Russia’s belligerent invasion of Ukraine is not only a blatant breach of world peace. It shakes international security. “Security” is the term that gives the ambiguous concept of world peace a little more contour. In the United Nations Charter, the two terms are always used together, like identical twins. International security, however, is not the same as international peace – but it is certainly an indispensable precondition of it.
World peace and international security
In Germany, paradoxically, the inner connection between world peace and international security has a special significance because it has been ignored for decades. For a long time, there was much discussion about peace, but relatively little about international security. We Germans were able to enjoy the uninterrupted state of peace in Europe for more than three quarters of a century without having to worry about its precondition, international security. Until May 1955, the Germans of the Federal Republic lived under the sovereignty of the three Western victorious powers of the Second World War. On May 5, 1955, ten years after the end of the Second World War, the Federal Republic became sovereign. Just four days later, it joined NATO, which had been founded in 1949. Two years later, in 1957, it became one of the six founding members of the European Economic Community (EEC). By birth, the Federal Republic was thus politically, economically and militarily secure under the protective power of international guardians, overseers and friends. It contributed to peace by renouncing the militaristic past, concentrating decidedly on peaceful conquests in the world markets and thus contributing nonviolently to increasing the global social product.
After reunification with the GDR in October 1990, the Federal Republic became a heavyweight in the circle of European and North Atlantic partners. And in the wake of the „search for a world order“ that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the time came to assume responsibility with a share of the burden commensurate with its own size, geographical location and geopolitical significance. There have been repeated disputes about this burden sharing within NATO, and to some extent also within the European Union – one need only think of the conflict over compliance with the NATO commitment of the members to spend 2% of their gross national product on military defense. One of the reasons for these disputes is that the in itself correct reference to the crimes against humanity committed in the 20th century by Germans can sometimes serve as a pretext for staying out of inter-national armed conflicts. Another part of the explanation for this reluctance to take responsibility also lies in a narrow understanding of international security.
International Security in the conventional sense: Fear through Deterrence or Trust through Interlocking Interests
Even today, discourses on peace and security are predominantly concerned with the relations between sovereign states. Here, two alternative concepts are usually discussed. The most venerable is: Si vis pacem para bellum – security through deterrence, i.e. the threat and, if necessary, the use of physical force against potential aggressors who violate the peace or are perceived as disturbers of the peace (cf. Lupovici). This method creates the dynamic of a constant expansion and enhancement of military destructive power and leads to the well-known „security dilemma“ (cf. Koskenniemi, p. 467): the more is invested in security through military strength, the stronger is the feeling of threat and insecurity that will be evoked among the potential addressees of the explicit or implicit threat.
The well-tried alternative is security through building and maintaining trust instead of mutual deterrence: the establishment and closest possible intertwining of reciprocal spheres of interest, which systematically generate motives to resolve divergences and conflicts of interest peacefully. Here, international law and international economic law play an important role. However, according to a widespread view, especially among the „realists“ in the field of international relations, states do not follow legal norms in their relations with the environment. Instead, they primarily follow their national interests.The law is followed only if it serves their interests or at least does not stand in their way. Empirical studies show a different picture (cf. Chayes/Chayes, p. 65 ff.). It is true, however, that a variety of international judicial bodies exist that could monitor the preservation of security based on compliance with norms through trust, but that there is a lack of instruments for effective law enforcement. The current interim order of the International Court of Justice, which at Ukraine’s request required Russia to immediately cease its belligerent actions, could be enforced by the UN Security Council, but Russia’s veto will prevent this.
Thus, the sanctions adopted primarily by states of the Western circle of interests, which paradoxically extends as far as Japan, are intended to replace the lack of enforcement of adjudication under international law. Not without a certain sense of triumph, many experts predict the imminent collapse of the Russian economy as its consequence. However, it is not quite clear to what extent they will be able to put a stop to the Russian army’s furor of destruction under the given conditions.
International security: a global social relationship
Neither the power of deterrence nor the power of trust in the wake of Russia’s integration into international economic relations, not even the extensive disruption of any interlocking of interests with the Western world, has prevented the country’s leadership from overrunning Ukraine with a war of aggression that is clearly illegal under international law. The justification given by President Putin that the West, especially NATO, was violating Russia’s security interests by extending further and further east into Russia’s sphere of influence has been largely unanimously contradicted, even by experts in the field of international relations (most recently Zürn). Indeed, one cannot imagine NATO invading any country in the world in the way Russia did on February 24, 2022. Certainly, the Russian invasion was not a pre-emptive strike against a military threat. Putin’s reasons – „denazification“ of Ukraine and protection of the Russian part of the population from genocide – are so absurd and devoid of any substantiation that they cannot be seriously discussed.
This does not mean that there can be no comprehensible reasons for the Russian attack. On the contrary, the absurdity of the reasons given makes it seem possible that the real reasons lie deep beneath the surface of the motivations explicit in statements. Are they perhaps hidden because their revelation would explode the self-image that Russian political elites impose on their society?
We should take the trouble to analyze these reasons. The first step is to realize that the concept of international security does not describe a state of affairs, but a social relationship between various actors in international politics. The actions of each member of the international community affect every other member – it is a relationship of interdependence. A next step would be to follow a classical recommendation: Don’t believe „that the Other Understands that You Are Not a Threat“. And finally, probably the most complex task: to look more closely at the image that the political elites create of Russia, and to listen carefully to the stories that they tell themselves, their people, and perhaps also us in the West about their country (see Puleri, p. 17 ff.).
Even with only a cursory reading of the relevant literature – exclusively in English in predominantly Anglo-American publications of respected scientific publishers – one encounters a motif that is sometimes alluded to in current discussions, but is not really taken seriously. How have Russia and the Russians fared since the end of 1991? In the founding agreement signed by Boris Yeltsin on the „Commonwealth of Independent States“ (CIS) replacing the Soviet Union (the so-called Belavezha Accords of Dec. 8, 1991), the signatories stated that „the USSR as a subject of international law as well as a geopolitical reality (…) has ceased to exist“. It is a bitter irony of history that eight years later it was Yeltsin who made Vladimir Putin Prime Minister, thus providing him with a springboard to a presidency that apparently seeks to restore the „geopolitical reality“ of the Soviet era.
What did this outrageous sentence mean? For „us“ – in the prevailing self-confidence of the West – it was certain since 1990 that the social model of liberal democracy had won over the power that represented the collectivist social model embodied in the Soviet Union. This „victory“ solved the problem of the Cold War and the danger of military conflict between the superpowers – for us. But any solution to a problem puts the problem of that solution on the agenda. After all, the Soviet Union, founded only in December 1922, was by no means a political lightweight in the world of states. It took over the status that its dominant main member, Russia, had held as a great power in Europe for decades (cf. Neumann, p. 128 ff.). Through its sacrificial contribution to the victory over Hitler’s Germany and the Axis powers in World War II, it had risen to become a recognized global power after 1945.
In the „West’s“ enthusiasm for victory, few observers thought about what the collapse of a political colossus would mean for the country concerned and its people, but also for world society as a whole. Although the USSR was formally a confederation of states, it was in fact a centrally organized unitary territory. Its dissolution into a federation of independent states meant a far-reaching territorial amputation for Russia. The shrinking of Russian control to only 30 percent of the Black Sea coastline, for example, fundamentally changed the conditions of Russian foreign policy, according to the seminal study by Aybak (see Aybak in International Security Studies).
The weight of the territorial impact of this collapse does not lie primarily in the material loss of land and people. It lies primarily in their symbolic connotation of standing as the losers of history. Barack Obama’s statement that Russia is now only a regional power is likely to have been perceived as humiliating by the heirs to the ruins of the Soviet empire. The issue of NATO’s eastward enlargement must also be raised again here. It has already been explained above why no military threat to Russia can be deduced from that. Other voices consider the expansion of NATO into Russia’s sphere of interest as irrelevant because there are no written documents for the Western commitment to refrain from this step and the – undisputed – corresponding declarations of several foreign ministers were made only orally. How must the representatives of a former great power feel when their objections to the expansion of the Western leading power, the United States, into their immediate neighborhood are decided at the level of hedge lawyers?
Ontological security and the struggle for recognition
One might argue that these are questions of psychology, not of international security. However, there is a concept of international security that tries to integrate the dimension of an existential shock of a nation’s self-confidence into its analytical framework. In the scientific literature, this concept goes by the name of „ontological security”. In addition to mistrust and trust as the two traditional concepts of international security, the basic social relationship of recognition is also included as a basic element of social relations. This concept can be traced back to Hegelian philosophy and has become the focus of Axel Honneth’s analysis of the functioning of modern societies in Germany, especially in his writings on social theory. The argument is that in fulfilling their social duties, people expect to receive the respect, esteem, and recognition of social institutions and other members of society. This, they experience as a significant source of their capacity for self-respect. Social conflicts can therefore be interpreted as the result of denied recognition and as struggles for recognition (cf. Honneth).
Now, states do not have sentiments and mental pains, and to that extent it may be seen as a mistaken use of categories to invoke the idea of failed recognition as a motive for state action. In fact, however, the times in which international relations were understood only as a parallelogram of blindly self-referential (great) forces belong to the past. For some time now, the terminology of the scientific discipline of „international relations“ has included concepts such as „being,“ „identity,“ „emotions,“ „fear,“ or „biographical continuity,“ which were previously known primarily from psychology, and to some extent also from philosophy. In this context, emotionally influenced concepts such as disregard and humiliation also find a place in the concept of „ontological security“. Referring to its inventor Anthony Giddens, Gunther Hellmann defines as „ontologically secure“ a state which offers answers to “fundamental existential questions“, which convey a „sense of continuity and order in the course of events“ (translation by the author).
But what should and could be recognized by the world and especially by the „West“ in the case of Putin’s Russia? Certainly not the recognition of traditional Soviet-Russian zones of influence. In general, it is not about the recognition of real political or economic goals. If one asks about the form and character of a lack of recognition that Russia’s political elites and possibly many of the proverbial „ordinary people in the street“ feel when they think and talk about their relationship with the „West,“ it becomes clear that the fact that the U.S. and NATO ignored what was apparently an important concern for Russian political elites: keeping the verbal promise not to move the zone of influence of the „West“ beyond the German-Polish border, let alone into the land and sea areas of the former Soviet territory. The enlargement of NATO to the East in 1999 and 2004 was thus understood as a sign of disrespect.
Russia’s lost status as a great power
In his study of “Integrität und Mißachtung” („integrity and disregard“) in the field of interpersonal relations, Axel Honneth states that „human integrity owes itself in a hidden way to approval or recognition by other subjects“ (translation by the author). Correspondingly, one can reason about the implications of the UN Charter’s principle of sovereign equality and territorial integrity of states as the basis of global coexistence. Honneth distinguishes three types of disregard: the most intense and profound degradation of human beings lies in physical abuse such as torture and rape. On the interstate level, the warlike assault that Ukraine is suffering these weeks on the part of Russia corresponds to this. The Ukrainians are certainly resisting so bravely because, in addition to the devastating physical destruction in their country, they perceive the disrespect for their state and nation in this attack.
From the extreme case of deepest humiliation, Honneth distinguishes those forms of disrespect „which affect the normative self-understanding of a person“ (translation by the author) such as the manifold phenomena of disenfranchisement and social rejection (Honneth, p. 1046). On the interstate level, there is probably no parallel for this. This is because the emerging cases of politico-strategic isolation and limitation of the international scope of action of individual states (such as North Korea and, currently, Russia) usually take place as sanctions for previous behavior that is to be disapproved of or „punished.“
However, disapproval does not imply disregard. Such a disregard, on the other hand, is present in the third variant distinguished by Honneth, namely the rejection of certain „individual forms of life and modes of conviction as inferior or deficient“ (translation by the author) (Honneth, p. 1047), which turns into disregard and contempt. The disapproval turns into disregard and contempt when it does not concern individual ways of acting, but the way of being of persons and groups of persons, as it is shown e.g. in anti-Semitism or racism.
Is there something similar at the intergovernmental level? The haughty overlooking and ignoring of elementary state self-understandings and „ways of being“ – e.g. the assertion of a socio-moral self-image as a civilized nation, as a neutral state or as the cradle of certain cultural heritages of mankind – would be such a form of disregard. Could it be that even Russia’s current political leadership is in truth not necessarily interested in conquering the land and people of Ukraine, but in proving Russia’s great power status? If so, the classification as a „regional power“ would be a violation of Russian self-esteem and status consciousness, for the healing of which Russia is starting a war that is contrary to international law, morally reprehensible, economically absurd and cruel, and devoid of any pragmatic rational explanation.
Since 1933, the world has had to painfully experience the misdeeds a nation is capable of that – rightly or wrongly – feels offended, insulted, humiliated and left alone, in other words, lives in existential uncertainty. Perhaps we should pay more attention to this possible parallel with today’s situation.
A German version of this article has been published here.