The Ukraine conflict

The cornerstone for a new pan-European peace order could be laid in Ukraine

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NATO’s intention to admit Ukraine as a full member and Russia’s reaction to it in amassing 100,000 troops at the border with Ukraine has led to the most serious and dangerous crisis on the European continent since the end of the Cold War. As if the Cold War had never ended, the two strongest nuclear powers in the world — the USA and Russia — face each other again on the European continent. Even if remote, with any military confrontation in and around Ukraine, or even a misunderstanding, old fears of a nuclear confrontation resurface. In many aspects, we are reminded of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, which was a very similar conflict between the USA and the then Soviet Union.

With the present confrontation, Europe pays the price for a misguided post-Cold War policy of expanding NATO eastwards while isolating Russia. And yet, the current Ukraine conflict holds the possibility of rectifying what had gone wrong then and of arriving at an inclusive European peace settlement. However, for this to happen, the European states must first accept that this is primarily an intra-European conflict and that a solution can only be found if Europe’s own security and economic interests are set before any geopolitical power ambitions.

The greatest danger of the Ukraine conflict lies in the weaknesses of its adversaries

Even if it seems that what we see in connection with the Ukraine conflict are demonstrations of strength, especially military strength, decisions by all adversaries are probably more influenced by their respective weaknesses. The fear of showing weakness often causes people to make terrible decisions, and this is especially true for politicians. That is what makes this conflict so dangerous.

If Russia were to invade Ukraine, it would be out of weakness, not strength

It would be an act of desperation because Russia has concluded that a NATO Ukraine poses an existential threat to its security interests that the West is not prepared to respect. Russia’s fear is that American troops would then soon be stationed along the Russian border, equipped with state-of-the-art missiles that could also carry nuclear warheads and reach Moscow in less than five minutes. Russia would become susceptible to blackmail. Russia must also fear that with Ukraine becoming a NATO member, NATO will claim that Crimea falls under its protection. This would threaten Russia in one of its most sensitive areas, its access to the Black Sea. Hence, with Ukraine’s NATO membership, the next conflict would already be pre-programmed.

In the short term, a military intervention would certainly be feasible for Russia. In this case, Russia could count on a great deal of support not only from within Russia, but also from within large parts of eastern Ukraine, especially among the Russian-speaking population. But Russia also knows from its experience in Afghanistan that such interventions come at an enormous price and that initial local sympathies can quickly turn against them. The pro-Western Ukrainian militias, which are currently being funded and equipped to fight Russia, have an influx of right-wing Russian groups. These could carry the conflict into Russia and incite trouble among Russia’s diverse communities.

Russia’s real weakness, however, is that an invasion of Ukraine, even if militarily successful, would not bring it any closer to its real goal of shaking off NATO encirclement. On the contrary, NATO pressure would certainly become greater, while Russia’s military resources to respond are limited. Even if it is highly unlikely that the USA would react to a Russian invasion with a military counterattack, a Russian invasion would give the US and NATO justification for moving large numbers of its military and heavy equipment into the unoccupied western and southern areas of Ukraine. Also, hitherto ‘neutral’ states such as Finland and Sweden could decide to join NATO or at least allow NATO units to be stationed in their countries.

For the USA, the situation is different

Militarily, it is seductively superior to Russia. The annual military budgets of the US and its NATO partners exceed Russia’s military spending almost twentyfold! Yet the US has few, if any, security or economic interests of its own in Ukraine. Its predominant motivation is to reassert itself as the guardian of a global order. “America is back again!” In asserting this global claim to power, the Ukraine conflict promises it an easy victory over Russia — only, and this is the problem, the USA has mostly been mistaken in its beliefs in easy victories.

The US’ weakness is that it is confronting Russia over Ukraine at a time when it has already lost its former position as the sole global power and when it faces huge problems at home. Furthermore, the US remains embroiled in many of the world’s unresolved conflicts, some with a higher potential to threaten US interests than Russia does. There is the conflict with China, a serious and much more powerful adversary that, in confronting the US pushback, will certainly not back down on the Taiwan issue or in the South China Sea. Iran, seeing how Russia is treated, might become even more convinced that their security lies in becoming a nuclear power. And there is North Korea, which feels justified expanding its arsenal of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles as a direct threat to the US. The US has lost its influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, regions that remain strategically important for it. Despite all its military might, this is likely to overwhelm the US. Thus, even if the US might ‘win’ the conflict with Russia tactically, it may still emerge from this confrontation strategically weakened.

With membership, NATO would be supposed to ensure order in Ukraine while excluding Russian influence

But NATO has never been successful in similar conflicts. Despite enormous military superiority, NATO had to leave Afghanistan in a hurry. In Libya, the NATO mission has only led to chaos and the NATO-dictated peace in the Balkans is in the process of falling apart. To drive Serbia out of Kosovo, NATO needed three and a half months of intense air strikes that cost the lives of many thousand civilians. As violent expulsions of Serbs and Roma from Kosovo ensued, NATO stood by almost impassively.

Thus, NATO can hardly be expected to do better in an armed conflict in Ukraine, a much larger country with its largest neighbor, Russia, opposing it. It would again face the problem of whether it is primarily a defense alliance, an intervention force or even a global policing force. Member countries would struggle to find a solution to this. NATO’s failure would be almost inevitable.

For the European Union, the Ukraine conflict has become a symbol of its weakness

Although this is a European problem and its effects will primarily affect Europe, it prefers to leave the field to the USA. The EU itself has nothing to contribute but general phrases about a value-oriented policy mixed with threats against Russia. There are no considerations of what Europe’s own interests might be and the EU made no noteworthy attempts to resolve this conflict peacefully. There are talks with Russia in Brussels, but the EU lacks the necessary credibility and flexibility for such negotiations.

The biggest weakness in the Ukraine conflict is Ukraine itself

Ukraine was, is and remains primarily a ‘borderland’ torn between a pro-Russian and a pro-Western part of the population. This was the case in World War I and World War II and was also the determining factor in the overthrow of the government in 2014. What the West likes to call a democratic revolution was more likely a swap of a corrupt pro-Russian elite with an equally corrupt pro-Western elite. President Poroshenko and his Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, who were brought to power with massive Western help, were certainly no representatives of democratic renewal. Today’s President Zelensky indicates more flexibility. His open criticism about US alarmist reports about an imminent Russian invasion may indicate that he too would be open to a more diplomatic solution. However, as he does not belong to any of the traditional power blocs in Ukraine, he may be too weak to change anything fundamental in Ukraine politics.

If it came to a military conflict, it would not be clear where the loyalties of the individual Ukrainian population groups lay. How unpredictable political loyalties are was shown when, in the first elections after the pro-Western Orange Revolution, the pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovych won. It should also be a warning that many young men, especially from the pro-Western parts of western Ukraine, are fleeing to Poland to avoid being drawn into the conflict of Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians. It is divided loyalties that make the Ukrainian army a factor of insecurity. All the attempts by the US and Britain to equip it for a fight against Russia will not change that. This would explain why the Ukrainian government has taken the highly dubious decision to legislate militia groups the right to recruit, train and arm members to fight Russia if necessary.

What the West likes to see as popular resistance could further deepen the rifts in Ukrainian society; for these militias are mostly right-wing extremist groups. Among them, for example, is the Ukrainian Legion, which, as the name itself shows, refers to Ukrainian units set up under German Nazi rule to fight against the Soviet Union in the Second World War. However, most Ukrainians had opposed the German occupation and, as a result, suffered terribly – including at the hands of Ukrainian collaborators. That is certainly not forgotten.

The Asov Brigade, with its emblems modeled on the SS, also represents frightening national socialist ideas. Like the Aidar Brigade, which has a similar political orientation, it was already deployed against pro-Russian rebels in 2014. In the process, it made a name for their brutal treatment of eastern Ukrainians. In an interview with The Guardian (10th September 2014), a leader of the Asov Brigade declared that he wanted to fight Russia because Putin was a Jew. Such anti-Semitic views among the now legalized pro-Western militias could eventually even become dangerous to President Zelensky, who has Jewish roots. In a conflict, NATO could find itself siding with these rather unsavory far-right militias.

On the pro-Russian side, too, militia units, which are no less squeamish, dictate events. A military conflict could therefore quickly turn into an armed conflict between these pro-Western and pro-Russian militias and turn Ukraine into an inferno that could, because of the modern weaponry provided to them, be a lot worse than the civil war in Syria.

The West should not indulge in the same self-delusion to which it had fallen victim in Afghanistan. There, too, it believed that with the help of military and financial superiority, it could transform the country according to the Western model. There, too, it was reported again and again how much the Afghans embraced Western freedoms and how united they were now to counter a takeover by the Taliban. In Afghanistan, too, attempts have been made to buy political loyalties with a lot of money, yet this has only fueled corruption. In Afghanistan, too, the army has been reorganized, equipped and trained according to the Western model, and in Afghanistan, too, Western intelligence services have taken to financing and equipping militias. And in Afghanistan, too, there was a government that thought it had the situation fully under control. Only the ease and speed with which the Taliban overran the entire country and the hasty flight of its pro-Western government tell a very different story.

The Ukraine conflict needs a European solution

Any war or local armed conflict would be of great short-term, and long-term, risks to both, the West as well as Russia. In Ukraine nothing less than the future peace in Europe is at stake. To prevent this becoming a festering crisis that would paralyze European political and economic relations for years to come, this conflict needs a substantive solution. This can only be a comprehensive European peace settlement.

It is unlikely that President Biden will be able to negotiate a solution that is also satisfactory for Europe. Already the US’ written response to Russia does not bode well. Biden is blamed for the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and is now too weak to take a bold new approach on Russia. He is badly battered by poor poll ratings and could soon be paralyzed by a hostile Congress. Biden may hence be unwilling to compromise with Russia or recognize Russian security interests. He is more likely to push for the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO without any security guarantees for Russia.

This would be a dangerous strategy for Europe as it would not solve the problem, but only postpone it. If the 20th century, the bloodiest in European history, had ended with the great promise of pan-European peace, then an armed conflict in Ukraine, Europe’s second largest country, would send the European continent back into possibly a more dangerous Cold War. That should not be in Europe’s interest. After all, the interests of EU members may not be so far apart from those of Russia. Leaving aside the many hate speeches about Russia’s expansionist tendencies or Putin’s irrational behavior, Russia, like the rest of Europe, should have no interest in threatening each other with ever new nuclear weapons and ever faster hypersonic missile systems. Neither should they have any interest in starting a war within a European country or in supplying Ukraine with more weapons. Shouldn’t this provide an opening for not only defusing the situation but also for finding a more permanent solution? It should be possible to find rational and reassuring solutions to address Eastern European fears of being threatened by Russia and Russia’s fears of being threatened by NATO.

The European Union will not be able – at least not now – to negotiate a peace settlement with Russia. But European foreign and security policy is not the sole prerogative of the EU. What is often seen as a disadvantage for Europe to act more forcefully on the global stage, could now provide the necessary flexibility for individual European countries to take the initiative and approach Russia.

Therefore, the initiative of French President Macron together with German Chancellor Scholz must be supported. Their approach to focus on intra-European peace talks with Russia and Ukraine is the only promising way to find a lasting solution. Already existing French-German fora with Russia and Ukraine, such as the Normandy format or the Minsk peace plan, will have prepared the ground on which to build these negotiations. One must admire the courage of Macron and Scholz, as both are confronted with widespread and deep-seated anti-Russia hysteria in the mainstream media and, so far, they cannot rely on much support from most of their European counterparts.

A French-German peace initiative based on diplomacy rather than military threat, on bringing countries together rather than excluding them, and on recognizing mutual security interests, could lay the foundation for comprehensive European peace. Now that France and Germany have transformed their century-long enmity into friendship, it is time that they reduce the enmity with Russia too, the third major adversary of two World Wars on the European continent, and begin to replace it with friendship. This would create an opportunity for peace in Europe that was so casually thrown away after the end of the Cold War.

Such an approach would certainly be welcome in Russia and it is to be expected that Russia would respond with a concession on issues addressing Eastern European security concerns. All sides would have much to gain from an understanding within Europe. In particular, this would apply to Ukraine, which would be given the opportunity to find its inner peace without being torn apart by the geopolitical interests of outside powers. Ukraine could thus become the East-West bridge that Europe so badly needs, a role that would certainly suit it much better.

It would also be an important step to revive the French-German friendship, a cornerstone of European peace. After France and Germany disagree on core issues such as sovereign debt, the use of nuclear power and the need for a European army, they could now unite in pursuing the noblest of all political tasks, building peace.

Such a step would be of enormous value for European integration as well. For the first time since the Congress of Vienna, it would be possible to develop a lasting peace settlement for Europe from within. There would certainly be resistance — in the US as well as within Europe — but it should be worth a try; the alternative of building European relations on military power could end horribly wrong.

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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