From Republic.ru, March 6, 2023, https://republic.ru/posts/107480. Complete text:
International conflicts, particularly large-scale ones, sometimes trigger major changes in the collective security system. These could be changes in ideology or ideas about global politics, and they could even be institutional changes, like the creation of the League of Nations after World War I and the UN after World War II. The appearance of these organizations preceded a protracted discussion about the characteristics of international law and the possible nature of collective security and membership in the international community. The discussions ended with a political compromise restricting the powers of sovereign states and the role of specific “great powers” in maintaining global order.
The ongoing all-out war between Russia and Ukraine is also triggering discussions about the relevance of the previous compromise and attitudes toward old guarantors of order. Talks about whether the UN is in need of reform, including the reorganization of the Security Council, of which Russia is a member, have been under way for decades, and not without the participation of Russia itself. These talks, however, entered a new phase after Russia blocked the Security Council’s possible actions in relation to its own invasion of a neighboring country. It is obviously too early to start talking about whether the war will result in wide-ranging institutional changes, but we can attempt to pinpoint political trends and forks in the discussion that could become a pretext for institutional security reforms and a review of existing roles.
First, the year of war has shown that the European community has been able to display remarkable solidarity on the matter of sanctions. Collective action on this matter does not always come easy. For example, the first time the international community, in the form of the League of Nations, imposed sanctions against one of its own was almost 90 years ago, when it had to deal with the similar problem of [former Italian leader] Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Those sanctions proved limited and ineffective. And while the parties were negotiating on an oil embargo, Ethiopia’s resistance was broken, even though many assumed that an embargo would be exactly what it would take to put a stranglehold on the Italian war machine.
Today, Russia has sufficient mineral resources and financial reserves to support a war economy in the short term, but what’s important is Western countries’ determination to counteract military aggression despite the economic burden of this support and the fact that the country subject to sanctions is a nuclear power.
This represents an important evolution in ideas about what is proper in international politics. A principled stand on the protection of an independent state’s territorial integrity could become a new element in the international community’s policy on other conflicts as well. A principled stand, particularly one that is made publicly, entails the development by societies of moral assessments of the problem and the corresponding transformation of states’ international identities. The prospect of this frightened part of the British political elite in 1935-1936, because it was not up to stopping Italy’s invasion and also could not follow the path of decisive sanctions, since it did not want to bear responsibility for resolving any similar conflicts in the future.
Second, while European and transatlantic unity with Ukraine has been impressive, dialogue with the Global South (mainly Latin America and Asia) has not. The General Assembly’s February vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine simply repeated the results of previous votes. With one important exception: With the advent of [Brazilian President] Lula da Silva, Brazil has changed its position and joined the countries condemning Russia. However, India, South Africa and, as expected, China and Iran remained in the abstaining camp.
It should be noted that despite the general condemnation of Putin’s aggression, Latin American countries apparently believe that this is not their war.
For example, they display little enthusiasm when responding to the US’s requests to send arms to Ukraine. The same can be said of Indian Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi, who says that war is not a means of resolving disputes, all the while buying more Russian oil. What’s surprising here is the absence of any serious dynamics in terms of collective security. Even amid a war that is roundly condemned, there are still no signs that Western countries are prepared to come up with any proposals for the Global South about revising the approach to collective conflict management. At the end of a year [of war], it is also surprising to see the degree of restraint with which international reform is being discussed as global institutions (primarily the UN Security Council) are stymied while regional blocs (primarily NATO) are stepping up activity. Even so, Lula da Silva, for example, wants exactly such a conversation. This conversation could start at the Group of 20 summit in India, although Modi is focusing on the meeting’s economic agenda, and continue at the G‑20’s next summits in Brazil and South Africa. Today it is clear that international pressure on any aggressor involved in global trade is impossible without the Global South.
It will also be impossible to solve the world’s most acute problems without the Global South, as the lamentable results of UN climate conferences have shown,
Third, the next big question in the global discussion on collective security concerns the political system of Russia itself. One theory of international relations – the democratic peace theory – says that democracies do not go to war against each other. An interested observer could conclude that some of the efforts aimed at international solidarity and reforming international institutions should be directed toward democratizing Russia. However, the very idea of this fills Western politicians with horror as they recall the experience of democratization in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It may be that these examples are what limit political imagination to the outside installation of democratic rule, which is untenable as an idea for both Western politicians themselves and, apparently, the Russian opposition. For this reason, Western politicians consistently say that they do not want to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs. I don’t think a discussion like this will go anywhere. In reality, the West – and primarily Europe – should think about what procedure it could propose to the Russian people in the face of the uncertainty and instability of a possible transition.
If such a transition does happen at some point, there will inevitably be questions of ensuring foreign and domestic security, an uneasy balance of political forces and guarantees of agreements and arbitration. These are not trivial questions, and they could be of decisive importance to the democratic transition itself and to global security.
This discussion is not happening yet. However, it is good that North America and, to a lesser extent, Europe are being consistent about not conflating [Russian] citizens who are excluded from politics with Putin’s entourage, which is waging the war. This is a positive signal to the people and to the regional elites. It’s not a given that this signal will reach its intended recipients and prevent “rallying around the flag,” but it is an important result of the year.
Fourth, both traditional and new democratic movements have spoken about the importance of Russia’s democratization. But some have not reflected enough about the structural importance of the democratic order – that is, about imperial experience and attitudes toward neighbors. And those who embarked on the path of reflection hurried to link decolonization with the principle of territoriality and the resulting partition of the state. Similar ideas were expressed at the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, which sees over 40 independent states formed along ethnic and geographical lines in place of today’s Russia. This was another surprise the year had to offer.
The need to partition a state as a response to the problem of security and decolonization is, to me, a big mistake.
It will turn into the restoration of the poorly reflected injustice of the imperial period with the help of a different form of injustice of the postimperial period, since the partitioning of the existing socioeconomic space may entail the destruction of the lives of people who grew up in different parts of this space and have no connection with past injustices.
There are no easy solutions to the question of justice for Indigenous peoples. This will take more than one day, even given a successful democratic transition and the building of a true federal structure. This problem has been the subject of self-reflection in North American federations for decades. Nevertheless, collective security and decolonization must be thought of in the context of Russia’s federalization and international integration.
The understanding that democratization should go hand in hand with the reform of international institutions is missing from current debates about Russia’s possible transition. A similar connection was formulated in relation to postwar Germany. Without it, any conversations about a fundamentally different role for Russia as a result of democratization will be somewhat superficial.
And the final [factor] is Vladimir Putin’s own view of the war, which will with some degree of probability undermine Russia’s role in the former consensus on collective security for internal reasons. Over the past year, Putin has not been able to formulate for his audience at home or abroad even one single reasonable justification for the war that would make it possible to call this war just. Shuffling through options from statements about “drug addicts in Kiev” to the unexpected “we were the ones being attacked” does not lend itself to identifying a meaningful explanation of the war. It’s likely that this was the Kremlin’s way of attempting to find a conspiracy theory for each of its audiences and spread it by means of its extensive propaganda machine. However, there is no overall justification for the war in this. This, in turn, could create (and already has created to a certain extent) a split between the “party of war” [i.e., the hawkish elites – Trans.] within the Russian regime regarding pace, timing, priorities and means for waging war. A war without goals cannot be won. It can only come to a stop. And it will come to a stop where the enemy stops, which will obviously not be an outcome that the “parties of war” can agree on. Dissatisfaction with the possible result of war within Russia itself is yet another challenge for future collective security and a reason to return to the question of the need for democratization.