Back on March 5, 2014, 11 days before the so-called “referendum” in the Crimea, Henry Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state in 1973-77 and the world’s No. 1 balance-of-power thinker, put forward a set of guidelines for settling the crisis in Ukraine. The key points envisaged Ukraine’s freedom to associate closer with Europe in exchange for a non-NATO status; and preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea together with providing a greater autonomy for the republic.
In a nutshell, Kissinger’s plan was about “Finlandization” of Ukraine and saving the global balance of power for that price. In 11 days Crimea’s annexation was formalized, which made the plan obsolete.
A new world order had arrived.
Almost three years have passed. The world is experiencing a dramatic rise of violence. Europe doesn’t seem safe and secure any more. Destabilization has reached far beyond Ukraine’s borders and is likely to grow. Ukraine and Russia are in a deadlock over Donbas, Crimea and Ukraine’s sovereignty overall. Hostilities are increasing between Russia and Europe. Military budgets are rising, while mutual trust is at record-low levels. All that combined does not sum up to a safer world. Can it be fixed through a calculated, 19th century-style, deal of great powers over spheres of influence?
Recent ideas, attributed to Henry Kissinger by Bild, presume a positive answer. A possible compromise between Donald Trump’s administration and the Kremlin could be the jackpot that Russian President Vladimir Putin has waited so long for and desired so much. It presumes lifting anti-Russian sanctions, recognizing Moscow’s influence in Eastern Europe and Kazakhstan, and de facto accepting annexation of the Crimea. Russia, in its turn, should guarantee security in Eastern Ukraine. Looks like a plan, doesn’t it?
There is a powerful logic of political realism behind such an approach, be it Kissinger’s or not. There’s also a high probability it would fit Trump’s pragmatic stance of foreign policy and security issues. However, even within the framework of political realism the plan carries some fundamental drawbacks.
For sure, the critical problem would be Russia’s security guarantees. Kissinger’s warning in March 2014 was not accidental: ruining a world order implies denouncing any mutual trust and institutions. Bringing the world back to anarchy and principles of self-help would result in a policymaking based on a simple realist rule: trust nothing, but power. There are no credible security guarantees Russia can provide, which would be acceptable and enough for Ukraine in any meaningful sense. From now on it is only balance of power in bilateral relations which would shape Ukraine’s policy in dealing with the Kremlin.
The same holds for Ukraine’s “Finlandization.” Finland’s security and relative freedom in foreign policy after World War II have been secured by great powers, which enabled its non-membership in NATO. Without annexation of the Crimea, that option could be theoretically possible, but a new world order has arrived in March 2014.
Taking it further, a deal on Ukraine would not be a great power concerto, orchestrated for a common good. Russia is hardly a great power with an economy accounting for a single percent of the gross world product. It is currently struggling for a regional power status, having significantly worsened its perspectives to regain strategic grasp over remnants of post-Soviet space. A geopolitical deal with a weakened regional power would not bring more security, but result in a more bold and risky foreign policy of a revisionist state.
Realist theory holds that measuring balance of power and shaping geopolitical interests accordingly is the best way to ensure peace. But Russia is not powerful enough to control Ukraine. It can influence Ukraine, however in a much less favorable way than it enjoyed only several years ago. It can also considerably slow down’s Ukraine progress and generate a host of challenges in almost every sphere. But it is incapable of effectively controlling Ukraine, and – arguably – even incapable of effectively controlling its own vast territories. Russia ranks 65th and is in a high warning group of the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index of 2016. It wasn’t able to manage its sphere of influence even in far better times of a decade ago. Further forceful attempts to establish control over Ukraine would bring only more violence and insecurity to the region.
Furthermore, Russia is getting weaker. Expanding a weakening state’s sphere of influence does not bring about stability. Instead, risks will be rising, as Russia will be approaching a verge of collapse.
Reconciliation with Russia at Ukraine’s expense may only have sense for a new American Administration as a part of a strategic deal against China. But Russia will hardly become a valuable asset. It is more likely to repeat Ukraine’s ill-fated experience of a multi-vectoral bargaining in an attempt to compensate for strategic weaknesses of its highly ineffective social, economic, and political models.
Europe is already experiencing consequences of a security paradigm shift from neoliberal to realist foundations. Suspicion is growing, rivalry has been slowly restored, and negative-scenario thinking is a common place. Appeasing Russia would be too risky for a well-calculated security strategy.
This article by Mykola Kapitonenko was originally published by Kyiv Post.