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. At the same time, Moscow encouraged the secession of Russian minority groups from Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Eastern Ukraine, thus practically fueling civil war in Ukraine. In spite of OSCE mediation through the two Minsk agreements (2014 and 2015), the conflict persisted in a frozen form, much like those in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh (all encouraged by Russian “peacekeeping” forces).
Return to Military Conflict
On 24 February 2022, following failed attempts of Moscow to redeem from the West an official sphere of influence over the former Soviet space, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, under the pretext of “demilitarizing” and “de-nazifying” the country, in spite of an existing democratically elected sovereign government. Even if the Moscow regime pretends to be targeting only military targets, civilian infrastructure was also heavily bombed and thousands of innocent Ukrainians were killed. This seems to bring us back in history by several decades. All hopes that we were moving towards a new stage in the evolution of humanity, characterized by solidarity against the global threats of our century (global warming, pandemics, daily stress, terrorism and identity crises) were dashed in a few days. Scenes from the two world wars of the last century, or from the Spanish civil war of the interwar period became everyday realities. Waves of refugees from Ukraine (even ethnic Russians) are leaving the country heading West, which is their last hope. The same West that, as if imitating the conciliatory behavior of the interwar leaders towards Hitler, hesitated to take early measures against Vladimir Putin, allowing him to consider himself an unparalleled global leader.
Beyond emotional speeches and illusory promises of Western leaders for the heroic Ukrainian people caught between two tectonic plates of the contemporary world, the power play between great powers is obvious. The former American hegemon began to show obvious signs of weakness, especially after withdrawing (too late) from Afghanistan, which led the emerging powers (generically known as BRICS/Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) to hope that they can change the global balance. Also, the former great European powers proved the limits of their approach (national interests prevailing over common objectives) by failing to outline a common position within the EU (symbolically marked by Brexit) and by negotiating separately with Russia the supply of energy resources necessary to continue their economic development (especially Germany, which gave up nuclear energy – in a positive greening impulse – but choosing a type of energy that made it deeply vulnerable and for which the politicians of the two big traditional parties are equally to blame). Under these conditions, it was not a surprise that Putin would try to regain the former sphere of Soviet influence. No one imagined, however, in what manner…
Russia is currently neither more nor less than it was known. Although it claims to be an emerging power, the Russian state suffered a sharp decline after the dissolution of the USSR, especially in economic and demographic terms. Transition to democracy and market economy was marked by impoverishment of regular citizens and the rise of powerful oligarchs at the intersection of politics and organized crime. Putin’s rule gave Russia the illusion that it can once again become a relevant global actor based on the export of energy resources and armaments. For a while this arrangement worked and it seemed that Russia was back forever among civilized nations supporting an integrated global economy (especially under WTO rules).
This perception was based on the illusion that values of Russian cultural, scientific and sports elites were an expression of the whole society. Instead, the endurance of Putin’s regime in power was based on survival of the Soviet system in slightly modified forms, based on clientelism, nepotism, social Darwinism, militarization and submission to the powerful of the day in order to survive. Basically, Russia never had any kind of democratic tradition, which left its mark on the evolution of the silent majority (homo sovieticus) that supports the former KGB officer in power.
Without excelling, Putin managed, together with the inherited system of government that he modified according to his own preferences, called the vertical of power or “the system” (systema), to maintain the internal balance and create an illusion of the possibility of Russia’s return to the top of the world’s great powers. This also benefited from the acute leadership crisis of the West and so-called “useful idiots” like Gerhard Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump. For the last two decades, Russia has returned to the forefront of international events, either as a mediator or as a decisive ally. At the same time, though, at internal level the Putin regime only managed to suppress any meaningful political opposition (arresting thousands of young activists and even encouraging killing of independent personalities such as Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Skripal, or poisoning and detention of Alexei Navalny), replace powerful oligarchs with obedient ones, close independent media channels, NGOs and building an authoritarian state under the so-called doctrine of “sovereign democracy”. Also, the Putin regime is supporting authoritarian regimes (Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria, Venezuela), far right extremist movements (National Rally of France, Alternative for Germany, the League of Italy, Hungarian Jobbik) and criminal spies all over the world (in the classic Soviet Union style).
The main messages of the Kremlin are based on former Soviet propaganda, accusing the West for all evils in the world and claiming superiority of a supposed alternative model, which however fails to embrace reality. Putin rules as a de facto Tsar, ignoring democratic rules, a fact demonstrated by manipulation of Russia’s Constitution in order to come back to presidency in 2012 and even modifying this fundamental document in 2020, in order to remain in power as long as 2036. The simulated democracy is characterized by the predominance of the United Russia party and support of a “puppet opposition” under the form of nationalist, communist and populist groups (Communists, LDPR and Just Russia).
But what Putin created in 20 years collapsed in a few days, since he hastily attacked Ukraine, using imaginary reasons, coming from the Russian political mythology of the 19th century supported by Slavophile and Eurasian currents. The illusion of power made Putin believe that he can do anything, given that the West seems to be on a downward slope in its evolution, after the fight against terrorism and the pandemic. But this illusion did not take into account the fact that his power is based on coercion of Russian society (for example, young people were forced to enroll to fight a war to conquer former territories of the Russian Empire – so called Malorussia) for the benefit of a narrow group in power (so-called siloviki, or people from security structures).
Thus, loyalty is confused by the Russian leader with competence and quantity with quality. The failure, at least as it emerged during the military intervention from the last few months, to subdue a young nation like Ukraine, reveals the capital weaknesses of the Russian state. The lack of adequate de-Sovietization led to the failure of Russian transition towards a market economy and democracy, masked by the fictitious concept of “sovereign democracy”, in fact disguised autocracy, an unsuccessful imitation of the Chinese model of totalitarian communism with capitalist values. Without a sustainable economic base, Russia is proving these days that, far from being a great emerging power, it is a decadent neo-Soviet state, clinging to an uncertain partnership with China and rogue states such as Iran and North Korea in order to survive in an increasingly complicated world.
Of course, China’s position is important and it can generate an appeasement solution for the problem of an unpredictable Hitler-type leader as Putin (annexation of Kherson, Zaporizhya, Donetsk and Luhansk regions by Russia is comparable to annexation of Sudetenland and Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938), or Beijing can use this to accelerate its global rise. In fact, China is the main rising power of this century, but its dispute with the United States (in Taiwan and, generally, throughout East and Southeast Asia) could bring it closer to Russia. China’s choice could determine the future of humanity for many years to come, either in the form of a new cold war (nuclear weapons do not allow a new world war in the classical sense) or of a tough competition in the economic field. A new cold war could take longer than the previous one and change the world forever, possibly along dividing lines outlined in George Orwell’s 1984.
Regardless of whether he will eventually succeed in conquering Ukraine militarily (but without subduing it, given the growing Russophobia of Ukrainians), Putin’s strategic error cannot be hidden. It can be explained by his clinging to an idealized Soviet past, which in fact turned upside down after the fatal intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Russia’s expansion cannot guarantee its security, given that the hostility of the West makes the latter even more coherent and unified. It can at most generate the internal conditions that determined the Bolshevik revolution and the collapse of the Russian empire a century ago. From this point of view, Putin seems closer to Nicholas II than to Peter the Great (as he would like to be), given that maintaining the status quo would have guaranteed him a mandate until natural death and a safe place in the golden book of Russian history. We must not forget that the vast majority of Russia’s leaders either died in office or were assassinated by their own subjects. What Putin did not understand is that cooperation with the West (at least with the European Union) could have brought Russia more economic prosperity and stability, while generating less insecurity. His views remained entrenched in the Stalinist ideology of the 1950, dominated by a zero-sum view over international security.
Now, Russia is more and more isolated at international level and no one in Moscow seems to gain anything from this military intervention, except the arms industry. The only possible solution could be an implosion of the Putin regime and democratization of Russia (as implausible as this may sound). Any other option would only perpetuate the conflicting state of world affairs (a lasting peace with annexations is only an illusion, as was the interwar temporary peace), leading to a return to the bipolar world (along US and China respectively) and to a general deterioration of living standards for common people.
About the author: George-Vadim Tiugea graduated Political Science in English at the University of Bucharest and holds a Master Degree in International Relations at the same university. He worked as intern within the office of the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as a political science researcher at the Ovidiu Sincai Social Democratic Institute, where he coordinated the International Relations Department and was project manager of the Ovidiu Sincai European School, within the network of Council of Europe’s schools of political studies. He also worked as a local assistant for various Members of the European Parliament. He has been editor, author or co-author of specialized papers and articles in the field of international relations, political ideologies, security, foreign policy, ethnic conflicts and guerrilla warfare. Currently, he is Civil Servant at the National House of Public Pensions, within the Direction for International Relations, and PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Bucharest.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.