The most significant result of the crisis in Ukraine has been recalibrating our view of how and why states like Russia act within the international system.

Protesters with posters reading in Russian "NO NATO" in Donetsk. Photo: Maksim Blinov / RIA Novosti.

For all the bomDonbast they have used, expert commentators on the recent crisis in Ukraine have consistently missed its most pervasive and significant result. We are variously told that the annexation of Crimea represents the first step towards a resurgent Russia, that actually it “destroyed the myth of Russian strength” or, closest to the truth, that Barack Obama’s worryingly “hands-off approach” is permitting President Vladimir Putin’s destruction of the peaceful post-Cold War era. The prescription: selflessness in sanctioning Russia (be that with London’s Russian money or France’s warships), a strengthened NATO, and altogether sturdier U.S. leadership in Europe.

The reason for Obama’s alleged dithering, however, was long foretold. The “father of containment” and former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, George Kennan, observed in 1998 that “we have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so.” Just a few years previously, then governor Bill Clinton famously proclaimed a world in which “freedom, not tyranny, is on the march,” one in which “the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute.”

Matt Finucane

Eagerly received NATO expansion and democratization in Eastern Europe was touted as proof that the time for a liberal foreign policy was finally nigh. Above all else it was a safe move (in Kennan’s words, a “light-hearted action” by a Senate with “no real interest in foreign affairs,” guaranteed to antagonize Russia), for it was safeguarded not just by American strength but by Russia’s crippling weakness — NATO simply assumed that the Article 5 pledge to defend its new members would never be invoked.

Ever since those heady days of expansion, a newly invigorated Russia has increasingly challenged the tenets of the new order, and in faltering Eastern European democracy and the leverage afforded it by its energy exports, these efforts increasingly bear fruit. Make no mistake, the global balance of power is not shifting, but our perceptions of it are as the illusions of liberal inviolability guaranteed by a predominant superpower are dispelled.

In what will likely become one of his defining statements, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of behaving like a 19th century power in Crimea. If a lesson is to be learned from the crisis in Ukraine, it is that 19th century principles are no less relevant in the 21st century, and that the era of benign expansion represented the greater anomaly.

In returning to what has traditionally been the norm in international relations — an order in which predominance is earned, not assumed — one can anticipate a more active foreign policy where it counts. As those in the realist school of international relations never tire of reaffirming, America need not fight wars in places that do not matter to convince its allies that it will fight in places that do.

Whether or not the crisis in Ukraine has heralded a new Cold War, to those states weighing up their pro-Western ambitions against those of their neighboring regional powers, the Cold War strategy of neutralism looks increasingly appealing. Pioneered by Finland and adopted by Yugoslavia following its expulsion from the Cominform, neutralism eschewed traditional bloc politics in favor of balanced relationships with each bloc. What this means for Ukraine is already palpable, and newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko — having stated during his candidacy that “without a direct dialogue with Russia, it will be impossible to create security” — has already initiated talks towards a peace plan with the pro-Russian militias in Ukraine’s east.

In Ukraine Putin may have made important gains, but it would be erroneous to consider the new era as any more advantageous for Russia. After all, it is predicated on capabilities and actions and although Putin might eagerly punish his neighbors, fears of a Russia with global ambitions are greatly exaggerated. 

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.