Friday, 10 October 2014

The return of history in Russia

Street battles, artillery barrages and airstrikes continue to rumble eastern Ukraine. In February, the media was predicting the next World War, but 2014 won’t be 1914. The question now is not whether the world has changed, but who it has changed for.

The Ukraine conflict is difficult to write about because it is still unclear exactly what the endgame is for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is clear that Russia has altered the security architecture of the European peninsula.

Russia is far more concerned about eastern Ukraine’s politics than Europe is, let alone America. But Mr Putin’s Russia is not Tsarist or Soviet. And he doesn’t appear to have designs for explicit control over the peninsula. Russia’s energy and commerce ties achieve this goal better than any tank column could.

No one can move in Ukraine, and yet Europe’s geopolitical reality hasn’t progressed faster in so short a time for a long time. It appears that Mr Putin has both ended and begun a new reality we will be dealing with for decades to come. Recent history explains the transformation.

Lilia Shevtsova, writing in the American Interest, offers a name for the strange period before Russia annexed Crimea this year. She chooses the term “interregnum” which was used for the early 1930’s by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

The word means “a time outside of time” where the old ways are no more, but the new has not yet arrived or isn’t quite visible yet.

This concept encapsulates the developed world after the Cold War. For America, right up until the events of 9/11 (or maybe 2008) the world it accidentally controlled was operating in an incoherent period unlike any in human history.

To a good approximation, ideologies were defunct, politics was vapid, technology was evolving and prosperity was never going to end. Even if all that was all accurate, it couldn’t last. And it didn’t.
The thing is, this interregnum was only a reality for the Western world. That the Americans were caught off-guard by Russia’s manoeuvres in Ukraine actually reflects their own ideological fantasy.

Europe and Russia know exactly what’s happening in Ukraine. They’ve been conducting this type of politics for thousands of years.

When the Russian president sent unmarked soldiers into Crimea, Mr Putin knew he was neatly circumventing international law. How was Russia committing a crime when those men clear weren’t Russian troops?

And how exactly is Russia invading a nation when there’s no proof of Russian soldiers or armour on the ground in Ukraine? Aside from a few satellite images and hyperventilating claims from a few Ukrainian officials, where’s the solid evidence?

The United States and NATO couldn’t muster any reason to intervene in Ukraine precisely because of the rules they invented for a world that existed only in their heads.
What Western officials didn’t understand for decades was how alone they were in their fantasy. Everyone else knows when it comes down to national imperatives all the nice borders, treaties and laws are simply dry ink on rough paper.

If the rules created by the Western world brought us to this point, then what good are the rules? Right now a Eurasian country has essentially invaded a neighbouring sovereign nation and there’s nothing the international system can do about it.

For all their power, the Western world operates with both arms tied behind their back – this time the knots are self-inflicted.

Their mistake was assuming the world could escape its history by employing logical rationality.

When the institutions of the current international system began, everyone joined in because they wanted to ride the waves of wealth. Countries gave lip-service to law, borders and human rights when it suited them but revert to old animosities and actions when it didn’t.

Each time a Russia, Rwanda or China sidelines or reinterprets the international system for their own ends, Western elites and ideologues shouldn’t be so shocked.

Because when it comes to choosing between the “things-a-country-must-do” and international law, history is filled with torn parchment and broken seals.

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