Russia in a post-modern international system: searching for the “red line”

by Mathieu BOULEGUE on 3/28/2014

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After two waves of economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the United States, Moscow was denied a G8 summit and was “excluded” by the G7 from the club of super powers. And then what?

Looking for the red line

Over the past 5 months, the Ukrainian and Crimean crises have shown that Russia is completely ready to sacrifice a sizable chunk of its medium-term foreign exchange reserves and delay the resumption of growth. The escalation with the West also unveiled that Moscow can perfectly accommodate a certain amount of isolation from Western powers and is ready to shoot itself in the foot in order to serve the strategic interests of its “near abroad”. Nothing new under the sun then. Interestingly, we are talking here about the same Western powers that, after openly denouncing the Russian military invasion in Georgia in 2008, signed a “reset” with Moscow in 2009 or sold a Mistral-class warship to Russia. Sanctions will come and go and strategic normalcy will come back sooner than later.

Behind this logic, it is necessary to understand that Russia does not perceive the world the same way as the West does. Where Europe has lost the concept of “power”, where NATO is unable to project its influence, and where the United States lacks a coherent approach, President Putin understands the world in a geopolitical and security fashion, and even more in Russia’s near abroad sphere of influence.

Thus, in the absence of a genuinely clear “red line” sent by the West, Moscow is somewhat free to redefine the map of its territory and recreate cordons sanitaires as it pleases in order to conserve a neo-Soviet glacis of weak (and controlled) states in its periphery. This looks somewhat like the search for strategic stability through territorial instability (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdniestr, etc. examples abound).

Under the auspices of this “strategy of tension”, Russia is likely to continue pushing for more breathing room and buffer zones, as the West seems unable to react in the only way Moscow understands and respects: threat and coercion, if needed through military might – and not just mere economic sanctions. For proof, Russian troops have massed on the border of Eastern Ukraine and by the Black and Azov Seas, another demonstration of power that keeps the tension alive on a second front and thereby defuses it out of the Crimean territory.

Interestingly, the pro-Kremlin Russian Liberal-Democratic party (LDPR) sent letters on 24 March to the Presidents of Poland, Romania, and Hungary (i.e. countries bordering western Ukraine) requesting that referendums be held to “take control of certain territories in Ukraine”, citing historical contingency. According to Russia, it seems like a new geopolitical paradigm is arising whereby states with limited sovereignty reappear, a kind of postmodern Vienna Congress in which great powers can infringe on the sovereignty of smaller states and reshape their territorial logic.

Regional consequences of the Crimean crisis

With great powers kept in check by fears of escalation and repeated violations of international law, the Ukrainian quagmire reminds us that since the end of the Cold War, the international system on which we based the hope of a “New world Order” is really just a period of transition towards a new geopolitical paradigm. What happens in Crimea does not bode very well for the future.

Resulting from the Crimean “land grab”, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and above all Moldova – in connection with the issue of Transdniestr – are starting to feel ill-at-ease with Moscow’s hidden intentions, as it taught them that their borders are not finite and that their territorial integrity can be compromised without warning.

The vote on 27 March by the United Nations General Assembly of a Resolution reaffirming the territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine and rejecting the Crimean secession will not change much to the framework. Belarus and Armenia opposed the Resolution and the five Central Asian Republics did not vote. The Crimean show of force is clearly sending a strong signal not only to the West but also directly to post-Soviet leaders: beware!

A trend of territorial psychosis, however, might cause unrest in the Russian near abroad in the coming months, corollary to a potential downfall of President Putin’s Eurasian integration project. He just lost a European masterpiece and without Ukraine, the Eurasian Union will merely be “Asian”.

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This post was written by...

– author of 16 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

A Sciences Po and King’s College London alumnus, Mathieu Boulègue is an analyst in the field of Russia/CIS security and geostrategic issues. He currently works as a project manager for a risk management consulting firm. He is also a founding member of Sogdiane, a strategic think-tank on Eurasian affairs.

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