In Ukraine, the aim must be winning peace and not the war


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In today’s world that is packed with weapons of mass destruction, hypersonic delivery systems, cyber warfare, space warfare and artificial intelligence capabilities, next to other awful things, any strategy that aims at winning a war militarily risks disaster. This could not be truer for the war in Ukraine where two nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, face each other and where a third nuclear power, China, is nervously watching. That is why the West would do better aiming at winning a peace then a war – and this can only be achieved through diplomacy.

What makes the war in Ukraine so exceptionally dangerous is that, even after seven months of war, all belligerent parties focus uniquely on winning this war while making no efforts toward winning a peace. Despite the threat of a nuclear war hanging over this conflict, no diplomatic channels exist between the West and Russia through which misunderstandings can be prevented, further escalation be avoided and the grounds for a diplomatic solution be prepared. To prevent the worst, the West and Russia must start talking. Despite, or even because of, developments on the battlefield, peace talks should still be possible. The West has missed twice opportunities for peace negotiations; it should not miss it this time.

Ukraine’s recent military successes in regaining control over large areas around Kharkov, including the important cities of Izyum and Layman, seem to have emboldened all those in the West who believe that this war is winnable; that Russia could be defeated and be pushed out of all Ukrainian territories it now occupies. Ukrainian President Zelenskiy also announced that the only aim can now be a complete military victory over Russia and renewed his call for a fast-track admission of Ukraine into NATO – an absolute red flag for Russia. But would winning militarily against a nuclear power be at all possible? Relying on a military solution, even, if possible, would not bring any peace but probably lay the grounds for a next conflict. We could be heading to a dangerous escalation that leads to the destruction of Ukraine, a destruction that could ultimately engulf Ukraine’s neighbours in Europe and Asia – if not the whole world.

In response to its military setbacks, Russia has considerably raised the stakes with a partial military mobilization that could double the number of the forces it now deploys in Ukraine. Even more so, with his decision to annex – Russia calls it ‘accessions’ – four Ukrainian oblasts, President Putin threatened that, as part of Russia, he would now protect them from any attack, if necessary, with nuclear arms. With this, Putin hopes to hold out against what he sees as existential threats for Russia: Ukraine joining NATO, USA establishing military bases along its borders, and the loss of Russian access to the Black Sea. It is the weakness of Russia’s conventional forces that makes this threat so dangerous. We had better take this threat seriously.

Warnings that the war in Ukraine could turn nuclear are also coming from the Ukrainian side. Recently, Ukraine’s top military commander, General Valery Zaluzhny, alerted in the state-run media outlet, Ukrinform, that this war could lead to the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia and the US. He even alluded to a possible Third World War:

It is also impossible to completely rule out the possibility of the direct involvement of the world’s leading countries in a ‘limited’ nuclear conflict, in which the prospect of World War III is already directly visible.

Gen. Zaluzhny’s warning is a reminder that this is not simply a conventional war between Ukraine and Russia, but is essentially a conflict between two nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, over who will control Ukraine. The US is now so deeply involved in this war that a small spark or simply a misunderstanding could turn this proxy war into a direct confrontation between Russia and the US. President Biden recently said that since the Cuba crisis the possibility of a nuclear war was never as high as day. We may hope that a nuclear confrontation is still remote, however, the risk alone that we are closer to an all-destroying nuclear war than at any time since the Cuba missile crisis exactly 60 years ago, should ring alarm bells in all capitals of the world and should have thrown diplomacy into top gear. However, this is not happening. Under today’s circumstances this is political madness!

The battlefield might still provide an opening for diplomacy

Luckily, the war has not yet reached this point of no return; there is still room for diplomacy. Military operations on both sides remain geographically limited to the approximately 1,000 km long frontline that separates Ukrainian and Russian forces in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Even there, the fighting is restricted to only three areas around Kharkov, the Donbass and Kherson. Neither Ukrainian nor Russian forces appear in a position to escalate the war to any other region. Claims that Russia would aim at occupying Kiev or all of Ukraine are as illusionary as Ukrainian claims that it is about to reconquer the Donbas and Crimean Peninsula. Russian reinforcements will need months to be fully deployed and Western promises of new and stronger weapons may need time too to reach the battlefield. Most importantly, this is still a conventional war – at least for now.

There are some political movements that too would indicate room for diplomacy. In a remarkable change from NATO’s hardline position taken at its Summit in March, President Biden wrote in the New York Times in May that US policy was not to seek any regime change in Russia and that he shared with the Ukrainian President the belief that only a diplomatic solution could end the war. He even alluded to the possibility that Ukraine might have to make territorial concessions. This falls together with US’s decision not to provide Ukraine with long-range missiles with which it could carry the war onto Russian territory. Moreover, the EU pulled back from Lithuania’s highly dangerous blockade of Kaliningrad and Turkish President Erdogan became the first head of state of a NATO country to visit President Putin in Russia. The Turkish/UN facilitated Russian-Ukrainian grain agreement, the IAEA’s involvement in protecting the nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia, and the recent prisoners’ exchanges are further encouraging signs.

What then makes seeking a diplomatic solution so difficult?

The key word that prevents the West from sitting down with Russia is “neutrality”. Russia wants Ukraine to remain neutral while the US wants Ukraine to be firmly incorporated in the Western military alliance. These conflicting positions are not out for any special love they feel for Ukraine but it is Ukraine’s pivotal strategic location between Asia and Europe that makes it a geopolitical asset.

As a member of NATO, Ukraine would become a strategic asset for US’s claim to global and unrivaled leadership. It would take Russia out as a great-power player and relegate it to a regional power. It would allow controlling trade between Europe and China and project US power deep into Asia – the main reason why all Asian countries, with the only exceptions of Japan and Taiwan, have not sided with NATO/US policies of condemning and isolating Russia. On the other hand, a neutral Ukraine (and, with it, a neutral Georgia) would free Russia from being encircled by NATO. It would keep its status as the dominant power in its immediate geographical neighborhood and keep it an international player -albeit a small one. That neutrality is the stumbling point is troubling because it was neutrality that could have solved the rising tensions between Russia and the US over NATO expansion that led to the war at the beginning of this year, and it was neutrality that could have ended the war in March of this year when Ukrainian and Russian negotiators had agreed on a possible peace plan. In both cases, it was NATO, and in particular the US and UK that torpedoed any move towards a neutral status of Ukraine. While Russia is surely to blame for starting an illegal attack on Ukraine, it is NATO that is responsible for prolonging the war.

NATO and the end of a negotiated solution

The most striking example for this is came when NATO killed the Ukrainian-Russian peace negotiations in March. Then, only one month into the war, Ukrainian and Russian negotiation teams succeeded in presenting a 15-point outline for a possible peace agreement under which Ukraine would not seek NATO membership and not allow any foreign power to establish military bases on its territory. In exchange all Russian occupation forces would withdraw and Ukraine would largely keep its territorial integrity. The outline also foresaw interim solutions for the Donbass and Crimea. The hope was that this agreement could be finalized – or at least further developed – at a peace conference at the level of Foreign Ministers in Istanbul on 29 March. Both Ukrainian and Russian politicians already expressed hope for an end of this war.

But this was not to be. Faced with the possibility of a neutral Ukraine, NATO called for an extraordinary summit on 23 March in Brussels that President Biden also attended. The sole purpose of this meeting was to torpedo the Ukrainian-Russian peace negotiations. Instead of a tradeoff between Ukrainian neutrality against Ukrainian territorial integrity, NATO demanded the unconditional withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territories:

We call on Russia to engage constructively in credible negotiations with Ukraine to achieve concrete results, starting with a sustainable ceasefire and moving towards a complete withdrawal of its troops from Ukrainian territory.

(NATO Summit statement)

In a stark contrast to a compromise solution that Ukrainian and Russian negotiators had agreed, NATO demanded nothing less than Russia to accept defeat. NATO’s final statement neither mentioned the Ukrainian-Russian peace talks nor the Istanbul peace conference projected to take place only five days later. Also, the word ‘neutrality’ was not mentioned. Largely pushed by the US and UK, Ukraine dropped out of the peace talks and, relying on Western massif arms supplies and harsh sanctions, began to support NATO demands for an unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops. With this, the Ukrainian-Russian peace process was dead, and the war has continued ever since.

NATO’s message to Russia was clear: there would be no negotiated peace leading to Ukrainian neutrality. In its reaction, Russia changed its strategy and announced on 28 March that it lifted its military ring around Kiev and would begin to expand its hold in the Russian-speaking areas of Eastern and Southern Ukraine. With this, the war has taken a different direction. Russia was now hoping that by holding on to Ukrainian territory it could prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and to protect its access to the Black Sea. The recent annexations of four Ukrainian oblasts are the result of this strategy shift. However, this will not bring any peace; on the contrary, it will only exacerbate an already difficult and dangerous situation.

The West has now taken the strange position that while it was supporting Ukraine in fighting off an invasion, it had no role in supporting a peaceful solution. Peace negotiations were the responsibility of Ukraine: “It is up to Ukraine to decide on a future peace settlement, free from external pressure or influence” (G7 final statement). After having torpedoed the Ukrainian-Russian peace negotiations in March, this is a rather cynical position. It is also cynical to assume that Ukraine could reach a new peace settlement “free from external pressures or influence” while being militarily pressed by Russia and entirely depending on Western financial and military support for its survival. Peace must and can only be negotiated between the West and Russia.
The road to peace is clear, only who has the courage to walk it?

In two rare public appearances in Goslar and Munich, Angela Merkel, the former chancellor of Germany, referring to the war in Ukraine, recently appealed for greater understanding and openness to compromise. While blaming Russia for having broken international law when it invaded Ukraine on 24 February, she made the striking argument that in seeking peace Europe must not lose sight of the aim of building a European security architecture that includes Russia. Only then, she added, would the Cold War really be over. She also warned that the West must take Russia’s threats seriously.

Peace for Ukraine, peace with Russia and peace in Europe are inseparable and there will be no peace without correcting the mistakes made at the end of the Cold War with the expansion of NATO at the peril of Russia. To develop a European security architecture would need a long time, something we do not have now. But peace talks between the West and Russia could begin laying the grounds for it. Accepting Russian security concerns, agreeing on Ukrainian neutrality and developing security arrangements for Ukraine that are not based on NATO would be a first but decisive step. The courageous Ukrainian and Russian negotiation teams have shown us the road for this in March and a team of experts that had met in the Vatican in June have further developed their approach. If we want to aim for peace instead of winning a war, there will be no other solution.

But do we have any politician of the caliber of Kennedy or Khrushchev, of Reagan or Gorbachev, or with the wisdom of an Angela Merkel who has the courage and stamina to break the spiral of a war that is increasingly getting out of control, and instead aim at winning a peace? The road to peace is clear, but ‘who is prepared to walk this road?’ will be the all-decisive question for saving Ukraine, Europe and possibly the world from a looming disaster.