Many observers now believe a war between Russia and Ukraine is inevitable. Jim Hughes explains how the erosion of trust between Russia and the West has brought us to the brink of a conflict that could have far reaching consequences for Europe.
As Russia-Ukraine tensions appear to be escalating toward war, Western leaders show every sign of conforming to I.F. Stone’s acute observation that “when war comes reason becomes treason”. Nuance, balance, and expert analysis is washed over by a flood of escalating hyperbole and skewed polarising commentary. Two recent illustrations of this are public comments by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who having ordered 2,000 British anti-tank missiles sent to Ukraine, threatened that Russia faced a “new Chechnya” if it invaded Ukraine, and a recent article in the Financial Times by Robert Gates, former Director of the CIA and US Secretary of Defense, who argued for the US and its NATO allies to “exacerbate” the current crisis.
On the first comment, it is clear foolishness to draw an analogy between Chechnya’s wars and Putin’s current policy. There were two wars in Chechnya. The first, in 1994-6, was waged by Western supported Boris Yeltsin, who despite systematic Russian atrocities was indulged by Western leaderships. US president Bill Clinton infamously compared Yeltsin’s actions in this war to those of Abraham Lincoln in the US civil War. Many Western commentators predicted wrongly that the war would be a “tombstone” for Russian power. The war destroyed much of the modern infrastructure of Chechnya and caused thousands of casualties on both sides, and ended in a stalemate.
It is the second Chechnya war (1999-2008) that was led by Putin (first as Prime Minister and then as President). The second war ended in victory for Russia, and minimal Russian casualties, largely by two tactics. First, Russia copied NATO’s tactics in the Balkans of deploying overwhelming distance bombing from land and air against insurgents, which displaced the bulk of the civilian population temporarily into neighbouring regions. Second, unlike the military defeats of US and British counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia successfully eliminated the insurgency by coopting a proxy leadership in Chechnya under Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, and has used it since to stabilise the region. It is unlikely that Putin would draw any lessons from Chechnya, as Ukraine has a modern professional army that will need to be neutralised by different methods. However, if Putin were to draw any analogies from the Chechnya experience, they would be highly positive from a Russian perspective.
The commentary by Mr Gates, a seasoned presence in the US intelligence community, correctly focuses our attention to the background and context of the current crisis, locating it to the early 1990s and the fall of the USSR. The fall may have occurred in 1989-91, but the current crisis demonstrates that its ripple effects continue to shape international relations in Europe (and in Eurasia). Gates explains that “Almost everything Putin does at home and abroad is rooted in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which for him marked the collapse of the four-century-old Russian empire and Russia’s position as a great power.” Mr Gates sees the current crisis as an opportunity for the US and its NATO allies to “exacerbate” tensions in order to weaken Putin. It is as if he wants to call the bluff of a nuclear armed state.
The Gates comment is more useful for drawing our attention to the reasons why trust has broken down between Russia and the US and its NATO allies. From the Russian perspective, the erosion of trust began with commitments given by US and Western leaderships at the time of the unification of Germany in 1990 that there would be no expansion of NATO to the East. This is a controversial issue, with many Western commentators keen to disinform and dismiss Russia’s claims about a breach of commitment by pointing to the fact that there was no formal treaty or agreement that NATO would not enlarge. A good illustration of this position is the Chatham House report of May 2021, where the Russian charge was dismissed as one of many “myths”.
What is the difference between a treaty, an agreement, a guarantee, an obligation and an assurance in international relations? One might think that the first is legally embedded, usually, and therefore is more enforceable. In fact, as history shows, and recent history affirms, any international agreement whether legally formalised or informally stated, is only as good as the interests of the parties in remaining committed to abiding by it.
The United States has abrogated several international agreements in recent decades, treaties included (the ABM Treaty, the INF Treaty, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the JPA on Iran). The British government has demonstrated a lack of commitment to the Good Friday Agreement during Brexit, repeatedly threatening to break international agreements with Ireland and the EU. Such abrogations undermine trust, which is a key ingredient in stable international relations. The absence of trust is also a key driver of war.
What security guarantees were given to Russia by the US and its allies during and after the collapse of Soviet power in Eastern and Central Europe in 1990? In 2018, William J. Burns, current Director of the CIA and a veteran US foreign policy professional, published his memoir, The Back Channel. In 1989-90 he was in the lead team of policy planning in the State Department, managing the collapse of the USSR. He describes (p. 55) a meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Gorbachev and his foreign minister Shevardnadze in Moscow in February 1990, at the pivotal moment in the unification of Germany. According to Burns, Baker gave a guarantee to the Soviet leaders that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or forces “one inch to the East” of the borders of a reunified Germany.
From the perspective of the US and its allies, especially those at the eastern interface with Russia, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and military support for the secessionists in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 is a clear breach of Russia’s commitments to guarantee the sovereignty of Ukraine given in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.
Once broken, trust is challenging to repair and disinformation whataboutery can only deteriorate the crisis. War is made more likely by the absence of trust. In this crisis, the unpredictable consequences of war have the potential to reach far beyond Russia’s likely territorial ambitions in Eastern Ukraine, north of Crimea, and along the Black Sea littoral. A good place to start rebuilding trust is to revisit the security architecture and mutual guarantees given in the early 1990s in a manner which restores their credibility.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Kremlin.ru (CC BY 4.0) / Explanation of Copyright
Thank you, thank you! Professor Hughes ! I have been reading many many articles and hearing views…so many laced with blatant lies.
With is this done? what do we want? is it war? Is it so difficult so see who our real strategic adversaries are ?
Jacob Brunowsky (whom I knew when at the Salk Institute(1972) , in his “The Ascent of Man” BBC series advanced the concept of the continuation of genetic evolution (very slow) by cultural evolution (now superfast and accelerating). To me, as a molecular biologist, it appears that all of us (all!) have a sizeable number of Russian cultural genes. These are given to us by the Russia that goes from Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Chekov, Dostoyevsky, to Kandinsky, Malevitch, Goncharova, Stravinsky, Prokofieff, No to count our debt ot blood at the deciding battle of Stalingrad.
The West at the time of Boris Yeltsin gladly participated in the plundering of the Russian people….a plundering that continues today with the happy acceptance of oligarch’s money in London.
At this time it might be useful if people instead of reading lies got some historical context. Just reading Voltaire’s History of Russia in the time of Peter the Great, for instance. If I may (please excuse me..) reading Italo Calvino’s “The Cloven Viscount” might give a metaphor for what is going on and, also, to a possible outcome.. We, the “West” appear just too different from from our neighbourly “East” not to be, in reality, two separated halves that (they do not know….) long for each other to realise the full potential of our (Western) civilisation.
Please accept, Professor Hughes, my renewed thanks,
Pedro Pinto da Silva
A refreshingly honest take. One hopes there may yet be a diplomatic solution.
No, a biased take. Putin does not want diplomacy, he wants something Hitler failed to achieve: mastery of Russia, Europe and the UK. Since the west is frightened by his nuclear missiles he may actually achieve this even more rapidly than Blitzkrieg could have delivered it. But he must play like a grandmaster even though his opponent is a fool. Putin will see himself as equal to Xi and greater than the US Trump/Biden personage,
Thanks for this account, much appreciated. I wouldn’t say there’s been an erosion of trust, there has never been any trust between Putin and the west and vv. Why does Russia feel it is owed any trust? Why should Russia dictate the actions of states? Russia and its ‘friend’ Nazi Germany came up with a pact to divide and annex European countries. Russia invaded Finland as well. Eastern European and other European countries deserve guarantees of trust from Russia as well – something Russia has never given and never shown interest in. Russia has only annexed, murdered, exiled and threatened its neighbours throughout history. As for giving future guarantees, sovereign states have the right to seek membership in whatever international organisations they like. Why should Russia be able to dictate what sovereign countries may do in the future? It is completely understandable, especially now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to seek safety from NATO or the EU or whoever might offer such. Russia should look in the mirror a little and realise their central role in causing WW2 and in causing nations to look westward for security because of their ever-snarling eastern neighbour. There has never been any trust to erode between the so-called east west – at best, only acting and pretending to have some modicum of trust. Just recently, Russia (Putin, if you prefer) once again removed its mask and stopped acting and pretending to be a peace-loving, constructive and responsible neighbour and friend by invading the Ukraine. Mutual guarantees between the west and the east is good and noble, but these should not be achieved at the cost of war, death, and extermination of the countries in the middle.
broadly agree with this. I do think Merkel trusted Putin but he played her. It is probably still not too late to reinstate Ukraine’s nuclear capability and I would do that urgently (well, modern, accurate, transportable equivalents) for two reasons: UK and US have not enforced Budapest; western submissiveness has undermined deterrence, but Ukraine for sure will correct that.