Analysis & Opinions - Financial Times

Knowing when it's war and how to avoid it

| March 18, 2015

To hear Vladimir Putin say it, Russia is not at war with Ukraine. “I think that this apocalyptic scenario is highly unlikely, and I hope it never comes to that,” Putin said when asked on Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day whether his fellow citizens may “wake up one day to learn we are at war” with Ukraine. It can be inferred that the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed force believes (or wants us to believe) that there will be no war between Russia and Ukraine for as long as Moscow refuses to admit to its involvement in the conflict. But is there such a thing as a declared war any more? And how should other European nations respond if they become the target of an undeclared war? What can be done to prevent repetition of the Ukraine scenario elsewhere in Europe?

There have been arcane legal debates about whether wars in general, and declarations of war in particular, even exist any more as an institution of international law, given that the UN Charter has replaced the concept of war with that of armed conflict. Heads of state still occasionally declare war on other states or even non-state actors (recall, for instance, George W Bush’s war on terror), but even such political declarations are becoming rare, as are inter-state conflicts in general.Of the 92 current conflicts listed in the International Institute of Strategic Studies’Armed Conflict Database, only four are classified as “inter-state”. The other 88 conflicts fall into categories of insurgency and intra-state conflicts.

Tellingly, Russian military strategists themselves recognize that declarations of war are dying out and ponder what constitutes a war these days. “The 21st century is characterized by a trend, which erases differences between state of war and state of peace… wars are not declared,” chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov declared in his January 2013 address to Russia’s military scientists. “This raises a number of legitimate questions, (including) what constitutes a modern war.”Gerasimov’s speech previewed some of the actions that the Russian leadership ordered in Crimea one year later.

It was only in a recently aired documentary that Putin admitted to ordering deployment of the Russian Special Forces across the Russian-Ukrainian border to Crimea a year ago. But while admitting to its covert operation in Crimea, Russia’s military-political leadership continues to deny any Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine. These denials have left many Russians unconvinced, even though a recent study showed that most of them trust news coverage by the Kremlin-friendly media. More than a third of Russians believe their country is at war with Ukraineand more than a quarter think there are Russian troops in the country, according tothe latest opinion poll by the respected Levada Center.

It should be noted that the UN Charter recognises the concept of armed conflict as a factual state. One of the ways such a conflict can arise is from a state acting in self defence against an armed attack under the Charter’s Article 51, even if the aggressor state refuses to recognise the conflict as an armed conflict. But Kiev cannot hope to receive any international military assistance through the UN, given that Russia is a veto-yielding member of the UN Security Council.

In contrast to Ukraine, Nato members have reasonable expectations that they will receive collective military assistance if they request it. Under Article 5 of Nato’sWashington Treaty, an armed attack against one member becomes an armed attack against all, triggering a right to collective self-defence. But what if a Nato country encounters an insurgency, in which an absolute majority of fighters represent an ethnic minority made up of citizens or legal residents of that country and no foreign state admits complicity

Adrian Bradshaw, Nato’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, has acknowledged that the alliance might have difficulty in responding to such undeclared hostilities. One of the prime dangers that the post-Crimea Russian strategy may pose for Nato, according to Bradshaw, is the “difficulty of identifying clearly the hand of a hostile state government in the subversive, destabilizing effects they bring to bear… the resulting ambiguity making collective decisions relating to the appropriate responses more difficult.”

Accelerating collective decision-making, updating operational plans and enhancing rapid-response capabilities might help European nations deter armed attacks regardless of whether these attacks are declared or not. But these military measures won’t mitigate the underlying tensions between Moscow and the west, which played an important role in the emergence of this conflict. Russia’s interests in preventing the expansion to its borders of what it sees as rival, if not hostile alliances have to be reconciled with Nato’s and the European Union’s interest in deepening cooperation with Russia’s post-Soviet neighbours.

One obvious immediate step that would facilitate mitigating this conflict of interests would be resolution of the conflict in Ukraine, which would require Russia to cease its alleged military support for separatists, let Ukraine to re-establish control over its eastern border and allow the Ukrainian state to pursue deep economic cooperation with the European Union in exchange for firm guarantees of Ukraine’s non-bloc status, its decentralisation, and unhindered access of Russian companies to Ukrainian markets.

Longer-term measures should include a dialogue among European nations with the participation of the US on how to build a new architecture of collective security on the continent to replace the current system, which has failed time and again, as demonstrated by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the South Caucasus and most recently in Ukraine. Ideally, this system would include a new mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution, which could be employed in a timely manner. The new system should also include confidence and security-building measures to prevent a war by accident. If you think such a war is impossible, think again, or rather recall Putin’s recent admission that he considered putting Russia’s strategic nuclear forces on alert to deter western powers from intervening in Crimea a year ago. There is a reason why sensible experts on both sides have called for increasing decision and warning time for those who ultimately have to push the red button.

As important, Russia, whose earlier call for a new European Security treaty was left unheeded, should be given a meaningful say in this new system of European collective security. That would not only reduce the probability of another armed conflict, declared or undeclared, accidental or intentional, but would also help to slow down the current slide into a new Cold War.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Saradzhyan, Simon.“Knowing when it's war and how to avoid it.” Financial Times, March 18, 2015.

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