The Ukrainian Crisis and the ‘New Cold War’ Paradigm

Posted on 10. December 2014

by Miruna Troncota

miruna-troncotaReflections on the Bucharest Forum and the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum

Already one year has passed since the refusal of the former President Viktor Yanukovych to sign the EU Association Agreement at the Vilnius Summit in November 2013. Since then, all eyes are on Ukraine. As the conflict escalated, involving the use of military and the involvement of external forces to stop the increasing loss of human lives, the situation in Ukraine started to be perceived as the key geopolitical challenge of the post-Cold War order in Europe.

From an observer’s position I had the chance to attend a series of diplomatic forums and public debates about the situation in Ukraine. The discussions focused mainly on possible ways to reach an arrangement that could be sustained with reasonable political, economic and military costs for both the West and Ukraine.

Firstly, I participated in the Bucharest Forum (2-4 October) jointly organised by the Aspen Institute Romania and the German Marshal Fund of the United States. Also, I have attended the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum (11 November) organised by the Körber Foundation from Germany and finally the Warsaw Security Forum (20-21 November) organised by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation and National Defence University in Poland. I was privileged to take part in the intense debates between prominent politicians, policymakers, civil society experts, security and defence experts from EU Member States, the US, Russia and Ukraine. I especially appreciated the contribution to the debates of renowned public intellectuals and experts who presented controversial but straightforward points of view, such as George Friedman from Stratfor at the Bucharest Forum, the newly appointed Crisis Group CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno at the Berlin Forum or the chess Grand Master and political activist Garry Kasparov in Warsaw. I mostly appreciated the fact that all events were live broadcasted over the internet, clearly a sign that they wanted to include and they were aimed at including the broader public and especially the young voices in the global debate. ‘Closed doors geopolitics’ is not suitable for today’s realities.

Reflections on Berlin Foreign Policy Forum

One of the dominant perceptions of the situation in Ukraine is the one that sees it as a triumphant return of “hard” Realism to the European continent and argues that Ukraine was caught in the middle between competing regional arrangements (NATO, EU or Customs Union / Eurasian Economic Union). Thus, the omnipresent comparison to the renewal of the Cold War bipolarity, found in Ukraine the most fertile ground. Symbolic dates contributed to this perception, too.

The Bucharest Forum took place just a few days after the famous article by John Mearsheimer was published, in which he assigns all ‘the blame’ for the current crisis to Western actors and their “misguided attempts” to “move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West” (“Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault” in Foreign Affairs, September 2014). Another symbolic element that was often referred to was that the Bucharest Forum took place in the same historic building where the root of the present conflict in Ukraine is to be found; in that very building , back in 2008, both Georgia and Ukraine declared their willingness to adhere to NATO at the Bucharest NATO Summit. Soon after that, the war in Georgian started. In Mearsheimer’s opinion, NATO enlargement, coupled with the EU’s eastward drive, has provoked an entirely justified and expected Russian reaction. The Berlin Foreign Policy Forum took place only two days after the official celebrations of 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the announcement of Mikhail Gorbachevthat the world is on brink of a “new cold war” over Ukraine. And at the Warsaw Forum all participants were commenting on the geopolitical importance of the Polish former Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s mandate as the new President of the Council of the European Union and the possible  impact on strengthened regional cooperation.

During the debates I noticed that there is a broad perception that the settlement of this conflict will affect the international order in profound ways because it tackles intricate issues such as Russia’s role in the continental security dynamic, as well as its profile on the world stage, the EU’s position vis-a-vis its Eastern Neighbourhood, NATO’s role, as well as the US’s involvement in European security, but also the weight of international norms and principles and the respect for international law. From this point of view the comparison with the Cold War geopolitical atmosphere might be misleading.

In my view, the Cold War period has drawn a very simplistic picture of the world and the balance of powers as a very rigid ‘geopolitical tango’. The present realities are more complex and nuanced, the security interests are more interdependent, especially in terms of energy security. These features should not be transformed into a polarised and oversimplified zero-sum game for power and spheres of influence. I think it is an exaggeration to state that all post 1989 political arrangements are being put under question by the events in Ukraine. During the debates, a lot of analysts stated that this crisis, even its military dimension, was actually predictable especially after the events in Georgia in 2008. I do not think that the Cold War comparison is adequate because it entails a certain type of unconstructive behaviour on both sides. As such, I think it is vital not to cut channels of communication between the East and the West, as happened during the Cold War. This had a detrimental effect, with  both sides being  caught in their own ideological “bubble”. I had the chance to hear the perspective of both the  Russian and Ukrainian representatives taking part in these open debates and it seemed to me that oversimplification is, in this sensitive case, very dangerous and it can be directly linked with the so called ‘information war; which is aimed at misinformation. Actually, the main challenge here would be to think about who actually needs this “new Cold War” rhetoric. I believe it is important not to caricaturise each other (The West and Russia) because that will keep us both far away from reality. Black and white perspectives are never helpful for good decisions as they take the shape of conflicting perspectives either/or. I believe that contemporary international relations deal more with various shades of grey, which are accessible only through dialogue and open debate.

This new Cold War rhetoric was very frequently used during the Forums, but I identified with a more nuanced point of view of the East-West clash as the main trigger in the Ukraine conflict. The most important challenge is to manage complexities without black and white simplistic visions. I think that at the moment the temptation to cut off communication channels between the two sides is the most dangerous. A political, not a military solution is needed for keeping an open dialogue and the possibility to compromise was a message more often highlighted by the European representatives. This aspect fits EU’s perspective on peace building – that it takes more than military power to solve a conflict.

The US perspective is slightly different; it is more connected to the Cold War patterns  and the dichotomy between past and future. Diplomacy should not be perceived as a weakness. On the contrary, dialogue is the most sustainable form of solving a dispute. More than anything we need nuanced versions of realities on the ground, not the same black and white distorting and ideological descriptions of events. A dialogue needs trust and partnership. These features are now absent in the Western-Russia relation regarding the Ukrainian issue. My conclusion is that this new Cold War paradigm is not useful for understanding the war in Ukraine for any of the parties. All parties will be weakened by the continuation of the conflict. A full implementation of the Minsk Protocol is most urgently needed. In Berlin especially, team work was the key word of the forum and the answer to all major security challenges. Western unity and willingness to talk with Russia will be the most sustainable solution.