Ukraine’s 3 circles of hell (or, of opportunity?)

Image: Signing ceremony for the 2015 “Minsk II” agreement on Ukraine. Shown l. to r. are the leaders of host country Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine.

This week’s news that the United States, Germany, and other NATO countries will be adding two more types of complex Western tanks to the confused mix the Ukrainian military are already trying to deal with is a worrying sign of Washington’s readiness to climb to a higher rung of the potentially catastrophic escalation ladder in Ukraine. But it will take quite some time till those tanks can be used in Ukraine by capable, trained-up Ukrainian tank crews…

Meantime, the need for a speedy, total, country-wide armistice in Ukraine only continues to grow.

Any sustainable peace effort in Ukraine is going to have to address issues at three (or more!) different levels. None of these issues is easy. Initially, I thought of the three levels as constituting three potential “circles of hell.” Then, on further reflection, I concluded we should also think of them as challenges, or even opportunities to build a better-governed and more sustainable world… But first, we need to recognize and understand what the levels are and how they are inter-connected.

Addressing them all will, of course, take time. But luckily there is one powerful tool that diplomats can use today that will speedily stop the carnage on the ground and allow the breathing-space that’s needed to address the deeper issues. It’s called an armistice. As I wrote here, an armistice is what Ukrainians and everyone who has been harmed by this conflict needs right now. (Note: not more weapons, more fear and dispossession, more carnage…)

But let me, anyway, first try to delineate the different levels of confrontation involved in Ukraine, which for now I’ll continue, a little tongue-in-cheek, to describe as the “three circles of hell.”


The good news is that the Ukraine conflict sits amid only three circles of hell, far fewer than the nine identified by Dante Aligheri! The bad news is that each of these is a very tough nut to crack. Then again, two other items of good news: (a) None of these “nuts” need to be cracked immediately. Remember, the leaders of NATO and Russia can agree to a complete armistice in Ukraine any time they choose to, without even starting to negotiate the terms of a “final” peace settlement; and (b) Addressing these challenges in international relations can turn out to be a holistic effort that lays the basis for global stability for many decades to come. (Humankind does, after all, have quite a few other massive challenges to address over the years ahead… )

So what are the three “circles of hell” of which the Ukraine conflict is the epicenter? They are:

  1. The intra-Ukrainian & Ukraine-Russia circle
  2. The European circle, and
  3. The global-balance circle

For now, let me sketch the dimensions of each of these circles briefly. Then, in one or more subsequent essays I’ll unpack them a little more and start to look at the many interactions among them.

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Ukraine: Is it a ‘world war’?

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the conflict there has inflicted great harm on the peoples of the Global South. It has sent food prices worldwide soaring. (In 2022, the number of people worldwide facing acute food insecurity reached 345 million.) And amid mounting evidence of the terrible effects of climate change, the divisions sparked by the war have stymied any effective global response… while the campaign by Western leaders to block Russia’s hydrocarbon exports has led to a resurgence of coal mining—and the warfighting itself has generated significant noxious emissions. We all know that the harshest effects of global warning fall on the peoples of the Global South.

So in this sense, the conflict in Ukraine is already “a war with clear global effects.” Does it make any difference to also call it a “world war”?

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A Korea-style armistice for Ukraine?

Over the past eleven months, Ukraine’s people have suffered far too much killing and destruction. Most but by no means all of that devastation has been at the hands of the Russian military. (Residents of the country’s eastern provinces have been hammered hard by the Ukrainian military, over the course of several years now. Their fate has been almost ignored in Western media.)

How do we think about and respond to this suffering? Should we join the serried ranks of the Western punditocracy who endlessly urge that ever more and deadlier weaponry be sent to Ukraine? Or shouldn’t we, instead, be starting to call for a formalized, country-wide ceasefire in Ukraine… That is, an Armistice like the one that for 70 years now has preserved a broad ceasefire on the Korean peninsula and has allowed South Korea not just to survive but also to flourish.

(I realize the Koreas have not been totally peaceful since their Armistice went into force in 1953. North Korea has a belligerent, nuclear-armed leader who often seems very erratic. And South Korea’s president is now also talking about the possibility of going nuclear. But still, the Armistice has served all of Korea’s people—especially those in the South—and the cause of world peace, pretty well for many decades.)

The photo above shows the final signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, in July 1953, in the North Korean village of Panmunjon. I’ll come back to the Koreas later. But for now, let’s circle back to the grinding—and globally very harmful—situation in Ukraine.

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My recent writings on imperialism, settler-colonialism, the Ukraine crisis, etc…

At some point, I want to go back and take a gallop through my intellectual history going back to the 1970s. (Interested folks can see some some aspects of that at my Wikipedia page.) But here, I just want to pull together some of the more worthwhile of the pieces I’ve written over the past 18 months. This was a period in which (a) I was figuring out more and better how to regain my own voice as a writer/thinker/analyst after spending 12-plus years working mainly to amplify the voices of others, and (b) I was struck by a fairly evident sign of ageing in the form of a retina problem that started in early November 2021.

So here’s the best of what I produced over the past 18 months:

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