History most certainly did not end
When should a country exist? What determines its borders? How extensive are its powers? Such are the questions that resurface as the world observes with frustrating impotence the Russian attack on Ukraine.
I was there, in cities like Czernowitz, Lvov and Kishinev, as a young Associated Press reporter in the cool days of late summer 1991, when Ukraine and neighboring Moldova declared independence. Euphoria was so palpable that one was left in no doubt: the politest way to put it was that people wanted independence from the Soviet Union.
One young person we met insisted on gifting me an LP recording of Paul McCartney’s iconic concert in the USSR. It was a prized possession and his eyes gleamed as he insisted that I take the unwieldy thing — a manifestation of appreciation toward the West that I carry with me still.
Elsewhere I was moved to discover the remnants of once-vibrant Jewish life. A Yiddish scholar here, a synagogue custodian there. They were a tad suspicious of Ukrainian nationalism; but the Soviet Union had become so corrupt, decrepit and dysfunctional that they also were happy to be free.
It was a moment when something happened that seemed so just that it confused people into thinking that a new era was at hand, in which justice was routine. The end of history, in the artful words of U.S. historian Francis Fukuyama.
But the end of history did not come. A parade of horrors arrived instead, from Yugoslavia to Iraq to Darfur and far beyond, and here we are today.
Many think what is happening is a Russian gambit to change the world order (the US-built post-war order the US was itself weirdly challenging until Donald Trump). It certainly seems that Putin has a claim to be the global leader of the opposition to it; in his world not only does might make right, but quaint notions like protection of minorities, freedom of expression and assembly, checks and balances and separation of powers are for suckers.
There are people in this world, mostly on the populist right, who are happy to view the world through a Darwinistic lens, as if the Enlightenment had never occurred. But if everything is a transaction, if there are no rules, jungle always grows back, then there is little to be said for our civilization.
On a more prosaic level, it’s reasonable to assess that Russia wants to reorganize the regional order in what it calls its “near abroad.” Putin is not the only Russian who feels that Russia was too weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This attaches to the right of a country to claim a zone of influence, as some occasionally do when their britches grow very big. Sometimes it is understood and accepted, if the demanding country is powerful enough, militarily or economically. So it was with Pax Americana in the Western Hemisphere, for a while.
The Soviet Union was in effect a formalization of such a thing. Putin appears to be testing whether Russia can restore it. Some people would deny Russia that right, but Russians, not just Putin but many Russians, still want it.
Which brings us to NATO. Russians would like for the West to accept that for Ukraine to be in NATO is as ridiculous as Mexico being in the Warsaw Pact. I am not so sure that the NATO nations fully thought out their offer in principle of membership to Ukraine, which was made at the Bucharest Summit of 2008. I am far from certain that the people of the 30 NATO member nations are prepared to go to war with Russia, which under Article V (which says an attack on one is an attack on all) they would have to be doing right now. Are Belgians prepared to fight to preserve the sanctity of Ukraine’s borders?
The inviolability of borders is something of a principle in the post-war order. This sounds right, because stability is important, but it ignores a major challenge: many of the post-colonial borders in Africa and elsewhere are imperfect, and some are nonsensical.
So it is in the former Soviet Union. Internal borders were often designed to so as to mix populations and cause trouble. This is the case not only in eastern Ukraine, where there are areas with an ethnic Russian (or Russian-speaking) majority. It is also true in the opposite direction: a strip of Ukrainian territory actually populated by Ukrainians — trans-Dniestria — was tacked onto Moldova to make it less ethnically Romanian; the result there has been simmering conflict for 30 years.
In a world of such unstable borders, the idea that NATO should constantly expand is problematic considering the profound implications of membership. Moreover, if NATO’s purpose is to contain Russia — continuing its founding mission to contain the Soviet Union — it cannot be surprising that Russia bristles. A shameless tyrant like Putin does not need a pretext — he can invent one that will be amplified by his pliant domestic media; but in this case he was given a real one, which he is clearly delighted to exploit.
The most elemental issue on the table is almost philosophical. What group of people has the right to be a nation? Self-determination is a wonderful principle but realpolitik and geostrategy usually prevail.
Not every group of people that feels they are a nation, or even can persuasively project nationhood, currently has a nation-state. The Kurds don’t. The Catalans don’t. The Uighurs sure don’t. The Chechens don’t — it is Russia itself that has been allowed to trample them at will. It comes down to whether the claimant nation or the denier nations can exercise more power.
For the world community to claim that it supports the right of all nations for independence is absurd; we would simply not like to see changes imposed by force.
Sure, Ukraine is a nation different from Russia, probably about the same as Portugal is a nation different from Spain. The Ukrainians seem to have won a right to be a nation. But there is still uncertainty about whether Russia will not be allowed to in various ways meddle in their affairs. And their borders might not be sacrosanct, as the world showed by reacting meekly to the takeover by Russia of Crimea in 2014.
If Russia is actually permitted to take over Ukraine wholesale, then the implications will be dire. Next it will threaten the Baltics and other places. Meanwhile China will be emboldened to seize Taiwan. The delicate post-WWII balance that has somewhat kept the peace will start to crumble.
How events now unfold depends on one person, Putin, who clearly revels in being unpredictable and seemingly reckless. The West can cause Russia terrible economic damage by blocking trade, cutting off its banks, boycotting its leaders and seizing foreign assets including Russian reserves. Did Putin foresee all this? He should have; but perhaps he has reached the point in a dictator’s descent into madness when he believes his own lies.
And then again Russia can threaten nuclear war. Or just up the ante by threatening the Baltics and Finland. The risks are so huge that it is attractive to contemplate a face-saving way out (if Putin is prepared for such). That might involve an inelegant comedown on inviting Ukraine into NATO.
But the West must be very careful about leaving behind the narrative that a dictator was appeased. That rarely ends well, and would be terrible for the Russian people first of all: they too deserve to be free of Putin, no less than the Ukrainians do, and exactly as much as everyone else.