Ukraine: Ominous World War II parallels?

As world leaders call each other ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists’, clarity is needed on the application of international law.

The West considers Russia's stealth presence today in Crimea illegal, writes Oskanian [AFP]

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Historians, analysts and pundits have stretched their imagination to draw parallels between the geopolitical situation then and now, hinting at a likelihood that history may repeat itself.

Among many real and perceived parallels, British-German rivalry then is compared to American-Chinese competition now, and today’s globalised world is seen to be similar to the turn-of-the-century’s interconnectedness and maritime action.

For World War II, this year is not a significant anniversary, neither for its start nor its end, but listening to the rhetoric on Ukraine, one may easily get the impression that the world today is more similar, simultaneously, to both the beginning and the end of the second war.

US to stand by Ukraine on Crimea annexation

If the comparisons with WWI are done by non-policymakers and remain purely an intellectual exercise, the WWII parallels are emanating from those in positions of power and influence, and it’s heard in real time, as the situation evolves.

Recently, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likened President Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. And a few days back, on BBC’s Hardtalk, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said of the Russian presence in Crimea: “We all know where invasion under the pretext of protecting minorities leads to.” He was referring to Hitler’s occupying the Czech Sudetenland in order “to protect” the German population there.

The Russian side is calling the new authorities in Kiev “Nazis” and “fascists”. Other Western leaders liken the rivalry over Ukraine to the power politics carving territories, creating buffer zones and spheres of influence around competing powers and opposing poles, evoking memories of the cold politics of, ironically, Yalta and beyond.

The truth is that the world today is hugely different from what it was in 1914, 1945 and 1991. First, today’s world has seen, in the span of one century, two devastating and tragic world wars and one detrimental and costly Cold War. It is the lingering consequences of those wars that should guide the world leaders rather than the underlying seeds and currents of potential conflict today.

Today’s world has seen, in the span of one century, two devastating and tragic world wars and one detrimental and costly Cold War. It is the lingering consequences of those wars that should guide the world leaders rather than the underlying seeds and currents of potential conflict today.

Second, nuclear weapons have rendered war between countries possessing them highly unlikely. Until the advent of the nuclear age, countries went to war because the consequences of defeat and even of compromise were deemed worse than those of war. If war ever breaks out, that would be the result of incompetence, gross negligence, hubris and short sightedness on the part of those who are in leadership positions.

Tangled alliances, militarism, imperialism

There is always the temptation to explain wars by the more obvious factors, such as tangled alliances, militarism, imperialism and natural resources among many others. But one hardly looks at the hidden underlying disagreements among major players.

There are two kinds of such disagreements today in the international system that, unless addressed and overcome, will continue to be a source of tension between states: One is moral and behavioural and the other is formal and legalistic.

In my extensive dealings with Russia, Europe and the United States, the contrasting positions were palpable. In discussions with US and Europe, along with foreign policy issues – Nagorno Karabagh peace process, relations with Turkey, with Iran and on many other topics – Armenia’s domestic issues (democracy, elections, rule of law and reforms) were not only discussed but also conditioned to foreign aid and assistance. Not once in my meetings with Russia were non-foreign-policy issues ever raised and discussed, let alone made subject to trade-offs.

If my experience with the West is any indication of the West’s approach towards other former Soviet states, including Russia and Ukraine, it’s possible to see where the Russian displeasure and resentment toward the West come from.

When foreign policy toward Russia is identified with shaping Russian domestic politics, the ability to influence the external conduct of the Russian state is weakened.

So much for behavioural contradictions. The formal and legalistic discrepancies are two fold and more often intertwined. Those are the double standards applied by major powers to the justification of use of force and the de jure recognition granted to self-determination movements out of political expediency and geopolitical interests. The problem is further compounded when use of force is the consequence of political expediency or vice versa.

The Charter of the UN expressly prohibits member states from using force against each other, allowing only two exceptions: Self-defence and military measures authorised by the security council. During the Cold War, states violated these rules countless times, and a paralysed Security Council watched.

Since the end of the Cold War, despite the yearning for an international system governed by international law, there is no evidence that humanity has made serious headways in that regard.

The maintenance of world peace and security depends importantly on there being a common global understanding of when the application of force is both legal and legitimate. Only legal or only legitimate will always weaken the international legal order.

NATO’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 was deemed by some illegal but legitimate. The US invasion of Iraq was considered by many to be both illegal and illegitimate. The West considers Russia’s stealth presence today in Crimea illegal.

Counting the Cost – The price of military intervention

Kosovo is recognised by most in the West as an independent state, while South Ossetia and Abkhazia are recognised as independent by Russia and just a few others. In both cases, one side accuses the other of violating the international law.

When Kosovo conducted a referendum for independence, the West determined that Serbia’s consent was not required.

Yet Crimea’s upcoming referendum is considered illegal by the West, mainly because of the absence of Kiev’s consent.

Indeed, the line between the legality and legitimacy for use of force or the absence of it, on one hand and the legality and non legality of people’s right to determine their own fate and destiny through a referendum, have been so blurred, that it confuses the honest observer or the broker about the state of affairs in the world.

I am not here in the defence of one side or the other; I am here for the defence of clarity, consistency, honesty, and international rule of law.

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.