One year since the military conflict in Ukraine started, we are now better able to comprehend the inherent weaknesses of today’s international security architecture.

OSCE observers, center in white, talk with Ukrainian soldiers at their positions near the village of Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, April 19, 2015. Photo: AP

The year that has passed since the commencement of large-scale military operations in Eastern Ukraine has been marked by many significant events in the field of international relations. But the main conclusion that presents itself, whether solicited or not, is that the international community was fundamentally unprepared to deliver an adequate response to different scenarios for developments on the ground.

It so happened that in March 2015, within days of each other, two high-ranking international officials effectively admitted that today's global institutions are unable to cope with the new challenges and threats facing the world in the twenty-first century.

First, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Sky News in London that, since Ukraine was not part of NATO, the latter would not interfere in the “Ukraine conflict.” Stoltenberg stressed that the North Atlantic alliance was responsible for protecting and defending its allies, of which none was under attack. Nevertheless, he said that NATO could not agree with or accept what Russia was doing in Ukraine, for which reason the alliance had offered Kiev its strong political backing.

It is unclear what these words highlight more: the failure to fully grasp the severity of the current threats, the aspiration to unconditionally comply with statutory provisions, or the inability of the alliance to make its impact felt in the field of international security. Perhaps it is a bit of all three. However, such blunt utterances provoke not only surprise, but also anxiety that a world of violent confrontation and fragmentation is becoming the norm.

Where once there was a bipolar confrontation between opposing systems on ideological grounds, today’s poorly structured modern world is gradually stoking a confrontation based on the Hobbesian principle of “all against all,” replete with all the rapidly changing configurations, objectives, interests, unions, and centers of attraction and repulsion that ensue.

Speaking at a symposium on the 70th anniversary of the United Nations at the UN University in Japan, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed that very issue. In particular, he stated that the security landscape was becoming increasingly complex: There are a few players on the battlefield, but many more acting behind the scenes.

Consequently, as underlined by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Security Council has been unable to frame a common position on Syria and Ukraine. The only way out of the “Ukraine crisis,” in his view, is through the “genuine willingness” of the warring parties to “implement the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement.”

On that point he is in agreement with Stoltenberg, who also believes that “the most important thing now is to support the implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreements," guarantee the withdrawal of weapons from the front line, and maintain control over the process.

However, both international officials, wittingly or otherwise, are leading the global community, their esteemed international organizations and themselves astray. The Ukraine-Russia conflict (which, for the sake of correctness, is what the processes occurring in the east of Ukraine should be called) did not initially presuppose the existence of a mechanism for a peaceful settlement.


For a very different take on this issue, read "Donbas: A limited war for a total revision of the Cold War order."

What Russia was (and is) doing in respect of Ukraine in no way provided for a possible return to the pre-aggression status quo or even for a compromise solution. Everything is tailored not for a peaceful return to the past, but for the violent overthrow of the existing order with the prospect of an endlessly expanding zone of instability and general havoc to come.

This confirms yet again the inference that Crimea and the escalation of tension in eastern Ukraine was merely a detonator for the time bomb planted under the existing system of international relations and an anti-handling device intended to stymie efforts to restore security within the framework of global reality.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that all this is happening against the backdrop of the complete and irrevocable collapse of the mechanisms designed to ensure the smooth running of the balance-of-power system. Above all, it pertains to the system of international treaties, or rather the mechanism to control compliance therewith.

The latest evidence of this is perhaps Russia’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Consultative Group on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). As emphasized in a statement by the head of the Russian delegation at the talks in Vienna: “Russia’s announced suspension of the operation of the CFE Treaty in 2007 is hereby complete.”

The suspension of the Treaty adds additional complexity to the already less-than-ideal mechanism for conventional arms control in Europe.

All this requires that the international community, primarily in the shape of a consolidated Europe and the United States, should give its undivided attention to finding a new global architecture of international relations, including, first and foremost, the creation of new, or radically reformed (not in word but in deed), mechanisms and institutions for ensuring international security.

These mechanisms should include not only censure of any form of aggression whatsoever, but also coercion to desist from it. And this, as Ukraine shows, should not be limited to economic sanctions.

If one proceeds from the statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his latest book that the international system of the twenty-first century will be characterized by an apparent contradiction — fragmentation amidst increasing globalization, one can only conjecture how complex relations between nations will be.

And the intricacy of the challenges involved requires an appropriate, tightly coordinated response both at the prevention stage and in the process of mitigating the consequences of intergovernmental, regional and global conflicts.

Such is the case even accounting for the wholly new circumstance (according to Kissinger) in the emerging world order whereby America can no longer fence itself off from the world or dominate it. Confirmation of this can be seen in the ideas expounded by U.S. President Barack Obama in his 2015 State of the Union address to Congress, in which he emphasized that “the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how.”

In that regard, the main criteria of leadership, according to the U.S. president, are the fusion of military power with strong diplomacy and the use of American influence in conjunction with newly formed coalitions. The question of how and in what circumstances these combinations of criteria will be used remains open.

The upshot is that the United States is consciously rejecting the role of universally recognized world leader in today’s highly complex system of international relations.

And if that is so, the world is at risk of plunging indefinitely into a state of uncontrollable multipolarity — where each of the emerging poles will defend its own interests to the best of its ability and at its sole discretion, unmindful of the generally accepted rules and norms of international law and behavior, without fear of encountering real resistance or punishment.

The Cold War-era balance of power did not preclude conflict. Its main objective was to ensure stability, primarily through matching and balancing the interests of the various international players.

Whatever the pros and cons, the system provided peaceful international coexistence over a fairly long stretch of time. Society learned to find mutually acceptable compromises. And the main restraining factor was nuclear-tipped, whereupon the world developed a singular apocalyptic consensus.

Given the far greater complexity of today’s state of play, the sooner the international community wakes up to the need to start developing and building a new architecture of international relations, the sooner the world will come into possession of new mechanisms to settle arising conflicts.

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