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.

1: The intra-Ukrainian & Ukraine-Russia circle

This is the tightest, most intimate, and probably the most widely understood of the dimensions of the current conflict. As has been well explained in the writings of Anatol Lieven (especially this 1999 book) and the more recent book on Ukraine by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies, the peoples of Russia and Ukraine have a long history in common, one in which periods of close cooperation have often jostled with other periods of competition or hostility.

Percentage of people who declared Russian their native language in Ukraine’s 2001 census

In 2001, just under 30% of the population within the borders of Ukraine as they are currently recognized, described themselves as native Russian-language speakers, with most of these being ethnic Russians.

Ukraine’s ethnic-Russian citizens are concentrated in the country’s east and south, especially Crimea and the eastern Donbas region. The Kyiv government’s curtailment of the rights of Russian-language speakers has been one major cause of the civil strife in the country. It will need to be addressed along with other essential internal-reform challenges in Ukraine and the broader tenor of the relationship between the governments in Kyiv and Moscow if any durable peace is to be restored to Ukraine.

(Click here for more background on this 1st circle of Ukraine’s hell.)

2. The European circle

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is deeply embedded in the broader conflict that Russia saw itself facing both before and after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, between itself and a concept of “the West” that in Europe is manifested most sharply in the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO.

During the decades-long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Europe was initially a major locus of power struggles between them. Then, after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 sharply underlined for leaders in both countries the risks of any confrontation going nuclear, they gradually settled into working with a modus vivendi in Europe in which neither side gave active support to regime-change operations within the other’s zone of influence; the risks of intra-European nuclear-missile exchanges were sharply limited by mutual agreement; and crucial “rules of the road” were established for interactions between them. The clearest delineation of these “rules of the road” were those contained in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. (Those accords also birthed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, a conflict-prevention body whose 57 members today include all European states, the formerly Soviet states of Central Asia, the United States, and Canada. It has played a constructive conflict-monitoring role in Ukraine for many years now.)

The modus vivendi in Europe and the broader superpower detente of which it was a part allowed for—perhaps, even encouraged?—the emergence of citizen-based mass movements in Eastern Europe that in the late 1980s won the retreat of Soviet power from Eastern Europe, the dismantling of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact and then, in 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

For its part, NATO had been established in 1949 as a primarily defensive alliance that united countries in Western Europe and North America (the USA and Canada) that wanted to resist a perceived threat of Soviet expansion. In the late 1980s, as the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact collapsed, the East Germans (who had been a part of the Pact) expressed a strong desire to join West Germans in a reunified Germany. That would bring them straight into NATO! The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, agreed to this abrupt shift; but according to many authoritative reports (see, e.g., the docs presented here) he did so only in return for the United States promising that thereafter NATO would not advance any further to the east. Those promises, however, were never put down in writing.

Under Pres. Clinton, NATO expansion did indeed occur, starting in 1999. It continued throughout the first two decades of the present century, bringing into NATO the three small Baltic-coast states that had previously been part of the Soviet Union as well as numerous former members of the Warsaw Pact.

In that same era, the United States allowed a number of key Cold War-era arms control agreements to lapse. These included the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, that had long been a linchpin for intra-European security. Russia’s leaders saw both NATO’s continued advance eastward and Washington’s laying-down of the arms control agreements as very threatening to their security.

(At its most recent meeting in Madrid last summer, NATO leaders reaffirmed their willingness to bring Ukraine and Georgia in as full members once they meet certain criteria for membership. They also agreed to give speedy consideration to the applications that Sweden and Finland submitted, for membership. The map above is already a little out-dated… )

There is a very clear “European” dimension to the conflict in Ukraine. In mid-December 2021, as Russian armed forces were already massing along Ukraine’s border in what the leaders in Moscow were still describing as only a “large-scale military exercise”, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released the drafts of two international agreements that it said it wanted to propose. One of these was a proposed Agreement with NATO and the other, a new Treaty on Security Guarantees with the United States.

In the proposed Agreement with NATO, Russia asked NATO to refrain from any further enlargement, including to Ukraine, and to agree not to deploy to states that were not members of NATO in May 1997 any weaponry those states did not already have in that month. (The content of that latter request seems unclear. But the Russians were clearly trying to make a distinction there between states that were members of NATO before 1997 and those that joined later.)

The Treaty the Russians proposed to the United States had several portions dealing with bilateral nuclear arms-control issues. Then in Article 4 it asked the United States to prevent any further eastward expansion of NATO, and seemed to ask it to expel from NATO any formerly Soviet state.

The Russian Foreign Ministry communicated these proposals to the United States around ten days before (Western) Christmas 2021, and ministry leaders said they would be ready to start negotiating the precise terms for them with Washington within days. Unsurprisingly, Washington sent no response; and the tensions along the Ukraine-Russia border continued to rise…

Two months later, when the Russian military launched its invasion of Ukraine, Pres. Putin released a lengthy address in which he explained that decision to his own people and the world. Nearly the whole of that speech dealt with his grievances against NATO and the United States. Only a small portion dealt with the situation inside Ukraine.

3. The global-balance circle

It was clear from the two draft agreements that the Russian Foreign Ministry presented in December 2021 and from Pres. Putin’s February 24 speech that he was acting from a sharp sense that the the United States and its allies were trying to encircle Russia and weaken it significantly. As he saw it, therefore, the stakes involved in Ukraine were not only Ukrainian, not only European, but also global. He and his generals presumably hoped that with a quick encirclement of Kyiv the Russian military could achieve the speedy capture of Ukraine’s locus of national power and thus wrench Ukraine back onto the pro-Russian side of the global-balance ledger.

That plan looks similar to the one that Israel pursued in its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which aimed at the encirclement of Beirut and the installation of the pro-Israeli figure Bashir Gemayyel as Lebanon’s new president—or indeed, the violent regime-change actions the United States undertook or supported in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, or elsewhere… If, last February, Putin was indeed planning some kind of swift regime-change action in Ukraine, then he failed to achieve that initial objective. The Russian military then fell back to a Plan B focused on beefing up the power of Russia and its allies in the south and east of the country. That fallback plan involved a large-scale call-up of conscripts, replacement of the general commanding the operation in Ukraine, absorbing some retreats in the south and east—and also, almost certainly, devoting a lot more resources to the war in Ukraine than Putin had originally planned.

At the global level, the US-led NATO alliance and Russia, both of them owners of super-deadly nuclear arsenals (and of vetoes in the U.N. Security Council), found themselves locked in a hard-to-budge stalemate.

Washington’s first response to the Russian invasion had been to turn to two longtime mainstays of its diplomacy: slapping harsh sanctions onto its opponent and building a broad international alliance to support its own cause. This time—unlike, for example, in the years after the attacks of 9/11—both those tools notably under-performed. Indeed, the effectiveness of the sanctions tool was crucially dependent on Washington being able to win strong international support for it; and this, it absolutely failed to do.

Graphic from NYT, October 2022. lick to enlarge

A series of graphics published by the New York Times on October 30, 2022, showed that the volume of Russia’s trade with a number of key trade partners (China, Turkey, India, India, Japan… ) increased considerably during 2022 compared with the monthly average, 2017-2021. Quite possibly, much of that trade was, because of sanctions, conducted under terms less favorable than hitherto. The head of Russia’s Central Bank said in December that Russian GDP would contract 3% in 2022. But this was far less, obviously, than Washington had hoped. 

Still, in 2022 the Russian economy proved as resilient under the onslaught of Washington’s sanctions as Kiev had proven under the threat of Russia’s tanks.

Another set of numbers can indicate the depth of Washington’s failure to build and maintain a robust international coalition against Russia. With Russia having veto power over the actions and declarations of the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. forum where the positions of the world’s governments are best represented is the General Assembly, in which all the U.N.’s 193 members have votes. On March 2, the Assembly voted 141 votes to five to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with five abstentions. Another vote in mid-November, on a resolution demanding that Russia pay reparations to Ukraine, was adopted by 94 votes to 14, this time with 73 abstentions. (Neither vote has any practical application.)

The global-balance equation in which the Ukraine conflict is embedded has several dimensions, including the global political balance, the global military balance (including at the nuclear level), and the global economic balance. In next week’s Globalities essay I’ll take a deeper dive into those matters so we can explore how working for a sustainable resolution in Ukraine can be synergistic with building a stable, more robust, and rights-based global society.

Stay tuned!

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