At this week’s NATO meeting in Wales the question on the table is: are we back to the USSR? The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is behaving as if he is planning to reconstitute the USSR bit by painful bit. He is using a new form of state aggression.
A quick update: the Ukrainian Crimea was regained by Russia this year via a plebiscite. Unfortunate memories of Nazi plebiscites in Austria in the 30’s come to mind. Now pro-Russian groups in the Ukraine are fighting in Eastern Ukrainian industrial cities. Para-military groups are shooting down planes, including a Malaysian passenger jet. (And what are the consequences? At the moment only the Dutch, who lost close to 200 citizens, are still upset.) But this week Putin has managed yet another Ukrainian outrage. His military is paving the way to a land bridge to the isolated Crimea peninsula by occupying the Ukrainian shore on the Black Sea. This is a use of force.
Must NATO step in? The combined armies of the European Union and the United States are facing a new form of crisis. Shooting down a civilian airliner was an unfortunate mistake. Plebiscites are iffy, but not illegal. Civil wars happen. However, moving your tanks and troops into another sovereign state is a clear violation of treaties signed by all the participants.
But this is not a Blitzkrieg! That form of warfare was Adolf Hitler’s quick, overwhelming lightning strike into Poland in September, 1939. Joshua Keating writing in Slate August 29th has an insightful analysis of the new war in Ukraine. He calls it Putin’s “Postmodern Non-Invasion Invasion of Ukraine.”
Postmodern conflicts are the antithesis to the clean-cut binary confrontation of the Cold War. The 1945-1990 era bristled with nuclear warheads, but you knew and could define the combatants. That certainty has collapsed. Today Putin has declared that he is not looking for a military confrontation in the Ukraine just as pictures of camouflaged Russian tanks in the Southeast Ukraine are posted on the web. Civilian identities are unclear: are those Ukrainian citizens or are those Russian invaders fighting? Putin has resurrected old tsarist place names to justify Russian incursions in the Ukraine.
It’s as if the postmodern political world has entered a quantum state of uncertainty. Many contradictory things are possible simultaneously. An invasion that isn’t an invasion is only part of the new state of instability. The ISIS phenomenon is another example of the breakdown of old binary definitions. Nation-states have borders. ISIS has created a hybrid state that flows across Syria and Iraq with no coherent outline. It’s a postmodern political hydra with tentacles running along road lines. Russia is reaching its tentacles into Ukraine.
Definitions are on the NATO docket as they look at Ukraine. Is there a new land war in Europe? How you define state borders? What does it mean to invade another state? If you do it slowly enough and with small multiple thrusts, is it really happening?