More on Ukraine: All Normative Geopolitics is Local

More on Ukraine: All Normative Geopolitics is Local

As the political crisis in Ukraine over the government’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU passes its second week, this conflict and the positioning over other Russian “Near Abroad” countries (especially Armenia, Moldova, and Georgia) are good examples of the interrelationship of norms and geopolitical strategy.

The situation has been largely described in terms of Putin’s reaction to these countries planning on signing new agreements with the EU.  While that is an important part of the story, it is only part. As I described in previous posts (1, 2), this is also very much a story of domestic disputes over norms, ranging from domestic laws to cultural practices.

And, closely related to this latter aspect of normative geopolitics, is the importance of domestic politics in country that has significant ideological divisions.

This might actually be another iteration of Ukraine’s strategy of balancing both Russia and the EU by playing both sides and committing to neither. Political analyst Nicu Popescu has written:

In fact, Kiev chose not to choose at all and tried hard to maintain the status quo in Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policies. Yet in his bid to buy time, President Viktor Yanukovich inadvertently precipitated the biggest crisis of his presidency to date.

Consider in relation to this the New York Times report that “[a]t virtually the same time” that Ukraine cabinet of minsters announced suspension of preparations to further integrate with the EU:

President Viktor F. Yanukovich, who was on a visit to Vienna, issued a statement saying, “Ukraine has been and will continue to pursue the path to European integration.”

In a move emblematic of Ukraine’s often inscrutable politics, Mr. Yanukovich barely acknowledged the developments in Kiev and, responding to a reporter’s question about the pacts with Europe, said, “Of course, there are difficulties on the path.”

Was this an attempt to soften the blow that Ukraine is turning its back on the EU or some complex tacking to serve an immediate need (holding off Russian gas embargoes as the winter sets in) while deferring a longer term goal (increasing European integration)? Even Kiev-watchers seem a bit befuddled.

But that’s politics in a systemic borderland: a state in which more than one set of (possibly conflicting) norms are held by significant portions of the population. This normative friction is not just about questions of policy, but often of polity: what type of state should we be, how are we defining the characteristics of our community? What is “our community?”

Geopoliticians such as Vladimir Putin may see such countries as important positions on a global chessboard, places where hegemonic influence may be won or lost.

But within these countries, these disputes are intensely personal, having to do with defining their political community. Depending on the country, questions may include: What is the balance of individual rights versus the needs of the community? Do we pursue freer trade or separation from the global economy? Are we a secular state or a theocratic state?

Geopolitical strategizing notwithstanding, one should never forget that all politics is local.

And, in the case of Ukraine, I’ll take it all the way down to politics being personal. (Ken Waltz’s first image– though applied here to political conflict generally, not war, specifically.) The decision not to sign the EU’s Association Agreement may in part relate to Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s concerns about his re-election.  In the run-up to the signing date for the Association Agreement, one of the main open issues for the EU was its requirement that Yulia Tymoshenko be released from prison. A political opponent of President Yanukovich, her detention is widely viewed as being politically motivated. However, the New York Times reports that some EU members viewed linking Tymoshenko’s individual case with Ukraine’s accession process in general as a mistake:

because it gave Mr. Yanukovich yet another reason to back away. Mr. Yanukovich is planning to run for re-election in 2015.

Moreover, according to The Economist, it looks like Russia capitalized on Yanukovich’s immediate political concerns when Putin…

promised to turn a blind eye to any election rigging and to refrain from supporting an alternative candidate at the next election. There was only one condition: Mr Yanukovych should sign on the dotted line of the customs union, wrecking an agreement with the EU permanently.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider whether this gambit has helped or hurt the chances of Yanukovich’s re-election.

Anyway, whether it is due to a domestic strategy of balancing Russia and the EU, actual ideological preferences, domestic electoral calculations, or some combination of these factors, what is happening in Ukraine is an excellent example of normative geopolitics because it reminds us, in the midst of the talk of grand strategy, of the importance of domestic struggles over topics such as the content of norms, the substance of law, and the character of the political community.

We need to be mindful not only of the strategist in the situation room, but of the citizen on the street.

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