Stop the Geopolitical War Now

Photograph Source: Nicky Fernandes – CC BY 2.0

In my view it is best to understand the Ukraine Crisis as 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 intended 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 their sovereign rights. The U.S./Europe is guilty of an offsetting miscalculation in the second level war—the geopolitical war–by expressing its solidarity with the sovereign rights of Ukraine through a heavy-handed emphasis on a punitive anti-Russian approach consisting of hostile propaganda, comprehensive sanctions, and the official demonization of Putin and Russia. Such posture seems calculated to prolong the war, especially as the expressions of support from American leaders have not even mentioned the diplomatic alternative of a ceasefire accompanied by negotiations within an impartial framework.

To its credit the Biden presidency has so far resisted pressure to escalate this geopolitical war by fusing its prosecution with that of Ukrainian resistance forces through such steps as establishing a no-fly-zone in Ukraine, supplying offensive weaponry, and deploying NATO forces and weaponry. This is not enough because its tendency is to prolong the 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 ground war goes on.

A diplomatic path to conflict resolution is completely absent, in effect negated, given the political language of demonization relied upon by Biden from the outset of the Russian aggression on February 24th. To accuse Russian and its leaders of war crimes 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 inflammatory 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, is something the West wisely refrained from doing even with respect to Stalin and Stalinism at the height of the Cold War. Such a statement unless attributed to an emotional outburst that a nuclear armed world can ill afford, must be regarded as calculated to enrage Putin and his entourage, and thus inhibit any willingness to explore prospects for ending the violence now.

It has become obvious that the priority in the geopolitical war is weakening Russia 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 irresponsibly raising the risk of a violent encounter between Russia and NATO. This encounter has already given rise to heightened nuclear dangers, and these would increase with any further escalation. 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 among innocent persons due to the impacts of inflated prices for basic necessities, supply shortages, and disruption, which leads to political uprising and chaos (already evident in several countries as remote from the Ukrainian combat zones as Sri Lanka and Cuba).

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 21stcentury, to produce a high-intensity new cold war. Part of this strategic agenda 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.

The intensified hostile propaganda and punitive initiatives taken by the West and directed at Russia are justified 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 without tangible results with respect to its security concerns arising from Ukraine’s willingness to identify so openly with NATO and the U.S. There are various conjectures that such a strategy might prolong the Ukraine War by as much as four years, 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 by a massive program of post-conflict reconstruction aid, and the unpredictable destabilizing effects of sanctions on the world economy, especially trade relations and inflation.

There seems little doubt that by conviction or reflecting leverage, President Volodimir Zelensky, has not reacted publicly to the cross-purposes resulting from the geopolitical level of encounter. On the contrary, Zelensky has taken advantage of empathy for the Ukrainian plight to plead his case in such venues as 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 no attention given to whether there is a better way to end the war on the ground. We must ask whether Zelensky has been blind to costs for Ukraine of this ongoing geopolitical war or has disastrously bought into its flimsy rationale, whether knowingly or not.

There is a final point that has been made persuasively by Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute in Washington: Whether the was 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, a UN peacekeeping border control, 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 every public signal 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 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 opting for an untenable geopolitical war waged with inflammatory rhetoric and further inflated military budgets, backed by the fictitious encounter between democracies and 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. It is well to wonder why the Philippines, India, and Brazil are grouped among the world’s democracies and why every sustained war since 1945 has been won by the weaker side militarily.

It is time for a unilateral decision to renounce the geopolitical war and encourage the Ukrainian government to seek peace by proposing an immediate ceasefire and an impartial framework for peace diplomacy.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global law, Queen Mary University London, and Research Associate, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB.