Fyodor Lukyanov on how the war in Ukraine changed life in Russia but not in the world.
Had the decisive Minsk talks taken place a week later, everything could have wrapped up in style. It would have been exactly twelve months since it all began on February 20, 2014, when the Maidan protest movement culminated in the overthrow of the government in Kiev. What came out of the talks was the end of hostilities almost a year later and an accounting of the results of the revolution in a grand international setting with the top world leaders in attendance. There are striking parallels with the French Revolution, which started with the storming of the Bastille and effectively ended with the Congress of Vienna. But back then the process took over a quarter of a century, while this time it lasted just twelve months. Everything moves faster these days; after all, this is the 21st century.
That said, in terms of scale, the recent developments in Ukraine are to the French revolution as today’s Minsk is to imperial Vienna 200 years ago.
The key difference is the setting. In fact, for centuries the same characters have emerged in Ukrainian history, which continues to revolve around either horrible tragedies or grotesque farces.
This is not to suggest that Minsk-2 is doomed. There is a chance that the armed conflict in Donbass will come to an end, or at least become a frozen conflict, due to the high costs borne by everyone involved. However, the Ukrainian drama is sure to continue, reverberating across the European political space and leading to new crises.
Minsk 2015 won’t go down in history as Vienna 1815 or Yalta 1945 in the sense that it did not and could not give rise to a new order or rules of the game.
Almost a year ago, when Moscow responded to the political tsunami in Kiev by moving rapidly to facilitate the self-determination of the people of Crimea, many viewed this as the first step in a bid to reshape the world order. Russia’s refusal to respect the inviolability of borders drawn in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union has significance beyond the post-Soviet space.
The injustice of what happened in the world over the last quarter century has dominated debates in Russia. This is partially due to the fact that, following the end of the Cold War, Moscow was more often than not presented with done deals, at best after pro forma consultations. This is also attributable to the intense debates that have cast a spotlight on key events and facts from the recent past, such as questions about the legitimacy of Germany’s reunification, which were initially raised by Russian lawmakers and echoed in Sergey Lavrov’s remarks at the Munich Conference.
The demand for new rules of the game could have won Russia some points, if it had a global dimension from the outset.
There are many countries and people in the world who believe the existing order to be unfair and immoral. Most of them come from the developing and post-colonial countries of what was once called the “third world.” Many of them have become mature enough to voice misgivings over the discrimination perpetrated by leading powers, which have no intention of giving up their dominant positions. Naturally, it’s hard to place Russia, with its imperial mindset, in the ranks of former colonies. However, many people around the world are growing increasingly weary of the lack of alternative to Western dominance, and this is creating new opportunities. Even if Moscow is so far unable to offer a new ideology, an anti-hegemonic discourse is sure to find a receptive audience. However, when Russia talks about new rules of the game, it doesn’t mean revisiting global or universal rules, only those governing its relations with the West.
This is what the spirit of the Cold War - which everyone is talking about lately - was all about: Russia’s obsession with a relationship that used to have a decisive impact on the global system 30 years ago, but is now far from central, if not peripheral.
From a global perspective, the battle for Ukraine, which has had such an enormous impact on the lives of Russians, is merely a local conflict regarded by most of humankind as something wholly foreign.
Even if the first act of this play, which unfolded in Crimea, raised some eyebrows (what if Russia actually does challenge the established order?), interest started to wane quickly as the bewildering conflict in Donbass deepened.
The outcome of the Minsk meeting is consistent with Russia’s general line, although success is far from guaranteed. The parameters of a potential settlement were clear from the outset, in April 2014, when smoldering Donbass burst into flames. The fact that it took thousands of lives and massive destruction to accept the obvious shows that human nature has not changed.
What Russia wanted was to transform Ukraine so that its state institutions were limited, by design, in the decisions they could make, primarily with respect to NATO membership. The Minsk accords set the stage for this transformation by promoting constitutional reform, which is expected to delegate to Ukrainian regions - at least the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics - enough authority to make them an internal safeguard. Everything else is just technical details, albeit important ones, which are intended to pave the way to this objective.
Relying on the popular analogy with the Yalta Conference, as celebrations of its 70th anniversary get underway, what we got (or expected to get, to be more precise) was a mini Yalta. This is a striking illustration of how Russia’s ambitions have diminished compared to when it was a super power.
Instead of divvying up Europe, which gave the USSR the security buffer zone it wanted in Eastern Europe, the soft division of Ukraine is also about creating a buffer zone in the east.
If all goes as planned, the objective will have been reached, although it’s best to leave calculations of the cost and benefit for later. Russia will have achieved its objective, which it formulated and advanced on its own, proving to the West that the magical red line actually runs along its border.
This has nothing to do with the global rules of the game. Minsk is neither a model, nor a precedent.
The closest analogy is to the often-mentioned Dayton Agreement on Bosnia. It effectively ended the war, but failed to produce an effective state. Ukraine represents a challenge of a much larger scale. Consequently, uncontrollable outbursts of conflict and crisis are much more likely than in Bosnia, which quietly smolders under EU supervision.
The war in Ukraine has not changed the world. Global processes will follow their course, becoming increasingly dominated by developments in Asia and to some extent the Middle East. There is no place for Russia in this landscape. There won’t be a new Vienna Congress or a new Yalta Conference, primarily because such fundamental deals are meant to address key issues in global politics.
China is the focal point now. But the Chinese think differently. They do not think in terms of spheres of influence, as in Europe. In fact, it is much easier for Europeans to reach common ground with Russia, since the two have close historical ties.
All that is left for the Old World – including both the EU and countries that would never be part of it, like Russia – is to argue among themselves, just like 200 years ago. The only difference is that the redrawing of Europe’s geopolitical architecture on the battlefields of Leipzig and Waterloo was tantamount at the time to reshaping the entire world order. Now, it is impossible to know where developments around Mariupol and Debaltsevo will lead.