The reaction of the international community to events as they unfolded in Ukraine at the end 2013 can best be described as short-sighted and self-deceiving, writes Eka Tkeshelashvili.
The transatlantic community went into crisis management mode as it tried to form a common position on the strategic implications of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
In the meantime Russia, as a revisionist power railing against the international system of states, aimed to impose a new reality where might is right and the high-risk player has an upper hand.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its subsequent occupation of two provinces never became the wake-up call it should have been. The conflict was treated more as ad hoc crisis rather than an expression of Russia's resolve to act as a revisionist power. The price for failing to define Russia’s action as aggression and its continued control of two provinces as occupation, has emboldened Moscow. It is now confident it has the ability to revise the post-Cold War political and security architecture of Europe.
In 2008, political considerations prevailed over the application of fundamental norms of international law. Had Russia been clearly defined as an occupying power, any chance of going into business-as-usual mode with Russia would have been difficult, if not impossible.
A smooth transition back to normal relations with Russia, without even discussing the need for sanctions, was made possible by maintaining a legal ambiguity over who started the war and ignoring Russia’s ‘occupation’ of Georgian territories.
The annexation of Crimea in March 2014 should have been a game-changer. However, it is still unclear how far the international community is willing to go to uphold the value of mutual trust and predictability - fundamental principles of international law.
A clear legal definition of what happened in Crimea and of the continuing Russian aggression against Ukraine is crucial for the development of a strategic response to the biggest crisis of post-Cold War Europe.
The annexation of Crimea is the result of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. It is now accepted fact that the ‘little green men’ in Crimea were special units of Russian military.
In this context, the West’s talk of ‘serious consequences’ for Russia, should it invade Ukraine, is totally inappropriate. It would be better for the West to state openly that its threshold for action against Russia would be any large-scale mobilisation of Russian conventional forces into Ukraine, than for the West to implicitly deny that Russia has already invaded Ukraine.
Being ambiguous over whether or not to define Russia’s aggression (frequently referred to as a hybrid war – a blend of conventional, cyber and irregular warfare) as an armed attack against Ukraine in violation of the UN charter is worrying.
Russia exercises effective control over the actions of military units active in Donetsk and Luhansk through agents under its direct control. It controls those in position as leaders, provides military equipment and training, and financial support for the rebels.
In addition, there are credible reports of regular Russian military units fighting on the ground against the Ukrainian army.
It is essential that those responsible for the use of force against Ukraine are clearly named. This is in order that Nato’s revised collective defence and deterrence policy - to strengthen its Article 5 responsibilities and reassurance towards member states - is effective in the future.
If Russia’s action in Ukraine is not defined as an armed attack, it will be hard for Nato to develop sound strategies on dealing with similar actions against member states, when, instead of conventional armed attacks, hybrid warfare tactics are used. The main question is what will be defined as an attack triggering Article 5 responsibilities? Ambiguity will significantly lessen the Alliance’s power of deterence.
If the deterrence policy is to work, the Kremlin must be deprived of one of the main elements of its new military doctrine of hybrid warfare - deniability.