The Crimean Crisis and Disempowerment of the West

Posted in United States , Russia , Europe | 01-Apr-14 | Author: Serafettin Yilmaz,

Apart from the troubling reality that international law has been reduced into a weak fish net where the powerful could comfortably pierce through while the weak are caught, and perhaps more importantly, the ongoing crisis in Crimea suggests a gradual but precise decline of the West. The picture is clear: The West failed to pull together a unified international community and to force Russia to a change of behavior. What has really happened?

It is probably too early to read too much into the developments in Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula although the Crimean part of the crisis seems to be over. Nonetheless one still cannot fail to see the oddity in the Western eagerness to invoke international law and responsible behavior when its own track record is less than enviable in that regard. Indeed, what is new for the West is an old game for the non-Western bloc, including Russia and China, which in the past attempted to dissuade the West from taking unilateral action by stretching and twisting the same international law that the US and EU now invoke. Apparently, the game of international law has now been carried to a new level and it is surprising to see how the West looked surprised at President Putin’s razor sharp annexation strategy in Crimea.

The truth of the matter is that international law is amazing when it comes to how many interpretations one can make according to one’s private interests. Take for example the notion of preemptive war. Does a state have the right to carry out a preemptive first strike against potential threats that do not constitute a de facto armed aggression? Historical evidence suggests that, depending on nations’ particular interests, it is possible to present arguments that are categorically opposite.

Therefore, as a community of nations, let’s not waste time with the idealist narrative of international rules and norms. Rather than pondering about the question “how,” it is time to figure out “why.” Notwithstanding all the frantic diplomacy effort, pressure and threats of sanctions on Russia, why did the West fail to achieve the stated objectives and suffer a defeat? What went wrong? Indeed, in spite of all the rhetoric and unlike the many precedents, no tomahawk was fired and no stealth fighter was dispatched over Russia. The US aircraft battle group was nowhere to be seen as Moscow annexed Crimea.

Now it is better understood that it is all about power and its distribution in any strategic equation. But we are not talking about soft power here but crude, destructive, hard power. The sheer MAD capability seems to be at work once again, regulating great power behavior and ensuring cold peace. Drawing on an analogy to the classical definition of power as "a relation among social actors in which one actor A, can get another social actor B, to do something that B would not otherwise have done," it may be said that the West failed to get Russia to recognize Ukraine’s territorial integrity because it did not have adequate coercive power to force Moscow into a change of behavior. This means one thing only: power has not been preponderant to the favor of the West in this particular situation. Thus the reality the West has to face today is an indubious state of disempowerment such that it has to content itself with a set of petty retributions against Russia.

What are the signs of disempowerment and what would be the implications of it? One important sign is the apparent inability of the US and the EU to rally the international public opinion on the Ukrainian Crisis. Quite the contrary, apart from a general silence of the larger international community, global heavyweights such as China and India have voiced sympathy with Russia and underlined the unique nature of the present crisis, calling on the West to not become ahistorical and, rather, remember its own practice in Kosovo, South Sudan and other places.

Besides an apparent inability to bring together a broad coalition against Russia, the West did not seem uniform in itself, as well. For instance, France is still undecided whether to deliver the two Mistral class helicopter carriers that Russia ordered in 2009. Public opinion within the countries directly involved in the crisis also remains divided. According to a Pew survey, 56% of the US public prefer the Obama administration “not to get involved in the situation with Russia and Ukraine” whereas only 29% want a firm stand against Russia. Another poll found that most Germans did not think “Russia’s actions in the Crimea could not be so easily condemned” because the US violated international law in the past.

Perhaps the most telling sign of disempowerment is the fact that the West has been forced to only react to each step Russia took (rather than preempt them) throughout the crisis. The demilitarized tone of the Western strategy constituted a stark contrast to the previous experience such as Yugoslavia. Not only the likelihood of any resolution to pass the Security Council had to be ruled out, but also military wing of the West, the NATO, was greatly sidelined as it had to settle with making ineffective political statements with no real biting power. Then, in the face of all these, what would be the implications of such political and military disempowerment?

Beyond the conjectural debate on who is right and who is wrong, it may be said that the world has taken a firm stride toward multipolarity. Others had already pointed out a movement toward such historical direction, especially toward an economic multipolarity, and the recent crisis in Ukraine demonstrated that, even in a realm where the West is considered strongest, there is a tendency to pull away from unipolarity.

What would be the next best instrument for the West to turn to if/when the most viable one, that is military, proved to be ineffective? This question is likely to linger in the minds of the Western political elite, including its security leadership. Obviously, there exists no instrument more effective and feasible than military in present day international relations. Besides, another burning question is whether the West, as addicted as it is to resorting to coercive methods in resolving international crises, would be able to use existing political and economic arsenal effectively and efficiently.

The truth is that the threat of use of these economic and political tools did not bar Moscow from achieving its stated goals in Ukraine, a fait accompli that will further embolden other sidelined heavyweights such as China, India and Brazil to ignore and defy the Western pressure on Russia. And this would be the second outcome of Western disempowerment. As mentioned, non-Western countries have already expressed support, albeit tactfully, toward the Russian strategy in the Crimean Peninsula, rather than getting into line with the West.

Granted, the Ukrainian game is far from over. But what has recently happened cannot be taken lightly since the big picture refers precisely to a reconfiguration of international relations to the disfavor of the West. The limits of international law under a unipolar world order are now clearer. We have just revisited the Cold War game where military diplomacy no longer serves the purpose between thermonuclear power centers holding permanent seats at the UNSC. The shift from unipolarity seems to have gained speed and the Western political and military supremacy have been compromised. And the disempowerment seems to be just the beginning. 

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