History teaches us to remember its lessons, and it also makes us pay for forgetfulness. 2014 must become an anniversary of two events. The first event happened in 1814, when heads of leading European countries created a system, which provided Europe with relative peace (it was disrupted only by short wars). The second event took place in 1914, when the Concert of Europe fell apart and Europe entered the bloodiest war in its history until then, without even noticing it. These anniversaries should have become a subject of historic discussions and debates on the reasons these events happened. But as it turns out, they have became proof that leaders and political elites have not learned to understand history and draw lessons from the past.

Lilia Shevtsova
Shevtsova chaired the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, dividing her time between Carnegie’s offices in Washington, DC, and Moscow. She had been with Carnegie since 1995.
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This is proven by Russia’s war against Ukraine and the world’s reaction to this war. Having annexed Crimea and violated the post-war borders in Europe, and then having started military operations on the territory of Ukraine, Russia virtually destroyed not only the world order that was established after the collapse of the USSR, it also undermined a whole system of international agreements, which had been consolidating the European field for a long time: agreements between Russia and Ukraine; the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which guaranteed territorial integrity to Ukraine as a non-nuclear actor; the Helsinki Accords, Yalta-Potsdam agreements, the essence of which was the consensus division of areas of influence; and finally, the Westphalian system, which emphasized the sovereignty of states. It is no less important, and many understand this, that the legal and contract guarantees of the global rules of the game collapsed, but they do not want to admit it, because they would have to react to the ongoing events. And this is what they want to avoid, and there is no understanding of how to react without putting their own interests at risk.

When you do not want to react to the reality, you start creating myths, or force yourself to believe in myths helpfully presented by others. This war has already been plagued with made-up pretexts, the absurdity of which are obvious. But many use them, since these pretexts justify their indifference or other motives, which are even less attractive. Look at the most popular excuses for Russia’s aggression, which are offered by Russian propagandists and which are frequently used by the West. Here is the most popular myth: Russia was cornered and had to react to the threat of Ukraine’s joining NATO. But wait, what are we talking about if the West already refused to present this option to Ukraine back in 2008? And the NATO itself has grown decrepit during the past few years to the extent that it seemed it would not last much longer. Moreover, it seems that Western leaders, including Obama, have been concerned with only one task during the past years: not to upset President Putin. Another myth: Russia could not tolerate watching Ukrainian nationalists who seized the power in Kyiv! But why does the Kremlin bear the view of Russian nationalists and even plays the ethnic card? And one more: Russia should have guaranteed the federalization of Ukraine, which would protect the rights of Russian-speaking citizens. But the Kremlin destroyed Russian federalism and it is not bothered with the rights of Russian citizens. In short, the essence of this primitive mythology is clear, and it is even somewhat awkward to watch when it is reproduced by seemingly competent experts.

Meanwhile, you start realizing that this war (just like many others) was programmed by the desire of one group of people to settle their problems by means of force; attempts of others not to pay attention to the first group; and the unreadiness of the third group to defend the state’s interests. A whole set of factors appeared, which pushed those who were ready to apply force to applying it, or created a favorable environment for that.

Undoubtedly, a great role was played by the fact that after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, the West lost the drive and desire to preserve its principle; it relaxed and believed in the end of history and irreversibility of its triumphalism. The world has entered the era of postmodernism, where values have lost their meaning and the epoch of pragmatism and deideologization has come. The erosion of borders between principles was partially reflected in the fact that authoritarian Russia became a member of the European Council and started teaching liberal democracies how democracy should be comprehended. The swamp of postmodernism created grounds for imitation, political fakes, readiness to forget about principles in the name of profit. This situation created exceptional opportunities not only for survival of Russian autocracy, but for growth of its self-confidence, aggressiveness, belief in Europe’s decline, and desire to fill the niche that appeared.

The epoch of deideologization and loss of ethical dimension, accommodation to authoritarianism, and granting its representatives access to the structures of the Western society could have lasted even longer if the Kremlin had not felt the urge to leave this farce and return to the traditional  form of survival for Russian autocracy: the “besieged fortress.” Perhaps, Russia’s government sensed that the state of complacency, the integration of the ruling elite into the West, and the preservation of the personal freedoms of citizens was becoming dangerous and might cause the loss of control over society. When Moscow residents took to the streets in 2011-12, it was a wake-up call for the Kremlin. Putin immediately applied every effort to transform the Russian system in order to restrain Western civilization. I want to point out that it happened before Maidan, during 2012-13. By the time Maidan happened, the Kremlin had already started living in a paradigm of fighting the enemy. Ukrainian events gave the Kremlin an opportunity to shift into military mode and openly go back to militarization as a way to consolidate society around the government, and also probe the West’s ability to suppress the new Russian aggressiveness. Twenty years of the West’s complacency, its policy of connivance in relation to the Kremlin’s authoritarianism, liberal democracies’ inability to shape their course and cope with their own problems have created a perfect field for the Kremlin’s experiment.

In other words, a combination of several factors played a role, which created an opportunity for Russian aggression: liberal civilization’s loss of its regulatory essence and ability to defend its principles; a gradual exhaustion of peaceful ways to preserve the Russian autocracy; and the revolution in Ukraine, which caused civil resistance in this country and weakening of the Ukrainian state.

It seems that in this situation the annexation of Crimea became the personal decision of Putin, who used Ukraine’s weakness, propagated Crimea as Russian territory, and enforced a patriotic military mobilization, for which he was already prepared and which he would carry out in any case. And what an opportunity presented itself! We are dealing with a subjective implementation of objective logic of Russian autocracy at the stage of its degradation and advanced decay. Putin became a personification of this logic, if you please.

The annexation of Crimea entailed the rest, including the war in eastern Ukraine. But let us make a clear statement: this war would have hardly been possible, had there been a firm response of the West and international institutions to the annexation of Crimea (the consideration of Ukrainian events in the context of the West’s connivance at the war between Russia and Georgia and the annexation of a part of Georgia’s territory by Moscow is also completely justified). Finally, this war would have hardly have been possible, if the West had not displayed its complete confusion at the first stage of the aggression and its readiness to view it as an “internal Ukrainian conflict.”

The very fact that this war is not recognized as such by international institutions makes it even more cynical and hard to end. There is still no clear understanding of the borderline between war and peace. The truce itself is but a form of continuation of war. The phenomenon of this undeclared and unrecognized war creates a huge threat to international stability and security, because it sets a precedent of a borderline state between war and peace.

We are only starting to realize the possible consequences of this war for Ukraine, for Russia, for the whole system of world order. We are not yet fully aware of the consequences and the tectonic shifts this war will cause, because we do not yet know how to finally put an end to it and how to live with what is to become its legacy. So far, I can only say that this war has given Russia a pretext for military and patriotic consolidation and a militarist survival paradigm, which, perhaps, means a transition of Russian autocracy to a stage of distress. In any case, Russia has already started living in another dimension, bringing an end to the current era and the fleetingness of the current political structure. However, it still remains unclear what will follow when the autocracy starts to disintegrate, and what forces and processes it will involve.

Wars always have consequences, many of which are comprehended only years after they come to an end.

This article originally appeared in the Day.