The Protests in Ukraine and Normative Geopolitics

The Protests in Ukraine and Normative Geopolitics

One hundred and ten years ago next month, British geographer Halford Mackinder presented a paper at the Royal Geographical Society in London entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” setting out the basic tenets of what we now call “geopolitics.”  Strategic thinking during the Cold War was in part framed by geopolitical ideas such as the struggle over key territory in the “global heartland,” namely, Eurasia. But geopolitics today has evolved. It is no longer primarily a military stuggle to take or hold territory. It is now defined by competition over ideas and institutions in relation to strategic goals. Geopolitics has become normative.  Witness Ukraine.

Tens of thousands people are in the streets of Kiev because Ukraine’s political leadership announced two weeks ago that it would not sign an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU at the EU summit in Vilnius at the end of November. Rather, the government announced that Ukraine would join the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union.  The relationship of foreign policy strategy to norms and laws, of high politics to people in the streets, is the stuff of normative geopolitics.

I had recently written a post about the struggle to define the normative futures of countries in Russia’s “near abroad,” particularly Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia.  (And written about these topics at greater length in various articles and essays.)  At issue is whether these countries will become more fully integrated into “European” institutions (especially the EU) or reintegrate with revamped “Russian” institutions (such as the Eurasian Customs Union). When a state is on one side or another of a normative border (Lithuania is part of the European normative order, Belarus is in Russia’s), normative boundaries coincide with national boundaries and the situation is relatively clear. But some states, such as Ukraine, are what I have called “systemic borderlands” that contain aspects of two or more normative systems. When normative systems overlap and jostle within a country, the result can be normative friction.  This can relate to domestic laws, such as whether a particular conception of property rights or of human rights will be adopted. It can also concern international legal norms, such as to which treaties a state will become a signatory or which international organizations a state may join.

Ukraine is a particularly stark example of a systemic borderland; its electoral map shows the normative division of the country between further integration with the EU or  with Russia.  The NY Times reported on November 21 that Ukraine’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement:

…largely scuttles what had been the European Union’s most important foreign policy initiative: an ambitious effort to draw in former Soviet republics and lock them on a trajectory of changes based on Western political and economic sensibilities. The project, called the Eastern Partnership program, began more than four years ago.

[This] a victory for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. He had maneuvered forcefully to derail the plans, which he regarded as a serious threat, an economic version of the West’s effort to build military power by expanding NATO eastward. In September, similar pressure by Russia forced Armenia to abandon its talks with the Europeans.

The EU issued a memorandum reiterating its (at least official) view that the signing of DCFTAs and Association Agreements with the EU is not normative competition, but rather normative bridge-building between east and west:

While being aware of the external pressure that Ukraine is experiencing, we believe that short term considerations should not override the long term benefits that this partnership would bring. However the European Union will not force Ukraine, or any other partner, to choose between the European Union or any other regional entity. It is up to Ukraine to freely decide what kind of engagement they seek with the European Union…

We therefore strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions in this respect. The Association Agreement and a DCFTA are opportunities to accompany our common neighbours towards modern, prosperous and rule-based democracies. Stronger relations with the European Union do not come at the expense of relations between our Eastern partners and their other neighbours, such as Russia. The Eastern Partnership is conceived as a win-win where we all stand to gain.

This attempt at framing increasing integration with the EU as a “win-win” for the EU, Russia, and Ukraine, has not persuaded Vladimir Putin.  Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center writes:

I hope it has now become evident that one of the major premises behind the Eastern Partnership is clearly wrong. Many in Brussels and generally in Europe still believe that this partnership serves as a bridge between Europe and Russia. They keep saying that the partnership should not be treated as a zero-sum game and its members may be involved in alliances with Russia. They are trying not to listen to what the Kremlin is saying. It is talking about Russia being “unique civilization!” This means a zero-sum game with Europe. Actually, we are not talking only about a geopolitical choice for Ukraine here but also about a civilizational one.

Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times also emphasizes that the struggle over norms is a key part of Putin’s geopolitics:

As a Russian nationalist, Mr Putin likes to argue that Russia is a unique “civilisation” – distinct from that of Europe. As a result the struggle for Ukraine is, for him, not just about wealth or power politics – it is civilisational. The notion that the Ukrainian middle-class, at least in the capital city and the more developed western half of the country, feels more attracted to the civilisations of Warsaw, Berlin and London – rather than Moscow – is offensive to Russian nationalists in the Kremlin and beyond.

Similarly, Anne Applebaum, writing at Slate, these events show that Ukraine is “on a fault line  between two civilizations.”  She continues:

 This does not mean they are enduring a “clash of civilizations” or a religious conflict of the sort once famously predicted by Samuel Huntington: Ukraine is more correctly described as a country lying between the civilization of institutions, and of the rule of law, as epitomized by the European Union and the civilization of arbitrary rule, as embodied by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Applebaum is correct in noting that central to this current jostling is a question of which norms Ukraine will follow, and, specifically, which international institutions it will join.  International organizations matter; they define rules of conduct, facilitate  patterns of state practice, and form expectations. Russia would clearly prefer that Ukraine orients its behavior with Moscow-led institutions; the EU, with Brussels. The competition over norms frames institutional membership and allegiance. The New York Times noted that, in trying to deflect blame from Kiev, Ukraine’ s Prime Minister blamed the IMF  and its strict financial conditions for Ukraine’s not signing the European agreements. It was all about protecting the poor, you see. And about distancing yourself from institutions that are perceived as being western-led.

But the fact that Ukraine is divided normatively shows why the Yanukovich regime’s tilt towards Russia is not the end of the story.  For one, there is the matter of over a quarter of a million Ukrainians taking to the streets in protest, the largest since the Orange Revolution.  Given that Ukraine is a systemic borderland, this is not surprising. And it also shows that normative friction may not be resolved by a simple tug of war (or by cash and the cosh, to paraphrase Gideon Rachman’s memorable description).  Rather, this is “hearts and minds” stuff: the attempt to foster the internalization of norms through trade, treaties, and other international institutions.

And so, as The Economist explains, reports of a Russian victory may be a bit premature:

Several months of intense negotiations and extreme goodwill on the part of the EU, have created strong expectations from the Ukrainian public, the vast majority of which supports closer links with the EU and only 15% of which supports a union with Russia. Those hopes, at least for now, are bashed. Mr Yanukovych, who only a few days ago was seen as a man who could take Ukraine into Europe, is now seen as a thug who robbed his country of a historic chance.

Given the structural weakness of the Ukrainian economy as well as Russia’s own economic stagnation, a short-term injection of cash will not solve Ukraine’s problems. Economically and politically things are likely to get worse not better. But now, this will be blamed on Russia and Mr Yanukovych…

In the coming days I will post on the interplay Ukrainian domestic politics and normative geopolitics and on the normative competition over other countries in the Russian “near abroad,” post-Vilnius.

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Citizen of the world
Citizen of the world

The Guardian paraphrased Sergei Glazyev, “adviser to President Vladimir Putin” as saying,
“‘But legally, signing this agreement about association with EU, the Ukrainian government violates the treaty on strategic partnership and friendship with Russia.’ When this happened, he said, Russia could no longer guarantee Ukraine’s status as a state and could possibly intervene if pro-Russian regions of the country appealed directly to Moscow.”


[…] Borgen, Professor and Associate Dean for International Studies, has written this piece on Opinio Juris on the recent protests in Ukraine.  Professor Borgen analyzes the tug of war […]

Martin Holterman

With all due respect, that’s not what normative means.