Home / Opinion / Ukraine: land at the edge takes centre stage

Ukraine, which is understood to also mean “borderland" or land at the edge, has taken global centre stage even as its own borders are being forcibly redrawn. While commentators have raised the spectre of a new Cold War, the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine is far more complex. Its resolution will have significant implications for global order, other international disputes and the role of aspirant powers such as India.

By all accounts, the Ukrainian crisis is not a resumption of a new Cold War but a leftover from the unresolved conclusion of the original one. Many ongoing separatist movements around the periphery of the collapsing Soviet Union were not addressed but simply “frozen"—to prevent escalation—while there was agreement to respect the borders of the newly independent states. These “frozen conflicts" included the disputed regions of Nagorno-Karabakh (between Armenia and Azerbaijan), South Ossetia (which seceded from Georgia) and Transnistria (which separated from Moldova).

In fact, Russia provided “peacekeepers" in South Ossetia and Transnistria ostensibly to keep the conflicts “frozen" and to protect Russians located there. Ironically, just a year ago Ukraine (despite its own ongoing domestic political contestations) as the new 2013 chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe vowed to resolve these frozen conflicts during its tenure.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, Crimea might have qualified as a “frozen conflict" but was never branded as one given the close economic and military ties between Moscow and Kiev and the dominant Russian presence on the peninsula. Had the Russian majority in Crimea sought to separate from Ukraine then, it might have become a frozen conflict. In that case, it is unlikely that President Vladimir Putin would have felt compelled to unwisely call for a unilateral referendum there.

Indeed, in 2008 when Russia defended the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia and humiliated Georgia in a short, sharp war it sought to preserve the status quo. Moscow did not call for a unilateral referendum in South Ossetia despite its interests and overwhelming military presence there. Russia’s operation in Georgia (castigated by the West) might have been moderated by Dmitry Medvedev being president rather than Putin.

Putin’s rash pre-emptive military takeover of Crimea (not unlike president George Bush’s 2003 preventive war in Iraq) and the decision to call for a referendum reflects desperation and inability to use multilateral instruments to further Russia’s interests.

The UN Security Council vote on Saturday already rejected Sunday’s referendum and left Russia not only isolated but also without the support of its otherwise reliable ally, China. Indeed, Beijing’s uncharacteristic abstention on the vote was, clearly, prompted by concerns that it would set a precedent for Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

India, which initially appeared to defend “legitimate Russian" interests in Ukraine (to the chagrin of the new dispensation in Kiev) appears to have moderated its position, doubtless, spooked by Moscow’s use of the “r" word.

There is no gainsaying that Russia, like all major powers, has interests in its near abroad. However, in the post Cold War world such interests have to be tempered by two norms: first the need to seek diplomatic solutions to disputes through negotiations and, second, the international abhorrence of redrawing borders through the use of force.

Russia’s recent actions have challenged both these norms. Thus instead of the old binary east-west divide, there is a broad consensus—even among Russia’s close non-Western friends and allies—that Moscow might have gone too far.

A multilateral diplomatic approach to the Ukrainian crisis is, perhaps, the only way to find a long-lasting solution. Anything else will only isolate Russia further.

W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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