Open letter from former UN Assistant Secretary-General on the war in Ukraine

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Dear friends, dialog partners and former colleagues, 

I would like to share with you my most recent article in which I argue that Europe, for its own interest, must push for a negotiated peace settlement to end the war in Ukraine.

History will surely come down harsh on Russia and President Putin for having started this war, but it may also not absolve the West for its role in it. Was this really an unprovoked war as we like to claim? Are Russian objections to a further expansion of NATO to its borders so unwarranted that we rather risk a war than negotiate? And couldn’t the war have been prevented by finding a diplomatic solution that would take Ukrainian and Russian security concerns as well as those of Eastern European nations into consideration? Where is Europe in all of this?

Europe has twice missed a chance for a peace, first by proving impotent in finding a diplomatic solution that could prevent the war and later by not supporting the on-going Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations. When President Macron returned from his last trip to persuade Putin not to go to war in February, all he could offer was that he would try arranging a meeting between Putin and Biden. In other words, he could not unite Europe – or for that matter the EU – behind a negotiated solution and had to admit that this was essentially a US-Russian conflict in which the USA, and not Europe was in the driving seat.

Europe may have missed a second chance for peace when, at the NATO Summit on 23 March, it rallied collectively behind a hard-nosed policy aiming at a military victory over Russia. In its final communique, NATO only called for negotiations to implement a ceasefire that must lead to an unconditional withdrawal of all Russian troops – and this, although by this time, the Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations had worked out a very different framework for a peace settlement. The communique mentioned nothing of this nor of the peace conference in Istanbul only a week later, de-facto killing the Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations. 

NATO’s uncompromising approach may have triggered Russia’s strategy shift. Immediately after the NATO Summit, Russia began to lift its ring around Kiev to focus its military operations in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Russia appears to have concluded that, without a Western buy-in, Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations would lead to nothing and that controlling instead large parts of predominantly Russian-speaking Ukraine would place it in a much stronger position in what was likely to become a long-lasting war of attrition. With this, Russia would secure its land and sea link to the Black Sea while de-facto partitioning Ukraine. A rump-Ukraine could than hardly join NATO.

Recent telephone calls by Scholz and Macron with Putin are unlikely to change this emerging scenario.  Scholz and Macron may not even have been able to support their call for a ceasefire with an offer to also stop Western arms shipments. But most importantly, the core issue that could untangle the war, Ukrainian neutrality, neither they nor any other European government dare mentioning. There are good reasons for this. Accepting Ukrainian neutrality would amount to give in to Russia’s core demand and hence appear to reward military aggression. But on the other hand, can Europe justify continuing the war and with it, the sufferings of Ukrainians? Can Europe afford a destroyed and divided Ukraine and potentially even a destabilized nuclear Russia in its immediate neighborhood? Could Europe prosper while being cut-off for years to come from vital natural resources from Russia and Central Asia as well as from its easy land access to markets in Asia?

There are other dangers for Europe. The mood among Ukrainians could turn against the West for spilling Ukrainian blood and destroying their country with little in return. The strain of war may even open old divisions within Ukrainian society, clouding Ukraine’s future. Also, in the US are signs that support for the war in Ukraine may be waning. President Biden finds little local support for the war in Ukraine and may be losing the mid-term elections. Inflation remains a bigger concern than support for Ukraine. The hawkish Heritance Foundation and several Republican Senators have now openly turned against the 40 billion aid package for Ukraine. Even a Henry Kissinger argues that Ukraine must give up territory for peace.  

For its own good, Europe must find its own voice, not only to save Ukraine, but also to save itself.

Best regards, Michael Schulenburg

Written by

Michael von der Schulenburg

Michael von der Schulenburg, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, escaped East Germany in 1969, studied in Berlin, London and Paris and worked for over 34 years for the United Nations, and shortly the OSCE, in many countries in war or internal armed conflicts often involving fragile governments and armed non-state actors. These included long-term assignments in Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sierra Leone and shorter assignments in Syria, the Balkan, Somalia, the Balkan, the Sahel, and Central Asia. In 2017, he published the book ‘On Building Peace – rescuing the Nation-State and saving the United Nations’, AUP.

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