As the Ukraine crisis drags on and as the transformative effects of Crimea's annexation become increasingly apparent, every time Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, opens his mouth, the bewildered world looks to what he says, for a sliver of an explanation as to what, exactly, he means.
There is far more to Putin's speech given to the Valdai International Discussion Club on 24 October than domestically popular, anti-American posturing. In essence, Putin laid out a foreign policy that now mimics the way his country has been ruled domestically for centuries: written laws take the back seat, and ponyatiya, or informal ‘understandings,’ take precedence.
Putin addresses journalists, analysts and opinion-shapers at the 2014 Valdai Club Summit. via Kremlin.ru
On the surface, his argument appears to be a criticism of the de facto world order, which he blames, as always, on America – a ‘period of differing interpretations and deliberate silences in world politics. International law has been forced to retreat over and over by the onslaught of legal nihilism,’ he said. ‘Arbitrary interpretations and biased assessments have replaced legal norms.’ But while Putin appears to be describing the de facto behaviour of powerful Western states, he is also declaring how he intends to do business on the international arena from now on. Gone is his post-Munich policy of trying to adhere to the letter of the law internationally while resorting to informal, personalised rule on the domestic arena. That strategy, already shaken by Russia's incursion into Georgia in 2008, was discarded with Russia's annexation of Crimea and its involvement in eastern Ukraine.
So, what are ponyatiya, and what kind of foreign policy works according to the rules of ponyatiya rather than the rule of law?
The irony is that the United States and NATO countries, while largely adhering to the rule of law at home, have often been forced to legitimise their policies abroad through informal ‘understandings’ about spheres of interest rather than written international law. This is not necessarily wrong – which is something that observers coming from a place where rule of law is, most of the time, observed domestically, and is thus taken for granted – often fail to understand. Sometimes written, signed agreements simply become incompatible with realities on the ground and are no longer sufficient to maintain the status quo or simply protect humanity.
Sometimes written, signed agreements simply become incompatible with realities on the ground.
NATO's decision to use force in Yugoslavia, and the US invasion of Iraq were both illegal from the standpoint of the UN charter. These actions may have still been wrong in hindsight, and whether or not they ended up being sufficiently legitimised by other means is still open to debate. But that is precisely how ponyatiya work, their chief strength is their flexibility, which is also their most dangerous flaw: these understandings, being informal, are often about what simply feels right under the circumstances, and are, thus, inherently subjective. Violence, for instance, is always wrong, so when is it right to deploy violence to prevent greater violence? One territory is legally part of a sovereign country until said sovereign country starts mistreating it, at which point the territory secedes. When does the mistreatment become great enough to warrant secession? When a language is no longer taught in schools, or when minorities are physically attacked? Regardless of the extent to which any of these actions were right or wrong, can a single international law successfully legitimise the secession of Kosovo, but deprive of the same legitimacy the secession of South Ossetia and the annexation of Crimea? International law, from where Putin stands, must indeed be in a dismal state if it cannot resolve such conundrums.
A certain logic
But that is just where ponyatiya come in – objective laws are hard to agree upon in a situation where social cohesion is weak, when groups have conflicting interests, and everything is an exception to the rule. Western democracies on their own do not necessarily have this problem, but the global community as a whole increasingly does. A better example, though, is Russia – where ponyatiya have trumped laws for centuries.
Ponyatiya operates under its own moral codes, understood only by those that accept that they live within the system – a loyal official prosecuted for some wrongdoing will get a suspended sentence for embezzling millions, while an oligarch who fell out with the Kremlin will get 10 years in jail for tax evasion. But there is a certain logic: don't steal too much, remain loyal, and if you must go against the king, you had better be sure that you are spotless before the written law.
Ponyatiya operates under its own moral codes
By law, a democratic election places a seemingly liberal, pro-Western technocrat in the presidential seat. By ponyatiya, real power rests with the prime minister. By law, it is nearly impossible to do business in Russia, make a profit, and remain fully compliant. By ponyatiya, you learn whom to share with, and whom not to cross; and you will prosper.
By law, Ukraine may be a sovereign country. By ponyatiya, a big chunk of its citizens are closer to Russia economically, culturally, and linguistically ,and thus merit protection. Ukraine is sovereign, Putin said, but ‘it is another matter that the historical process that saw Ukraine take shape in its present borders was quite a complex one.’ In his speech, he still tried to cloak the annexation of Crimea within the framework of legality, but even that legality, against the backdrop of ‘controlled chaos,’ matters less and less.
A new world order
Putin speaks openly of needing to build a more stable world order founded in legality, but what is unspoken is that until this becomes possible, he is going to do whatever he deems necessary. How, then, to manage and contain what (to the Western eye) looks like Russian aggression?
The irony is that the United States has had decades of experience dealing with Russia on terms that can easily be characterised as ponyatiya: during the Cold War, spoken, unwritten commitments delineating each empire's respective sphere of influence mattered. Yet when NATO began expanding into Eastern Europe, though it did not violate the law, it did violate an unwritten agreement – without taking into account the consequences that such a violation of ponyatiya would lead to.
In a confrontation, ponyatiya can be countered with other ponyatyia
In a confrontation, ponyatiya can be countered with other ponyatyia. But an informal understanding that feels right cannot be countered by a law that feels wrong. Where written laws fail, establishing the boundaries of ponyatiya can succeed. But to do that, each side must make clear, consistent demands of the other, not punish by law what the other side has already accomplished by ponyatiya.
Putin's export of ponyatiya beyond his borders may have had disastrous consequences for Russia's domestic state of affairs. But in another way, he is also merely demonstrating the way things really work, rather than the way we wish they worked.