Conflicts like the one presently raging in Ukraine and the dismal reactions to it are a sad confirmation of how international relations continue to operate re-actively rather than pro-actively, driven by tactical considerations rather than strategic thinking, and operating with a remarkable short-term memory, hence lack of historical consciousness (and conscience).
Ukraine displays all the elements for an explosive community conflict – of which there are more than several around the global, all of them ugly and sadly pedestrian despite resort to grand ideologies:
• It is a country that is linguistically and ethnically divided according to relatively clear territorial lines.
• It has a clearly delineated contested area, i.e. Crimea, with a history of ancient hatred.
• It borders two regional powers with conflicting economic and geopolitical interests.
• It is a transit to crucial gas pipelines and adjacent to key transport corridors.
• Its recent past, since independence, has been characterized by factional interests, political corruption and weak social institutions.
• Its political elites – across the spectrum – have repeatedly displayed little concern about exploiting citizens’ anxieties and wishes for their own interests and agendas.
One further characteristic of such conflicts, once they enter an escalation phase, is their denial of time and process.
Both the call for a referendum on the status of Crimea and that for new parliamentary elections across the country are legitimate. However, from the perspective of conflict resolution, what is counter-productive is that they should happen at such short notice.
The Crimea referendum is now scheduled for next week whereas the parliamentary elections are due to take place in May contrary to an agreement, arrived at with the help of the European Union last week, that they should take place at the end of the year following a much needed restraint phase, under the auspices of a transitional government, during which political parties prepare, and international assistance helps set up procedures for democratic oversight.
Once in a phase of escalation, it is very difficult to arrest the chain reaction of thinking (and acting out) according to partial perceptions and categorical definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It is, therefore, important to contain this conflict before it erupts further to then gradually seek its peaceful resolution.
Containment may represent a burdened policy term dating back to the Cold War era. Nonetheless, it is now necessary if we are to avoid returning to times past and no longer desired.