Management of the great powers of the Ukrainian conflict
The situation in Ukraine today can be seen as the scene of great power management in a way that would have been recognizable in the context of the 19e Concert of the Century of Europe. Established in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat and exile in 1815, this diplomatic arrangement had the laudable goal of preventing tensions and disputes from developing to the level of great power conflict through a balancing mechanism. powers. The self-proclaimed great powers claimed the right to determine or regulate the borders, territory, and sometimes the very existence of small states, especially in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The latter thus became objects of the machinations of the Great Powers, rather than autonomous or independent agents.
In the current crisis, Western leaders have publicly rejected the idea of treating Ukraine as a “buffer state”. The situation in practice, however, has been more ambiguous. This partly reflects a usual mood, already apparent during the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008. The goal of Western diplomacy to end this conflict was to put pressure on Georgia. government to accept a ceasefire and freeze Russia’s assertion that Abkhazia and South Ossetia were in fact “independent” states, rather than part of Georgia. In 2014, despite a declared interest in Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity via the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, neither the US nor the UK offered military assistance during the annexation from Crimea in 2014 and inciting separatist uprisings in the Donbass since.
President Joe Biden suggested during a January 2022 press conference, that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine may not lead to a meaningful response from the United States or its European partners and allies. Skepticism of the Ukrainian agency was evident in the assumptions of Western capitals that a Russian invasion would quickly succeed in crushing any resistance. Thus, the Biden administration made the – now notoriously rebuffed – offer to help Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky flee into exile. It is not certain that some members of NATO and the EU even wanted Ukraine to resist. According Ukrainian media reports, Zelensky had been “encouraged” not to return home after his speech at the Munich Security Conference shortly before the start of the war, having been offered exile in London or Warsaw. It is to the credit of the NATO allies, especially the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland, that after Zelensky made his position clear, they actually turned to a sustained effort to supply Ukrainian forces with military equipment, with EU members also negotiating six rounds of economic, trade and energy sanctions against Russia so far.
At various points since February 2022, the impression has been given that the West is tacitly accepting that Ukraine is ultimately within Russia’s sphere of interest, and that this imposes (self-)limits on the actions of the powers exterior. This manifested itself first in the withdrawal of Western military training teams and, more precipitously, in the closure of Western embassies in Kyiv before the Russian invasion. At the start of the conflict, President Biden made statements declaring that the United States and its allies would defend “every square inch” of NATO territory, while being equally clear that there would be no direct military action by NATO on behalf of or alongside from Ukraine. Similar statements have since been made by many European leaders.
By deliberately, clearly and repeatedly distinguishing between the security of NATO members and that of Ukraine, the impression was thus given that Western leaders were tacitly accepting its position in Russia’s sphere of interest and self-limiting their actions in response to the Russian invasion. While Ukraine would be helped to respond to the best of its ability, the structural and institutional dividing lines between it and “the West” were vividly painted. Zelensky quickly grasped the reluctance of NATO (and EU) members to offer any serious prospect of Ukraine’s acceptance into their collective institutions, and thus into the self-defining West. In a interview with the American network CNN in March, Zelensky railed against NATO members in particular who,
just want to see us straddling two worlds, if you want to see us in this dubious position where we don’t understand whether you can accept us or not, you can’t put us in this situation. You can’t force us to be in this limbo.
Somewhere else, the Ukrainian president implied that some members of NATO and the EU were “afraid of Russia” and of provoking it by supplying Ukraine with heavy and long-range weapons. Worries about “escalation” have certainly been repeated regularly by Western leaders since the early days of the war. Thus, Russia imposed de facto imitations on the nature and degree of Western military support for Ukraine, initially via President Putin’s statements that have been taken to suggest the possible use of nuclear weapons if provoked. On the other hand, concerns about a possible escalation to the level of a direct confrontation with NATO go both ways. Despite the damage done to their forces in Ukraine, the Russian leadership has so far refrained from sustained and systematic attempts to interdict the supply lines used to channel weapons from the west, although the main centers of this network are both publicly known and discussed.
It is plausible to suggest that the known direct communication links between, among others, the Pentagon and the Russian Defense Ministry, the British MoD and its Russian counterpart, and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, were used to help facilitate and manage potential trouble spots (also, perhaps, explaining why Russia did not disrupt the regular visits of NATO and EU leaders to meet Zelensky in Kyiv). Such conflict management has the laudable goal of helping to prevent escalation to the level of potential direct clashes between the major powers involved. The problem for Ukraine is to be seen and treated as the object of power management arrangements, rather than an autonomous agent, ultimately responsible for its own destiny.
There are implications here for conflict resolution. It seems likely that the terms of a settlement will be defined by outside powers, rather than the Ukrainian government. A precedent exists with the Russo-Georgian War, as noted earlier. This resulted in the freezing of unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia through a diplomatic process led by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s successor, Emmanuel Macron, appears to be positioning himself to play a similar role vis-à-vis Ukraine. Prior to the current conflict, Macron had played a leading role in saying his differences should be settled on the basis of proposals worked out with Russia, Germany and France under the Normandy-Minsk process. The problem, from Ukraine’s perspective, is that it would leave the frozen conflicts in Donetsk and Luhansk within Ukraine’s theoretically sovereign borders, prompting National Security Advisor Oleksiy Danilov to affirm in January 2022 — in response to implicit criticism from Macron and others about dragging Ukraine’s feet — that accomplishing this process would entail “[our] the destruction of the country.
This did not prevent the French President from continuing to emphasize his diplomatic credentials, claiming to have spent more than 100 hours talking with President Putin since December 2021 in pursuit of France’s role as a “mediating power”. Macron also drew criticism for appearing to prioritize Russian interests, repeatedly commenting that Russia “must not be humiliated” regardless of the outcome.
A potentially significant turning point came in June 2022. First, Macron visited Zelensky in Kyiv, along with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. This was evidently a response to the criticisms all three had received for appearing to suggest, or tacitly indicate, that Ukraine should accept status within the Russian sphere of interest, and concomitant subordinate object status in any settlement. . Their visit was the most remarkable for the three EU leaders publicly committing to support for Ukraine’s “immediate” candidate status for EU membership; something Macron had previously suggested could take years, if not decades, to achieve. This was duly granted at the EU summit shortly after their visit.
Candidate status has the potential to pave the way for increasingly detailed preparation and adaptation by Ukraine to comply with Community Acquis of the EU. It would be the clearest political, economic, diplomatic and institutional indicator since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Ukraine is no longer seen by the West as part of the sphere of interest of the great Russian power. In a surprisingly underrated reaction, Putin seemed to accept the possibility, indicating that“We have nothing against it. It is their sovereign decision whether or not to join economic unions… It is their business, the business of the Ukrainian people”. “Sovereign” and “Ukraine” were not terms that the Russian president and his officials bracketed in their speeches and statements even a few months earlier. Likewise, their statements at the time were also not characterized by recognition and acceptance of the existence of a valid and viable “Ukrainian people”.
There will undoubtedly be many challenges, delays and pitfalls on Ukraine’s path to potential EU membership, with success far from assured. However, the very fact that candidate status is granted, and the institutional commitment and preparation it entails, has the potential to decisively alter power relations in Eastern Europe, and between Russia and the West.
Further Reading on Electronic International Relations