Conquest by other means, Ukraine edition

2 March 2014, 0843 EST

Over at the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell suggests that President Obama is using the OSCE to give Putin an exit strategy. Farrell writes:

Obama’s “phone call with Putin on Saturday suggests that the United States wants to invoke the old-style OSCE. It notes that Russia’s armed intervention is inconsistent with Russia’s commitments under the Helsinki Final Act (the agreement that established the OSCE), calls for “the dispatch of international observers under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)…

If Putin wants an “exit strategy,” Farrell continues, this is it: “There is no reason why the OSCE could not help broker compromises over new elections and push the Ukrainian government to guarantee the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine.”

My question to Farrell is, is this Putin’s possible exit strategy, or the United States/EU’s?

It seems to me that the United States is suggesting that Putin might be able to get an acceptable outcome working within existing institutions, that the United States is hinting  “if you do what you want to do this way, we can all by happy (well, most of us can be happy).”     

This would be a typical page out of the successful revisionist state playbook. Revisionist states are most successful, not when they deploy naked force, but when they can commit a bit of institutional jujutsu, using an opponent’s own norms and institutions to justify expansion. In the 1930s no less a realist than EH Carr suggested that Germany’s expansion in Europe could be accommodated if it were done within League procedures, and thus “in accordance with our general principles.” In the early 19th century, the United States was a master at using international law to justify what were pretty much blatant acts of war against Spain. It’s not that anyone believed these weren’t serious acts of aggression, but it gave status quo states an acceptable trade off: the revisionist state gets the territory; the status quo state gets to claim that the system worked.

This is not to say that Putin will appeal to OSCE rules; there are cross-pressures here. But it seems this would be a welcome turn for an American administration that has few good options.