Mere diplomacy is no answer to Russia’s threat to democracy

The Globe and Mail

April 21, 2014

Witnessing the latest round of feckless diplomacy in Geneva, there are reasons to be concerned whether the values of democracy can ever triumph over the ruthless antics and nationalistic zeal of demagogues such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Throughout history, despots have built on the fervor of their own brand of nationalism making the “railroads run on time” while directing vitriol at enemies, real and perceived, near and far, and claiming flimsily to be seeking “respect” or to be defending the rights of their “own people” outside their own recognized borders.

When, in response, Western democracies show weakness or allow narrow self-interest to constrain action or when the erstwhile Western leader opts to “lead from behind,” despots exploit the vacuum and the disarray. Nostrums about “spheres of influence” and “neutrality” may provide some solace for the apologists of such behavior, but they simply camouflage what is an abdication of leadership and resolve, moral and otherwise.

The Ukrainians, by no means a band of angels, deserve more than rhetorical support as they struggle to resist the military and economic threats from their bullying neighbour. Token air force deployments to neighbouring countries such as Poland by a few NATO allies, including Canada, pose little threat to crudely orchestrated Russian incursions spreading deeper into eastern and southern Ukraine.

The elections next month offer an opportunity not only for internal legitimacy and stability, but also for the Ukrainians to begin to chart their own course over what may be left of their country.

However, elections that validate Kiev’s political leadership are the last thing that Mr. Putin wants. Hence his strategy is to sow the seeds of internal chaos and disarray. Note carefully what he said on Russian television last Thursday, even as his negotiators were running circles around their western counterparts in Geneva: “It’s New Russia. Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times; they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows. Then for various reasons, these areas were gone, and the people stayed there. We need to encourage them to find a solution.”

The facts on the ground tell the whole story. Russia’s attempts to destabilize and possibly dismember Ukraine continue unopposed. The West refrains from potent actions – economic or military – lest that be perceived in Moscow as “provocation.” The region as a whole fears the steady expansion of ethnic nationalism under whatever pretext and with the carefully co-ordinated interventions by Russian special forces masquerading as “local militias.” Having no stomach to confront this aggression, the West signs meaningless communiqués in Geneva enabling it to turn a blind eye to what is really happening. Calls for de-escalation are flatly ignored.

As Ukraine buckles under the military and economic pressure from Russia, the incapacity of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations to do much more than talk about the blatant contravention of international law and national sovereignty is agonizingly apparent. If democracies cannot rally more effectively in defense of values they proclaim, we are indeed moving to a world where it will be, in the formula of Washington analyst Ian Bremmer, “Every Nation for Itself.”

Offsetting the feeble Western reflexes over Ukraine are more encouraging flashes of democratic light elsewhere. Despite dire threats from the Taliban, Afghan electors turned out in record numbers – men and women – to vote for a new president and allow the first peaceful transfer of executive power for that war-ravaged nation. In India, by far the world’s largest democracy, another peaceful transfer of power is also taking place through elections. India still has more than its share of challenges but it is encouraging to see basic tenets of democracy flourish, warts and all, in such a hugely complex, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society.

Here at home, the results of elections in Quebec were a singular source of relief for most Canadians. Many interpretations have been offered to explain a result that few had predicted. But the one common thread is that xenophobic appeals to narrow nationalism fell flat.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy may indeed simply be the least worst of a bad lot when it comes to governance but those who prefer to sanction or “understand” the style of Vladimir Putin should reflect more carefully on what limits of international misconduct they are prepared to countenance and why.

Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser for Norton Rose Fulbright and was Canadian ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson is distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is also Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He led the Canadian delegation in concluding negotiations of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.