WASHINGTON – In an almost casual way Russian President Vladimir Putin trashed each and every agreement that supposedly guaranteed lasting peace in post-Cold War Europe. The goal of these agreements and other “confidence building measures”, (including inviting Russian representatives at NATO Headquarters, prior notices of all military maneuvers, and more), was to make sure that Europe would remain an island of peace.
Europe will be an island of peace
The foundation of all this was (supposedly) the shared conviction that all disputes among European states would be addressed and resolved only through peaceful negotiations and diplomacy and –most of all– that no country would resort to military means and/or any other form of aggression to modify national boundaries.
The shared understanding, we all thought, was that war was no longer an option in Europe. All Europeans, including Russia, the (more democratic, we thought) state that came after the defunct Soviet Union, had unquestionably opted for peaceful means.
War against Georgia
Well, the short Russian military campaign into Georgia in 2008 proved that the Russians did not really buy into this new world. As we recall, that campaign ended with two pieces of Georgia –Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia– declaring their “independence”.
But it was and it is clear to all that the whole thing was instigated, facilitated and paid for by Moscow. In other words, while Russia did not formally proclaim a formal annexation, for all practical purposes that military operation ended with a truncated Georgia and two pieces of it becoming de facto parts of the Russian Federation.
Establishing a precedent
That aggressive military action, although limited in scope, established a terribly dangerous precedent, because Russia got away with it. Indeed, nothing much happened after this outrage of a military aggression that broke all the pledges and all the promises related to a peaceful European post-Cold War environment.
Yes, let’s keep in mind that Russia in 2008 paid essentially no price for its use of force aimed at taking land away from Georgia, another European sovereign state.
Now fast forward to 2014 and the troubles in Ukraine. In this instance, Russia, whatever window dressing gimmicks it adopted, simply went ahead and annexed Crimea, a piece of Ukraine.
Later on it supported a bogus East Ukrainian secessionist movement. It is clear to all that such a movement could not have materialized, let alone succeeded in seizing territory, without Moscow’s active support, military advisers, arms and money.
The West reacted, sort of
In this case Europe and America reacted, but very feebly. At the beginning, they tried to find a way that would allow Russia to withdraw without losing face, (the “off ramp” option). Then, as diplomacy failed, after much hesitation, they imposed symbolic economic sanctions. And then some more sanctions.
Well, so far not so good. The new and broader sanctions now in place may eventually cause damages to the Russian economy, but we have yet to see the end of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Russia gets away with it
And here is the lesson. The assumption that all Europeans –East and West– were truly committed to a vision of a peaceful Continent amounted to wishful thinking.
It turns out that Russia has its own ideas about sovereignty when it comes to new countries located in what they (ominously) call the “Near Abroad” that used to belong to the old Soviet Empire.
It is also clear that Europe and America, notwithstanding all their verbal protests, are not willing to do much about it.
While the future of war-torn Eastern Ukraine is still in doubt, Crimea will stay Russian, while Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia will never go back to Georgia.
The “law of the jungle” has prevailed.