In The Media

Is Ukraine a crisis, or a dangerous distraction? 

by Daryl Copeland

May 9, 2014

I recently returned from ten days in Austria, where I delivered a short course on science, technology, diplomacy and international policy at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

The rapid pace of developments in the immediate neighbourhood — Kyiv and points east — has produced a particularly strong sense of unease in central Europe. Much of the commentary generated by the crisis in Ukraine has focused on the possibility of a shooting war spinning out of control — or, more profoundly, of a geostrategic reversion to patterns of thought and action once associated with the Cold War.

At first blush, such outcomes seem like ample cause for concern. Could Dr. Strangelove ride again? The preoccupation on all sides with military gestures, underpinned ultimately by the stultifying, terrifying calculus of mutually assured destruction, stirs dark memories of days which until recently appeared long past.

If stability must once again be achieved through relying on a Cold War-style standoff, mankind will have taken a giant step backwards. It’s also possible that there’s rather less going on here than meets the eye.

Behind the headlines, and beneath the frantic manoeuvring for advantage, there may be more continuity than change in the prognosis — and in the end that implication may prove the most costly. As a result of events in Ukraine, international policy on all sides will remain heavily militarized, at the expense of addressing competing global issues for which there are no military solutions.

As Russia brings to bear its hard power assets in and around Ukraine, policy-makers in NATO countries have responded by ramping up sanctions and sending in reinforcements to the Baltic states, Poland and Romania.  This was a rude awakening for many; few anticipated the speed, acuity or sense of purpose which attended Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or could explain the uncertain nature of the West’s immediate reaction.

Even if Russia is now stepping back from the threat of armed intervention, will accept the results of the May 25 elections and is really urging its irredentist allies to behave with moderation, today no one seems entirely sure whether another shoe is set to drop. Even if Russia makes no further territorial gains, its designs on eastern and southern Ukraine seem certain to find some form of political expression.

European security and international law have been undermined by the Kremlin’s machinations, and the predictability of Russian behaviour under President Putin is in doubt. That said — barring some kind of colossal mistake — the prospect of escalation into a broader conflagration is remote. As was the case with events in Georgia in 2008, the West will recognize in practical terms that Russian interests in Ukraine are longstanding and deep. The world will not go to war over what amounts to a settling of scores over NATO’s ill-considered and opportunistic overstretch to the east. Not least, the significant extent of EU member state economic and political interests in maintaining reasonable relations with Russia will in the end ensure that cooler heads prevail.

But what about the bigger picture? While the crisis in Ukraine is not a sideshow, it has — like the events of 9/11 — played into the hands of those with defined agendas.

Among members of the opinion-leading community of fearmongers and threat-conjurers, the prospect of a return to Cold War comfort likely elicited a great sigh of relief. Bin Laden is long dead, al-Qaida is dispersed and disrupted and there have been no large-scale terrorist incidents in Western countries for years. Just when it appeared that the threat represented by religious extremism and political violence was receding, circumstances have made it possible to dust off the Doomsday Clock and consider moving the minute hand closer to midnight.

It can now be argued that international security is being jeopardized by the re-emergence of an implacable, if not unknown, enemy. In Western countries, those advocating a return to the tried and true remedies of containment and deterrence have gone mainstream. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, defence will continue to displace diplomacy and development as the international policy instrument of choice.

Prior to Russia’s gambit, a host of complex and difficult global issues were being left to pile up and fester on the sidelines. Progress in addressing some of the most profound threats facing the planet — most of which have in common a substantial scientific and technological component — was effectively at a standstill. Action on this “globalization suite” of transnational issues — climate change, diminishing biodiversity, environmental collapse and management of the global commons — has been long overdue.

These are not problems that guns and bombs can fix. Absent collective attention directed at pressing issues of environmental sustainability and equitable development, humanity risks reaching a tipping point beyond which recovery will be impossible.

Just when an opening for innovative international policy-making might have presented itself, the world instead finds itself sliding backwards into fixed, predictable and obsolete patterns of behaviour. The intellectual structures and assumptions which originated during the Cold War and were sustained through the Global War on Terror — a black-and-white world view, a simplistic characterization of the threat, and militarization of the international policy response — were never abandoned.

Now they have found new life, reanimated by fear. With enemies all about, a continued reliance on armed force — with an increasing dose of cyber-surveillance — is being promoted again as the price of freedom.

The real tragedy is not that Ukraine has changed the world. The tragedy is that the world hasn’t changed enough. This model of world order is nothing new. But its perseverance invites disaster.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant, the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy and a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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