Russia’s Igor Ivanov and Germany’s Wolfgang Ischinger: A Dialogue on Ukraine

LESSON ONE: The mechanisms of international security must be strengthened

IVANOV: 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.
ISCHINGER: Igor, right: the issue of strengthening the international system and international law is an important and urgent one. But I fail to comprehend how the “chain of steps taken by the West” since 1999 could possibly serve to justify in any way the recent illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, in the case of Libya, and even in the unfortunate case of Iraq, the UN Security Council was seized extensively and repeatedly, and – consider Libya – sometimes even successfully, whereas the Russian Federation never once  tried to obtain Security Council authorization for its approach to Crimea. Or take the case of Syria: except for the chemical weapons issue, Russia appears to have blocked every attempt undertaken by others in the UN Security Council to terminate the biggest refugee catastrophe of this young century, with more than 150,000 civilians killed. So who is to be blamed for weakening the international system?

LESSON TWO: The West and Russia must overcome the legacy of the Cold War

IVANOV: Second, the crisis has shown that the gulf of mistrust separating Russia and the West remains as wide as it was twenty 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.
ISCHINGER: Igor, on this point I fully agree with you. But if we agree on the diagnosis, do we also agree on who should now do what exactly? For example, is there something the Russian government could do to temper the outbreak of nationalist fever in Russian media? And would it be possible for President Putin to propose to the Russian Parliament to withdraw decisions authorizing the use of Russian military force in Ukraine? Could these be steps by Russia to contribute to ending the “hangover of mistrust, suspicion, and prejudice”, as you correctly define it?

LESSON THREE: European security must be addressed

IVANOV: 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.
ISCHINGER: Igor, again, you make an important point with which I agree: the European security architecture is dysfunctional, NATO and Russia have not been able to establish the mutual trust required to do what they should have started long ago, namely to jointly tackle the global and regional  security challenges which confront all of us together. And it is also true that arms control projects started decades ago have been left incomplete or have been abandoned altogether, both in the conventional and in the nuclear fields.  And yes, phone conversations between leaders are not a sufficient instrument of crisis management. The Euro-Atlantic space deserves better than that.  My own view is that European leaders  should start to carefully plan an OSCE summit like the one in Paris in 1990: laying the foundation for a comprehensive review of Euro-Atlantic security.
   You and I have worked together in recent years on such worthy track II endeavours as the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI) launched by the Carnegie Endowment, and on more recent projects in the context of Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative. There is therefore no lack of important ideas and proposals how to move forward in the direction of ” mutual security” in the Euro-Atlantic space.
   There is, however, deep concern in the West that President Putin’s decision to unilaterally occupy and annex Crimea might not have been stopped even by a more perfect set of institutions and rules governing European security. The problem is that a colossal loss of trust has occurred, and that is difficult to repair.

LESSON FOUR: Universal understanding of international law must be restored

IVANOV: 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.
ISCHINGER: Yes, you are right again: serious disagreements exist between key players on key concepts of international law and international relations, such as, for example, the “responsibility to protect,” a concept overwhelmingly endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly eight years ago. And yes, there is some systemic  tension between the right to self-determination on the one hand, and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nation states on the other hand. But at the same time, the annexation of Crimea by Russia was  opposed by a clear majority in the UN. Is Russia prepared to acknowledge this fact? And how credible is the Russian support of the right to self-determination of Crimea, if the same Russian government continues, even after fifteen years, to refuse to recognize the independence of Kosovo? It appears that, through such opportunistic interpretation of international law, Russia contributes significantly to the uncertainties and ambiguities which you and I both would like to see cleared up.

LESSON FIVE: The crisis must not be allowed to spiral out of control

IVANOV: 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.
ISCHINGER: Once again, I fully agree, and I have nothing to add.

LESSON SIX: Do not underestimate the potential for political radicalism

IVANOV: 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.
ISCHINGER: Yes, let us not underestimate the potential for political radicalism, even in highly developed societies. The current wave of nationalistic triumphalism in Russia, for example, is deeply worrisome. So is the rise of right-wing groups in a number of European countries in the recent elections of the European Parliament. But no, Igor, I disagree as far as Ukraine is concerned: I recently worked in Ukraine for several weeks, on behalf of the OSCE chairman-in-office, organizing national dialogue round-table discussions leading up to the presidential elections. It is simply a myth that Kiev is dominated by right-wing ultranationalist forces, as often claimed by Russian media commentators who like to speak of fascism when they speak of Ukraine. I was unable to find fascism or right-wing extremism among Ukrainian leaders. More importantly, let the facts speak: nationalists scored less than 5 percent in the presidential elections on May 25. 

LESSON SEVEN: Institutions of civil society need to be activated in times of crisis

IVANOV: 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.”
ISCHINGER: Yes, again I agree. 

LESSON EIGHT: Political contacts between Russia and the West must not be put on ice

IVANOV: 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.

ISCHINGER: You are right again, Igor. Personally, I was not in favor of the decision to cancel the recent G8 summit, and meet instead as the G7. The wisdom of that decision is not evident to me.  Here is my preferred approach:  At the G8 Summit, I would have proposed that President Putin be informed that the other seven would wish to discuss with him one item only, namely Crimea, and Ukraine. If he had decided that such an abbreviated agenda was not acceptable to him, it would have been up to him to cancel the meeting. Now that the G8 do not meet for the time being, Russia and individual G7 leaders meet bilaterally: is that better than a joint session where clear messages can be exchanged?

Image: Former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, left, and former German Deputy Foreign Minister Wolfgang Ischinger, right. (CC: Russian International Affairs Council; Wikimedia)