Between Peace and Conflict

Between Peace and Conflict

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War is Deceptively Simple

“War is a deceptively simple event,” writes Frederic Oberson. In recent weeks, a handful of politicians and scholars have deflected blame from Russia through complex geopolitical arguments. John Mearsheimer is perhaps the most well-known who’s provocative 2014 article in Foreign Affairs was titled, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.” Arguments from Mearsheimer and others depend on complex geopolitical arguments often grounded in contested historical narratives. Many scholars refute their arguments with nuanced arguments of their own. But in the end, the facts are simple. Russia invaded Ukraine. War is deceptively simple. 

An overlooked volume from last year offers some clarity on the region. It’s not explicitly about Russia and Ukraine, although it does include a chapter on “OSCE Special Monitoring in Ukraine” focused on the separatist territories in the Donbas region. The volume is titled Between Peace and Conflict in the East and the West: Studies on Transformation and Development in the OSCE Region. Its chapters focus heavily on the countries of the former Soviet Union from specialists on a range of security, political, and economic issues. 

Ultimately, Anja Mihr ties together many of the themes in her concluding essay on glocal governance. She recognizes the important intersections between local governments and transnational organizations like the OSCE to deliver public goods. Her essay shows how governance in many countries transcends ordinary regime types to fulfill the needs of local residents. It’s a window into a region of the world largely forgotten except in moments of crisis. 

Peace and Conflict

The collapse of the Soviet Union awakened many regional conflicts. Moreover, few of these conflicts have come close to a long-term resolution. Peace often becomes a brief interlude between times of conflict. Perhaps the small enclave known as Nagorno-Karabakh offers the best example for the fragility of peace between outbreaks of conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh is a small enclave of Armenians surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. But the conflict runs deeper than surface level questions of nationalism. Both countries have cultural and historical ties to the territory. So, the conflict has no simple resolution. Instead, the settlements are always short-term solutions based around cease-fires rather than long term peace agreements. 

Indeed, the former Soviet bloc countries have many ongoing disputes over questions of sovereignty. Russian separatists in two oblasts in Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, have declared political independence. In many ways, the conflict over these territories dating back to 2014 led to the current war between Ukraine and Russia. Of course, Georgia has also faced its own breakaway territories in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and an overlooked secessionist dispute also exists in Moldova with Transnistria. Even Russia has faced secessionist challenges in Chechnya.

Some of the conflicts date back to the earliest years of independence from the Soviet Union. However, Russia has inflamed nationalist sentiments in Georgia and Ukraine. In many ways Russia even manufactured the conflicts. Moreover, once conflicts emerge, it’s difficult to find permanent solutions. So, Russian involvement does not represent a temporary source of instability, but rather has fostered a permanent state of tension within its neighbors’ territory. 

Regional Hegemony

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia became the natural regional hegemon. Even when Russia was relatively weak, it continued to exert influence on the countries of Central Asia, Slavic Nations, and the Caucasus. Over the past two decades Russia has emerged as a far more powerful nation. It has made significant investments into its military, but also has significant political and economic influence as well. While some have long claimed Putin plays a weak hand well, more serious observers of Russian politics have recognized their hand is far stronger than casual observers have realized. 

At the same time, Russia may have gone one step too far in its invasion of Ukraine. The West is prepared to leverage their economic strength through sanctions and other forms of economic isolation. Moreover, its military looks far less formidable than expected against a truly motivated opponent. Indeed, its assault on Ukraine may have exposed weakness rather than demonstrated strength. 

Central Asia, for example, has strong ties to China. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has established strong links to the Chinese economy. But Central Asia also appears to look toward China for guidance on political and security issues as well. In a sign of things to come, none of the five Central Asian countries voted against the UN resolution to condemn Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine. Instead, they either abstained along with China or did not vote at all. Russia’s destructive behavior may make China look like a welcome change. Unfortunately, China’s influence in the region is not much better. “China’s actions,” write Assel Murat and Rustam Muhamedov, “have a deleterious effect on good governance and rule of law, contribute to endemic corruption and poor transparency and accountability.” 

Glocal Governance

Amidst the growing inability of states to resolve problems fundamental to governance, local actors have found new ways to deliver public goods. Both informal and formal leaders find transnational actors with the resources to solve local problems. Local leaders use the resources of international organizations to deliver results for their communities. The phenomenon depends on an important intersection between local leaders and transnational organizations. Organizations like the OSCE or UNICEF depend on local actors to bring them into their communities. However, local actors rely on the resources of these organizations to deliver solutions. Still, the state is largely left out of this dynamic. They become largely irrelevant to the day to day governance for ordinary people. 

The current war between Russia and Ukraine exists at the state level. However, local communities have already staged protests in occupied cities and formed militias to resist the Russian military. The line between local initiative and formal state-led action has largely broken down. So, glocal governance often fills the vacuum when the state breaks down. But it’s far less certain whether it offers a path to ultimately replace the state. 

Anja Mihr joins the podcast tomorrow to discuss the politics of Central Asia. 

Further Reading

Larry Diamond  (2019), Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency

Immanuel Kant (1795) Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch

Shanthi Kalathil (2018) “Redefining Development China in Xi’s ‘New Era’,” Journal of Democracy

Erica Marat (2012) “Kyrgyzstan: A Parliamentary System Based on Inter-Elite Consensus,” Demokratizatsiya

Michael McFaul (2018) From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia

Anja Mihr (ed.) (2021) Between Peace and Conflict in the East and the West: Studies on Transformation and Development in the OSCE Region

Robert Person and Michael McFaul (2022) “What Putin Fears Most,” Journal of Democracy

Serhii Plokhy (2006) The Origins of the Slavic Nations Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

George Soroka and Tomasz Stepniewski (eds.) (2019) Ukraine after Maidan: Revisiting Domestic and Regional Security

Joshua Yaffa (2020) Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Between Russia and China: Anja Mihr on Central Asia

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili on Afghanistan, Local Institutions, and Self-Governance

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