The dramatic situation unfolding around Ukraine over the past few months outgrew its regional framework long ago. It is evident that the consequences for the entire system of international relations will be far-reaching. 

A pro-Russian gunman behind the barricades in front of the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, in the center of Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine. Photo: AP

The Ukrainian situation is indeed convoluted, and perhaps represents the first serious test for the world's leading powers since the Cold War. At the same time, it would be rash to forejudge the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis. 

These consequences will be determined by a combination of many factors, above all the ability or inability of the protagonists to draw the correct conclusions from the ongoing saga and determine the optimal strategy going forward.

Without claiming to offer an exhaustive overview, I would like to share my thoughts on what “Ukrainian lessons” could be equally important for both Russia and the West. 

Lesson #1: The mechanisms of international security must be strengthened

First, the crisis around Ukraine must not be portrayed as a sudden failure of world politics, or as an isolated phenomenon that runs counter to the main international trends in recent decades. In fact, the crisis has a long prehistory, dating back to the armed aggression against Yugoslavia, the military intervention in Iraq, America’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, and the recent events in Libya and Syria.

The entire chain of steps taken by the West can be clearly traced, each in its own way undermining the foundations of international law and the role of the UN Security Council, reducing opportunities for multilateral action, seeking to justify the use of military force, etc.

So the first lesson, it seems, should be to seriously address the issue of strengthening the international security mechanisms and to jointly shape a new world order that minimizes the risks of crises such as the one we see in Ukraine.

Lesson #2: The West and Russia must overcome the legacy of the Cold War

Second, the crisis has shown that the gulf of mistrust separating Russia and the West remains as wide as it was 20 years ago. The old ideas and old fears have proved to be extremely tenacious, causing many in the West and Russia to view the events in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. The Cold War-style rhetoric is gaining momentum, and the hawks on both sides have become media darlings and the shapers of public sentiment.

The second lesson of the crisis, then, is that we mustn’t assume that the hangover of mistrust, suspicion, and prejudice from the Cold War era will disappear by itself. That will require consistent, sustained, and concerted efforts in both the West and the East.

Lesson #3: European security must be addressed

Third, the Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated the fragility and unreliability of the existing institutions of Euro-Atlantic security. Regrettably, Europe does not have a single valid agreement on the control of conventional arms and armed forces. Plans to modernize the OSCE remain on the drawing board, while even in its heyday the NATO-Russia Council functioned primarily as a technical body.

Meanwhile, our continent’s security problems cannot be solved by themselves or in the format of telephone conversations between European leaders at times of acute crisis.

The third lesson is that mutual security in the Euro-Atlantic region must be addressed once and for all. Cooperation in this area should be based on the principles of indivisible and equal security. It should assume a transition from the outdated concept of mutually assured destruction to relations based on reciprocal understanding and guaranteed security.

Lesson #4: Universal understanding of international law must be restored

Fourth, throughout the Ukrainian crisis, and especially in its latter stages, there has been a lot of heated debate about the basic issues of international law. What is a “legitimate government”? What constitutes a “failed state”? Under what conditions should the right to self-determination be recognized?

All these and many no less significant issues raised their heads during previous crises: the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, the South Caucasus, Libya, Syria, the list goes on. But it was the Ukrainian crisis that revealed a fundamental flaw in world politics, namely the rapid erosion of international law, and showed that even the major players are incapable of agreeing upon a uniform set of international “rules of the game.”

Lesson four, then, is that world politics will become manageable once more only if we are able to restore a universal understanding and application of basic international legal norms in the field of security. Selective use thereof will bring chaos and anarchy.

Lesson #5: The crisis must not be allowed to spiral out of control

Fifth, the Ukrainian crisis is a vivid illustration of what textbooks on international relations describe as “unintended escalation”.

For a long time, the problem of Ukraine’s associative status in relation to the European Union was seen primarily as a technical issue. But last fall it took on a new dimension, forcing the country’s hand in terms of which economic development strategy to choose.

The next twist in the tail led to armed clashes and the violent seizure of power by the opposition. And by spring of this year, Europe was looking at its most acute crisis since the end of the Cold War.

The fifth lesson for us all is not to let crises spiral out of control by constantly raising the stakes in the hope of a quick victory. Compromise is a more viable option in the early stages, especially if seeking one that takes into account the other side’s interests without having to sacrifice your own.

Lesson #6: Do not underestimate the potential for political radicalism

Sixth, a feature of the Ukrainian crisis has been the rapid radicalization of the political forces on the ground. We tend to think that extreme right-wing ultranationalist groups form a small minority in modern Europe, incapable of becoming a driving force behind the political process. But Ukraine has shattered that ideal.

Whereas the initial period of the crisis took the form of peaceful demonstrations, by the time of the coup the radicals were completely dictating their will — both in terms of the opposition’s political agenda and the choice of tools with which to fight the regime of Viktor Yanukovych.

Moreover, the political radicalization in Ukraine has led to an unprecedented rise of radical nationalism in Russia, Europe, and elsewhere. The rise of political radicalism, it turns out, is a real threat not only to the modernizing Arab states, but also to the mature democracies of the West.

Hence, lesson number six is that the potential for political radicalism in developed countries must never be underestimated; the prospect of political mobilization on the back of radical ideas and principles remains an ever-present danger to all of us.

Lesson #7: Institutions of civil society need to be activated in times of crisis

Seventh, the crisis in Ukraine has showed the weakness of civil society — and not only in Ukraine, but in Russia, Europe and across the Atlantic.

Institutions of civil society — NGOs, professional societies, independent analysis centers — were not actively involved in the attempts to resolve the crisis; the major players were civil servants and diplomats.

There is no doubt that the actions of the “third sector” to monitor the situation in Ukraine, advance alternative solutions, prevent political radicalization, and create an atmosphere of trust between the conflicting parties could have kept the crisis in check and prevented its escalation and most acute manifestations.

Therefore, the seventh lesson is do not consider the involvement of civil society as a secondary consideration that can wait until the arrival of better times. On the contrary, the utilization of civil society institutions in times of crisis is an important diplomatic resource that must never be overlooked. That means that such resource needs to be prepared in advance through dedicated dialogue and cooperation with the “third sector.”

Lesson #8: Political contacts between Russia and the West must not be put on ice

One last consideration: the history of international crises teaches us that the worst response is to curtail established contacts and freeze existing channels of dialogue. On the contrary, it is in critical situations that dialogue comes to the fore.

Recall that the result of one of the most dangerous episodes in the Cold War — the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — was much deeper Soviet-U.S. cooperation on nuclear issues, which ultimately led to today’s system of nuclear arms control.

This lesson should not be forgotten by those calling for a moratorium on political contacts between Russia and the West, the imposition of more sanctions, and the jettisoning of mutually acceptable solutions to common problems faced by us all.

This is an abridged version of the original article first published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.