East Ukraine has become a non-metaphorical battlefield for the same reason that many places in history have been drawn into war, because it lies in the pathway of a ruler seeking to expand the empire he controls. There is a notion amongst Western ruling elites that this kind of conflict shouldn’t happen in 21st century Europe; clearly Russian President Vladimir Putin is not part of this consensus, and he commands the men and material to possibly wreck it. The massacre of 298 airline passengers and crew by a missile fired from Eastern Ukraine shattered Europe’s illusion that the imperial war of expansion being waged on its border is a problem that can be ignored.
The foundation of Putin’s strategy is simple. He believes a major actor in the international system — maybe a dominant one — can be effectively organized as an ethnic empire. Governing elites in the West may prefer to believe that this idea is too old or too crude to be taken seriously, but there is no real reason to assume that the tribal aspect of human nature cannot consume the future as it has at times consumed the past. Indeed, if people see an ethnic empire as the most powerful actor on the world stage, the option of joining themselves into a similarly organized grouping can become compelling, if they are not presented with better and stronger alternatives.
Until the MH17 massacre, the response of the countries of the European Union and the United States to Putin’s adventures into Ukraine was to draw a far-off line, sort-of hold it and whistle past the graveyard while hoping for the best. The strategy was a gamble that Putin’s basis for expansion, a supra-national “right” of Russia to rule where there are large concentrations of Russians, set rigid limits that could not be overcome, because an expanding greater-Russia would eventually run out of Russians to swallow. Couldn’t Putin’s surge be treated as an aberration, inconsistent with a self-evident modernity, that the world would automatically correct?
Following the MH17 massacre, it has dawned upon Western governments that a correction may not occur on its own, before great harm is done. In the past week they have taken steps, in the form of the beginnings of meaningful economic sanctions, to move a correction along. There are solid reasons to believe that sanctions will be effective in altering the behavior of the Putin regime, but the direction of movement in the short term is uncertain, and the West should be preparing for all possibilities.
The Putin regime has the same Achilles heel Russian governments have had for about a century, claims made to both elites and subjects that it can provide the same material wealth facilitated by Western freedom without allowing the freedom itself. Russia’s oligarchs want the political power and above-the-law existence that comes with authoritarian rule, at the same time they want the material wealth of their freer neighbors. But as was the case at beginning of the Eastern crisis earlier this year in Ukraine, stunted economic growth because of oligarchic rule when examples of better and freer life are easily observable nearby produces major instability. At some point, a decisive move along either an authoritarian or a free path must be made.
Putin realizes half-measures intended to ameliorate the tensions without resolving the fundamental contradictions, i.e. the kind attempted by the Ukrainian regime deposed earlier this year, are unlikely to work to his benefit in the long run. He has chosen to not relent at all on the authoritarian factors fomenting instability and instead apply hard-power in Crimea and East Ukraine, to expand his reach and to boost the stability of his regime by reinforcing an ethnic chauvinism that holds his followers together in a system they might not choose over other alternatives in its absence.
Is there a better way than political authoritarianism and stunted economic growth that Putin’s subjects (including high-ranking oligarchs) might want to consider? Western elites might not like to admit this, but ratcheting up an “uncivilized” tribal strategy may be an effective way for Putin and current Russian leadership to answer this question in the negative, by boosting the morale (at least in the short term) of his Russian followers, and by frightening an “internationalist” coalition away from being willing to take the steps necessary for confronting Russian expansion.
The ultimate effectiveness of this strategy depends on the nature of the coherence and the strength of the adversary that Russia faces.
Surprise at Putin’s expansionist actions and their ethnic justification overlaps another cherished belief held by many of the Western elite — that incidents of large scale violence impinging on Western Civilization but originating at or beyond its fringes can be treated as law-enforcement matters and not as acts of war.
In theory, the MH17 massacre is a situation where a rational, systematic law enforcement approach to violence against Europe should be maximally effective. Consider, there is a reasonable chance that the identities of specific individuals who carried out the massacre could be discerned through a proper investigation. The rockets were launched from within Ukraine, a sovereign nation whose government wants the perpetrators found and prosecuted. Government use of force against those who commit intra-state mass-murder is wholly justified under the most minimal formulation of why legitimate government exists.
Those who are supposed to be benefit from the existence of a formal international system — not only government leaders protecting their “interests” but also regular people seeking protection of their lives — will be taking notice of how the situation in East Ukraine is dealt with. They have a major stake in determining if their leaders make choices in literal life-and-death situations that do anything, in the words of classical realist Hans Morgenthau, “to regulate and restrain the power drives that otherwise would either tear society apart or else deliver the life and happiness of the weak to the arbitrary will of the powerful”.
While a foreign aggressor like Putin may believe use of his imperial power to veto the civilized norms of the West (like avoiding mass murder) serves an immediate need to show invincibility, it is a choice fraught with long-term consequences. Not everyone in the West will be willing to submit to Putin’s vision of a world order. What will those who don’t want to submit be left with as response options, if the modern version of institutional international cooperation is removed from the table, having proven itself to be impotent?
As long as Putin is willing to use hard power to bind and extend his empire, hard power or at least the threat of its use will have to be part of a serious response. But the most effective international responses are always a mixture of different elements of power. Supporting the military efforts of Ukraine against invaders while preparing them for full membership in NATO, while doing everything that can be done to develop energy supplies for Europe independent of Russia, and imposing meaningful economic sanctions that isolate of Russia from the benefits of interaction with West, could create conditions where Putin truly has reached his high-water mark already.
But if the citizens of the West see their leaders profess a package of tools that can neither bring justice to murdered innocents nor provide a credible guarantee of protection from future tribal aggression, they will eventually empower new leaders who bring a different mix of tools to the problem. And a world where a process-oriented “civilized” internationalism has lost the confidence of the masses, justifiably, because it is demonstrably ineffective against even the grossest of injustice, and where tribally-organized power is a leading contender for international dominance, is a world where all-out war between rival empires becomes increasingly likely.