THE BLOG
05/29/2014 10:40 am ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014

The Ukraine Crisis and the 'Balance of Power'

The wise manipulation of a balance of power strategy, with care to avoid direct hostilities and a clear preference for diplomacy over force of arms, could in the end prove useful in dealing with Ukraine, but only if such diplomacy is based on a search for fair compromise, with the will and capacity to de-escalate crises; otherwise, the Gates of Hell could indeed open and humanity descend into the maw of general warfare, and the triumph of the unrests in the space of the former East bloc and Eurasia just might spread across the globe.

Almost all the geopolitical actors are applying policies based on this principle of "balance of power." Instead of waging expensive wars or directly confronting enemies, they seek to creatively manage disputes among adversarial states and political entities, jockeying for position while as much as possible carefully striving to avoid as much as possible direct, unpopular and costly wars, thereby preserving their economy. This is not new in human history; rather, it is an updated version of Byzantine Power Balancing.

Indeed Byzantium, known also as the Eastern Roman Empire, despite its alleged weakness, was able to survive for almost a thousand years after the fall of Rome, the supposedly far stronger Western Roman Empire. Within the strictures of international treaties and obligations (and often outside them), modern nations use the Smart Power of Diplomacy and Economic Incentives/Pressure with the goal of asserting influence while avoiding the debilitating costs of direct warfare as much as possible.

At stake is control of Eurasia, with almost three-quarters of known energy resources, over 70 percent of Earth's population and almost 60 percent of global GDP. Whoever has primacy in this large continent has de facto control over a large portion of the global economy. On this playing field, the current geopolitical players are the U.S., China, Europe and Russia. Three major areas are at risk here: Iran, Central Asia (including Kazakhstan) and Ukraine.

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This trend is evident from President Obama's announced policy of "nation building" at home, which envisions decreasing America's military presence around the globe. Driven by economic constraints but also by his inherent preference for diplomacy over militarism, President Obama has shifted US foreign policy away from confrontational militarism towards one based on conflict management through diplomacy. In fact, Obama seeks to maintain US primacy by playing more quietly in the background, without a presumed retreat.

In the Pacific, this power balancing is more evident as the U.S. seeks to constrain China by reaffirming its support for Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. China's centralized system uses balance of power in its own way, as shown by the declared "Peaceful Rise" and its applied "subtle power" in a constant search for markets and resources. At least up to now, China seems to be pursuing this path, despite the many problems with its neighbors concerning boundaries and the exploitation of resources.

Euro-Russia

Unified Europe -- the other side of the Atlantic Pact -- is the voluntary union of peoples and citizens, and as such has the soft power of diplomacy as its existential power-balancing pivot, even while each acts from its own national interests (see France's policy in Africa). Despite shrinking confidence in its own future, the EU's adherence to a course of action that seeks partnership -- including with Ukrainians -- is due to the Ukrainian people's general perception of Europe as a bastion of guaranteed democratic rights of citizenship and the economic security of a strong public welfare program. This holds, despite any and all crises. Ukrainian citizens demand partnership with European.

Russia now seems to be the unique major player on the geopolitical stage to be flexing its apparent muscles. It seems the Russian establishment's mentality is using nationalist pride to substitute for the lack of economic prosperity. Not without reason, the Russian economy consists essentially in the export of energy products; the Russian stock market is dominated by Gazprom. In fact, Russia seems unable to diversify its economy.

Ukraine in the Balance

The Ukrainian issue should be viewed within this same general Balance of Power framework.
Obviously, many peoples from the territory of the former Soviet Union and the former East bloc, including the Russians themselves, are eager to smash the remaining vestiges of the iron cage of the Soviet style centralized state. At the same time, many are also quite proudly conscious of their own identity, rejuvenated after the collapse of the former USSR, and seek their own sovereignty and to build and maintain to the extent possible a modern state based on the rule of law and democratic rights of citizenship. Such peoples would long to see the weakening and eventual disappearance of the inventories of the centralized authoritarian power based on state bureaucracy. Yet in Ukraine hard geopolitical realities prevail.

The Collapse of the USSR and the Weak Russia under Yeltsin

After the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union, for which even the Perestroika and Glasnost of Gorbachev have not been able to find the cure, the years of the Yeltsin regime saw Russia reduced to at most a weak regional power, a shadow of its former self.

Gradually, however, the bureaucracy of the State was able to resuscitate the Russian traditional spirit of power. The security structures, by leveraging popular Russian nationalist tradition, were successful at lifting up a new strong man and getting him elected by the Russian people. Putin was able to rebuild the power of both the Russian state and its arsenal at home by excluding oligarchs and suppressing separatism. While using the contradictions of U.S.'s policy -- as in Libya and Syria -- and the lack of American success in Afghanistan and Iraq and playing on the structural changes in the global economy due to the emergence of Asia in need of energy alike Europe, Putin has launched policies aimed at building a new sphere of influence abroad. President Putin gave crystal clear voice to the soul of the Russian establishment when he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the twentieth century."

Putin's Leverage; the Russian Counterbalance

President Putin as the mouthpiece of the Russian establishment begins to imagine, plan and manifest as a new geopolitical player on the world stage. He invests in the energy sector and transforms Russian energy products into a geopolitical tool. Russia reaches quasi monopoly status in the European energy market with the tacit collaboration of European states and especially Germany, whose energy needs are so crucial and its investment in Russia large and multileveled. At the same time, Putin strengthens Russia's collaboration within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), working to build a common economic market called the Eurasia Union within part of the space of the former East-bloc.

Re-emergent Russian Power

While moving to consolidate Russian influence, Putin has accepted partnership status with the West. Despite the expansion of NATO toward Eastern Europe, Russia seemed to recognize the new situation for about a quarter century, accepting the logic of the global system where the U.S. still has primacy, and more recently Russia held firm with the Western powers on the UN Resolution on Libya. But the exponential expansion of NATO eastward was considered by the Russian establishment to be a threat, and manifestly against their interests. Moreover, the rise of extremist jihadi forces in the Middle East has posed the risk of contagion at home and led Putin to change his posture. In Syria, he has assumed a position apparently in contrast with Western policy. In Egypt, while Obama's administration tries to encourage reconciliation between the Muslim Brotherhood and military-backed authorities, Russia has supported change based on a "post-modern coup" conducted by General al-Sisi against the elected Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi even if by a narrow majority. And in the startling case of Edward Snowden, Putin has acted in clear and open opposition to America's stated interests. Nonetheless, all this talk of a "new cold war" does not reflect the real situation and the profound changes that have occurred in the economy and geopolitics of the globe.

The Geopolitical Game on Ukraine's Ground

As collaboration and partnership morph into competition and opposition, powder kegs catch sparks and begin to explode. In Ukraine, the elected president Victor Yanukovych was viewed as a renegade by his own party and forced into exile by the Maidan uprising -- supported by the West and the U.S. -- despite a small but significant neo-Nazi presence impossible to overlook. While common citizens seek a partnership with Europe hoping to reach European citizenship rights, geopolitical players enter onto the scene with their own agendas: The EU seeks a partnership with Ukraine; the U.S., operating within a framework of power-balancing, wants essentially to hinder the emergence of Russia as a dominant regional power, while China searches to expand its "peaceful rise" further.

Crimea claims its independence, is immediately recognized by Russia, and in a move considered illegal by western states, is annexed by Russia. An illegal act, yes; but one that has a nearly parallel precedent in the recognition of Kosovo's independence by western nations. The Russophile cities and regions of industrial Eastern Ukraine begin to explode, announcing a vote for independence. Ukrainian forces intervene in the East, while the Russian Army undertakes drills close to the Ukrainian border. Although President Putin has ordered troops near Ukraine's border to withdraw and a direct Russian military intervention on a large scale seems unlikely, even so the prevailing unrest and tension threatens security and burns resources.

Russia and Ukraine

Right or wrong, it should be acknowledged that Russia does not look upon Ukraine as a completely foreign state, due to their common historical roots; Russian civilization is unthinkable without Ukraine. Indeed, Kievan Rus was one of the most important centers of Russian civilization. The two countries have a centuries-old, multilevel interdependence. Nowadays, while Russia is a consolidated political and geopolitical reality, Ukraine was born as an independent nation just twenty years ago. It is a young nation, with a young sense of identity and a political system still in the process of forming.

Although the Ukrainian Russophobe nationalists concentrated essentially in the western part of Ukraine seek a presence of NATO and the U.S., such a presence at the very gates of Russia could not boost the Putin regime's feelings of security. Whoever controls Kiev could exert significant pressure on Russia itself. Moreover, NATO and the U.S. simply do not have either the mind-set or sufficient forces to intervene on the ground in the whole of Ukraine. It would be even more difficult to approach Ukraine by sea. This, while Russia could -- and probably would -- fight to save or to retake what it considers its vital sphere.

Perspectives on Ukrainian Unity

Recent polling shows that the majority of Ukrainians -- in both the east and west of the country -- would prefer a unified country.

According to Henry Kissinger, Ukraine could conserve its union only by adopting a neutral status in the manner of Finland. Other perspectives envision a federalized Ukraine. Otherwise the land could degenerate into an ungovernable chaos.

Interestingly, a true and lasting solution could be found if both Russia and Ukraine would link with the EU and provide to their citizens a society under the rule of law and full citizenship rights, which perhaps most of their citizens would appreciate over the long term. In Ukraine, geopolitical rationales prevail, with Russia defending what it considers its own vital space from its centralized state framework, in opposition to the U.S., which generally supports democracy and the rule of law ... until and unless these high principles cease to coincide with its current geopolitical interests. Indeed, in the Ukraine crisis the U.S. has a certain credibility problem.

Forcing Europe to Choose

Seen from the viewpoint of the "Balance of Power" strategy of the Obama administration, U.S. policy in Ukraine would force Europe, and especially Germany -- generally quite tolerant of Russia since German unification -- to choose between its trans-Atlantic loyalties and its friendship with Russia. The EU would seek to sustain the new Ukrainian government that emerged from the Maidan uprising and after the landslide election of the Europhile Poroshenko, but without hurting Russia too much, by keeping the sanctions regime moderate, even tepid. The U.S. would urge more forceful impediments to an emergent Russia. Between the power-balancing logic of the Obama administration and the Russian establishment's muscle-show, the Ukrainian (and Syrian) crises could continue for quite a while, despite the best intentions to resolve it.

Making matters even more difficult, Obama's policy based on diplomacy rather than military confrontation is often opposed by a significant neo-con faction ensconced within the U.S. establishment that unceasingly urges the West, to push for the ideological conquest of the post-Soviet world.

Legacy of the Cold War

Nevertheless, any overreach by the West into the space of the former Eastern bloc and the USSR, such as would be exemplified by generalized sanctions against Russia or Ukrainian membership in NATO and/or the EU, could boomerang. Too-intense pressure on Russia could provoke an increasingly defensive patriotism; after all, Russians alongside the peoples of the former USSR withstood the onslaughts of powerful Nazi forces with extreme valor, at immense human cost. The west ideologically won the cold war, but this victory does not mean the "End of History" and the annihilation of the adversary. Defensive patriotism could provide a convenient ideology allowing the Russian establishment to resist and ignore its shrinking GDP and other similar problems, and, closing on itself, carve out a sphere of influence in a significant part of the globe alongside China. In other words, the West and especially Europe should work to attract Russia, not repel it further toward China, forcing the two states into a defensive crouch. The last energy agreement of $400 billion could be a signal only.

Hope for the Future -- The Path Forward

A democratic West should encourage and help Russia, China or any other politically centralized actor to open itself by expanding democracy. Exporting democracy neo-con style cannot succeed. The strategy should be rather to seek collaboration, not competition, and to work within the framework of international institutions, treaties and legal precedents, with attention to the examples of civil societies. It is not external pressure, but the internal demands by citizens for their rights that could determine the end of centralized power. Excessive external pressure could instead buttress the logic of authoritarians at home. Isolating Russia is neither possible nor useful: after all, Russia has its European soul too, and it is not a pure Asian power.

At the same time, the Russian establishment should look into the mirror of its soul and realize it is simply not possible to sustain eternally a centralized nation-state. According to Jürgen Habermas, we have entered the era of "post-national identity," so defending the Russian-speaking population or Russian ethnic groups in other countries sounds unsustainable. Such a policy could be devastating for Russia itself. Many peoples and ethnic groups -- Muslim Tatars to give just one example - may seek autonomy and enter into relations with other states. In the end, however, this will be up to the Russian regime. Attempts to replace calls for just rights and economic prosperity for citizens with some abstract appeal to "national pride" could not hold up in the long run.

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