Russia’s war has exposed the limits of liberal peace
Russia’s war against Ukraine and long-running border conflicts raise doubts about regional institutions – and how peace is made
The Eastern Europe and Central Asia region is middle-income, resource-rich and well-educated. Yet even before Russia launched its war against Ukraine, it had entered a state of volatility.
Since 2020, the internal politics of previously stable states – including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Moldova – have become confrontational, while those with a history of instability, such as Kyrgyzstan, have continued down that road.
Overall, expectations of peace through reform and convergence of values in post-socialist states seldom came true. These ideas, which are today mostly history, were held by the Western policy-makers, UN institutions and the international peacebuilding community that intervened in the region over the past 30 years. They were shared, at least partially, by the people involved in the conflicts, who often looked to the internationals for fair solutions they could not reach themselves.
The Western Balkans have reasons to feel aggrieved: Europeanisation has put a lid on conflicts rather than resolving them. Their EU membership ambitions were sidelined, overtaken by Ukraine and Moldova in a wave of European solidarity since 2014, despite all the hard work they did to fulfil the EU acquis – often at a great domestic price.
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Though the prospect of membership remains an appealing goal, it has been weakened as a point of leverage in domestic politics due to disappointment with a lack of progress. Today, frustration with Brussels might be the central issue that binds the Western Balkans together.
Further east, the Soviet empire continues to produce violent repercussions 30 years after its dissolution, as old disputes remain unresolved and balances of power shift.
Crucially, the belief in resolving problems through talks is waning. Across the board, protagonists in conflicts see no apparent opportunities for settlement: they pursue mutually exclusive demands, having missed their chances at better times when relations were not as bitter.
Neighbouring states are now presented with a stark choice: either you’re with the Kremlin, or you’re against it
In the Kosovo-Serbia conundrum, the question of whether territorial swaps can open the road to peace, or if such practice should not be allowed, has lingered for 20 years, with the EU calling for patience amid mounting frustrations.
In the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border dispute, initially cooperative relations have deteriorated to a boiling point after two decades of hostile encounters. It has turned out that physical borders matter and their exact location is a grave preoccupation, replacing the blur of the Soviet internal boundaries. Territorial contestations proved intractable, leading the parties to believe that only military solutions can break the deadlocks, as shown by Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia and in the Kyrgyz-Tajik cross-border clashes. Though these conflicts were long in the making, their violent escalations took everyone by surprise.
The same goes for the 2014 conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, for which varying interpretations are available: as a political contestation for a different vision of Ukraine, as an irredentist movement to join Russia, the ‘historical homeland’ that Donbas had been ‘separated from’, and as an international geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West. At the same time, the causes of the initial conflict arguably matter less in explaining the present war than the interim period, from 2014 to 2022, when achieving peace was possible but Russia, Ukraine and the West missed their chances.
Now, Russia and Ukraine are in for the long haul. The Kremlin is determined to increase the impact of its invasion by destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and displacing civilians. The Russian government has compartmentalised the war from the lives of ordinary Russian citizens, minimising its impact in big cities. Partial mobilisation in Russia led to an exodus of anti-war citizens who could have caused trouble, making it easier to manage the rest and ensuring stability. The issue is how the war will transform Russia in the years to come: will society be prepared to bear the costs indefinitely? Will elites continue to align behind Putin? At least in the short term, the status quo in Russia is likely to hold.
The prospects for peace, based on enhanced development and prosperity, have not come true
More broadly, one effect of Russia’s war against Ukraine is a sharpened geopolitical divide. Neighbouring states are presented with a stark choice: either you’re with the Kremlin, or you’re against it. This choice is hard for most countries, which benefit from ties with Russia and prefer to sustain the middle ground. And Russia, with all its agonies, lies at the heart of the region – if it goes down, others are unlikely to flourish. As a result, few have joined Western sanctions.
The other effect is that Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine has reduced its ‘civilisational’ appeal and some of its political capital. Regional leaders feel empowered to show Putin that he needs them more than they need him. Russia’s fragile position is starting to weaken its stance elsewhere and constrain its ability to play a stabilising role.
While its role as security provider in the South Caucasus and Central Asia is waning, as shown by the October 2022 fighting along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, Russia manages to sustain appearances. However, the country would not be able or willing to intervene into any violent escalation, should it happen. No other external actor is ready either, and the states will have to manage on their own.
The Russia-led regional security architecture constructed in the post-Soviet era is becoming a thing of the past – if not in crisis. Russia and Belarus are under sanctions and not attractive as integration partners, while the futility of the Collective Security Treaty Organization – the military alliance between Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan – was proved when members faced security threats.
The crisis of regional institutions united by a common mission also affects the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The war in Ukraine has made the organisation largely redundant in its core mission of maintaining security in Europe. The war the OSCE was meant to prevent – by monitoring the post-2014 conflict between Russia and Ukraine, offering hands-on mediation and passing warning signals to decision-makers – has broken out. The EU’s identity as a ‘peace project’ is also changing. It is now becoming a provider of direct security support, including ammunition, military equipment and platforms designed to deliver lethal force to one side of an armed conflict.
All in all, a previously stable Eurasia has become a conflict-prone zone, with the war in Ukraine being the most destructive, though not the only hotspot. Old wounds reopen and new challenges mount, while security threats come from within the region rather than from outside. The retreat of US power from Afghanistan hardly produced destabilising effects in the region, but internal conditions – border conflicts, political transitions and declining social cohesion – did. The prospects for peace, based on enhanced development and prosperity, have not come true, and the conditions for conflicts remained unaddressed.
It is time to revisit earlier assumptions on what would bring peace to the region and reflect on the point at which they went wrong. Western policy-makers and international peacebuilding practitioners might come to notice that peace is not necessarily the outcome of spreading of liberal democracy, market-based economic reforms and state institutions focused on justice, growth and welfare. There is no direct route from market-oriented and good governance reforms towards liberal peace.
Indeed, ‘liberal peace’ – based on mutual compromise, reconciliation and justice – is unable to expand when faced with contests over territory and bitter inter-state disputes, unless larger structures – such as the EU or, in the past, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia – are available to offer an umbrella to contain them. These limitations must be acknowledged and a more vigorous and robust search for answers should commence.
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