With the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the foundations of Europe's alleged security architecture were definitively undermined. The current rejection of the principle of the intangibility of borders by the West shines a light on events in Ukraine: yet another war at Europe's gate. A hesitant Europe, always an onlooker, unable or unwilling to assert itself vis-à-vis US designs, leads to renewed signs that violations of international law by the major powers, devious behaviour, and the decision not to be accountable continue to fall like bombs on civilian population.
The end of the Cold War brought about the dissolution of one of the two major military alliances that had been at the heart of that period: the Warsaw Pact. This auspicious end to the Cold War did not mean an abandonment of national interests on the part of what would later be called the Russian Federation. It was a momentum in which the implosion of the 15-republic giant was leading them to dismember. It is worth mentioning that as long as the war system and the warmongering remain in place, doubt can be cast on the proclaimed end of a period of almost 50 years. Such a war system includes enemy images, symbols that go beyond the "hard" component; it incorporates the idea of not giving up supremacy; a system that generates a kind of self-sustained warmongering. America First summarises such a conception.
The alliance representing Western security interests survived. NATO was created in 1949 to provide a collective defence in the event of a Russian attack on a member of the alliance. NATO never ceased to be part of that system of warfare associated with the preservation, consolidation and protection of supremacy. Has this US-designed system been dismantled? No. Are the factors that generated what we call the Cold War still present? Yes.
The 1990s did not bring peace to the world. Numerous armed conflicts broke out. International warfare was on the wane, giving way to armed conflicts within the borders of many states. Such conflicts combined various components of nationalism, identity, tribalism, but above all they were marked by the remnants of a colonial past, and by the oppression and competition so typical of the long period of rivalry between the US and the USSR. In other words, the machinery necessary for both internal and international warfare was still in place.
With the end of the Cold War, the specialised literature reflected the victory of the West, and thus the existence of a new paradigm in international politics that integrated the geopolitical (although this concept would reappear two decades later), economic and financial, political, and cultural spheres. The world was making a victorious and conclusive shift to a capitalist phase.
The late 1990s saw the first turning point in the relations between the West and Russia. In 1997 the US decided to expand NATO into Eastern Europe. Neither the French opposition nor the recommendations of prominent strategists to desist from such a determination were enough to reverse the decision to tip the scale away from US interests. To some extent, the military alliance had to prove its raison d'être in a world that had "left the Cold War behind".
As Pepe Paradiso contends, as long as the war system persists, the huge and ever-increasing defence spending, the predisposition to engage in real or invented wars, it is difficult to envisage a scheme for a total abandonment of the cold war atmosphere.
Therefore, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic may well be the destination for such an expansion. The installation of missile interceptor radars without much justification is underway.
At the time, Europe was waging its bloodiest wars since World War II, and the Yugoslavia that had been created after World War I was the battleground for the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Could Europe have prevented them, and could international organisations have done more than just send troops to "protect" the populations under attack?
In 1999 NATO decided to launch what would become an interventionist policy that would continue beyond the end of the millennium and, as such, violated international law. Its involvement in a bombing raid in Kosovo without prior UN authorisation was the first sign of a propensity to renew the Euro-Atlantic alliance's mandate. Its defensive goal quickly changed to a decidedly offensive one, undermining any possibility of dialogue, negotiation or even decision-making by its own members, except those that concurred with US interests.
The illusion of a defeated, humiliated Russia on its knees soon began to fade.
Vladimir Putin's rise to power was initially marked by goodwill gestures regarding his relations with the West, particularly with Germany and France. Russia's recovery was a priority, but this never meant abandoning historical national interests, let alone the protection of its own security. In other words, the outer space or security ring of the post-Soviet space was to be maintained.
The signing of the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation in 1997 was a commitment, a gentlemen's agreement, not a legally binding treaty. However, Russia accepted NATO's eastward expansion, as long as this did not entail the disruption of the balance of power between the former contenders. Such a balance involved both conventional and nuclear weapons. The agreement endorsed by Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton raised some interesting issues. The Russian leader was among those who had collaborated in the final implosion of the USSR, and the economic priorities that had made Russia agree to NATO's eastward expansion were reversed as soon as Vladimir Putin came to power.
As a result of the eastward expansion, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Slovakia became members in 2004, while Albania and Croatia followed suit in 2009. Today, the organisation is made up of 28 European countries and two from the Americas: The United States and Canada.
At the turn of the millennium, it became clear that NATO's intention went beyond the protection of a Europe that was increasingly vulnerable to strategic reliance on the United States. The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon led to the invasion of/intervention in Afghanistan, this time accompanied by the endorsement of an international organisation that readily accepted the US call to action under Article 51 of the UN Charter. It was then that former President George W. Bush retraced the steps taken by his predecessor Ronald Reagan who in the 1980s sought to create a "Star Wars" missile shield that could intercept and neutralise in the atmosphere a missile attack on the US. On this occasion, former President Bush, in his eagerness to revive such a project, decided to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) because, in his view, it hindered part of the projected shield and, moreover, he considered that the international context had radically changed.
The ABM Treaty had been one of the deterrent cornerstones between the US and the USSR at the peak of the Cold War. The abandonment of the Treaty gave way to the possibility of installing missile defence systems or missile shields in Poland and the Czech Republic from 2007 onwards.
In 2003, the war machine was once again set in motion. The military/industrial complex remained intact. The decisions for a military intervention in Iraq were reminiscent of the unfinished business of 1991 and no one raised their voice to prevent it; on the contrary, some European countries readily went along with an action that once again violated international law and bombs were dropped on the civilian population.
The convergence of those who condemned these actions - Russia, France, and Germany - had consequences.
Relations between Russia, France and Germany, whether over their views on the US intervention in Iraq, strategic coexistence or energy dependence, fuelled the mood of the great powers on different levels. There was no room to challenge US hegemony.
The newly conceived post-Soviet space was coming to a boil. The so-called Colour Revolutions rattled like sharp threats at the Kremlin's gates. Undoubtedly, the West was perceived to be encouraging them both from within and from outside to pull many of the former Soviet republics away from Russia's historical spaces of identification. Grassroots, street demonstrations in opposition to the governments coincidentally led to the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003, the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine in 2004, and the "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. It was not just a matter of changing governments in order to be tempted to join the European Union, but the corollary was their future NATO membership, which was progressing slowly but steadily. That was the Russian perception. These demonstrations, coupled with the perception of serious threats to Russian values, identity, and security, set a path that was to be followed by military pressure later on.
The reaction to such a scenario was the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 and the subsequent intervention and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
To some extent, the unresolved situation that Georgia inherited regarding Russia's acknowledgement of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia neutralised "in eternum" its intended NATO membership. Likewise, Russian support for the separatist region of Donbass (Luhansk and Donetsk) in Ukraine undermines Ukraine's chances of membership, since in general practice one of the underlying conditions in Article X of NATO's statute is that the applicant country should not have any unresolved conflicts, let alone issues involving territorial integrity with separatist pretensions.
Today, demonstrations of force on both sides, as has historically been the case, are definitely revising and reacting to a balance of power that seeks to be revisited and redressed.
Regardless of some of the back-and-forth in both American and Russian decisions, this journey traces part of the scenario that might help to understand the atrocious situation we are witnessing today in Ukraine, in which few win, as in the squid game, while others, such as Europe, watch the game from the side lines. The question is: will anyone take the prize?
Verónica Pérez Taffi President of AERIA (Argentine Association of Studies in International Relations). PhD candidate in International Relations at USAL. Professor at USAL, UNTREF, UNDEF, and UP.