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Ukraine: War, Statecraft, and Geopolitical Conflict —the nuclear danger

14 Sep

[Prefatory NoteThe following interview was previously published in September by the online Global Governance Forum. My responses to the questions posed by Aslı Bâli have been somewhat updated to take account of intervening developments. Aslı was my last PhD student at Princeton, has emerged as a star of the UCLA School of Law in recent years, and just now has joined the faculty of Yale Law School. Although her brilliance as a Princeton student both stimulated and challenged me, it as a cherished friend that Aslı has most impacted my life.]

Ukraine: War, Statecraft, and Geopolitical Conflict — a focus on the return of the nuclear question

Introduction: The risk of nuclear escalation in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a subject of considerable debate in the United States among scholars, policy analysts and media commentators. These debates reveal a broad spectrum of views from those who dismiss Russian references to nuclear capabilities as mere saber rattling to those who worry that if Russian President Vladimir Putin finds his back to the wall in Ukraine, he may resort to tactical nuclear strikes. Whatever the assessment of the risks in Ukraine, it is clear that questions of nuclear deterrence are back on the table after nearly a generation in which most American analysts viewed non-proliferation as the sole U.S. foreign policy objective regarding nuclear arsenals. 

For those who have continued to press concerns about nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War, the return of the nuclear question may raise awareness among new audiences about the existential threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. Richard Falk has for decades been an outspoken authority calling for denuclearization. In this interview, Aslı Bâli invites Richard to reflect on whether the Ukraine conflict risks becoming a military confrontation that tips the world into further nuclear escalation or whether there remains an opportunity to move the world away from the nuclear precipice.

Richard Falk is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus at Princeton University and Chair of Global Law at Queen Mary University London, Faculty of Law. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books, and editor or co-editor of numerous others. A collection of his selected writings on nuclear disarmament was published in an edited volume from Cambridge University Press titled On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019). Aslı Bâli is Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law and Founding Faculty Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights. She interviewed Falk in May 2022.

Aslı Bâli: To begin our conversation, it would be useful to provide some context as to why nuclear disarmament was largely sidelined as an urgent international question in the post-Cold War period. How might we think about the last two decades in particular, during which the possibility of the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal was deemed so much more threatening than the existence of extensive nuclear arsenals in the hands of other states? 

Richard Falk: I think the last two decades since the Soviet collapse reflect a period in which the nuclear weapons states, particularly the US, have felt comfortable with the nuclear status quo. Their preference was to organize this arrangement—in which they maintain nuclear arsenals and other states forego that option—as a permanent regime anchored in the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) interpreted in such a way as to drop the disarmament requirements of that treaty. Article VI of the NPT contains the good faith nuclear disarmament obligation, which was supposedly the bargain offered to induce non-nuclear states to become parties to the treaty. The attempt by nuclear weapons states to drop this element from the treaty arrangement creates an interesting international law situation: There’s a breach of an essential provision of the NPT, yet this treaty regime is regarded by the US and NATO countries as a great achievement of international law in relation to nuclear threat reduction. The existential scope of the NPT is reduced to a hegemonic arrangement that imposes limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, while keeping the development and control of the weapons restricted to a small group of nuclear weapons states. This includes the discretion to develop and threaten their use, as well as determining how and whether they would be used, and to what extent, in crisis or combat situations. This is a regulatory framework that neither reflects the NPT as a negotiated text, nor is prudent and equitable, and it certainly violates the major premise of the rule of law—treating equals equally.

I participated in a Council on Foreign Relations webinar event a year or so ago about the future of national security, and one of the participants introduced the idea that Article VI of the NPT is best understood as ‘a useful fiction.’ That is, Article VI was included in the treaty as a way of satisfying non-nuclear countries that they were being offered an equitable bargaining framework by becoming parties to the NPT. Whereas in fact there was a tacit understanding from the beginning that disarmament, despite the treaty language of commitment, was not viewed by political elites of the nuclear weapons states as a realistic, or even a desirable goal, to be pursued by the nuclear weapons states, and most especially it was so viewed by the United States.

In considering the broader context that has, as you put it, sidelined the issues of nuclear disarmament, the other thing to be emphasized is that there had crept in a kind of complacency about this weaponry. There are thousands of nuclear weapons, preponderately in the US and Russia, and very little public understanding of existing constraints on their threat or use or under what circumstances these arsenals might be introduced into diplomacy or even combat situations. The U.S. in particular, and some other countries like Israel, have been developing combat roles for certain types nuclear weapons—styled as tactical nuclear arms or so-called “mini-nukes”—that strongly implied that such weapons might actually be introduced into local or regional conflicts. Given the array of bilateral conflicts that have the risk of nuclear escalation including in Ukraine, if confrontation escalates in relation to Taiwan, on the Korean peninsula, in India/Pakistan, perhaps if Israel’s security is under pressure in the Middle East. Despite these possibilities being widely feared, there has been so far no concerted or consistent international response exhibiting opposition or even anxiety. 

The risks of the overall situation are well-reflected for those who follow the nuclear issue by the fact that the Doomsday clock—maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and often relied upon as a reliable assessment of nuclear danger at a given time—has moved ever closer in this period to midnight. Prior to the Ukraine crisis I think it was already only one hundred seconds away from midnight. In the words of the editors, “the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.” The UN Secretary General has recently warned that the world is but ‘one miscalculation’ away from nuclear catastrophe.

There is another worrisome aspect of the manner in which the three NATO nuclear weapons states have assumed the authority to enforce the NPT regime as it applies to non-nuclear states. There is nothing about enforcement in the treaty, and Article X grants non-nuclear states a right of withdrawal if facing severe security threats. And yet the U.S. and Israel have made unlawful claims to use force if they believe Iran intends or achieves a nuclear weapons capability. This is hegemonic geopolitics, which not be confused with the implementation of international law.

The complacency toward this weaponry and the satisfaction with the NPT regime that has allowed powerful states to retain a hierarchical and hegemonic relationship to non-nuclear states are important dimensions of this doomsday risk. Thus, the situation prior to Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran require urgent action to avoid existential dangers, but global complacency and the diversionary priority given to containing proliferation threats posed by non-nuclear states rather than addressing the risks of existing arsenals has kept the nuclear agenda from any serious engagement with disarmament and war threats for many decades. This must stop or disaster is virtually assured.

Aslı Bâli: Your response raises one further question: why, in your view, have the non-nuclear states acquiesced in the violation of the core bargained-for agreement they had negotiated in the NPT?  

Richard Falk: I think the non-nuclear weapons states, too, have adapted to this complacent atmosphere when it comes to nuclear weapons, although this may be changing, and not primarily because of Ukraine. It may reflect a sense of a lack of leverage over global nuclear policy in a post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, there had been some willingness on the part of the Soviet Union and then China to engage in a disarmament process on negotiating arsenal reductions, and this seemed realistic to the rest of the world. But in the post-Cold War period, the U.S. shifted away from even the pretense of disarmament priorities and there has been an absence of powerful states pushing back against this trajectory. That said, I do think there is now emerging a critical outlook on the part of the Global South that may alter course back in manner more supportive of the views of disarmament advocates. This ‘new look’ of the Global South has been most clearly expressed in the negotiation and adoption a new treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), signed in 2017 and coming into force with over sixty ratifications in 2021. The treaty itself was originally supported by as many as 120 countries, though it has only garnered signatures from about two-thirds of that number and been ratified so far by half. 

Another indication of renewed Global South resistance to overlooking the nuclear weapons states disarmament obligations is evident in the twice delayed review conference called for by the NPT. Such a review conference is supposed to take place every five years and the pivotal Tenth Review Conference was scheduled for 2020. Originally postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was supposed to be rescheduled for 2021 and was postponed again to 2022 and finally took place in August 2022. But in addition to pandemic-related reasons, it is understood that the deferrals have been prompted by the concern among nuclear weapons states that there may encounter friction with the Global South over disarmament. Although the failure to produce a consensus outcome document was blamed on Russia, there were also present signs of resentment about the continuing refusal of the nuclear weapons states to implement their Article VI obligations.

In short, even prior to Ukraine and Taiwan there was reason to think that there is a new international mood at the intergovernmental level concerning the threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. I think the Ukraine and Taiwan encounters have now added momentum to this shift by a reawakening at the civil society level of palpable apprehensions over the threat or use of nuclear weapons, and in Ukraine the additional risk that nuclear power facilities will be accidentally, or even deliberately, attacked. I believe this is a time when I am hoping for a revival of pressure from below to put nuclear disarmament back on the global policy agenda, and this time with greatly increased participation of non-Western civil society and governments. 

Aslı Bâli: Some have characterized the Ukraine conflict as illustrating the degree to which global powers might stumble blindly into a nuclear confrontation. Is it your sense that there are opportunities to contain this risk today whether through intergovernmental diplomacy or global civil society mobilization?

Richard Falk: Well, I think at the civil society level there is a definite concern though it is not too well-focused at this point. There is sort of a free-floating anxiety about the possibility that nuclear weapons use might occur on the European continent and this may have a galvanizing effect that leads to forms of domestic pressure in some European states to take action to offset such a risk. I also think that some high officials in the Biden inner circle have changed their views of the Ukraine conflict as the potential nuclear dimensions of the conflict have come into clearer focus. At an earlier stage of the Ukraine war, it seemed as if the Biden administration didn’t consider very seriously the nuclear risk, though they were always present fortunately to some degree wider war dangers of escalation. This sensitivity was evident, for example, in Biden’s early resistance to calls, especially from Congress and right-wing think tanks, to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and in his original hesitancy to supply offensive weaponry to the Ukrainians. Similarly, the early posture of not interfering with Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky’s efforts at seeking some sort of negotiated compromise further confirmed that the Biden administration was wary of escalation, and willing to allow Ukraine to control its own future. But in a second phase of the conflict, when the Ukrainian resistance turned out to be more successful than anticipated, and strategic defeat or weakening of Russia seemed possible and strategically attractive, the Biden administration’s priorities visibly shifted and they manifestly treated the Ukraine war as an opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and at the same time, and perhaps of greater significance, to signal China that if they tried anything similar with Taiwan, they would face an even worse outcome. This latter point was provocatively underscored by Biden during his recent trip to Asia that featured a strong public statement committing the US to the defense of Taiwan, followed by an irresponsibly provocative visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi that violated the spirit of the One China Policy that represented the core of the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which has kept peace and stability for 50 years. 

With respect to the Ukraine conflict, I have drawn a distinction between two levels. First, there is the Russia-Ukraine confrontation over issues that pertain to their bilateral conflict. But secondly, there is the geopolitical level of interaction between the US and Russia, which entails a confrontation whose stakes exceed the question of Ukraine. Here, escalation was stimulated by what I view as the quite irresponsible rhetoric from the Biden administration that demonized Putin from the outset of the crisis in February 2022. To be sure, Putin is not an attractive political leader, but even during the Cold War American leaders sensibly refrained from demonizing Stalin or other Soviet leaders, and vice versa. Some public officials, congresspeople, did demonize Soviet officials and policies but leaders in the executive branch refrained from such behavior because it would create such an evident obstacle to keeping open necessary diplomatic channels between the US and the Soviets, and significantly the Soviets did the same even during such encroachments on sovereign rights as in the Vietnam War. 

Regrettably, in the second phase of the current conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. became a source of escalation. American influence was directed also at more or less discouraging President Zelensky from further seeking a negotiated ending of the war on the ground. Instead, the U.S. position seemed to harden around pursuit of strategic victory. This was made explicit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who commented on the opportunity to weaken Russia after a visit to Ukraine in which they pledged increased economic and military support. I think that now we have passed a third phase of the Ukraine conflict where there was some recognition in Washington and elsewhere that the Biden administration went too far in an escalatory direction from the perspective of prudence and with regard to the spillover harm from prolonged warfare. Now in a fourth phase where once more a Ukrainian victory together with a Russian/Putin defeat has changed Washington tactics once more, with such favorable results seemingly within reach at what are viewed as acceptable costs. The tragic result, already partly consummated, will be a prolonged war in Ukraine, with terrible adverse consequences for the world economy  and the wellbeing of poorer people in a series of countries in the Global South. It will hardest those countries most dependent on affordable access to food and energy, and this includes European countries. It is not only the continuation of Ukraine warfare and China tensions, but the unintended consequences of anti-Russian sanctions that will result in harmful impacts in many parts of the planet. 

Aslı Bâli: Given your analysis of the U.S. role in escalating the conflict in Ukraine, what in your view is the current risk of either nuclear confrontation or further erosions of the possibility of promoting U.S.-Russian arms control and nuclear disarmament?

Richard Falk: The discouraging thing about the third phase is that the Biden administration still hasn’t clearly opened wide the door to a diplomatic resolution or emphasized the importance of a cease fire that might stop the immediate killing and enable de-escalation, and now in the midst of the fourth stage it seems too late. What this suggests is that there will be either of two bad scenarios unfolding as the Ukraine Crisis continues: the first is that the risk and costs of a long war in Ukraine results in the U.S. further escalating in order to try to bring the war to a faster conclusion by making Moscow give in, or withdraw, or do something that allows Ukraine and the U.S. to claim victory. That approach really would put maximum pressure on Putin who, in turn, might determine that facing such a serious existential danger to Russian security justifies a robust response that includes the threat and possibly even the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a way, and maybe the only way, to avoid impression of strategic defeat to be the beginning of the end of his leadership. 

The second scenario is that the U.S. might be prepared to live with a prolonged war and hope that it at some point Moscow will tire of the experience, the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan and that the US did in Vietnam. But recent experience suggests just how destructive this course would be for Ukraine and the world. It took the U.S. twenty years to extricate itself from Afghanistan, leaving that country as receptive to the Taliban as was twenty years earlier before driven from power, millions permanently displaced and millions more wandering the world as refugees, while those who stay home face famine and extreme gender discrimination, and untold hundreds of thousands of Afghanis have been maimed or worse. Equally depressing, as others have pointed out, the likely outcome from the Ukrainian point of view will not change very much because of what happens on the bloody battlefields, whether the war is ended next week or ten years from now except that a longer war will result in more casualties, greater devastation, and enduring embitterment.

Aslı Bâli: Could you say more about what you would expect at the end of the Ukraine conflict whether it happens through early negotiations or at the end of a protracted war?

Richard Falk: Well, I expect that the most likely scenario for an end to the conflict will entail some concessions by Ukraine in relation to the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, together with a pledge of neutrality for the country as a whole, and non-membership in NATO. In exchange for such concessions, Russia would likely be expected to pledge in turn that it would heretofore respect the sovereign rights and political independence of the Ukraine. In all likelihood the question of Crimea will not be addressed in the course of ending the current conflict. The contours of such a negotiated end to the conflict had already emerged in talks between the Russian and Ukrainian sides in March of 2022 and there is little reason to think these parameters will change substantially, although if the Ukrainian battlefield successes in the fourth phase hold up, it may alter a future peace process. Yet the probability still remains that such a compromised political outcome could have been achieved earlier, certainly in the first phase of the conflict if not prior to the Russian attack, before early Ukrainian victories led to the second, and then, a fourth geopolitical phase of escalation. It has become clearer as the conflict has persisted that the U.S. is prepared to go to extreme lengths, if necessary to retain its post-Cold War status as sole manager of a unipolar configuration of power in the world.

Asli Bali: Given this assessment, what opportunities, if any, do you see for reviving calls for nuclear disarmament in response to the nuclear risks made evident by the Ukraine conflict?

Richard Falk: Of course, there is a very dark form of opportunity that might emerge if there is indeed a nuclear confrontation and the use of tactical or other nuclear weapons. Such a development would undoubtedly generate a widespread call for disarmament—one hopes that doesn’t occur, of course. Beyond this apocalyptic scenario, it is a little unpredictable whether there will emerge a recognition that the pursuit of permanent stability via the non-proliferation approach should be superseded by a new effort at nuclear disarmament. I think it would be very globally popular to explore that possibility, and I would imagine the Chinese at least would be quite open to that. 

In the background of such speculation is the question of whether the US is prepared to live in a multipolar world. Certainly, the post-Cold War period afforded the U.S. the opportunity to nurture illusions that the collapse of the Soviet Union might usher in a durable era in which it was the only global geopolitical actor. In a sense this is what Secretary Blinken presumably meant when he says in speeches that the idea of spheres of influence should have been discarded after World War II.[1] The thought is that after WWII, or at the very least following the Cold War, the U.S. prefers to preside over a system in which its own influence is confined by no sphere and extends in a truly global fashion. Of course, had the US adopted this posture in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as Secretary Blinken suggests, it would have amounted to a declaration of a third world war. This is because ruling out spheres of influence would have mean blocking Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, whether in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Moreover, what Blinken is suggesting today is not a world without spheres of influence but rather an adaptation of a Monroe Doctrine for the world in which the US regards the global order as its singular sphere of influence. And, of course, the Monroe Doctrine in its narrower hemispheric form is also alive and well as the US continues to assert its prerogative to dictate policies and interfere with internal politics in countries throughout Latin America from Cuba to Venezuela to Nicaragua and beyond. We can hardly imagine the bellicosity of the U.S. response if Russia had dared meddle in Mexico for a decade in the manner that Washington did in Ukraine.


Against this backdrop, it is worth noting that the ongoing US effort at global supremacy does put it at a massive asymmetric advantage over all other actors in exerting influence without geographic bounds. With some 800 foreign bases—and a context in which 97% of all foreign bases globally are American—and troops stationed in every continent the US has spread its influence globally, on land, in the air, on the sea, and is investing heavily to be sure it will control space. Meanwhile, of course, alongside this enormous investment in militarism is profound disinvestment in the infrastructure and social services needed to sustain its own population domestically. In short, the US effort to prevent a multipolar order from challenging its own claim to global supremacy is coming at an enormous cost at home and is currently faltering abroad. The risk is that this strategy is increasingly tied to an investment in ensuring strategic weakness for the Russians in Ukraine, which, in turn, raises temptations to engage in nuclear brinksmanship.

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Aslı Bâli: There is something distressing about the way in which the Ukraine conflict has reset the domestic debate, which at the end of the Trump years and in the 2020 presidential election had begun to converge around the idea of restraining American militarism and ending endless wars. Today, bipartisan consensus around an enhanced defense budget and massive military aid to Ukraine may be eclipsing those earlier commitments. Do you consider the Ukraine conflict as providing a new lease on life for the project of American primacy?

Richard Falk: I’m afraid that might be right. Biden was so committed to unifying the country as part of his presidential campaign—the image of projecting himself as someone who is able to “cross the aisle” and generate bipartisan consensus, profoundly believing that a unified America remains a country capable of doing unlimited good at home and internationally. In fact, however, this unity project failed miserably with the Republican side converging around Trump’s constituencies. The Ukraine war has somewhat reshuffled the deck and Biden seems keen to embrace this opportunity to forge bipartisan consensus around war, but with a belated recognition that currently seeking unity at home is not only a lost cause but exhibits his lost sense of the realities of the country. His popularity level remains surprisingly low, but the surge of Cold War bipartisanship in relation to appropriating billions of dollars for Ukraine is undeniable. From a global perspective, however, this great show of empathy for Ukrainian suffering and civilian damage and refugees, and so on, sets a stark contrast to the ways in which the US and the West responded to other humanitarian crises. Thus one price of this partial unity at home may be an increasingly divided world in which US standing declines further. The specific comparisons between the Western response to Ukraine and their indifference and callous disregard for the plight of Palestinians, the consequences of the Iraq War, and the displacement generated by the Syrian conflict is difficult to explain without taking into account an element of racism. This reality has hardly escaped the attention of governments and communities in the Global South.

Aslı Bâli: Returning to the nuclear question, you have suggested that the Ukraine war has awakened a new generation to the real risks of the nuclear arsenals retained by global powers. Do you believe that this awareness alongside concerns about the double standards attached to American hegemony might mobilize new global social movements calling for disarmament and a more equitable international order?

Richard Falk: I certainly hope that might be the case. I think it would be premature to expect the Ukraine conflict alone to rekindle a vibrant anti-nuclear movement at this point. But there may be further developments that do have such a galvanizing effect, something that unfortunately cannot be discounted as the Russians engage in nuclear drills to remind Western states of the risks of escalation in Ukraine. There are also other nuclear dangers that are looming in the world. I think the Israel-Iran relationship is very unstable and may produce some renewed awareness of nuclear risk; the same is also true of the conflicts in India-Pakistan, the Korean peninsula, and above all the looming conflict involving Taiwan. In the latter instance Pentagon war games have achieved results showing that unless the U.S. is prepared itself to abandon the nuclear taboo it loses in the event of a naval confrontation in the Taiwan Straights. So new generations may come to understand that the idea of achieving stability with nuclear weapons is a dangerous and unstable illusion. This brings me back to the cynical idea that I encountered at the Council on Foreign Relations about disarmament being a useful fiction to appease publics in the Global South. At the time, and there was no pushback against such an assertion at the meeting. The response of the audience was to simply acknowledge that this is how realist elites talks about national security. It is this kind of acquiescence and complacency that poses the greatest obstacle to global social organizing around disarmament and, thus, the greatest risk that we may stumble into crises where one side is prepared to risk nuclear war to avoid a strategic defeat. I hope that the threats that are now manifest in Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran, and beyond might spark new forms of awareness among the now more mobilized younger generations leading social movements for environmental and racial justice. Nuclear arsenals pose an existential threat to our planet alongside the reckless climate policies, massive wealth disparities, and the virulent structural racism that plague the global order. There is much work to do if we are to address all of these challenges, and there might be no better place to launch a new phase of transformative global politics by championing nuclear abolition.


[1]           

A European Call for an end to the Ukraine War

5 Jul

[Prefatory Note The following letter appeared in the prominent German weekly, ZEIT, last week. It is written from a European perspective, calling for a ceasefire followed by bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. The organizers and the signers are almost totally drawn from the higher echelons of German intellectual and academic life. The letter does not directly address the geopolitical dimensions of the Ukraine War. As a result, it fails to cast blame on the United States or NATO for seeking a Ukraine battlefield victory or on Russia for threatening to unleash nuclear warfare. Nevertheless, the urgent call for an end to the killing and diplomacy is a welcome and valuable alternative to the idea, seemingly endorsed by leading NATO governments, of a prolonged Ukraine War even if it keeps escalation tensions at a heightened level, diverts attention and resources from climate change, and subjects especially countries in the Global South to multiple forms of severe hardship and dangerous forms of instability.]

Ceasefire Now. Negotiations as soon as possible.

Jakob Augstein (journalist), Richard A. Falk (professor of international law), Svenja Flaßpöhler (philosopher), Thomas Glauben (professor of agricultural economics), Josef Haslinger (novelist), Elisa Hoven (professor of criminal law), Alexander Kluge (filmmaker and author), Christoph Menke (professor of philosophy), Wolfgang Merkel (professor of political science), Julian Nida-Rümelin (philosopher), Robert Pfaller (philosopher), Richard D. Precht (philosopher), Jeffrey Sachs (professor of economics), Michael von der Schulenburg (former UN diplomat), Edgar Selge (novelist), Ilija Trojanow (novelist), Erich Vad (retired general, former military advisor to Angela Merkel), Johannes Varwick (professor of international politics), Harald Welzer (social psychologist), Ranga Yogeshwar (science journalist), Juli Zeh (novelist)

Europe faces the task of restoring and securing peace on the continent. This requires the development of a strategy to end the Russian war in Ukraine as soon as possible.

Ukraine has been able to defend itself against Russia’s brutal war of aggression for three and a half months now, partially thanks to massive economic sanctions and military support from Europe and the United States. However, the longer this support continues, the less clear it becomes which goals are being pursued with it. A Ukrainian victory with the recapture of all occupied territories, including the Donezk and Luhansk oblasts and Crimea, is considered unrealistic by most military experts, given Russia’s military superiority and ability to further escalate militarily.

All western countries that provide military support to Ukraine must therefore ask themselves what their precise goal is and whether (and for how long) arms deliveries continue to be the right course of action. Continuing the war with the aim of Ukraine’s complete victory over Russia means that thousands more victims will die for a purpose that does not seem realistic. 

Moreover, the consequences of the war are no longer limited to Ukraine. Its continuation is causing massive humanitarian, economic, and environmental distress around the world. Rapidly rising prices, energy and food shortages have already led to unrest in many countries. Fertilizer shortages will have a global impact if the war lasts beyond the fall. High casualty rates, many deaths from hunger and disease and destabilization of the global situation are to be expected. Warnings of these dramatic consequences are also being issued at the international political level (G7, UN). 

All western countries must stand united against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and further revanchist claims. However, prolonging the war in Ukraine is not the solution. The current developments surrounding rail transit to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Putin’s announcement to deliver nuclear-capable missile systems to Belarus, show that the danger of escalation is increasing. The western countries must do anything they can to ensure that the war parties reach a negotiated settlement as soon as possible. This alone can prevent years of a war of attrition with its fatal local and global consequences, as well as a military escalation that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

Negotiations does not mean a surrender of Ukraine, as is sometimes assumed. A dictated peace by Putin is not an option. The international community must do everything it can to create conditions under which negotiations are possible at all. This includes a declaration that the Western actors have no interest in continuing the war and will adjust their strategies accordingly. It also entails a willingness to secure the terms of a truce as well as the results of peace negotiations internationally, which may require a high level of commitment. The longer the war continues, the more international pressure will be necessary to get both sides back into negotiations. The West must make every effort to persuade the governments of Russia and Ukraine to suspend combat actions. Economic sanctions and military support have to be integrated into a political strategy aimed at gradual de-escalation until a ceasefire is fully implemented.

So far, there has not been a joint and concentrated effort by the international community, the major Western players in particular, to seek negotiations. As long as this is not the case, it cannot be assumed that an understanding is impossible and that Putin in particular does not want to negotiate. In a deadlocked conflict, it is a standard practice that war parties have maximum demands or explicitly reject peace talks. The course of the negotiation attempts so far has shown some initial willingness on both sides to come to an understanding by a flexible approach to the attainment of their goals. At this point, only a major diplomatic offensive can lead out of the current impasse.

The opening of negotiations is not a justification for war crimes. We share the desire for justice. Negotiations, however, are first and foremost a necessary means to prevent further suffering in Ukraine and adverse consequences of the war around the world. Considering the threat of humanitarian catastrophes and the manifest risks of escalation, stability must be restored as quickly as possible. Only a suspension of combat actions will create the time and opportunity necessary to do this. The supreme importance of this goal demands that we rise to the challenge and do everything in our power to make an early ceasefire and the start of peace negotiations possible – and refrain from doing anything that contradicts this goal.

Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age

24 May

[Prefatory Note: The following post was published in a somewhat modified form in COUTERPUNCH, May 20, 2022. Its main theme is the contrasting normative logics derived from law (Westphalian logic)  on one side, and power politics (geopolitical logic) on the other side. The regulatory guidance of law derives from agreement and interpretation, and that of power politics, from what the Quincy Institute calls ‘responsible statecraft’ and I refer to as ‘responsible statecraft’ that under contemporary circumstances should involve voluntary compliance with international law, that is, in the nuclear age law and geopolitics often converge in their commitments to regulatory rationality.] 

Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age

The Ukraine War, its complexities and global spillover effects, have not been adequately

depicted by either political leaders or the more influential media. Most commonly, the Ukraine War has been narrowly and reductively depicted as a simple matter of defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. Sometimes this standard portrayal is somewhat enlarged by demonizing Putin as criminally committed to the grandiose project of restoring the full spectrum of Soviet boundaries of post-1994 Russia by force as necessary. What tends to be excluded from almost all presentations of the Ukrainian struggle is the rather distinct U.S. Government policy  agenda of inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia which purports to be related to the defense and in the interests of Ukraine yet is unfolding in a quite separate manner that seems to depart from the best interest of Ukraine and the wellbeing of its people. 

This geopolitical agenda replicates Cold War confrontations, and in the global setting, seeks to remind China as well as Russia, that only the United States possesses the will, authority, and capabilities to act as the guardian of global security with respect to the maintenance or modification of international boundaries of sovereign states anywhere on the planet. Illustratively, Israel has been given a tacit green light by Washington to annex the Golan Heights, an integral part of Syria until the 1967 War, while Russia remains sanctioned for its annexation of Crimea and its current claims to incorporate parts of the Dombas region of Ukraine have been met with harsh punitive sanctions and allegations of war crimes by the U.S. president, Joe Biden. Additionally, Biden has officially and publicly committed the United States to the military defense of Taiwan in the event of an attack by China.

The most influential Western media platforms, including CNN, BBC, NY Times, The Economist, with few exceptions, have largely supported one-dimensional governmental narrative accounts of the Ukraine War, which leaves the misleading impression that U.S./NATO involvement is strictly responsive to the Russian attack on Ukraine with no broader policy objective in play. The views of progressive and anti-war critics of the manner that American foreign policy has handled the Ukraine crisis are almost totally unrepresented. At the same time, some elements of the extremist right is castigated for daring to oppose the national consensus as if only the only dissenters are conspiracy inclined fascists or those motivated by treasonous sentiments. Almost no attention given by these powerful media outlets to understanding either the buildup of tensions relating to Ukraine in the years preceding the Russian attack or the wider security rationale that could partially explain (although not justify) Putin’s resolve to reassert its former authority in the Ukraine. Similarly, there was virtually no mainstream discussion of or support for ceasefire/diplomatic options, favored by many peace and religious groups, that sought to give priority to ending the killing, coupled with a search for possible reconciling formulas that combined Ukrainian sovereign entitlements with some adjustments taking account of Russian security concerns. 

The most trusted and influential media in the West functioned largely as a war-mongering propaganda machine that was only slightly more nuanced in its support for the official line of the government than what one would expect from unambiguously autocratic regimes. Coverage highlighted visual portrayals of the daily brutalities of the war coupled with a steady stream of condemnations of Russian behavior, detailed reportage on the devastation and civilian suffering endured by Ukrainians in the combat zone, and a tactical overview of how the fighting was proceeding in various parts of the country. These bellicose narratives were repeatedly reinforced by expert commentary from retired generals and intelligence officials, and never subjected to challenge from peace advocates, much less political dissenters and critics. I have yet to hear the voice or read texts on these mainstream media platforms from the most celebrated public intellectuals, Noam Chomsky or Daniel Ellsberg, or even from independent minded high-level former diplomats like Chas Freeman. Of course, these individuals are talking and writing but to learn their views you generally have

to navigate the internet in search of such online websites as COUNTERPUNCH and Common Dreams.

The fog of war has been replaced by a war fever while making the transition from helping Ukraine defend itself against aggression to pursuing a victory over Russia increasingly heedless of nuclear dangers and worldwide economic dislocations that threatened many millions with famine, acute insecurity, and destitution. The shrill assured voices of generals and think tank security gurus dominated commentary, while pleas for peace from the UN Secretary General, the Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis, if reported ed at all, were confined to the outer margins of public awareness.

This unfortunate absence of reasoned and responsible debate was further distorted by dangerously misleading statements made by the highest public official responsible for the formation and explanation of American foreign policy, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Whether out of ignorance or the convenience of the moment, Secretary Blinken has been widely quoted as explaining to the public here and abroad in prime time that the U.S. does not recognize ‘spheres of influence,’ an idea “that should have been retired after World War II.” Really! Without mutual respect for spheres of influence throughout the Cold War it is probable that World War III would have been ignited by Soviet interventions in East Europe, most notoriously in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Similar deference was exhibited by Moscow. U.S. interferences in Western Europe as well as the Soviet Bloc defection of Yugoslavia were tolerated by the Kremlin. Some of the most dangerous armed confrontations occurred during the Cold War Era were revealingly located  in the three divided country of Germany, Korea, and Vietnam where norms of self-determination exerted continuous pressures on boundaries artificially imposed on these countries for reasons of geopolitical convenience. 

Since the end of the Cold War, Blinken should be embarrassed about telling the peoples of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela that the idea of spheres of influence is no longer descriptive of how the U.S. shapes its policy in the Western Hemisphere. Decades age Octavio Paz, the Mexican author found vivid words to express the reality of such spheres: “The tragedy of Mexico is to be so far from God and so near to the United States.”  As has been observed, the Russian assertion of a traditional spheres of influence has more continuity with the past than does respect for territorial sovereignty of the countries that have regained statehood within such spheres after the Soviet collapse. This recognition is not meant to express approval of such spheres, serving only as a realization of geopolitical practice that has persisted through the whole of modernity and a further sense that mounting a challenge in light of this practice is almost certain to produce friction and heighten risks of major warfare., which in relations among states armed with nuclear weapons should induce extreme caution on the part of prudent actors. To pretend that spheres of influence are a thing of the past, as Blinken seems to be doing in relation to Ukraine, is doubly unfortunate—it is mindless about the relevance of geopolitical prudence in the nuclear age and it either ignorantly or maliciously condemns behavior of others while overlooking the analogous behavior of his own country, thereby adopting a U.S. posture of geopolitical hubris ill-suited to human survival in the nuclear age.

In the months before it became politically convenient to throw spheres of influence into the dustbin of history, Blinken was lecturing the Chinese about adhering to a ‘rule-governed’ international order that he contended was descriptive of U.S. behavior. Such an invidious comparison was a cover for confronting the quite different Chinese challenge to unipolarity being mounted as a result of China’s growing competitive edge in economic and diplomatic influence and technological breakthroughs. A puzzle for Washington arose because it could not complain that the Chinese ascent was due to posing a security threat due to its military capabilities and its aggressive uses of force (except, interestingly, within its traditional coastal and territorial spheres of influence). And so, the claim centered on the rather original allegation that China was not playing the game of power with respect to intellectual property rights by the ‘rules,’ but what are these rules and where does their authority derive from? Blinken was careful in his complaints about Chinese violations not to identify the rules with international law or decisions of the United Nations. Wherefrom then? Most probably Blinken has in mind a self-serving interpretation of the Breton Woods neoliberal framework associated with the operations of the World Bank and IMF, but refrained from saying so.

There is, to be sure, a subtle complexity about rules of order in international relations, especially on matters bearing on the use of force in international relations. A normative dividing line can be identified as 1928 when many leading governments, including the U.S., signed on to the Pact of Paris outlawing war as an instrument of national policy, [see Oona A. Hathaway & Scott Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (2017)]. This ambitious norm, was then turned into the formulation of a Crime Against Peace in the London Agreement of 1945 by the victorious powers in World War II that set forth the War Crimes Charter that provided the jurisprudential foundation for the Nuremberg and Tokyo criminal prosecutions of surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders. These legal innovations, although treated as major milestones in the development of international law, were never meant to constitute new rules of order and accountability that would bind sovereign states enjoying geopolitical stature as made plain in the UN Charter. Probably that should have been evident given the supreme irony of the London Agreement being formally signed by these governments on August 8, 1945, two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima and one day prior to the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Otherwise, how could one explain the conferral of a right of veto on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which can only be viewed as a geopolitical right of exception, at the very least within the UN context. Apologists for this seeming repudiation of a law-oriented approach when it came to the most dangerous states at the time point to the need to give the Soviet Union assurances that it would not be outvoted by the West, or otherwise it would be unwilling to participate in the UN, and the Organization would wither on the vine in the manner of the League of Nations. But if this was truly the dominant reason for the veto, a less obtrusive could have been chosen as the way of providing reassurance, such as requiring decisions of the Security Council opposed by the Soviet Union to be supported by all non-permanent members. There would be no comparable need to give the four other states the veto unless there was an overriding motive to entrench in the UN Charter the prerogatives of geopolitical leverage as measured by being on the winning side in World War II.

Such an observation makes us aware that there exists more than one source of normative authority in the sphere of international relations. and at least two. There is the fundamental idea deriving from the origins of the modern states system identified with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which accorded equality to sovereign states. And then there is a second source of largely unwritten and rarely spoken about normative authority that regulates those few states that are freed from the constraints of international law and enjoy impunity for their actions. These are the states given the veto power, and among these states are those that seek the added discretion of being non-accountable for their acts. This deference to power and national supremacy, undermines fidelity to law where it seems most needed, and has long been a fundamental deficiency of sustaining peace in a nuclear-armed world. Yet geopolitics, like international law itself, possesses a normative order that is designed to impose certain limits on these geopolitical actors that if responsibly applied serves the public good. The Quincy Institute recognizes this vital feature of international relations by its positive emphasis on ‘responsible statecraft,’ which is roughly equivalent to my call for ‘geopolitical prudence.’

A crucial geopolitical prescription along these lines was the appreciation of spheres of influence as delimiting extraterritorial zones of exclusive influence, which might include ‘unlawful’ interventions and exploitations of weaker states (e.g. ‘banana republics’). As abusive as the diplomacy of spheres has been for targeted societies it has also been a way of discouraging competitive interventions that might otherwise lead to intensive wars between the Great Powers, and as mentioned, plays an indispensable role in reducing the prospect of dangerous escalations in the nuclear age. How Blinken can be so myopic in addressing this essential feature of world order is stunning, and is paralleled by the failure of the media to expose such dangerous and self-serving nonsense.

To be sure international law is itself subject to geopolitical influence in the formation and interpretation of its rules and their unequal implementation, and is far from serving justice or even public order in many critical circumstances, including its validation of settler colonialism. [See Noura Erakat, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine(2019)] Yet when it comes to upholding the prohibition on non-defensive uses of force and accountability for war crimes, it has sought to uphold the norms unless violated by major geopolitical actors and their special friends. The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, established by the UN, did not distinguish between winners and losers in the manner of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals or for that matter the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (2005-06), which imposed a death sentence on Saddam Hussein while ignoring the U.S./UK crimes of aggression in the Iraq War of 2003.

In conclusion, it is important to recognize the interplay of international law and the geopolitical normative order. The former rests on agreement of juridically equal states as to norms and customary practice. International law also increasingly rests on voluntary compliance as illustrated by the World Court being confined in its law-declaring role to issuing ‘Advisory Opinion’ that states and international institution are permitted to disregard. Or more substantively, in relation to compliance with carbon emission pledges of parties to the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015.

The geopolitical normative order depends on prudence along the lines of the precautionary principle, its norms being self-interpreted, best guided by past experience, tradition, mutuality, and common sense. It should be understood that geopolitical status of the Permanent Members of the Security Council is not reflective of their de facto role in international relations. At present, only the United States, China, and Russia enjoy an existential geopolitical status; France and the UK do not, and perhaps, India, Nigeria/South Africa, Brazil possess some de facto geopolitical attributes, but lack a corresponding de jure recognition.

In the context of the Ukraine War Russia is to be faulted for its flagrant violation of the prohibition of aggressive war and its war crimes in Ukrainian combat zones, and for intimating

a willingness to have recourse to nuclear weapons if its vital interests are threatened. The United States is to be faulted for irresponsible statecraft or imprudent geopolitics by its replacement of a defensive role of support for Ukrainian resistance by more recently pushing for the defeat of Russia through the massive increases of aid, encouragement of enlarged Ukrainian goals, supplying offensive weaponry, continuation of demonizing Putin, absence of advocacy of ceasefire and peace diplomacy, inattentiveness to escalation risks especially in relation to nuclear dangers, and overall manipulation of Ukraine Crisis as part of its strategic commitment to the sort of unipolar geopolitics that has emerged during the aftermath of the Cold War. Unipolarity entails a repudiation of Chinese and Russian efforts to achieve a multipolar management of global governance. It is this latter tension that if not addressed points to a second Cold War more dangerous than its predecessor, feverish arms races, periodic crises, and the diversion of resources and energies from such urgent global challenges as climate change, food security, and humane migration policies.  

The Second Level Geopolitical War in Ukraine Takes Over

30 Apr

[Prefatory Note: A slightly modified version was published in CounterPunch, 4/29/2022; the recent acknowledgement that U.S. goals are, at best, secondarily related to the wellbeing of Ukraine, and primarily by the dangerously regressive goals of taking on challengers to the major premise of unipolarity, which has guided U.S. grand strategy since the end of the Cold War. First China, and now Russia, are strategic rivals, with the proclaimed goals of multipolarity. In the Cold War the battlelines were drawn between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, giving rise to the practice of bipolarity, which was epitomized by two features: mutual assured destruction (or MAD) identifying the nuclear dimension of the rivalry and respect for offsetting spheres of influence in Europe between the two ‘superpowers.’]

The Second Level Geopolitical War in Ukraine Takes Over

It has become increasingly clear to the world that there is not one, but two, actually three, distinct levels of conflict embedded in what the world’s media and political leadership deceptively insist on calling the ‘Ukraine War.’ The first level was initiated on February 24, 2022 when Russia launched an aggressive war against Ukraine imperiling the country’s most basic sovereign rights as well as its territorial integrity. The second level was difficult to discern in the first weeks of the war, but became soon evident as the NATO countries led by the United States placed an increasing emphasis on lending escalating support to Ukraine’s adopted goals of achieving an unexpected military victory. This support took various forms including the steady supply of heavy weaponry, robust financial assistance, punitive sanctions, and a drumbeat of ‘official’ demonization of Russia and its leadership. In the beginning it seemed appropriate to lend support to Ukraine as the target of aggression, and hail the resistance efforts led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, in defense of a relatively small country being overrun by a large neighbor. 

Even this widely endorsed narrative was deceptive and one-sided as it overlooked the provocative nature of NATO expansion, abetted in Ukraine’s case by American interference in the internal politics of the country to help turn the political tide against Russia. It is in this internal setting that on which the third level of the war persists as there is no doubt that anti-Russian elements in Western Ukraine were deeply abusive toward the majority Russian speaking population in Eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas region. The non-implementation of the Minsk Agreements negotiated in 2014-15 to protect the Ukrainians in the East and accept a high degree of autonomy led to oppressive policies by the Kyiv government giving added strength to separatist aspirations. It remains uncertain as whether the Russia/Ukraine level of combat can be resolved without serious addressing Russian and Dombas concerns at the core of this third level of conflict.

What has been apparent to critics for some time is that Western diplomacy has increasingly become primarily committed to the second level Geopolitical War even at the cost of greatly prolonging and aggravating the Ukrainian war on the ground and producing growing risks of a wider war. Only in the past few days has this priority been more or less acknowledged by high officials in the U.S. Government, most dramatically in the visit of Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, and Austin, Secretary of Defense to Ukraine and later in their meeting with NATO counterparts in Europe. What was revealed was that the number one policy goal of the U.S. was ‘the weakening of Russia’ made to military planners a credible undertaking by the unexpected resistance capabilities of Ukrainian armed forces bolstered by a show unified nationalist resolve. In keeping with this line of thinking, arms shipments to Ukraine were steadily increased in quantity and quality. More tellingly, so-called heavy armaments with offensive capabilities began to be supplied to Ukraine, with militarists in NATO countries even proposing attacking targets in Russia. As this dynamic unfolded, Germany joined in by dramatically reversed its proclaimed policy of not providing heavy weaponry. The whole tenor of assistance from NATO countries shifted from helping Ukraine resist to addressing the geopolitical agenda with its two goals: inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia and signaling China not to indulge any doubts about Western resolve to defend Taiwan. 

Despite this shift in emphasis, earlier concerns with escalating the Geopolitical War with Russia have not been entirely abandoned. Efforts continue to be made to ensure that U.S. and Russia to not engage in direct combat with opposing weapons system and to not produce situations that push Russian toward a reliance on nuclear weapons to avoid battlefield defeat. White House perceptions of what will cause such recourse to nuclear weaponry at this point seems dangerous divergent. It is widely reported that the Biden presidency continues to resist pressures to establish No Fly Zone in Ukraine because it would greatly heighten prospects for direct combat encounters between the NATO and Russia, and with it risks of this new species of cold war turning uncontrollably hot. But what of Biden’s demonization of Russia as guilty of genocide and Putin as a war criminal who should be driven from power? And what of the continuous increases of political, financial, and military assistance to Ukraine coupled with the absence of any hint that a diplomatic alternative exists that would stop the killing. This has been missing all along. There have been no indications by Washington of receptivity to a diplomacy emphasizing the primary humanitarian imperative of an immediate ceasefire and a political process of compromise and mutual security between Russia and Ukraine the overt international antagonists. It is missing because the U.S. on prosecuting the Geopolitical War as long as necessary, and this  takes precedence over the wellbeing of the Ukrainian people, or even the rationally conceived self-interest of the NATO powers.  

Zelensky early in the war indicated receptivity to a ceasefire and political compromise, including an acceptance of permanent neutrality for Ukraine, signaled his willingness to meet with Putin to agree upon a process. As time passes, however, Zelensky has pulled back from this dual stance of armed resistance and peace diplomacy, and come to adopt a position that appears seamless with that of the U.S. as if his priority had also shifted to the level 2 Geopolitical War.

My conjecture is that Zelensky, although displaying great talents as a wartime resistance leader has very little sophistication about international relations in general, and seems susceptible to this more militarist line bolstered by promises of decisive support from Washington and possible pressures from his own supposedly hawkish general staff. After all, Zelensky’s background is in theater, until recently he was a performing comedian without any signs of awareness of the wider risks to Ukraine if it subordinates its national interests to the logic of going on with the Geopolitical War wherever it might lead. 

As expected, Moscow has already reacted to this escalation of this second level war by warning that it will not back down, but will take all necessary steps to protect its national security interests, intimating if it comes to that, a readiness to have recourse to nuclear weapons. Such inflamed atmospherics can easily produce accidental or preemptive acts that accelerate escalation, which is especially serious in the current context that lacks crisis management links of the sort established between Moscow and Washington in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It took that close encounter back in 1962 with its apocalyptic war scenario that led these superpower antagonists to understand that they had averted a monumental mutual catastrophe by sheer luck, and must take steps to avoid future drifts toward nuclear war however great the crisis in their relationship.

While most attention is focused on the inter-governmental play of forces it is helpful to take account of other perspectives: civil society peace initiatives, the views of the Global South, and the initiatives of the UN Secretary General. These perspectives call attention to the startling fact that alternatives to aggressive war and geopolitical ambition exist. The Western media blithely hides the awkward fact that Russia is more globally supported in the Geopolitical War than is the United States, preferring the balances of multipolarity to the hegemonies of unipolarity. The Global North controls the discourse prevailing on the most influential media platforms, creating the misleading impression that the whole world, except the outliers, are content with U.S. leadership.

Civil Society Initiatives

Almost from the day the Russian attack began, peace activists and NGOs concerned in some way with peace, security, and humanitarianism urged an end to the killing by way of a ceasefire and some political process that dealt with the level 1 and 3 grievances. This is not to say there were not sharp tensions within civil society, especially surrounding how to interpret the pre-war NATO maneuvers  or the Russian manipulation of the strife in Dombas. By and large the liberal and left liberal mainstream supported outright condemnation of Russian aggression, but favored an immediate ceasefire and diplomacy to ending the war and mitigating the humanitarian emergency of death, devastation, and displacement. Those who can be crudely identified as the anti-imperial left tended to excuse or at least place major responsibility for the outbreak of war on the context largely fashioned by Western provocations (especially NATO expansion) and interference in Ukraine’s internal politics since 2014 as did some on the extreme right who identified with Putin’s authoritarianism as future wave of world politics.

What contrasted the civil society perspectives in spite of their diversity, with NATO/mainstream media postures, was their shared stress on stopping the killing, the relevance of diplomacy, and their implicit or explicit refusal to condone recourse to the Level 2 Geopolitical War. Typical examples of civil society proposals can be found in the Pugwash Peace Proposal and the Just World Education booklet distributed under the title “Ukraine: Stop the Carnage, Build the Peace”(available from Amazon or from www.justworldeducational.org, containing eight policy recommendations). 

The Voice of the Global South

Given little notice in the Global North was the refusal of the greater part of the Global South to support the mobilization of coercive and punitive sanctions diplomacy directed at Russia and its leader. This split from the West first became evident in the two votes on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly. The entire world including the most of the main countries in the Global South supported the condemnation of the Level 1 Russian aggression, but either abstained or opposed support for the Level 2 Geopolitical War Initiated by the U.S. against Russia in the early stages of the attack on Ukraine. As Trita Parti of the Washington-based think tank, Quincy Institute, pointed out much of the Global South actually supported Russia in the Geopolitical War context, which was interpreted as the U.S. commitment to extending the mandate contained in a unipolar world order of the sort it had acted upon since the Soviet collapse and the end of the Cold War. The Global South greatly preferred the dynamics of a multipolar world, and regarded Russia as seeking in Ukraine to reassert its traditional geopolitical suzerainty over its ‘near abroad,’ a stand against the U.S. as the unopposed guardian of security throughout the planet. It should be appreciated that the U.S. has 97% of overseas military bases and accounts for 40% of the world’s military expenditures, greater than that of the next 11 countries. 

The U.S. position is no way renounces traditional geopolitics but seeks to monopolize its implementation. In that spirit it views the attempted reassertion by China and Russia of traditional spheres of influence as an intrusion on international law, while the U.S. at the same time defends its practice of managing the first global sphere of influence in world history. Blinken has said as much, declaring spheres of influence as contrary to international law ever since World War II while simultaneously upholding the sole prerogative of the U.S. when it comes to managing security throughout such a rule-governed world (not to be confused with international law, and its efforts at rule- governance). The UN or international law are marginalized with respect to peace and security in the face of this assumption of geopolitical dominance resting on a mixture of political ambition and military capabilities.

The UN Secretary General

Throughout the Ukraine crisis Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has articulated a point of view toward the Ukraine Crisis that contrasts in fundamental ways from the positions taken by the political actors on the three levels of conflict. His words and proposals are much closer in spirit to the calls emanating from civil society and the Global South. He expressed the spirit of his endeavors concisely shortly after Russia attacked: “End the hostilities now. Silence the guns now. Open the door to dialogue and diplomacy.” “The ticking clock is a time bomb.” 

Traveling in Moscow to meet with Putin and the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the SG’s message was more in keeping with diplomatic style, yet similar in content: Focus on ways to end war, and desist from carrying the fight against Russia a day longer. He told Lavrov that “We are extremely interested in finding ways to create the conditions for effective dialogue, create conditions for a ceasefire as soon as possible, create conditions for a peaceful solution.” Putin in the one-on-one meeting with Guterres given the aggressiveness of his counterpart in Washington seemed guardedly receptive to allowing the UN and Red Cross to play a humanitarian role in Ukraine and seemed cautiously receptive to seeking a negotiated end to the conflict on the ground. Of course, it would be premature to have much confidence in any assessment until deeds follow words. At the same time we seem entitled to lament the failure to hear a comparable level of peace-mindedness in Biden’s public statements, which so far seem calculated to stir anti-Russian fury and war-mindedness rather than to set the stage for ending this frightening multi-level conflict.

The stark difference between the UN SG’s approach and that of the geopolitical leadership of the world, should make many persons dedicated to a better future initiate a campaign to set the UN free from its Charter framework that accords primacy explicit primacy to its geopolitical actors.

Concluding Observation

Unraveling the intertwined nature of these three levels of conflict bound up in the ambiguities of the Ukraine War is crucial for an understanding of its complexity and to analyze whether responses and proposals are of service to the general betterment of humanity. It also facilitates the identification of unresponsive policies and proposals that hearken back to the days when matters of war and peace could be left to the discretion of politicians guided by neither ethics nor prudence, but rather have risen to power because they serve the material interests of elites in the private sector. On this basis, I believe that two overriding assessments emerge from an examination of the current interplay of forces in these Ukraine wars: stop the killing by all means available and unconditionally repudiate the Geopolitical War.   

Renounce the Geopolitical War between the U.S. and Russia

18 Apr

[Prefatory Note: I post once more on the Ukraine War, emphasizing its geopolitical manipulation at the expense of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, and all around the world who are suffering from its spillover effect of higher prices and scarcer supplies of food, energy, fertilizer, and other goods and services. Stopping the Geopolitical War being waged by the United States against Russia is a precondition for ending the aggressive war initiated by Russia against Ukraine and also a return to semi-responsible statecraft, which is the most we can expect or hope for in the present world atmosphere. Diplomacy seeking a ceasefire and a political compromise is the only sane path with a decent chance of avoiding not only prolonging this ravaging of Ukraine but also the escalation risks being driven by irresponsible hostile propaganda emanating from the White House that is hypocritically denouncing Russia and its leader for what the U.S. has repeated done in the course of the last half century, and risking a Russian violent pushback threatening the use of nuclear weaponry. A modified version of this post was published by CounterPunch, April 15, 2022, with a slightly different title.]

Stop the Geopolitical War Now by Declaring a Unilateral Ceasefire in Ukraine

I have been arguing that it is impossible to understand the Ukraine Crisis without an appreciation that it is a two-level war with regional and global implications. The surprising strength of Ukrainian resistance has dramatized the magnitude of Moscow’s miscalculation in having anticipating quickly subduing resisting to its aggression and apparent intended regime-changing occupation. Russia has already been ‘defeated’ in the Russia-Ukrainian War on the ground by Ukrainian resistance and the degree of international solidarity with the Ukrainian defense of its sovereign rights. The similarities with the U.S. miscalculations in the Iraq War of 2003 (‘mission accomplished’) are rather startling if a careful comparison is made, the most important difference being that the U.S. was acting outside its traditional sphere of influence and was unchallenged geopolitically; nevertheless, its military superiority was significantly neutralized by internal Iraqi resistance, a formidable rebalancing reality in the post-colonial world.

The U.S./Europe is guilty of an offsetting miscalculation in Ukraine by its initiation of a second level war—the Geopolitical War—taking the form of strong expressions of solidarity with the sovereign rights of Ukraine mainly by way of a heavy-handed emphasis on a punitive anti-Russian approach consisting of hostile propaganda, comprehensive sanctions, and official provocative demonizations of Putin and Russia abetted by hypocritical calls on the International Criminal Court for action. Such postures, especially if struck by respective leaders, seem calculated to prolong the war on the ground, express no interest in stopping thee carnage, and appear to accept the costs of doing as being worth the price in Ukrainian lives and devastation, as well as the suffering being caused beyond Ukrainian borders. It is notable that amid the many extravagant expressions of support for Ukraine from American leaders there has been hardly a hint that a diplomatic alternative to the daily devastations of war in the form of a ceasefire accompanied by negotiations on Ukraine’s future within an impartial framework that addresses security issues of Russia and Ukraine, as well as the infrequently discussed third level of the war, the human rights of the residents of Dombas region of East Ukraine. The Biden unwavering posture of exerting pressure on Putin and Russia somewhat contrasts with Zelensky’s on and off approach to direct negotiations with Russia, which seems difficult to evaluate because of its inconsistency. A more constructive approach has been cautiously advocated by the French President, Emanuel Macron: “I want to continue to try as much as I can, to stop this war and rebuild peace. I am not sure that an escalation of rhetoric serves that cause.” To date, Biden has not shown a comparable sensitivity, and if intent on prosecuting the Geopolitical War, we are likely to witness further escalations of Russo-phobic and anti-Putting rhetoric emanating from the White House. International criminal law does not prohibit ‘geopolitical crimes,’ but their commission should be subject to exposure and prosecution by civil society tribunals dedicated to world peace and justice.

To its credit the Biden presidency has so far resisted strong ultra-hawkish pressures to escalate this geopolitical war by fusing its prosecution with that of Ukrainian resistance forces by taking such steps as establishing a no-fly-zone in Ukraine, supplying offensive weaponry, and deploying NATO forces and weaponry. However, non-escalation is not enough because the tendency of the inflammatory tactics relied upon in the Geopolitical War prolongs the ground war at the expense not only of the Ukrainian people, but of millions on non-Ukrainians already suffering from the spillover effects of the war and sanctions on food and energy supplies and prices, and worse will come to Ukraine and internationally, the longer the fighting in Ukraine goes on. It is important to grasp the extent of these spillover risks: Russia and Ukraine together produce 30% of the world’s wheat supply, 75% of sunflower oil exports. At present, 30 metric tons of grain are available for export from Ukraine but cannot be currently shipped because of the war. David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, recently declared that Ukrainians face starvation in the entrapped city of Mariupal and that food shortages are already inducing hunger in many parts of Africa, and elsewhere in Global South, due to supply shortages and price rises. 

It has become obvious that the priority in the Geopolitical War is weakening Russia as a political actor on the world stage rather than saving Ukraine from the ravages of war and ending the encroachment on its rights as a sovereign state. The longer this geopolitical war continues the greater the harm done to Ukraine and its people, while simultaneously raising the risk of a violent encounter between Russia and NATO. This encounter has already given rise to heightened nuclear dangers, included threats to cross the nuclear threshold, and these concerns are increasing with the passage of time. There is also the previously mentioned growing concern about damage being done to many countries dependent to various degrees on exports of Russian/Ukrainian wheat, energy, and fertilizer. In other words, even without direct violence, the effects of pursuing geopolitical objectives by the U.S. is causing intense suffering around the world, disproportionately harmful to the most vulnerable societies and its poorest members due to the impacts of inflated prices on basic necessities, supply shortages, and disruption, which leads to political uprisings and chaos (already evident in several countries as remote from the Ukrainian combat zones as Sri Lanka and Indonesia ). 

There is reason to suspect that the Geopolitical War is being waged by the United States for strategic reasons that extend beyond even picking a fight with Russia that are likely, unless managed in a manner sensitive to the precarities of the 21st century, to produce a high-intensity new cold war. Part of this strategic agenda evidently guiding the planners of the geopolitical war is to signal China that it will pay a high or higher price if it should attack and occupy Taiwan. In that sense, the old idea of ‘extended deterrence’ is being revived under much more stressed historical circumstances than even existed during the Cold War. Also, in the fog of war the exceptionally complex circumstances generated by the two-level war creates a further risk of a World War I scenario of the conflict spiraling out of the control of the main political actors, culminating in a massive mutual disaster.

The intensified hostile propaganda, intensified supply of advanced weaponry, and punitive initiatives taken by the West and directed at Russia are justified and rationalized by their backers as imposing increasing costs on Russia that will eventually compel Putin to back down and tacitly admit  ‘enough is enough’ even though it means being shamed into withdrawing its troops. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s President, has taken advantage of widespread empathy for the Ukrainian plight to plead his case in many venues including the UN, European Parliament, U.S. Congress, and the Israeli Knesset. As with Washington there is a predominant focus on the criminalization of Russia and Putin with little attention given to whether there is a better way to end the war on the ground. We must ask whether Zelensky has become insufficiently attentive to the impacts on Ukraine of this ongoing Geopolitical War or has disastrously bought into its flimsy rationale, whether knowingly or not, abandoning an earlier more promising willingness to engage in pre-negotiations in the impartial setting of Istanbul, as well as a declared openness to direct talks with Putin.

There is a final point that has been made persuasively by Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute in Washington: Whether the war ends tomorrow or goes on for years, some say it could last for at least five and maybe even ten years, the outcome in terms of Ukraine’s sovereignty and security arrangements will be the same: ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign military forces, neutrality, mutual non-aggression arrangements, UN peacekeeping border controls, guaranteed autonomy and human rights for East Ukraine (Dombas). If this logic is correct, then it is a primary humanitarian and global human security interest for Ukraine to give Moscow immediate back channel and public signals that it is ready and eager for a ceasefire and peace talks.

The play of forces in Washington may inhibit the adoption of this favored course of action. Calling off the geopolitical war will be alleged to embolden Putin’s expansionist ambitions as well as convey to China that it can successfully challenge Taiwan’s independence if it shows sufficient resolve. Biden will be viciously attacked by Republicans as a weak leader who is relinquishing U.S. responsibility for upholding global security throughout the world, given the weakness of the UN, irrelevance of international law, and the alien values of China and Russia. To some extent Biden constructed his own trap by without tangible political results with respect to its security concerns arising from Ukraine’s willingness to identify so ardently with NATO and the U.S. There are various conjectures that such a strategy might prolong the Ukraine War by four years, or even longer, with a high cost in casualties and devastation. What would undoubtedly be portrayed as a victory for the geopolitical masterminds in Washington would amount to a bloody sacrifice for the people of Ukraine, somewhat disguised and papered over by massive programs of post-conflict reconstruction aid to Ukraine. Further trouble may result even after a ceasefire in and withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine due to the unpredictable but potentially major destabilizing effects of sanctions on the world economy, especially trade relations and inflation.

A diplomatic path to a ceasefire followed by efforts at conflict resolution is currently has almost completely disappeared from Washington’s policy agenda, in effect even negated, given the increasing reliance on the political language of demonization relied upon by Biden from the outset of the Russian aggression on February 24th. To accuse Russia and its leaders of war crimes, including genocide, that should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague is both awkwardly hypocritical given the past U.S. repudiation of the tribunal’s authority and an irresponsible attempt to politicize a fragile international institution struggling for legitimacy since it was established more than 20 years ago. To suggest, even to demand, regime change in Moscow, as Biden has done both directly and indirectly, is something the West wisely refrained from doing even with respect to Stalin and Stalinism at the height of the Cold War. These sentiments of Biden unless discounted as emotional outbursts by an unstable leader is a form of political behavior at the highest levels that a nuclear armed world can ill afford. Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, tried to excuse Biden’s outburst by observing that “President Biden spoke from his heart when he called what we are seeing in Ukraine genocide.” The use of such wild rhetoric seems calculated to enrage Putin and his entourage, and thus inhibit whatever willingness exists in Moscow to explore prospects for ending the violence in Ukraine in a manner that does not shame Putin and Russia. To be sure, Russian forces in Ukraine seem guilty of atrocities in Ukraine that qualify as war crimes, but to allege genocide, which refers to massive killlings directed at an ethnicity with the well-evidenced intention of its elimination. Genocide is not occurring in Ukraine, and to suggest otherwise should be repudiated by the UN and elsewhere. 

There seems little doubt that by conviction or reflecting leverage, Zelensky, has not reacted publicly to the cross-purposes resulting from the geopolitical level of encounter. On the contrary, Zelensky seems to be striking a posture of opting in favor of this untenable Geopolitical War being waged with inflammatory rhetoric and further inflated military budgets, backed by a largely fictitious encounter between allied democracies and united autocracies as well as the ahistorical belief that military superiority controls political outcomes in contemporary wars and gives shape to the history of our times. If this ideological division of the world were even mildly sincere and the excessive reliance on militarism justified, then why are the Philippines, India, and Brazil considered as belonging to the world’s democracies and why has every sustained war since 1945 has been won by the weaker side militarily.

It is time for those who want peace, justice, and ecological balance to demand a unilateral decision to renounce the Geopolitical War and encourage the Ukrainian government to protect its national future and that of its citizens by proposing an immediate ceasefire and an impartial framework for diplomacy to do the work of extricating all engaged political actors from a series of unfolding disastrous lose/lose scenarios.  Political leaders and diplomats who further such a Geopolitical War, given the realities of Ukraine, are potentially subject to civil society indictment on charges of geopolitical crimes.

Complexities of the Ukraine War

15 Apr

[Prefatory Note: My responses to interview Questions on the Ukraine War from Zahra Mirzafarjouyan, Mehr News Agency, IV/11/2022. This two-level war can be further elaborated as a three-level war between Ukrainian nationalism in Western Ukraine and Russian-oriented separatism in Eastern Ukraine. Level One: Russia v. Ukraine; Level Two: U.S. v. Russia; Level Three: Ukrainian nationalism v. Russian-oriented separatism.]

1-What is the reason behind the west’s double standards towards the issue of refugees and bloodshed in different parts of the world. Why refugees from the Middle East are treated differently from the European ones?

The most immediate relevant answer is race, location, and control of the global humanitarian discourse. Europeans and North Americans more easily identify with white Christians than with dark-skinned Muslims which are generally perceived as a threat or burden. Ukraine is part of the West, indeed geographically part of Europe, and for this reason seems naturally to fall withing the existential parameters of ‘the European security community.’ It seems evident that print and TV media discursively reinforce these double standards by their selective practices of coverage that mirror the impact of race and location. The obsessive daily attention

given to the destruction attributable to Russian military action in Ukraine contrasts with the scant attention given such occurrences in such prior similar situations as in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Beyond these considerations, the war in Ukraine is also a crucial geopolitical battleground, pitting the U.S. against Russia, reviving the Cold War spirit of ideological confrontation although rephrased as ‘democracy’ versus ‘autocracy.’ Part of the political mix in this present setting is also China, and the evident motivation of the U.S. to warn China (by way of Russia) that if it attacks Taiwan it will face a unified national resistance reinforced by military and diplomatic support from the West that at minimum will impose punitive, damaging sanctions. As the war drags on it has become evident that the U.S. Government cannot make up its mind whether it should solicit China as a peacemaker to end the Ukraine War or treat China as a secondary adversary, lending indirect support to Russia, and this to be confronted and even sanctioned. U.S. uncertainty at this stage may reflect a split among foreign policy advisors in Washington who favor diplomacy to end the Ukraine War and those who give priority to humiliating Russia and Putin even at the cost of extending the war indefinitely.

2-And also it seems there are different kinds of occupation, good occupation, and bad occupation. Why occupation of Palestinian lands is treated totally differently from the occupation of European lands? 

Once more the different responses to foreign occupations reflects the tensions between the norms of international law that specify equal treatment for foreign occupations, and the practices of geopolitics that allow certain states to defy this norm without suffering adverse consequences. Israel is shielded from compliance with international law because it is freed from the burdens of accountability by the geopolitical protection it receives from the U.S., often reinforced by further support received from France and the UK. Other situations that manifest similar problems are Western Sahara and Kashmir. Geopolitics is based on inconsistency arising from varying patterns of inter-governmental alignment, whereas international law is in conception independent of alignment and relative capabilities, although in practice its applicability is often subject to being subordinated to logic of dominance, performing as a tool of geopolitical actors.

3-What is the main reason behind the war in Ukraine? Is it a geopolitical one? Isn’t it endangering world security? Won’t the west sanctions and pressures on Russia make Moscow’s behavior more aggressive?

The geopolitical stakes are high. It is a two-level war, consisting of direct combat on the ground and in the air between Russia and Ukraine and a second geopolitical war between Russia and the United States over the character of world order after the Cold War. Russia is seeking to reassert a traditional sphere of influence over its ‘near abroad,’ and by doing so, challenging the American claims to be responsible for global security throughout the planet, which the U.S. has been doing since the world political system became unipolar after the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Russia and China are trying to establish a more traditional type of geopolitical relations based on the premise of multipolarity as well as spheres of influence of the sort respected throughout the Cold War. Even during the provocative Soviet interventions in East European countries during the 1950s, the West refrained from counter-intervening, sensing that such an escalation could trigger World War III and the use of nuclear weaponry by both sides. The secondary objective of the U.S. in carrying forward the geopolitical war is to warn China not to challenge the existing situation in the South China Seas, especially bearing on future of Taiwan.

4-What will be the impact of this war the EU economy especially the economy of countries like Germany? 

It is difficult to assess the economic effects of the Ukraine War. It depends on a number of imponderables—the longer the war continues, the more severe the inflationary impact on prices of food and energy, as well as causing shortages of supply; the greater the effort made by Russia to impose costs on European countries that go along with anti-Russian sanctions, the greater will be the burdens borne, especially by Germany. The U.S. does not have a sufficient capability to offset this burden by becoming an increased source of food and energy at affordable prices. It is faced with its own critical internal problems, among them a huge over-investment in unusable military assets and an inflationary spiral that is already generating political instability.

5-What are the impact of this war on the US economy?

It is difficult to trace causal relations, but most economists agree that rising prices of food and energy, declining prospects of trade and investment, are having a generally harmful effect on U.S. economic conditions, especially in certain sectors, with the poor feeling most of the pain. To be sure, some private sector interests are benefitting: arms sales, gas and oil development, nuclear power, and looking to the future, construction industries and suppliers partaking

in likely massive post-conflict restorative activity in Ukraine, likely to be subsidized by generous funding from Europe, North America, and possibly Japan.

6-How will the result of this war affect world order? Can it also lead to changes in UN structure? After the Ukraine war will the US and western powers enjoy the same influence in the world order that they enjoyed before the war?

As indicated by earlier responses, it is difficult at this stage to speculate about the effects of these two interlinked wars as they are each at midstream and relate to each other in complicated inconsistent ways. If the Ukraine-Russian War is resolved quickly it is likely to bring the world closer to the pre-1992 Cold War Era, a new phase of geopolitical confrontation and containment with the focus this time on Asia as well as Europe. If this war lingers, the world order impacts will reflect the outcome. If the Russian occupation persists and troops remain in East Ukraine, then the post-Cold War Era will come to an end, and a new reality of bipolarity or tripolarity is likely to emerge to replace unipolarity. If Russia’s aggression is reversed, sanctions maintained, and Putin replaced as leader, then the U.S. governance of a unipolar world order will be confirmed for the present, although still somewhat vulnerable to Chinese economistic and regional challenges. There will be questions raised as to whether the U.S. can pay the costs of sustaining unipolarity, which require large military investments throughout the world and in space, even if Russia’s challenge is defeated and the Putinesque scenario to make Russia again a major geopolitical actor proves to be an occasion of national humiliation.

There is also a real, yet remote, possibility that Europe might free itself from U.S. hegemony on matters of geopolitics, and come to the unexpected conclusion that NATO no longer benefits European security, and that it would work out better for Europe to seek greater independence from the U.S., especially in relation to energy, economic relations, and alliance geopolitics. This would free Europe to establish win/win relations with Russia and China, as well as the U.S. If this were to happen the world might yet experience a new dawn.

In the background, are pressures to downplay confrontational geopolitics so as to achieve necessary levels of effective global problem-solving with respect to climate change, migration, food security. Such problem-solving will require not only unprecedented levels of cooperation, but also innovative arrangement that allocate financial burdens in an equitable manner, taking account of the stressed circumstances of the least developed states that are coping with the effects of global warming without either the means or a sense of national responsibility.

Relevant, also, will be the degree of enlightened, globally oriented leadership that emerges, which could lead to a stronger UN and greater respect for international law exhibited by geopolitical actors. These goals could either be achieved by reform or self-restraint on the part of the five veto powers in the Security Council, or possibly, through augmenting the authority of the General Assembly. For such constructive developments to occur there would have to be a surge of international activism reflecting a more coherent and visionary Global South. Crucial is whether the United States might reassess its global posturing and act more like a normal state, giving up both the pretensions of being the first global state, and yet avoiding the temptations of reviving its historic identity as ‘isolationist’ or detached from  dangerous geopolitical rivalries.

This Geopolitical War is a ‘Geopolitical Crime’

9 Apr

[Prefatory Note: This post was earlier published on April 9, 2022 in a somewhat modified form in CounterPunch with the title “Why Ukraine?” Please read the last paragraph to make sense of the title.]

There is no doubt that atrocities have been committed in Ukraine, seemingly yet not exclusively by Russian attacking forces, and in a perfect world those who so acted would be held responsible. But the world is highly imperfect when it comes to accountability for international crimes. When the International Criminal Court in 2020 found it had authority to investigate alleged crimes committed by Israel in Occupied Palestine after painstaking delays to make sure that their inquiry would meet the highest standard of legal professionalism, the decision was called ‘pure anti-Semitism’ by the Israeli prime minister, and defiantly rejected by Israeli leaders across the whole political spectrum. Similarly, when authorization was given by the ICC to investigate crimes by the United States in Afghanistan, the decision was denounced as void and unwarranted because the U.S. was not a party to the Rome Statute governing the operations of the ICC. The Trump presidency went so far as to express its outrage by imposing personal sanctions on the ICC prosecutor, presumably for daring to challenge the U.S. in such a manner even though her behavior was entirely respectful of her professional role and consistent with relevant canons of judicial practice.

Against such a background, there is a typical liberal quandary when faced with clear criminality on one side and pure geopolitical hypocrisy on the other side. Was it desirable after World War II to prosecute surviving German and Japanese political leaders and military commanders at the ‘legal’ cost of overlooking the criminality of the victors because there was no disposition to investigate the dropping of atom bombs on Japanese cities or the strategic bombing of civilian habitats in Germany and Japan? I am far from sure about what is better from the perspective of either developing a global rule of law or inducing respect for the restraints of law. The essence of law is treating equals equally, but world order is not so constituted. As suggested, there is ‘victors’ justice’ imposing accountability on the defeated leadership in major wars but complete non-accountability for the crimes of the geopolitical winners. Beyond this, the UN Charter was drafted in ways that gave a constitutional status to geopolitical impunity by granting these victors in World War II an unconditional right of veto, and this of course includes Russia. In these respects, liberalism defers to geopolitical realism, and celebrate the one-sided imposition of legality, with the naïve hope things will be different in the future, and the next group of victors will themselves accept the same legal standards of accountability are imposed upon the losers. Yet the post-Nuremberg record shows that geopolitical actors go on treating restraints on recourse to war as a matter of discretion (what American liberals called ‘wars of choice’ in the course of the debate about embarking upon a regime-changing attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003) rather than an obligation. When it comes to accountability double standards are still operative, illustrated by the ironic execution of Saddam Hussein for war crimes in the wake of a war of aggression against Iraq.

Another lingering question is ‘why Ukraine’? There have been other horrific events in the period since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Palestine yet no comparable clamor in the West for criminal justice and punitive action. Certainly, a part of the explanation is that the Ukrainian victims of abuse are white, European, Christian, which made it easy for the West to mobilize the mainstream global media and by the related international prominence accorded to Volodimir Zelensky, the embattled, energetic Ukrainian leader given unprecedented access to the most influential venues on the global stages of world opinion. It is not that the empathy for Ukraine or support for Zelensky’s national resistance is misplaced, but that it has the appearance of being geopolitically orchestrated and manipulated in ways that other desperate national situations were not, and thus give rise to suspicions about other, darker motives.

This is worrisome because these magnified concerns have acted as a principal way that the NATO West has gone out of its way to make the Ukrainian War about more than Ukraine. The wider war is best understood as occurring on two levels: a traditional war between the invading forces of Russia and the resisting forces of Ukraine as intertwined with an encompassing geopolitical war between the U.S. and Russia. It is the prosecution of this latter war that presents the more profound danger to world peace, a danger that has been largely obscured or assessed as a mere extension of the Russia/Ukraine confrontation. Biden has consistently struck a militarist, demonizing, and confrontational note in the geopolitical war, deliberately antagonizing Putin while quite pointedly neglecting diplomacy as the obvious way to stop the killing, and atrocities, in effect, encouraging the war on the ground to be prolonged because its continuation is indispensable in relation to the implicitly higher stakes of grand strategy, which is the core preoccupation of a geopolitical war. When Biden repeatedly calls Putin a war criminal who should face prosecution, and even more so, when he proposes regime change in Russia, he is cheerleading for the Ukrainian War to continue as long as it takes to produce a victory, and not be content with a ceasefire.

If this two-level perception is correctly analyzed in its appreciation of the different actors with contradictory priorities, then it becomes crucial to understand that in the geopolitical war the U.S. is the aggressor as much as in the traditional war on the ground Russia is the aggressor. In these respects, despite his understandable anger and grief, one must wonder whether even Zelensky with Russo-phobic echoing of war crimes allegations and calls for the expulsion of Russian from the UN, has not had his arm twisted so as to support the geopolitical war despite its premises being contrary to the interests of the Ukrainian people.

Could the delivery of weapons and financial assistance to Ukraine come with a large price tag?

So far, the geopolitical war has been waged as a war of ideological aggression backed up by weapons supplies and enveloping sanctions designed to have a great a crippling effect on Russia. This tactic has led Putin to make counter-threats, including warnings about Russia’s willingness under certain conditions to have recourse to nuclear weapons. This normalizing of the nuclear danger is itself a menacing development in a context of an autocratic leader backed into a corner. The U.S. approach, while mindful of escalation dangers and taking steps so far to avoid direct military involvement on behalf of Ukraine, shows no rush to end the fighting, apparently believing that Russia is already suffering the consequences of greatly underestimating Ukrainian will and capability to resist, and will be forced to acknowledge a humiliating defeat if the war goes on, which would have the strategic benefit additional to other incentives, of discouraging China from aligning with Russia in the future.

Additionally, the Western architects of this geopolitical war with Russia seem to assess gains and losses through a militarist optic, being grossly insensitive to its disastrous economic spillover effects, especially pronounced in relation to food and energy security in the already extremely stress conditions of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, and even Europe. As Fred Bergsten argues, the overall stability of the world economy is also being put at great risk unless the U.S. and China overcome their own tense relationship, and come to understand that their cooperation is the only check on a deep, costly, and prolonged world economic collapse.

The geopolitical war also distracts attention from the urgent agenda of climate change, especially in light of recent indicators of global warning causing climate experts to be further alarmed. Other matter of global concern including migration, biodiversity, poverty, apartheid are being again relegated to the back burners of global policy challenge, while the sociopathic game of Armageddon Roulette is being played without taking species wellbeing and survival into account, continuing the lethal recklessness that began the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima more than 75 years ago.

In concluding, the question ‘why Ukraine?’ calls for answers. The standard answer of reverse racism, moral hypocrisy, and Western narrative control is not wrong but significantly incomplete if it does not include the geopolitical war that while not now directly responsible for Ukrainian suffering is from other perspective more dangerous and destructive than that awful traditional war. This geopolitical war of ‘poor’ choice is now being waged mainly by means of hostile propaganda, but also weapons and supplies while not killing directly outside of Ukraine. This second war, so rarely identified much less assessed, is irresponsibly menacing the wellbeing of tens of millions of civilians around the world while arms dealers, post-conflict construction companies, and civilian and uniformed militarists exult. To be provocative, I would it is time for the peace movement to make sure that US loses this geopolitical war! To win it, even persisting with it, would constitute a grave ‘geopolitical crime.’

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.