There is something menacing – and yet at the same time farcical – about the way in which part of the world is suddenly sliding into a new Crimean war.
The first Crimean War (1853 -1856) began when the Russian Empire wanted to “protect” Christians in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans then declared war on Russia, relying on the French and British support.
There are other historical analogies that are easy to come up with. Last Friday, on 28 February 2014, the Russian State Duma introduced a law that would allow for a one-sided annexation of territories to Russia. Under the law, a mere referendum would be sufficient, whereas recognition by other states is not required. It is difficult to avoid evoking the image of the 1930s and 40s annexations, which were carried out by using the same formula: military occupation blessed by a referendum.
The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion that Russia behaves as in the 19th century, aiming to capture another state “on completely trumped up pre-text”, is thus not entirely unfounded. On the other hand, the Russian leadership would have an easy answer to this, namely that the United States itself has frequently shown its readiness to use violence against others without asking for opinions on whether it violates international law or not. Two wrongs do not make a right, but the first wrong can all too easily be used to justify the second.
Joint responsibility for the brewing up of the current crisis goes much deeper, however. Geo-historically, the problem lies in the way in which Russia and Ukraine have been developing. After the collapse of the Soviet Union private ownership of means of production and the market were created by “shock therapy”. The idea came from Milton Friedman and the term itself was introduced by Jeffrey Sachs. The United States, and at the time especially the Republican Party, were actively pushing for the immediate implementation of the shock therapy to the former Soviet Union.
The result was a collapse in industrial production and the concentration of assets and property in the hands of the oligarchs. Due to the chaos of the 1990s, many in Russia and other CIS countries began to yearn for a “strong leader”.
Putin’s Russia emerged from the dire consequences of radical economic liberalism, enlargement of NATO and the general master-attitude of the West vis-à-vis Russia. The effects of uncertainty and inequality on everyday life were so dramatic that a very large number of people were willing to vote for anyone who could credibly promise to be able to restore at least a half-functioning state and economy and re-establish pensions and some sort of functional health care system.
Regardless of what the true causes and motivation of NATO expansion and the build-up of missile systems and military bases were, from the Russian point of view, they can effortlessly be interpreted as the extension of the Western sphere of influence. The subsequent interactions have contributed towards the comeback of the 1800s.
In a 1996 research report (a short book) entitled Only Trading Partners? EU, Russia and the Structuration of the External relations of the EU, I argued that the most likely scenario for Russia includes a combination of authoritarianism and Bonapartism within a formally liberal framework, wherein there lie strong tendencies towards ever more oligarchic developments. Putin’s hard-line leadership was to be expected.
Putin’s Russia has been guarding a “sphere of interest” within the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. However, also the United States and the EU have been active participants in, for example, the plots and struggles of the Ukrainian oligarchs and miscellaneous political forces. We have seen several collisions between the West and Russia already before the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the Crimean.
Critical cosmopolitanism is able to distance oneself from any particular “we” and use this critical distance to assess the identity, interests and policies any of particular community, nation, or state – while at the same time trying to contextualise the ongoing issues and developments in terms of much broader contexts.
The current Crimean conflict has resulted from the characteristic processes of the neoliberal, post-Cold War world order. Particularly worrying is the fact that this crisis involves open confrontation between the major nuclear-weapon states.
The outcome of this crisis is not pre-determined. Although right now the first priority is to avoid the worst options from being realised, what is also needed is critical reflexivity and capacity to look much farther than at the mere immediate appearances and instantaneous causes of the menacing situation in Ukraine and south Russia.
The question is: how can we change the conditions that have led to the come-back of the 1800s? How to avoid repeating the mistakes that have led us here? How can we go back to the 2000s and into the future?
Peaceful resolution of conflicts requires sustainable political economy developments that benefit all, and especially the most vulnerable. It also requires fair and democratic institutional guarantees and widespread belief in the real possibility that common social problems must and can be resolved by processes of peaceful change. The aim should be to build the conditions for a sustainable global security community.