How did we get from trade disputes in Ukraine to nuclear threats in Severodvinsk?

By Kennette Benedict | August 7, 2014

The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, apparently by Russian-trained separatists using a Russian missile launcher. The US government’s determination that Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 by testing ground-launched cruise missiles. Increasingly stringent US and European economic sanctions against Russia’s government and key areas of the country’s economy. Troubles in and around Ukraine are straining relations between Russia and the United States and raising the prospect of a new Cold War. Fear is fueling actions on all sides, even leading Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, in a speech on the country’s July 27 Navy Day, to laud new nuclear submarines being built at Severodvinsk, saying they will be a reliable deterrent against any threat: “We see the presence of a nuclear potential can cool the fervor of any aggressor located at any point in the world.”

How has the East-West relationship moved from a November 2013 dispute over economic trading partnerships to veiled threats of nuclear weapons use just nine months later? Many Western observers begin their analysis with Ukraine’s internal problems, of which there are many. But the current tensions have their origins in the ending of the Cold War, as US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock and others have observed.

In the years after the Berlin Wall fell, and particularly now under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has come to feel—with some justification—that it offered peace and a new beginning in East-West relations but was marginalized and even taken advantage of when it came to economic dealings and diplomatic relations with the West, a process it is trying to reverse with its actions in Ukraine. The United States and its European allies, on the other hand, view the annexation of Crimea and other Russian responses to the Ukraine crisis as aggressive violations of international norms.

In other words, as the Ukrainian situation has played out, Russian, US, and European political leaders have continued to view international relations as a competitive, win-lose game. They would be better served to think about international relations as a system of continuous and dynamic change—more like the weather than a game of Go, and therefore more appropriately dealt with through careful adjustments based on common interests than haphazard confrontations that can send the system reeling in unpredictable and perhaps very dangerous directions.

The problem, before Ukraine. A longer view of the current crisis would focus on the history of US-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War and the underlying conditions contributing to Russian and US actions today. The United States government has failed to understand the profound sacrifices that Russia and its citizens made in the aftermath of the Cold War’s end. The region underwent four simultaneous revolutions, beginning abruptly with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev: in the economy, in the political system, in Russia’s national identity, and in foreign policy. Indeed, as experts watched what was happening in the early 1990s, some feared that the turmoil might even lead to conflict among ethnic groups within Russia and the outbreak of civil war, accompanied by an internal struggle for possession of the country’s vast nuclear arsenals.

Those were not easy times for Russia and former Soviet societies, and far from offering a helping hand to its erstwhile enemies, the US government turned away from the profound problems of the region to focus on the United States and its own economic problems. The most successful post-Cold War program was one that helped Russia dismantle its nuclear arsenals and secure fissile material; others supported scientific exchanges, joint research, and employment for nuclear scientists. Russian hardliners took a message from this help: The United States was more worried about Russian nuclear warheads aimed at America than about the economic shambles and psychological trauma that Russians were living with. In fact, a triumphalist narrative emerged in the West, contending the United States had outspent the Soviets in an arms race that brought about the collapse of their economy and a cry of “uncle.”

Many Russians had a different view. Rather than losing the Cold War, they believed, they had stopped the nuclear madness, given up their claims to regional hegemony, and opened their borders. They had stepped back from the nuclear precipice and extended the hand of peace to Western powers. In doing so, they sacrificed economic security, military preeminence, and international standing as one of the two superpowers in the world. For giving up so much, many Russian leaders believed they should have been rewarded.

Instead, they were left to their own devices. Very little financial or technical aid was provided to make the transition to a market economy. Trading relations among Eastern European countries were dismantled, and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, while NATO remained in place and even expanded. Soldiers and workers went unpaid, the Russian gross domestic product fell by more than 40 percent from 1990 to 1999, and male life expectancy dropped from 64 to 58 years. Under such conditions, it was a minor miracle that civil war did not erupt and that Russia remained intact.

It was in Putin’s first term as president that the economy began to turn around. Profits from extractive industries were showing up on state-owned company ledgers, and ordinary people began to feel a bit more secure. From 2000 to 2008, GDP grew seven per cent each year, and the economy began to stabilize, producing a growing middle class and a slightly more predictable future. Russia does not see itself as a “developing country.” The land of Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chekhov, and Pushkin, as well as home to some of the greatest mathematicians and scientists of the 20th century, has a right to play on the world stage as a nation to be taken seriously.

But even now, economic life in Russia feels tenuous, politics is dominated by cronies and money, and neighboring China is on the rise. Under these circumstances, any moves by erstwhile allies to initiate stronger relationships with the West can seem threatening.

It is little wonder, then, that when Ukraine sought closer economic links with the European Union rather than developing deeper ties in a Russia-led customs union, Russian leaders were not happy. Along with the loss of a trading partner, and a likely rise in prices for Ukrainian-made goods, came a political coup, supported by the West, that brought instability to Russia’s border. In the best of times, such developments would worry a country’s leaders. And these were not the best of times.

A needed change of mindset. None of the aforementioned post-Cold War circumstances excuse Russia’s seizure of Crimea or its support for separatist military forces that wish to secede from Ukraine. But if the United States were faced with similar circumstances on its own border, it would likely try to influence events and social forces in the neighboring country, as it has in Mexico’s “drug war.”

In Ukraine, the conditions were ripe for instability. A stumbling economy that served the few and political institutions that exacerbated social divisions created a potent formula for protest, violence, an unruly political transition, and fears that the country would be pulled apart. Where there is disorder, whether at a border or within a society, fear mounts and conflict can turn violent and escalate into civil war that too often spills over into other communities and countries.

This current crisis illustrates vividly the complexity of societies and international systems, and the inability of many leaders to grasp the interconnections between politics and economics, between governing institutions and market forces, and between domestic change and international relations. In complex systems, like weather systems, for example, perturbations in one part of the system can ripple with unexpected force to cause disruption in another.  There are tipping points, surprises, time delays, and unpredictable events with long-lasting effects. As environmental sustainability expert David Orr puts it, “Wisdom begins with the awareness that we live amidst complexities that we can never fully comprehend let alone control.”

As long as leaders and analysts continue to think entirely in terms of national interest, of leaders driven only by their personal ambitions, of military force as a means to further those ambitions—as in games like chess or Go—decisions will reflect very short-term time horizons and lead to poor outcomes. To avoid surprises and catastrophes like the current troubles in Ukraine, and the subsequent worsening of East-West tensions, requires a mindset rare among national leaders. It is a mindset capable of seeing connections, patterns, and dynamic systems, one with a sightline extending into the future far beyond the next political election, and into the past, as well, as seen by others who experienced it.

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