When one gets an invite to take a paid trip to Paris for a few days, one tends to say yes, if the one is me. The German Marshall Fund is hosting an event on Transatlantic Security this week, and after just the first dinner of the conference, I have reached the conclusion that this trip is worth my time, the jet fuel and even the carbon stuff. Why? Well, the event is off the record so I cannot get into details, but the evening’s dinner centered on the crisis in the Ukraine and between Russia and NATO/EU/the rest of the planet. And the conversation tonight among people far smarter and better connected (most do work or have worked for various governments and international organizations) led me to thinking about two basic dynamics: the short term vs the long term and the intrinsic value of Ukraine vs. larger principles.
Someone suggested that Putin has won the battle but is likely to lose the war, if one thinks about Crimea versus the larger effort to return to Great Power/influence status. This and other comments got me thinking: that democracies and alliances tend to be less agile than authoritarian leaders (Russia’s democratic status is a wee bit suspect and electoral politics does not really seem to be motivating Putin), so they get out-maneuvered at the start of a crisis. However, democracies tend to win the wars they fight (I will post links once I return to home at the end of the weekend), and alliances have often been on the winning side of things for much of the past two hundred years—from Napoleon’s defeat to both World Wars to the Gulf War of 1991.
Why? Well, democracies might just be more selective about the wars they fight since politicians hate to lose elections. A different logic is that democracies can extract more resources and fighting power from their societies because legitimacy and representation work better than coercion. Yet a different logic might be that advanced democracies have “better” civil-military relations—coups can be mighty distracting. Alliances do well in wartime because more is more—combining the power of multiple countries may not be so efficient (see the new book), but even quarreling allies may accumulate more combat power than countries largely operating on their own.
So we can be very frustrated with how things have played out thus far, but we might just have good reason to believe that Putin’s momentum will eventually ebb. Indeed, once we take into account the other dynamics, it becomes not just a hope but pretty logical that Putin’s Russia may face some serious constraints.
The second dynamic is when we think about the worth of a place and the status of a conflict. Remember, the US got committed to Bosnia not because Bill Clinton cared about Bosnia but because he made a commitment to two NATO countries, France and Britain, that he would deploy 25,000 US troops to extract them if needed. Once that became a real likelihood, Clinton chose to use those troops to enforce a peace instead. The Kosovo air campaign was almost entirely about maintaining NATO’s credibility and not about the plight of Kosovars. NATO members bled in Afghanistan not so much because they cared about Afghans but because they were keeping their commitment to their NATO partner that had been attacked. We find repeatedly that countries spend vast amounts of money, risk the lives of their soldiers and even some political careers because the alliance itself is valued. That is what should assure the Baltics and Poland now. For Ukraine, not so much.
But there is a larger principle that Ukraine and its friends need to play up more: the death of Helsinki. In 1975, the Helsinki agreement between the US, the Soviet Union and Europe recognized the existing boundaries, essentially finally producing a settlement for World War II. The key ingredient was that force could not be used to change boundaries. Of course, force has continued to be used to change boundaries—those secessionist movements that use violence fit in this category. However, since Helsinki, no country in Europe has used force to change boundaries and gotten away with it except irredentist Armenia and, well, Russia over Georgia, Abkhazia and now Crimea. Still, the recent events are more blatant, and some people in the room tonight suggested that Helsinki might be dead.
It seems to me that this is a card Ukraine and others can play. Most countries in the world are opposed to the use of force to change boundaries since they see themselves as being on the losing end of such transactions. This is something that three of the BRICs can agree upon—India, China, and Brazil (China sees Taiwan and various islands as already theirs), as well as much of the rest of the world. Pinning this on Putin helps to isolate him just a bit more. Of course, there are differences among countries how best to penalize Russia (and for how long). But tying Putin’s efforts to Helsinki is more likely to attract support from countries that have no real history, relationship or interests in Ukraine.
And this is where democracies, alliances and priniciples might fit together. Democracies often have different interests, including due to varying dependence on Russian exports, but they share values. NATO is not just an military alliance but one of coalition of the like-minded. So, perhaps one way ahead to win the longer, larger war is to focus on the principles that bind us.
That’s what I got from one evening. I expect tomorrow’s full sessions to be even more stimulating.