Europeans, huddled in their densely-populated terrain, look eastward across the bleak nothingness of forest and steppe, and dream of bears and wolves. Russians look westwards across that same land and see an indefensible frontier that invading armies can, and regularly do, walk across without breaking stride. The Russian military instinct to hide behind weak buffer states is well-founded, and has been a guiding principle of foreign policy since 1945. Their neighbours’ fear, and often memory, of being so used is perhaps sufficient to explain why they are so willing to cast their allegiances elsewhere.
It has been said that Britain gained an empire by accident, as each Indian princeling in turn asked for, and inevitably got, protection against his rivals from the Raj, which itself gained in power as a result. Such positive feedback effects can easily become unstoppable. The medium-term result of the Georgian incident, regardless of who started it, will be to similarly accelerate the process of NATO expansion, whether individual countries like it or not. France and Germany will fret about being provocative, but telling a friendly, democratically-elected president that his country is not deserving of their protection will be a step too far. The membership process may be slow, but it is now merely a matter of when, not if.
This inescapable process is unfortunately driving a wedge between Russia and the West. Russian popular opinion is firmly behind Putin, who isn’t going anywhere soon. It took a generation for Britain to come to terms with the loss of its empire, and Russia has not yet acclimatised itself to its shrunken borders. Perhaps then the best the West can hope for is to sit out the Putin era without getting into a hot war. History shows that a strategic equilibrium can be achieved so long as cooler heads prevail on both sides; unfortunately in times of mutual suspicion a spark is all that it takes.
Europe today looks more like that of 1914 than of 1945, except the Caucasus is more Balkanised than the Balkans themselves. The flashpoints are obvious: Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan. In each case, an unpredictable, usually pro-Russian, minority has declared unilateral independence from a post-Soviet state that they believe does not represent their interests, and now look to their own Raj for protection. Russia has helped maintain these statelets without officially endorsing their independence, lest it be taken as a precedent for Chechnya. They are not alone in walking a rhetorical tightrope on secessionism: Kosovo is (partially) recognised but Bosnia must remain whole. Great powers may no longer carve up the territory of Europe at will, but their unfinished business still litters the tablecloth.
At the core of all these problems lies the legal no-man’s-land of UDI. States may dissolve themselves by mutual agreement, like the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, while changing borders by invasion is these days beyond the pale. But between these limiting cases of black and white there are no rules. Disputes between secessionist movements and their central governments have no forum, no case law, no agreed points of principle. Such things are an internal matter for the state itself, i.e. the stronger party, unless someone gets the big powers involved. It is thus in the interests of small, marginalised groups to make as much trouble as possible. Consequently it is in the interests of the big powers, if cooler heads are prevailing, to remove the incentives for them to do so.
There must therefore be a legal, codified route to unilateral independence. The chances of China signing up to any such agreement are zero, so its scope must by necessity be limited to Europe. Even so, the chances of such a deal are slim. It would involve a delicate balancing act: if the process is too onerous there will be no incentive for separatists to go legit; but without sufficient hoops to jump through, independence movements will sprout like mushrooms. Whatever the details, the likely effect would probably be to legitimise some of the secessionist statelets in post-Soviet space, while preventing the independence of Chechnya; any other outcome would be rejected out of hand by Russia. In return for Western acquiescence in their independence and voluntary alignment with Moscow, Russia would have to drop its objections to any other countries’ voluntary alignment with NATO.
This would stick in the craw of many, but may be the only realistic way to stabilise the region. No European government, with the possible exception of Belarus, would willingly accept the status of buffer state. The alternative would be the ever-present danger of the big powers getting sucked in to minor local squabbles, either accidentally or as part of a cunning plan. The creation of more pro-Russian exclaves (besides Kaliningrad) in NATO and EU territory would not be anyone’s ideal choice, but could be lived with if the rules of the game were clear.
Ultimately, there can be no lasting peace in Europe until the concepts of buffer states and spheres of influence have disappeared from the lexicon. It is clear, however, that the memes are alive and well in Russia. Both sides must ask themselves two questions: do we want a hot war? And if not, what is the alternative? I suggest that it is in the interests of both sides to play the long game.