The Great Game Outside of International Law
What better way to appreciate the failure of the West to understand Vladimir Putin than to acknowledge that the European Union, Russia, Ukraine and the United States will meet in Geneva on April 17th to discuss Ukraine’s future. The Swiss city, of course, is synonymous with post-Second World War conventions that attempted to entrench different principles of international law associated with armed conflict.
Vladimir Putin has brazenly defied international norms by violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity with indirect but unmistakably attributable antagonistic actions. The repeated illegitimate tactics with increasing audacity also regrettably highlight the West’s failure to understand the Russian leader and his actions.
One must first disregard the idea that Putin is an ideologue with overarching objectives. Lilia Shevstova recently argued that his approach makes him less dogmatic and more an obsessed pragmatist. He always maximises gains at the expense of other states while consolidating his power structure within Russia.
Thus, the manoeuvres Putin employs in his “Great Game” involve piercing opponents’ defences in optimal areas where rivals are divided or unwilling to react, what he must view as proof of their weakness. International laws or standards are not given consideration, or they are not yet defined. The evidence is in Russia’s previous cyber-attacks, its war and territory grabs from states not under NATO protection, its unrelenting foreign and domestic propaganda campaigns, its selective but large foreign military sales, its covert operations, and more.
This playbook has led to three interconnected lessons connected to the current Ukrainian crisis.
The first is that the West’s response is entirely rooted in economic measures. The conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine have caused the Russian market to rapidly plummet. The US is considering a new stronger round of sanctions, and now even Germany is talking of stringent new measures. This underpins the EU, IMF and US all financially supporting the Ukrainian government with financial lifelines designed to rehabilitate its pilfered economy. This is to say nothing of the Magnitsky Bill or the European Commission getting tough with Gazprom.
Unfortunately, the second takeaway is that Vladimir Putin governs as if he were impervious to economic worries. Even if Russia is hit with more sanctions and its economy does contract by 2-4 per cent this year, it is unlikely to have a lasting effect on Putin’s power structure. In the future, Russia’s grave future economic ills may well affect his decision making and perhaps even lead to the collapse of his authority. However, for the foreseeable future it is near impossible to imagine Putin is ever “voted” out of office, let alone for something like economic mismanagement.
The last takeaway is the Ukrainian government’s understandably feeble response to Russia’s incursion. The interim government has been hampered by two problems. First is the lack of democratic legitimacy to undertake meaningful action. Second is the widespread belief that it will incur defeat from the gathered Russian forces along its border if it forcefully removes the hostile “pro-Russian” militias in eastern Ukrainian cities.
Altogether, Putin and Russia are interfering with states in a manner outside of the norms of the international system. One sees the West seeking to aid vulnerable Ukraine with limited tools that fit within the norms of this system and their misguided assistance remains impermeable to Putin’s power structure.
Looking forward, an “off-ramp” is likely to be the most desirable settlement for Ukraine’s interim government and the West because of their disadvantageous bargaining positions. Ironically, once his greatest concerns are alleviated it is likely to be the most expedient option for Putin as well. An “off-ramp” would allow him to return to the international system as a peacemaker and maintain some sense of legitimate influence in Ukraine.
For those curious how such agreements works, ask Georgians how the fence in South Ossetia keeps expanding. Or ask Syrians how Bashar Al-Assad is still in power while dragging his feet to relinquish his chemical weapons. Or, even ask Ukrainians why their gas prices are suddenly 80 per cent higher.
Perhaps then the only real questions for the curious become where and when Vladimir Putin will next leave the international system to continue playing his “Great Game” and how will the West respond.
Ian Hansen is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council. He has worked and lived in Poland, Georgia and Ukraine. You can follow him on twitter @CEE_theworld.