NEW DELHI – The world, it seems, is in the grip of geopolitical anomie. No leader, group of leaders, or institution commands sufficient authority to restore any semblance of international order and peace. For many, this global rudderlessness recalls Europe’s sleepwalk into catastrophe 100 years ago.
There are certainly some uncanny similarities between current events and that fateful time. The downing in eastern Ukraine of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 echoed the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in its recklessness, not to mention the failure of governments and citizens to recognize that diplomatic rivalry can quickly give way to violence.
Indeed, even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incitement of secessionist movements in eastern Ukraine, airlines did not consider it necessary to reroute flights. This reflected the international community’s response – or lack thereof – to the menacing developments. With Russian forces now directly participating in the unrest in eastern Ukraine, the match lit by President Vladimir Putin could spark a conflagration.
Shortly before the Soviet Union’s dissolution was complete, I asked Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Adviser under US President Jimmy Carter, what the world should expect from a post-Soviet Russia. He replied that the Soviet Union’s dissolution would bring about a new era of global peace, if – and only if – Russia remained within its geographical boundaries.
That is a path in which Putin clearly has no interest, as he leads Russia’s latest crusade, after its 2008 war with Georgia, to recover a part of its lost empire. The “history” that, according to Francis Fukuyama, was supposed to have ended with communism’s collapse has gotten a second wind. In Putin’s authoritarian capitalism – similar to that of China – Western-style liberal democracy, which was supposed to reign triumphant, has a new rival.
From Putin’s perspective, Russia’s focus on Ukraine makes sense. Ukraine’s allegiance is essential to Putin’s effort to establish his Russian-led Eurasian Union as an alternative to the European Union. Moreover, Russian leaders have always viewed Ukraine as an important security buffer; it is also a transit route for the energy exports on which Russia’s economy depends.
This is not the first time that Putin has worried about a Ukrainian shift toward the West. During Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, Putin believed that the CIA was behind the widespread protests that blocked Viktor Yanukovych’s attempt to steal the presidential election. But the scale of the protests, together with the West’s support for the protesters, compelled Putin to refrain from intervening directly. Instead of launching a military campaign – overt or otherwise – he used energy exports and financial incentives to keep Ukraine’s government in line.
This time around, Putin chose military intervention – a decision that has proved devastating for Russia. Western sanctions have fueled capital flight on a scale not seen since the early years of the country’s post-communist transition.
Moreover, the central bank’s decision not to defend a sharply falling ruble, together with Putin’s prohibition of Western food imports, will lead to a sharp decline in living standards and a growing sense of global isolation. As a result, support for Putin is likely to wane.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine now resembles a gang war, lawless and unconstrained. And the EU refrained for too long from taking decisive action that would undermine the economic interests of influential members like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Just before the EU finally tightened its sanctions at the end of July, Marietje Schaake, a Dutch MEP, observed that almost every European country had “voluntarily handed over power to Mr. Putin, allowing him to play countries against each other.” Thus, in the wake of the downing of MH17, US President Barack Obama, as Geoff Dyer put it, was “caught between a strategy of trying to move in tandem with Europe and the clamor for a decisive US response.”
If the West’s response to the crisis in Ukraine has been weak and misguided, the reaction of the world’s rising powers has been one of willful blindness. China, for example, has effectively endorsed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine. That should have set off alarms bells in India, given China’s claims on large swathes of Indian sovereign territory, but there is no sign yet that anyone has noticed.
Considering India’s history, this is not altogether shocking. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, India did not express explicit disapproval. Indeed, India repeatedly abstained from United Nations resolutions urging the withdrawal of Soviet forces – resolutions that had overwhelming support among the other non-aligned countries.
By the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union sought an honorable and safe exit from Afghanistan, India had forfeited the standing necessary to help. Once the Soviets withdrew, India could not play any serious role in shaping Afghanistan’s future.
When the foundations of the global order are threatened, great powers must not adopt a policy of inaction and silence. For their part, emerging powers like India, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey must, at the very least, loudly and categorically defend the fundamental rules of the international system that has enabled them to grow and prosper. Otherwise, when world leaders finally do wake up and take action, they could find that they have stumbled into yet another global catastrophe.