Make Peace, Not War, in Ukraine 

31 Mar

[Prefatory Note: this post is a modified version of an opinion piece published in CounterPunch on March 30, 2022.]

Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine on February 24 flagrantly violating the most fundamental norm of international law—the prohibition of recourse to international force encroaching upon the territory of a sovereign state except in exercising the right of self-defense against a prior armed attack. Yes, there were a series of irresponsible provocations by NATO that aroused understandable security concerns in Moscow, including the relentless expansion of the Cold War NATO alliance after the Cold War was over, the threat from the Soviet Union had disappeared, and promises were made by Western leaders to Gorbachev of no further NATO expansion. Such geopolitical behavior amounted to imprudent statecraft by the West, especially given Russian historical anxieties about being surrounded and attacked by hostile forces. Such eminent public figures as George Kennan, Jack Matlock (respected former U.S. ambassador to Russia), and even Henry Kissinger issued warnings to this effect, but they went unheeded in Washington.

The Ukraine War is best understood and interpreted as a two-level war. In the active combat zones of Ukraine, it is a devastating traditional war between Russia and Ukraine producing an increasingly severe humanitarian crisis that includes massive civilian displacement taking the dual form of refugee flows over Ukraine’s borders and internal movements away from embattled cities and throughout the country.

This primary war phenomenon interacts with, and in some respects contradicts, an ongoing secondary proxy war pitting Russia against the United States, with Russia trying to impose its will on Ukraine and the U.S. pursuing several geopolitical objectives additional to the support of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. These include revitalizing and strengthening NATO and mobilizing unity in Europe by inflaming anti-Russian sentiments, which as during the Cold War rested on fear and loathing of Russia, then the Soviet Union. There is no military engagement at this point in the proxy war, although its ideological confrontations, while avoiding direct violence at present, run the risk of escalating dangerously in various directions, including putting inhibitions on nuclear threats and risks to their greatest test since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It should be appreciated that the fog of war is denser in the secret sessions of proxy war advisors and leaders than even what is hovering over the Ukrainian battlefields. Strategic objectives in this two-level war are confusing, being neither coherent nor consistent, and because there are no current images of death and destruction, the very real negative effects of the proxy war tend to be ignored, such as prolonging the killing, delaying a ceasefire.

In this proxy war, Russia is seeking to reestablish its traditional sphere of influence over the Russian ‘near abroad’ in Ukraine and the U.S. is determined to frustrate this Russian mission, although at a high cost to Ukrainians. The U.S., along with other NATO members, is doing this by sending weapons and other forms of assistance to help the Ukrainians resist more effectively. In addition, strong sanctions are being imposed on Russia with the announced intention of exerting enough economic and political pain on Moscow and Putin to make Russia reverse course. To augment coercive policies Biden, in particular has used language of incitement to attack Putin, climaxing with this outburst a few days ago while in Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power.” Previously, he had called Putin a war criminal, supportive of indictment of the Russian leader by the International Criminal Court, surely viewed by most of the world as hypocritical given the denunciation of the ICC for daring to investigate charges of war crimes against the U.S. in Afghanistan, reinforced by retaliatory personal sanctions imposed on the Prosecutor in the Hague and other officials of the Tribunal. 

I find both of these war strategies dysfunctional and dangerous. For Russia to impose its will on Ukraine by military force is both unlawful, and unlikely to succeed, while inflicting great harm on Ukraine and Ukrainians, as well as on itself as a result of the sanctions and diplomatic pushback. One symbolic result has been the activation of the International Criminal Court in pursuit of an indictment of Putin. Some critics are urging. the UN to establish the type of tribunal used to prosecute surviving Nazi leaders at Nuremberg after World War II. Although these gestures towards accountability for international crimes are plausibly associated with the Russian leader’s behavior, their wider credibility is gravely compromised as mentioned above by moral, legal, and political hypocrisy given past U.S. comparable behavior that was carefully spared similar scrutiny.

Looked at differently, for the U.S. to pursue a militarist strategy toward Russia in this manner is to choose a path leading toward frustration and danger, drawn out humanitarian suffering in Ukraine, disastrous economic spillover effects already leading to food insecurity throughout the Middle East and North Africa by way of spikes in  prices and shortages, renewed pressures to turn to nuclear power and fossil fuels in the vain search for energy independence, and the likelihood of inducing a severe global recession coupled with an escalation of geopolitical tensions of the West with Russia and possibly China. In other words, these antagonists on the geopolitical level of conflict are on a treacherous collision course, with only China so far acting prudently throughout the crisis, remaining on the sidelines, unwilling to give either Russia assistance or to endorse its flagrant violations of Ukrainian sovereignty while opposing sanctions and punitive action directed at Russia.

There is another, better way to proceed to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Russia should have learned from its earlier Afghanistan invasion that military superiority cannot overcome determined national resistance, particularly if externally supported. This is the unlearned lesson for the U.S. of the Vietnam War and all subsequent regime-changing wars of the Ukraine variant. The political outcomes of the Iraq War of 2003 and the costly failure of the prolonged effort to keep the Taliban from power in Afghanistan were reminders that military superiority had lost its historical agency in the post-colonial world. Such a recognition by Washington while long overdue, yet not forthcoming, which means the likelihood of future failures of a similar kind.

At the same time, the U.S. has been losing out globally, overplaying its geopolitical hand ever since the end of the Cold War. Instead of dissolving NATO when Moscow ended the Warsaw Pact, it sponsored anti-Russian political forces all along the Russian border as well as taking the lead in converting NATO into an expanding offensive alliance to be used anywhere in the world, defying its European founding mission as specified in the underlying treaty arrangement. Since the Soviet collapse the alliance was being illegitimately used by Washington as a global policy tool to provide a collective cover somewhat obscuring the unilateral lawlessness of controversial U.S. foreign policy undertakings that involve uses of military force. 

The U.S. would have much to gain by shifting the emphasis from a pro-active level 2 strategy to a level 1 diplomatic approach. By this is meant that instead of inflicting pain on Russia and demonizing Putin and Russia, the U.S. should be seeking to solve the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine by opting for diplomacy and political compromise, stopping the killing as the highest policy priority, and also moving to ease the nuclear dangers associated with escalation and prolonging the Ukrainian ordeal of this Level1 war. Such a behavioral abandonment by the U.S. of its Level 2 irresponsible geopolitical tactics of confrontation and incitement would also have the great national advantage of minimizing the adverse spillover effects outside of Ukraine on food, energy, trade, and political stability.

This seems an opportune moment to renounce the triumphalist unipolar pretensions that took over in Washington at the end of the Cold War. It is time to take account of the self-inflicted wounds of a disastrous record of U.S. over-investment in the military (currently more than the combined expenditures of the next eleven countries) and under-investment in humane state-building at home. Those who seek peace, justice, and economic stability in the political sphere should explore further the restorative potentialities of a UN/international law centered geopolitics of multipolarity.

At present, neither side seems ready to move in such constructive directions. Biden articulates the Level 2 strategy of the U.S. as based on bolstering Ukraine’s military capabilities to carry on a successful war of resistance, while seeking to pressure Russia to the point of acknowledging that their leader should be replaced and Moscow renounce all security claims justifying action beyond its borders. Backing Putin into such a corner is a recipe for geopolitical retaliation, likely giving rise to an escalation spiral that comes ever closer to the nuclear threshold, which as it unfolds would lead to a Western response that was more prone to engage in the active defense of the Ukraine. Escalation along these lines would heighten the nuclear danger, amounts to starting a menacing second cold war, and seems oblivious to the risks of World War III. In the interim, climate change challenges, despite their urgency are placed once more on the back burner of international attention where they were temporarily relocated during the COVID pandemic since 2020. Put simply the opposed geopolitical postures draw on competing visions of world order: the U.S. seeks to police a unipolar world without opposition, while Russia and China in different ways are insisting on establishing geopolitical norms of multipolarity, which include the restoration of geographically proximate spheres of influence for geopolitical actors.

I find it extremely disturbing that the venerable Economist articulates support for Biden’s geopolitical approach, framed as Western support for a Ukrainian victory in a form that inflicts a humiliating defeat upon Russia: “Unfortunately, Ukraine’s Western backers are dragging their feet–reluctant, it seems, to provoke Russia or bear the cost of sanctions. That is reprehensibly short-sighted. A decisive Ukrainian victory is more likely to lead to a stable peace. And by dealing what may be a terminal blow to three centuries of Russian imperialism, it could also transform the security of Europe.” [March 31, 2022] Such a logic is oblivious to Ukrainian suffering arising from a prolonged war, the severity of severe spillover costs to Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the world economy, as well as dangerously stressing geopolitics with high probabilities of escalation in the short-run including heightened risks of breaching nuclear red lines and in the longer run of stimulating a resurgent militarism experienced as a new cold war that diverts the world from climate change and other global challenges. Never has it seemed more beneficial ‘to give peace a chance’ not by such militarist thinking, but by a turn to imaginatively flexible diplomacy. If the The Economist editorial is a reflection of a consensus prevailing in Western political elite circles, we are all in for a dismal future.  


These concerns are aggravated by other factors in the broader international context. The UN has been sidelined, international law is flouted, and the killing goes on. Only transnational civil society in the form of public pressure from within the main geopolitical antagonists can bring these two governments to their senses and end this terrible two-level struggle. A few countries, among them Turkey, could offer to mediate peace negotiations to end the Level 1 Ukrainian War but the Level 2 antagonists seem stubbornly entrapped in their lose/lose war paradigm. As long as this is so, Ukrainians will continue to die and the peoples of the world suffer from the immediate and more deferred consequence of dysfunctional geopolitics.


18 Responses to “Make Peace, Not War, in Ukraine ”

  1. paulm100m March 31, 2022 at 6:40 pm #

    Granted that any invasion of another country is illegal under international law and should be condemned, you seem to ignore the well documented killing and widespread humanitarian abuses ( including torture) of over 14,000 Russian speaking people in the Donbass over the past 8 years – largely by Kiew military troops and neonazi military groups embedded in the Ukrainian military.

    On Fri, 1 Apr 2022 at 14:02, Global Justice in the 21st Century wrote:

    > Richard Falk posted: ” [Prefatory Note: this post is a modified version of > an opinion piece published in CounterPunch on March 30, 2022.] Russia > launched its massive invasion of Ukraine on February 24 flagrantly > violating the most fundamental norm of international law—the ” >

  2. SuzanneTaylor March 31, 2022 at 7:19 pm #

    Richard, you and I were in touch years ago. We’re both still at it, trying to turn the world around. Ain’t this a pickle, that tastes bad no matter what? It is beyond sickening to be observers where we watch the war like we watch entertainment.

    It’s not okay with me to pussyfoot so as not to supply any provocation to Putin to use his nukes when we should notice that Putin doesn’t need any provocation. He’s not playing by any rules of war. What would we do that would send him over the edge I don’t think is the right question. And what I would say that’s essential to bear in mind is to look to where he knows he has lost and the world be damned he blows it up.

    If I ran the world, for the survival of humanity, I’d look to take him out. Of course, that wouldn’t be what we would discuss, but seeing as Putin doesn’t represent the will of Russia I wonder if such an action, to remove the threat to the survival of humanity, is the best one we could undertake. What would you do?

    • Richard Falk April 1, 2022 at 10:14 am #

      Suzanne: glad to hear from you, and hope you are doing well. Having said that, I am glad you are not making
      national policy at this point. Horrible as Russia’s actions have been, they are not so different from what the U.S, has done in several countries, and to ignore the nuclear dangers embedded in the current crisis is to invite catastrophe.

      • SuzanneTaylor April 1, 2022 at 12:43 pm #

        Richard, my point is that nuclear danger exists whether we “provoke” it or not, where Putin’s defeat could be the provocation for him to blow up the world. The only “safe” thing would be for Ukraine to surrender — and I’ve even wondered if that would have been better than Ukraine being destroyed, where Russia never would have been able to rule them and they would have kept up guerilla tactics to hurt Russia but not at the expense of hurting themselves. If you ruled the world, what would you do?

  3. roberthstiver April 1, 2022 at 2:30 am #

    As I recall, FM Lavrov — IMO, the most distinguished statesman-diplomat on the planet — stated something like “The pot finally boiled over on our attempts at conciliation and compromise…” I agree with him. The US is (with most of “the rest of the West”) adept at causing the pot to boil over…in its flailing/faiing lust for “full-spectrum global domination.”

    Be wary: I continue to believe that CHINA — in US Zio/neocons’ minds (sic) — is the ultimately intended victim of all this belligerence, bluster, insult, military/non-diplomatic maneuvering and mega-profit-for-warmongers’ schemes. USA/EU/”West”, NATO/Russia/Ukraine is — a bad and sad one, to be sure — but a sideshow, a distraction, a diversion, a manipulation of minds. Job Number One: Gain control over the MIC–here, there, everywhere!–Wage PEACE, not WAR!

    Be very, very wary: Imagine a three-nuclear-power conflagration ending life for all on Mother Earth. I suppose the lowly (sic) cockroach might survive and thrive….

    (Please: the word “flaunted” should be “flouted” in the above “The UN has been sidelined, international law is flaunted, and the killing goes on.”)

    • Richard Falk April 1, 2022 at 10:03 am #

      Robert: As always thanks for your comments, which always congenial even as they depict apocalyptic scenarios,
      and thanks for catching my language mistake, now corrected. Warm greetings, Richard

  4. Sean Breathnach April 1, 2022 at 8:16 am #

    Thanks for this analysis Professor.
    In the piece, the last paragraph is repeated.

  5. shamas April 4, 2022 at 11:39 pm #

    He played a key role in creating #ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham & other Salafi/Wahhabi terrorist groups in order to massacre Syrians & destroy #Syria.

    Now #Erdoğan shamelessly condemns legitimate #Palestinian resistance to settler colonialism & #Apartheid. Sick.

  6. Ray Joseph Cormier April 8, 2022 at 8:03 am #

    Richard, somehow I missed this excellent writing on receiving the email notice, but I just read it re-posted in CounterPunch and shared it with another Blog I follow with this intro,
    I was unaware of Professor Richard Falk, International Law Scholar, and former UN Special Rapporteur for Palestinian Rights under the Israeli Occupation. In that position, he was the Jew the Israelis loved to hate.

    My interest in him was peaked when I read the UN Secretary-General, the US & Israel were calling for his dismissal from that UN Position.
    My 1st thought was ‘he must be doing something right’ and doing research on him, I became a regular on his Blog.

    I admire his abilities and complete control of his Intellectual faculties at 91, still lecturing, writing and being sought out for interviews. This is his latest writing in CounterPunch,

    Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov claims Russia had the legal right for the Ukraine incursion under Article 51 on the UN Charter.
    Not being the expert you are, I there may be some grounds for that claim.

    Before the War started, with all the Western Journalists knowing exactly what Putin was thinking and the US government warning of Russia False Flags, I started going to the OSCE daily reports of Truce Violations in the 8 year Civil War between the Ukraine government and the Russian speaking Ukrainians in the Donestk who refused to accept the result 2014 US Coup/regime change of the elected Russian friendly government they voted for.
    The OSCE reported a dramatic increase in explosions in the Ukrainian Civilian areas of the Donbas thereby provoking Russia to initiate the incursion. US/Ukraine War Propaganda does not report on that increased shelling of Civilians by the Ukraine government.

    The US regime change installed an anti-Russian government headed by the man US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said she wanted to head the changed government before it was even changed. The US had made regime change of governments it can’t control as American as Apple Pie.

    Since the War started, I commented regularly in The Washing Post and they deleted many of my comments that did not violate any of their discussion rules, but as Propagandists for the US government sanctioned War narrative, didn’t like me pointing out US SINS as they cast stones at Russia.

    They deleted this comment among many others as metaphorically, I was in Daniel’s Lion’s Den, going against the 99% indoctrinated majority anti-Russia/Putin comments the other Day.

    Truth is the 1st casualty of War, especially in this one.

    After introducing Nukes into the World, the US was the only Nation to use them, needing only 2 to kill over 200,000 innocent civilians, and since WWII, the US, with the most expensive Military Force in the History of Nations, invaded and bombed only poor, 3rd World Nations resulting in the Death of MILLIONS, and couldn’t get a win in any of them, the hurried, frantic evacuation of Kabul being only the latest example.
    On the way out, the latest violent War Crime we know about is the slaughter of an innocent civilian Family of 10 including 7 children by a remote controlled drone. No American is held accountable.

    The American Oligarchs must be rubbing their hands in glee with the increased Weapons sales because of the US Tug of War with Russia over Ukraine, President Biden says is the cause of US inflation.

    The US is the biggest ARMS MERCHANT in the History of Nations, and the American People mirror that love of Weapons having more of them in private hands than any other Society on Earth.

    Americans can expect a long hot murderous Summer of American Carnage on the streets, when the Economic straitjacket tightens here, as the US/NATO wages Economic War to tighten the Economic straitjacket on the People of Russia to provoke regime change.

    • Richard Falk April 9, 2022 at 2:00 pm #

      Thanks for this, Ray. I think my later article on Ukraine makes the argument more persuasively. Greetings.

    • roberthstiver April 9, 2022 at 3:39 pm #

      Mr. Cormier, I’ve just re-visited this site for some peripheral reason; I’ve read your “take” (hurriedly; my energy and patience levels are dwindling rapidly even as my age and physical condition accerate in decline), and I agree with you very much–resonance-plus!
      One item I don’t think I’ve found in this post and, to sufficient depth elsewhere: what about the Minsk Accord [2015?]…wasn’t it to allow Ukrainian overall sovereignty of its territory, but, in recognition of realities on the ground, offer (large parts of?) the Donbass to acquire aspects of autonomy that would, inter alia, demonstrate its affinity for Russia?
      Russia, I very much believe, accepted that concept…the US, however, ever the double dealer, schemer and belligerent non-diplomat, made sure it did not work. Is this not at least conceptually, broadly, correct?

      • Ray Joseph Cormier April 10, 2022 at 10:37 am #

        Absolutely Robert. Ukraine signed the Minsk Accord in 2015, the year after the 2014 US Coup/regime change requiring the Ukraine government to negotiate some form of Autonomy within a Federal Ukrainian government but that government REFUSED to enter any negotiations whatsoever. That’s why after 8 years, President Putin said Minsk was Dead and recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk as Independent States while not annexing them into Russia.

    • Ray Joseph Cormier April 9, 2022 at 4:56 pm #

      I just now came across this article confirming what I reported in my comment about the increased Ukrainian shelling of Civilians in the Donbass that provoked Russia to invade Ukraine.

      • roberthstiver April 10, 2022 at 9:03 am #

        Sir, this tour de force by Jacques Baud is beyond superlative! Thank you for pointing us to it. (I read it with rapt, fascinated attention at one sitting; wanted to jot down some “takeaways,” but there are altogether too many.)

    • SuzanneTaylor April 9, 2022 at 7:23 pm #

      Ray, with how steeped you are in the situation, I’d like to know what you would do if you ruled the world.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier April 10, 2022 at 10:30 am #

        Suzanne, the job of Saviour of the World is already, taken so I’m content believing this in this Time of the Revelation, And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.
        I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

        For some additional insight, go here to read of the dream I had while as a Canadian, I was living in Venice Beach, California washing dishes for $1/hour. in the larger real world, the Pope actually did come down from the Throne 2 years later, but not to me personally and I’m content with seeing that.

      • SuzanneTaylor April 10, 2022 at 12:39 pm #

        Change that to if you ran the world — not autocratic but the world we are in. There’s no end to describing the situation we are in, but a shortage of ideas for what to do about it.

  7. SuzanneTaylor April 10, 2022 at 12:45 pm #

    To make peace, not war, what I’d do if I ran the world would be to feed Russian soldiers. Get World Central Kitchen to set up buffets that are safe zones on the edge of every town they come to. Do that along with leafletting to say that if they surrender they will be treated like family, which they are!

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