How the collapse of the rule of law in Russia led to a war in Europe

Adapted from remarks given by Kyle Parker to JBANC’s conference, “History Repeated: Baltics and Eastern Europe in Peril?”
April 18, 2015, Washington, DC

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine over the past year is a textbook vindication of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s concept of comprehensive security. Distinct from NATO’s concept of collective security, comprehensive security means that security is interrelated and indivisible and how a government treats it’s own people will inevitably affect that government’s foreign policy. As stated in the OSCE’s 1991 Moscow Document, “issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order.”

This war isn’t rooted in geopolitics nor is it a Hitlerian land grab. Rather it is about the protection of Vladimir Putin, personally, and the system he built, which has succinctly been described as a Russia that is ruled not governed and owned by those who rule it.

Arguably, there’s a direct and causal link between the rampant corruption and collapse of the rule of law in Russia, an apparent values-based concern, to a hard national security challenge in the form of a war in Europe. This war isn’t rooted in geopolitics nor is it a Hitlerian land grab. Rather it is about the protection of Vladimir Putin, personally, and the system he built, which has succinctly been described as a Russia that is ruled not governed and owned by those who rule it. Put another way, the dynamic here is more like a game of Monopoly where money and property are acquired and protected than a game like Risk where territory is sough with the goal of global domination which was a more fitting analogy for the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

But unlike the Cold War, today’s Kremlin is defined less by ideology than by cynicism itself as it stokes anti-Western sentiment and whips its new obscurantist base into a nationalist frenzy, telling them things that can’t possibly be believed by the same Kremlin from which they emanate. Exciting this new base has become all the more important with the loss of the support of many of those in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg that once rallied to the modernization agenda of Dmitry Medvedev and with a sanctions pinch on Russia’s global elite that could provoke some of them to disloyalty in an effort to save their fortunes and seek refuge abroad.

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution surely spooked the spooks in Moscow, but the crowds on the streets across Russia in late 2011 and early 2012 increased their fears by an order of magnitude. And when Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine under the cover of darkness last year, panic ensued. These worries were underscored by the fact that these events happened in a situation few could have predicted and against the backdrop of a similar discontent to that which animated earlier Russian protests. After all, the targets of all of these protests were essentially the same thieves and crooks that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had so effectively branded just a few years ago. Putin reacted as if his survival was at stake, because, in a sense, it was and is.

To make the world safe for Putin and Putinism, this revolution of dignity must to be stopped in Kyiv, lest it spread to Moscow. And thus, preventing the emergence of a successful Russian-speaking democracy that could serve as a model to citizens inside Russia loomed a larger priority than the normal desire to do everything possible to avoid having a potentially hostile state on one’s border. In fact, Putin’s actions to thwart this revolution have all but assured a hostile Ukraine for generations to come, shifted public opinion and state policy on NATO, and brought about a new springtime of Ukrainian national identity.

It seems that Putin may have initially preferred to corrupt from the inside and co-opt as was done with some success following the Orange Revolution, but this new Maidan has proven a harder target for such outreach and so force has and will be used to accomplish Putin’s preeminent goal of staying in power.

For these reasons, an argument can be made that the provision of substantial non-military assistance to Kyiv may be as provocative as the provision of lethal military aid. To be sure, both kinds of assistance are needed and should be provided. At this point, Moscow’s goal isn’t so much territorial as it is the demise of the spirit of Maidan. This is also why the frozen conflict analogy often employed is misleading. First, none of the other so-called frozen conflicts are rooted in Moscow’s perception of an existential threat to itself. And second, the conflict is only likely to be frozen insofar as Kyiv is mired in dysfunction. Whenever Kyiv begins to succeed and make real progress, the line of contact must move westward in order to keep Ukraine’s new government distracted, divided, and fearful.

Of course, such an outcome is unacceptable to all who value the international order and cherish peace and stability in Europe. Kyiv must not fail before Putin and Putinism succumb to their own internal contradictions and are consigned to the proverbial ash heap. Kyiv must be supported, encouraged, cajoled, or even propped-up and kept on life-support until the people of Russia finally come to their senses and see the thieves and crooks in the Kremlin as the real cause of their current malaise and the true enemies of a strong and prosperous Russia. Enemies who are shrewd calculators of their own short-term personal interests while ignoring the Russian people’s long-term national interests as they stoke tension in their own backyard, sell the country out to China, and deny fellow citizens their rightful participation in politics, and, indeed, in reality itself by subjecting them to a blinding propaganda campaign.

The costs to the West of continuing to respond incrementally and act as if this war was merely an inconvenient distraction from more pressing international problems and not a direct threat to the international order and to decades of investment in lives and treasure spent securing a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace will be much greater than meeting this challenge now—directly and decisively.

Kyle Parker serves on the professional staff of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent an official position of the U.S. government.

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