The Helsinki Accords, “Normal” International Relations, and Our Terrible Historical Memory

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Russia’s actions in Crimea continue to dominate headlines and capture international attention. It’s been a while since we’ve seen irredentism as a relevant concept, but hostile boundary-shifting has again become de rigueur.

This has shocked a lot of people, not least many journalists, who tend to have some of the shortest historical memories on the planet. What Russia has done in Crimea, and appears possibly poised to do in eastern Ukraine – annex territory though the use or threats of force – seems so, well, 19th century. I mean, people just don’t do that sort of thing anymore, do they?

In fact, the standards of international behavior that we have come to expect – in particular, the rule that we don’t change boundaries by invading and annexing chunks of land – has a relatively recent provenance. Moreover, there was never anything inevitable about it. We didn’t arrive at the “no hostile takeover” rule by some process of inevitable progress towards a more civilized world. This means that any such rule can evaporate as quickly as it came.

As my friend & co-author Steve Saideman has recently pointed out, the “don’t change boundaries with force” rule in Europe actually dates back to the Helsinki Accords, which were signed only in 1975. This in itself was a signal accomplishment – Europe was divided into two armed camps at the height of the Cold War, and getting NATO and the Warsaw Pact to agree on fundamental rules was both remarkable and strongly stabilizing for Europe. Although other agreements (SALT, START, INF) tend to get more attention, the Helsinki Accords may be the greatest achievement in the effort to stabilize the Cold War conflict and prevent World War III.

We are now, of course, almost 40 years past the Helsinki Accords and nearly 25 years since the ending of the Cold War. In that intervening time we have forgotten that the stability and norms that Helsinki brought were not inevitable but negotiated – and negotiated under very particular circumstances. At the time, you had a genuinely bipolar conflict in which each side had already extended its sway to what might be considered its “natural” sphere of influence. For either East or West to attempt to move that boundary in a hostile fashion would have been the height of folly, not only because of the risk of nuclear escalation but because each superpower was stronger within its own sphere than the other could hope to match. Although Helsinki represented a remarkably sweeping agreement, it also codified a fairly solid balance of power – that is, it enshrined what already was.

Today’s world looks little like 1975. The West, in its exuberance at having “won” the Cold War, has extended its institutions of influence (NATO & the EU chief among them) far to the east, believing that the institutions themselves would create a new reality. In doing so, it took advantage of a weakened Russia which fell a long, long way from the heights of its power before beginning to climb again. Even today, Russia’s strength is a shadow of the US – but that doesn’t mean it can’t exert dominance in its own front yard.

Ukraine, of course, falls outside all of the institutional boundary-moving of the 1990s and 2000s. A member neither of NATO nor the EU, Ukraine does not benefit from whatever protections those institutions might afford. That makes it an easy target for a resurgent Russia, especially when Putin has staked the legitimacy of his regime on restoring the image of Russia’s strength.

As I have written before, this does not signal a “return to the Cold War”. But Russia’s meddling in Eastern Ukraine, and the forces that Putin has apparently unleashed there, do suggest that the rules painstakingly hammered out in the Cold War context may be disappearing, at least for that corner of the world. Putin’s Russia has indicated that it is willing, at least within a limited sphere, to ignore the Helsinki rules.

To Realists, none of this should come as any surprise. Moreover, the boundaries of that sphere within which Russia can operate with impunity are likely to be defined in part by institutions (in particular, NATO membership with its Article V guarantee) and in part by the power behind such institutions. Russia is still no match militarily for the West, nor does Putin desire war with NATO. Conflict with NATO is very much in his domestic political interest, so long as it doesn’t lead to major losses.

In the post-Cold War world many of us had come to assume unconsciously that the rules and behaviors we had gotten used to in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s represented “the way the world is”. Putin’s Russia is not so much fundamentally changing the rules of the system as it is reminding us of just how fragile and circumstantial those rules are. Perhaps someday we can negotiate a new Helsinki Accords with Russia. But until then, do not expect the Russian government to respect an agreement crafted two generations ago in a very different time.