The war in Ukraine: all conflict layers should be addressed as a prerequisite for a just and lasting peace
9 minutes

To have successful negotiations all historical layers of the war in Ukraine need to be addressed. I would like to discuss them first. After all, without an understanding of the root causes and context of this war it will be difficult to find a way out. Secondly, I would like to share briefly the reasons why a ceasefire and negotiations become an urgent matter. Finally I will discuss what I consider important principles for negotiations.

The narrative as predominantly presented in the mainstream media gives the impression that the war in Ukraine began with the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022. In that narrative, the focus is on the military approach. As many weapons and military support as possible not only to defend Ukraine but with the ultimate goal of completely capturing the territory conquered by Russia. In Zelenesky's words last autumn, 'We will definitely liberate the whole of Ukraine, the Crimea included'. According to that narrative, this is the condition to have peace again. That’s of course too simple.

The war started with a uprising in the Donbass in 2014 by nationalists of the Russian minority undoubtedly encouraged by Moscou and triggered after President Yanukovych was ousted from power. During his term, a language law was also passed, which recognises Russian as an official language in certain regions.

Increasingly, Ukraine evolved into the playground of imperial competition. Kiev was forced to choose between an association agreement with the EU and a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Its industrialised east was more likely to benefit from good trade relations with the countries of the former Soviet Union to the east. For the more European and globally oriented agricultural West, an association agreement was more attractive. The choice of a customs union led to popular protest and the fall of Yanukovych. The new transitional government opted for a nationalist path, to the displeasure of many from the Russian minority in the east. The parliament voted to repeal the language law with the rights of the Russian language, which actually happened in 2019.

This turned into a war between Russian nationalists from the Donbass supported by the Kremlin and the Kiev government – that started an “Anti-Terrorist Operation” – pushed by Ukrainian nationalists causing the dead of 14,000 people between 2014 and the end of 2021 and displaced hundreds of thousands.

At the time Ukraine was a politically, culturally and economically divided country. Yanukovych owed his 2010 election victory mainly to votes in the east of the country. Russia became more and more involved and finally intervened with a so called ‘special military operation’.

Undeniably, the Russia intervention is an irresponsible violation of international law and the sovereignty of a country. Therefore it must be condemned. Putin also made things worse. Politically, the Russian invasion contributed to the rebirth of NATO, the strengthening of the US strategic position in Europe and legitimised the arming and militarisation of Europe to almost unprecedented levels.

The problem with the narrow mainstream views of the war is that they cling to the idea that this war can be won. However, it is likely to evolve into a protracted stalemate as has been discussed recently in detail by RAND corporation, a thinktank close to Pentagon. That is the horror scenario of WWI: an endless war with dozens of deaths every day.

Another major problem is that mainstream narratives not only ignore the root causes of the war but also Western responsibility. They stress that the war was not provoked. In reality NATO does bear great responsibility for the deterioration of relations with Russia. If NATO's problematic policies are not included in future peace initiatives, there will be no lasting peace.

The origins of the geopolitical battle between the United States (with NATO) and Russia date back to right after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union. The post-Cold War geopolitical objective of the United States - as formulated in the Wolfowitz Doctrine (February 1992) - was to remain the leading global power and preventing the rise of rival powers. In the case of Russia: refusing to take Russia's security interests into account when president Clinton planned the first NATO expansion. The US continued its efforts, after which NATO moved closer to Russia in several stages of expansion. At the same time, NATO turned into an organization acting outside the territory with military interventions in Bosnia and Serbia. Russia protested but was greatly weakened under Yeltsin.

When Putin came to power, he first sought to establish good relations. With his war in Chechnya, he saw himself as an ally of the US and NATO, which were also waging their 'war on terror' in Afghanistan. But the US sticked to its superpower policy. Washington cancelled the ABM Treaty in 2002. Two years later, the US waged a war of aggression against Iraq, with which Moscow had political and military relations. In 2007, it was working on a NATO missile shield in Romania and Poland. Relations between the US and Russia deteriorated further after the Bush administration wanted to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Georgia at the NATO summit in Bucharest, against the wishes of France and Germany. NATO membership would mean, among other things, that Russia would have to give up its military presence (on the basis of an agreement with Ukraine) in the strategically important Crimea and would have to share a long border with a military rival. Within Moscow's broad political spectrum, such an expansion into former Soviet territory was an absolute red line. The political world in Europe was well aware that this would damage relations with Russia, but they left it to Washington. The US government was well aware as well about the dangerous consequences of NATO's expansion into Ukraine. In a confidential memo (leaked via wikileaks) dated 1 February 2008, the then US ambassador in Moscou William Burns wrote: “Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war.  In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.”

Nevertheless. At Washington's instigation, the relationship between NATO and Ukraine was developed. In 1997, the Ukraine-NATO Commission was created. In 2008 Ukraine was promised future NATO-membership. In 2009, Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic military integration began with an 'annual national programme', joint manoeuvres took place and armament intensified, especially after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Washington very deliberately pursued a confrontational policy.  European allies accepted that relations with their large European neighbour were deteriorating, which helped pushing the Kremlin towards a more nationalistic and militaristic path. NATO's very first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, explained NATO's purpose in the early 1950s: "to keep the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in". It is no different today. NATO must serve American interests in Europe. The US has been pursuing a policy of countering Russian gas supplies to Europe for some time, as it has a growing gas export capacity itself. Through economic warfare with sanctions and counter-sanctions, Washington has managed to increase gas supplies to Europe. In any case, the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline – even though responsibilities are disputed – will serve the future gas interests of the United States.

As we have seen last autumn with the missile strike in Poland, this is a war with great potential for dangerous escalation. The policy of the US and some NATO countries is to weaken Russia by providing weapons and intelligence. But this military strategy prolongs the war and increases the human and material suffering. Every day that the war continues, young men die on the front lines, civilians suffer violence and destruction. This war must end because the killing and destruction must stop. The war is also taking its toll outside Ukraine. Economic warfare and war profiteering by multinational energy and food companies is eroding purchasing power and is a disaster for the global south, where hunger and poverty are killing tens of thousands.

President Putin is often compared to Hitler, with the related argument that it was a military defeat that ended his tyranny. There is at least one important difference. Hitler did not have nuclear weapons. If Russia is backed into a corner and the Kremlin is offered no political way out, what guarantee do we have that nuclear weapons will not be used? Above all, military humiliation could lead to the destabilisation of the Russian federation and the nuclear arsenal falling into the wrong hands.

The military-industrial complex is a driving force behind international tensions, using war to advance the militarisation and armament of Europe. Tens of billions of euros are being lost on public services, social policy, health care, education and climate action necessary for human security.

An end of the war into a just and lasting peace must take into account the following principles:

  1. The root causes of the war that broke out as a nationalist war in 2014, must be addressed. The question is: is it still possible to return to the Minsk agreements and the idea of some kind of autonomy of the Donbass region?
  2. Russia must respect Ukraine's sovereignty. Ukraine should not join any military alliance. Membership of military alliances should not be considered as a sovereign right when it affects security interests of other countries. In return Ukraine’s neutral status should have international guarantees.
  3. An end to measures that fuel or escalate the war (like certain arms deliveries, sanctions, unilateral annexations,…)
  4. Respect for human rights, minority rights and justice for the victims
  5. A new European security architecture that respects mutual security concerns
  6. Demilitarisation and denuclearisation of  Europe. Dissolved or suspended treaties and agreements should as soon as possible be reactivated (CFE, ABM, INF, Open skies, New START), new disarmament agreements will be needed (on nuclear sharing, an European Nuclear Free Zone as far as the Urals,…)
  7. Investment in human security and a commitment to address planetary life threatening problems as climate change and environmental destruction, poverty, nuclear arms,… as a priority for human kind. Parties need to accept that war is an obstacle for addressing these problems, while they are urgent.
  8. Finally. China's 12-point peace plan may be vague and not condemn Russian aggression, but since it is based on principles of international law (sovereignty, territorial integrity,…), urges a cease fire, opposes nuclear threats, among others, it can serve as a framework for a more elaborate negotiation agenda. In any case. Western attacks on the Chinese plan are an expression of a new cold war mentality and not productive.

The text is an expanded version of a webinar organised by Massachusetts Peace Action and the Campaign for Peace and Disarmament & Common Security.

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