TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Ukraine Crisis and the Death of Europe

The following paper was presented at the recent Telos in Europe conference on “The Idea of Europe,” held in L’Aquila, Italy, on September 5–8, 2014.

The Ukraine crisis reflected the continuation in new forms of what used to be called the East-West conflict. After the end of the Cold War in 1989–91, as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the Soviet Union based on the ideas of the “new political thinking,” no inclusive and equitable peace system was established. Instead, an asymmetrical peace was imposed on Russia. The Soviet Union disintegrated in December 1991, and Russia emerged as the “continuer state,” assuming the burdens, treaty obligations, and nuclear responsibilities of the former USSR. As far as Russia was concerned, the end of the Cold War had been a shared victory: everyone stood to gain from the end of the division of Europe, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The institutions of the Cold War in the East were dismantled, above all the Warsaw Treaty Organization (the Warsaw Pact), but on the other side the organizations of the Cold War were extended, above all in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

At the Bucharest NATO summit in April 2008, Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership, although Membership Action Plans (MAPs) were deferred because of German and French concerns about the threat that moving to Russia’s borders and encircling the country could provoke a dangerous reaction. Gorbachev had apparently been promised that NATO would not advance to the East. From Russia’s perspective, there was no security vacuum that needed to be filled; from the West’s perspective, who was to deny the “sovereign choice” of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) states if they wished to enter the world’s most successful multilateral security body.

In the end, NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement. The former Warsaw Pact and Baltic states joined NATO to enhance their security; but the very act of doing so created a security dilemma for Russia that undermined the security of all. A security dilemma, according Robert Jervis, is when a state takes measures to enhance its own security but those measures will inevitably be seen as offensive rather than defensive by other states, who then undertake measures to increase their own security, and so on—in this case provoking the Ukraine crisis. This fateful geopolitical syllogism—that NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence—provoked a number of conflicts. The Russo-Georgian War of August 2008 acted as the forewarning tremor for the major earthquake that engulfed Europe over Ukraine in 2013–14.

The asymmetrical end of the Cold War generated a cycle of conflict that is far from over. An extended period of “cold peace” settled over Russo-Western relations, although punctuated by attempts by both sides to escape the logic of renewed confrontation. This is what I call a mimetic cold war, which reproduces the practices of the Cold War without openly accepting the underlying competitive rationale. Structurally, a competitive dynamic was introduced into European international relations, despite the intentions of the best on both sides. At worst, the post-communist countries, encouraged by neo-conservatives in Washington and “revanchists” in Central and Eastern Europe, fed concerns about Russia’s alleged inherent predisposition toward despotism and imperialism. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy: by treating Russia as the enemy, in the end it was in danger of becoming one. NATO thus found a new role, which was remarkably similar to what it had been set up to do in the first place—to “contain” Russia.

Two visions of Europe have come into contention today. The first is the idea of “wider Europe,” the idea of the continent centered on the European Union (EU). European space is represented as Brussels-focused, with concentric rings centered on the West European heartlands of European integration. In the 1950s this was designed to ensure that France and Germany would never again come to war. The majority of the Eastern European countries sought liberal democracy, market reform, and above all, the “return to Europe.” Political, social, and geopolitical goals all lined up, which in a remarkably short period allowed the majority of East European countries to join NATO and the EU. This was an exemplary manifestation of the “wider Europe” model of development, and it undoubtedly delivered substantial benefits to the countries concerned.

Wider Europe is challenged by a second vision, the idea of a “greater Europe.” The symbolic year is 1991, the date of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Instead of concentric rings emanating from Brussels, weakening at the edges but nevertheless focused on a single center, the idea of greater Europe posits a more multipolar vision of Europe, with more than one center and without a single ideological flavor. Thus Moscow, Ankara, and possibly Kiev would emerge as centers in their own right, allied with wider Europe but retaining a multi-dimensional set of interactions of their own. This is a more pluralistic representation of European space, and draws on a long European tradition. Various plans for the integration of the continent from Lisbon to Vladivostok have a long pedigree. Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s notion of pan-Europa before the war, Gaullist ideas of a broader common European space from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Gorbachev’s dream of a “Common European Home” transcending the bloc politics of the Cold War era, Nicholas Sarkozy’s return to the idea of pan-Europa, and the Valdai Club’s idea of a “Union of Europe,” are all moments giving voice to this aspiration.

The fundamental difference between wider and greater Europe lies in contrasting geopolitical perspectives. Russia considers itself a “great power” and the center of an alternative, although not necessarily adversarial, civilizational and geopolitical pole in world politics. Thus Russia could not simply become part of “wider Europe” focused on the European Union, let alone slip easily into the Euro-Atlantic security community. The notion of greater Europe would have been a way of negotiating what in the best of circumstances would have been a complex and difficult relationship.

Russia remains outside the core institutional governance in Europe. The relationship between Russia and the European heartland shifted to a narrow interest-based pattern of interactions, but this satisfied neither side. The interests/value dialectic in the EU is more complex than some of its more idealistic partisans would suggest; Russia cannot avoid engaging with the normative dynamic of its own actions, while the EU is not quite the epitome of “normative” power that some of its most idealistic partisans would suggest. Equally, Russia’s definition of a great power entails a normative dimension, if only the proclaimed defense of international law.

As Russia’s estrangement from the wider Europe project intensified, it placed ever-greater emphasis on the greater Europe idea. This offered the prospect not only for integrating Russia and Turkey with Europe, but also a way for Europe to redefine itself. The old European integration model of ever-greater enlargement came up against its natural limits, especially since wider Europe began to set itself up as a proto-great power bloc that would in that form inevitably come into confrontation with Russia and, possibly, with America as well. In the event, Russia’s initiatives in favor of the greater European agenda were dismissed, perceived as being little more than a cover for the establishment of a “greater Russia” by stealth. Tensions with the wider European agenda and the dead-end in the development of greater Europe prompted Russia increasingly to turn to ideas of greater Eurasia. Russia and its partners began to develop Eurasia as a distinct pole in world affairs by providing the institutional framework for an alternative integrative project.

European integration had been designed to transcend the logic of conflict, and it had been spectacularly successful in this endeavor in the West, but in the East it became the harbinger of new lines of confrontation. This time the logic of struggle for territory is garbed in the language of norms and soft power, but the intent is clear—to extend the EU’s normative power to the East, to prepare the way for the enlargement of the Atlantic security community and thus to secure the West’s geopolitical domination of the region. The idea of “normative power Europe” was thereby discredited. The EU began to engage in a geopolitical contestation of its own, something for which it lacks the institutional capacity and experience, as it effectively forced its Eastern neighbors to choose between Brussels and Moscow. This was an extraordinary inversion: instead of overcoming the logic of conflict, the EU became an instrument for its reproduction in new forms.

The failure to establish a greater European dimension now discredited wider Europe as a whole. After all, what is the point of an EU that generates war rather than peace, and which cannot manage conflict on its own continent? The failure of the continental vision was swiftly followed up by plans to consolidate NATO in its traditional posture as an instrument to contain Russia, accompanied by the vigorous espousal of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which represents nothing less than the death of the EU as a normative social welfare and peace project. Equally, on the other side, ideas of greater Eurasian integration are eclipsed by the intensification of links with China and the emergence of a powerful dynamic of greater Asia, in which both Russia and the Eurasian Union are in danger of being subsumed. In short, the Ukraine crisis exposed the crisis in European international relations and rang the death knell of pan-European unification for our generation.

Comments are closed.