John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: President Putin

PUTIN IS SPLITTING THE EUROPEAN UNION, AND TEARING UP EUROPE’S POST WAR SECURITY ORDER

Russia’s tactics in Ukraine have torn up the assumptions, on which the relationship between the West and Russia had been based since the end of the Second World War.

Forcible annexations of neighbouring territory, a reality in the 1930’s, are now a reality again, thanks to what has happened in Ukraine.

Power politics and spheres of influence of great powers have replaced international law and respect for sovereignty as the motive forces of European security.

Already, the EU is visibly divided on how to respond, even though international law on this matter is clear.

On the 1 August 1975, the then Irish Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave was one of the signatories of the Helsinki Final act governing relations between European states. He signed along the United States, all other European countries (except Albania), and the USSR, which at the time encompassed both Russia and Ukraine.
Article one of the Helsinki Final Act said that the signatory states would

“respect each other’s sovereign equality, juridical equality and territorial integrity”,
and that they would refrain from the 

“use of force or the threat of the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.

As a small militarily neutral European state, Ireland has a greater interest, even than has a state which enjoys the comfort of a military alliance, in ensuring that these clear interstate principles are respected.

As Taoiseach, I happened to have been invited to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the very day the Assembly was voting to admit the Russian Federation to membership of the Council. I spoke in favour of Russian accession. Russia became a member on 28 February 1996. The Council of Europe is the source of a dense and comprehensive network of treaties on many topics, including human rights. The Council of Europe, and its Treaties, only have meaning to the extent that its members are willing to abide by international law.

The European Union also rests on the foundation of respect for international law. The EU only EXISTS because there is an assumption that international Treaties will be respected in ALL circumstances. The EU has no force to govern its own members beyond the force of international law in the form of EU Treaties.  The European Court of Justice interprets these Treaties and its rulings are accepted by all EU states.

Dividing the EU has been a long standing Russian goal, and President Putin’s aggressive tactics appear to be succeeding in the goal of dividing the EU, in a way that previous Russian efforts have failed.

At one end of the spectrum, countries like Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Italy and Hungary are relatively accommodative towards what Russia is doing, while others, like Lithuania, Poland, Estonia and Latvia are alarmed and looking for resolute action. The bigger EU states are, painfully and unsuccessfully, trying to balance commercial interests against professed principles
Talks are taking place in Geneva, but one wonders what there is to talk about. The two sides have no assumptions in common, unless of course Russia succeeds in getting the EU to validate what it is doing.

As recently as 1994, EU countries, including Britain and France, reached an international agreement with Russia guaranteeing Ukraine’s frontiers, in return for the non trivial matter of Ukraine abandoning its nuclear weapons, and thereby weakening its deterrent security capacity in an important way. That agreement has now been put in the bin.

It appears to me that the European Union is not only unprepared militarily and economically for what is happening now. It is also unprepared intellectually. Its theory on international relations does not encompass what President Putin is doing.

Putin is moving fast, while Europe is still scratching its head.

If the EU is not to have its policies dictated in the Kremlin, as a result Russian pressure on energy supplies, it needs to make a radical change in its own energy policies.

It needs to build a proper energy union in Europe, independent of Russia, with complete inter connection of its energy distribution grids. That will require a lot of investment, and the diversion of funds from current consumption. 

ARE WE SEEING A REPETITION OF 1938?

Adolf Hitler’s 1938 threats to, and eventual occupation of, Czechoslovakia bore some similarities to what is now happening between President Putin and Ukraine. 

In 1938,Hitler exaggerated, and stirred up, grievances over language rights in the German speaking part of Czechoslovakia. He directed the local German speaking leaders inside Czechoslovakia  to ensure that they did not reach any settlement with the Czech Government. He used the lack of an internal settlement as a basis for seeking to incorporate these areas in Germany, under the pretext of protecting the rights of the German speakers.

Western leaders tried to mediate and negotiate without success, culminating in the showdown at Munich, where Chamberlain abandoned Czechoslovakia in return for piece of paper signed by Hitler and himself in which both agreed on “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again.”. 

Eventually, when Hitler broke his word and occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, trust broke down completely.
Hitler tried the same game with Poland in August 1939, possibly thinking he would get away with it again and the British and French would again huff and puff but do nothing. If that was his calculation, he was mistaken.

The crisis over the Sudetenland in 1938 played out more slowly than the one over Crimea. Putin has acted with much greater speed. In the former case, there was even time for a British Commission of Enquiry, the Runciman Commission, to spend a few weeks studying the situation on the ground in the Sudetenland and reporting back to London.

There is another important difference between the situation of Ukraine and that of Czechoslovakia. France had a Treaty of Mutual (military) Assistance with Czechoslovakia, which had been signed in 1925, guaranteeing Czech borders. Britain had no such Treaty but was drawn in because of its strategic commitment to France. That is why the Czechs feel, to this day, a particular grievance about France’s lack of action in 1938.

In contrast, Ukraine does not have a military alliance with any western country. It is not a member of NATO, and has no Treaty based military guarantees of its borders.
But, since 1994, Ukraine does have a general guarantee of its borders from Russia, the US, and Britain, given in return for giving up its nuclear weapons arsenal. According to this so called Budapest  memorandum, Russia, the U.S., and the UK confirmed, in recognition of Ukraine becoming a member of the nuclear non proliferation Treaty and in effect abandoning its nuclear arsenal to Russia, that they would,

+ respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders,
+ refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, and
+ refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.

This is hugely important, and creates a major moral obligation because one of the goals of global policy is to get countries with military nuclear capacity to give it up in return for guarantees. If such guarantees can be unilaterally abandoned without consequence, this strategy for  opposing nuclear proliferation breaks down.

President Putin may feel that Russia should not have agreed to that memorandum in 1994. But it did. Hitler certainly felt the then German Government should not have signed the Versailles Treaty. But it did. Indeed, German negotiators had much less choice, in signing the Versailles Treaty in 1919, than Russian negotiators had in 1994, in signing the Budapest Memorandum.

There was no duress in 1994.

What is happening to Ukraine, and in a different way what happened to Libya, will make it more difficult to get nuclear armed regimes to give up weapons in return for guarantees, however solemn. This is not just a matter of international law. It is one of practical politics and global security, for everybody including militarily neutral countries, like Ireland.
Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, which also have Russian speaking minorities, are members of NATO and do have military alliance guarantees.

It will be the existential test for NATO, if Russia makes or carries out threats on Latvia or Estonia, similar to the ones it has carried out on Ukraine.

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