Blog post #12, 31 January 2023
Where is the Ukraine war headed? While the country’s Western partners continue to move the ‘red lines’ that circumscribe the heaviness of the arms they supply, now agreeing even to send tanks, in recent weeks some hesitant calls for negotiation could be heard. Why hesitant? As they go against the dominant view that the only suitable response to Russia’s aggression is by force, such calls are often met with scorn.
In the Netherlands, a group of academics, diplomats and other public figures, which called on their government to increase its efforts toward getting the warring parties to the table, received a tsunami of negative reactions. Not only were they seen as naïve, but they were accused of serving Putin. Yet, the Dutch publicists find themselves in respected international company. In Germany, a group of intellectuals started a petition against more arms shipments, which has gathered nearly 500,000 signatures. In the US, esteemed former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, known for his realist foreign policy orientation, suggested an outline for a possible agreement between Russia and Ukraine, as did former senior UN policymaker Tapio Kanninen and Finnish professor Heikki Patomäki in their article Giving Peace A Chance.
Last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which, since 1947, has been estimating how close the world is to ending by stating how many ‘minutes to midnight’ remain on its symbolic Doomsday Clock, decided to set this clock at an unprecedented 90 seconds to midnight. The Bulletin cited the Ukraine war as a major factor in bringing humanity closer than ever to the end of the world. “We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality,” President of the Bulletin Rachel Bronson said. “The US government, its NATO allies and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; we urge leaders to explore all of them to their fullest ability to turn back the clock.”
So far, these voices have not affected the conviction of policymakers in Europe and the US that the military route is currently the best option. However, leaders are vague about the objective of this military effort, in which, let’s face it, the West is now heavily involved. What is its final aim in this armed conflict? What Emma Ashford wrote in Foreign Policy, “the problem is that Washington appears to be completely incapable of having an actual discussion about how and where it wants this war to end”, is just as true for European governments. To the extent that policymakers have mentioned end goals, these have shifted over the course of the war, from helping Ukraine to defend itself against the Russian invasion, to ousting Russia from the Eastern territories that it has informally controlled since 2014, to reconquering the Crimea, to rendering the Russian armed forces so weak as to be unable to undertake military adventures for years to come.
The problem with unclear and shifting aims is that there is little open political discussion about them. Pressing questions remain unanswered: What is the risk of further escalation, nuclear or otherwise? How many more victims need to fall before the war can end? How realistic is it to strive for a complete Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea, which is the Ukrainian government’s stated condition for starting negotiations? After all, a definitive victory by either side looks unlikely. But even if Ukraine does succeed to drive Russia out, how stabile would a post-victory situation be? Would Russia not continue its efforts to weaken its neighbour by any means possible, if not militarily then through cyber warfare and the covert support of rebels? And, as Kissinger points out, if Russia is severely weakened, couldn’t this lead to a dangerous political vacuum in this gigantic country with its large nuclear arsenal?
Given these questions, it seems like a defensible position to at least explore the possibilities for a negotiated agreement. Still, it is not easy to envision a deal that would do justice to the sacrifices Ukraine has had to make because of the illegal Russian invasion. Understandably, Kiev says that undertaking negotiations before Russia has completely withdrawn would in essence reward Moscow for its aggression. On the other hand, Ukraine has negotiated with Russia before, in the spring of 2021, even though circumstances were different then. The two countries also held several rounds of negotiation – the Minsk talks – in the years after 2014, after Russia had annexed the Crimea and begun to control Lugansk and Donetsk by covertly supporting local secessionists. In terms of territorial division, the current situation is not too different from the de facto post-2014 one, even if huge losses, destruction, and war crimes have severely hampered Ukrainian willingness to talk.
Concretely, what do people like Kissinger, Kanninen and Patomäki propose to put on the agenda for peace talks? First, they suggest a ceasefire along pre-invasion lines, to be enforced by a UN peacekeeping force. This would create space for further negotiations about the disputed territories in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, which would be the next step, possibly leading to referenda to be held under international supervision. In the meantime, these territories could be given a temporarily neutral status and be governed by the UN. The negotiations should also focus on an international structure which could offer security guarantees to all involved: Ukraine first and foremost, but Russia as well. (Difficult though this is, negotiations involve efforts to meet the interests of the each of the parties. In this regard, we should be aware that trying to understand the motivations of Russia is not the same as condoning them.) Finally, arms restrictions and (nuclear) disarmament could be on the table.
These proposals are not perfect. For one thing, experiences with UN temporary administrations in East Timor, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have been mixed at best, as is illustrated by currently rising tensions in the latter two places. Still, none of these countries have experienced violence of anywhere near the extent that occurred before the entry of the UN, and that is no mean feat.
To be clear: Western countries have been right in coming to the aid of Ukraine as it defends itself from an illegal and brutal invasion by an autocratic and unreliable regime. Continued arms shipments may be necessary for some time to come. However, Ukraine’s supporters need to have an honest and open discussion about their envisioned end game. What are possible longer-term scenarios and how does current military support fit into them? What role might there be for diplomacy in addition to armed force? There’s too much at stake to not at least consider these questions.
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