As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War draws closer, it must be remarked that the most significant change to the geopolitical map since 1914 was not the defeat of fascism, nor the death of Soviet-style communism, but the complete collapse of all the European imperialist systems of government. Of course, various forms of hegemony, colonialism, and suzerainty still exist in the modern world and European nations have not been above overseas conflict since the end of the Cold War. However, a century after the start of Europe’s bloodbath the continent, now at peace, has turned inwards in its thinking.
By avoiding blatant aggression, Putin’s ostensibly deniable tactics use Europe’s rules-based interconnected international system against it, even as he circumvents Russia’s own treaty commitments to Ukraine. But perhaps the longer term threat is not that a declining Russia’s actions will go unpunished, but that as with Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1930s, states who are also dissatisfied with their neighborhood’s geopolitical status quo will copy the Kremlin’s lead.
The non-invasion invasion of Ukrainian territory by little green men, or “self-defense groups” as President Putin calls them, has been a masterful demonstration of Russian asymmetric warfare, electronic disinformation and lawfare techniques. Alarm is now heard that if Russian attempts to undermine Ukrainian territorial integrity are successful it will feed Moscow’s appetite for more. But while the attention of the world is riveted on the Kremlin, what about other regional powers? If a great power conflict can be avoided (as in Ukraine so far), would another state emulate Russia’s behavior in the future?
Imperatives for peace and for justice often seem to collide in many conflict and post-conflict situations. The immediate inspiration for this article was the recent arrest in Northern Ireland of Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams in connection with the 1972 murder of Jean McConville. Coming right before European and local elections the arrest had immediate political consequences for the stability of Northern Ireland and the success of the ongoing peace process in the province. It also highlighted the continued lack of agreement for how to handle the legacy of past killings despite sixteen years of relative calm.
This problem is especially acute in modern conflicts. Today’s wars tend to be messy civil ones, often with a bewildering kaleidoscope of armed actors. Unlike the interstate wars of the past, there is often no obvious victor to a struggle, and often no clear-cut chain of command. Instead, there is a usually a messy list of atrocities, at the end of which is a patched-together political settlement that sometimes holds, and sometimes does not. To return to the example of Northern Ireland, many sources allege Gerry Adams to have been a senior Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader responsible for ordering bombings and murders in the 1970s and 80s (Adams denies this). His detention by police investigating the McConville murder could easily have led to widespread rioting in Republican parts of Belfast. It may yet lead to Loyalists withdrawing from the unity government, so toxic is the issue in the Protestant community.