The Second Level Geopolitical War in Ukraine Takes Over

Photograph Source: President.gov.ua – CC BY 4.0

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 of calling the ‘Ukraine War.’ The first level was clearly initiated on February 24, 2022 when Russia launched an aggressive war against Ukraine imperiling its sovereign rights and 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 economic 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 effort led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, in defense of a relatively small country being overrun by its 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 in the country against Russia. It is  in this internal setting that 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 was never properly implemented. It remains uncertain as whether the Russia/Ukraine level of combat can be resolved without serious addressing Russian and Donbas concerns at the core of this third level of conflict.

What has been apparent to critics for some time is that Western diplomacy has become primarily committed to 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 to meeting in Europe with their NATO counterparts. What was revealed was that the number one policy goal of the U.S. was ‘the weakening of Russia’ made a viable undertaking by the unexpected resistance capabilities of Ukrainian armed forces bolstered by a show of unified patriotic resolve. In keeping with this line of thinking, arms shipments to Ukraine were increased significantly, and more tellingly, overtly acknowledging the shipment of so-called heavy armaments with offensive capabilities. As this dynamic unfolded, Germany dramatically reversed its policy of not providing heavy weaponry, and the whole tenor of assistance was shifted from helping Ukraine resist to addressing the geopolitical agenda with its two goals: inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia and signaling to China to not doubt Western resolve to defend Taiwan.

Despite this shift in emphasis, earlier concerns with escalating the Geopolitical War with Russia have not been abandoned, such as inducing situations that tempt the use of nuclear weapons. White House perceptions of what will cause such a temptation seem dangerous divergent. Apparently, the Biden presidency continues to oppose a No Fly Zone in Ukraine because it would greatly increase the prospects for direct combat encounters between NATO and Russia, and with it risks of this new species of cold war turning 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 continuously increasing diplomatic, financial, and military assistance to Ukraine. What has been missing all along has been any indication 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. commitment to the Geopolitical War takes precedence over the well-being of the Ukrainian people.

Zelensky early in the war indicated receptivity to a ceasefire and political compromise, including permanent neutrality for Ukraine, and signaled his willingness to meet with Putin. More recently, however, Zelensky has pulled back from this dual stance of armed resistance and peace diplomacy, and come to adopt a position seamless with that of the U.S. 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 both by promises of decisive support from Washington and possible militarist advice from his own general staff. After all, Zelensky’s background is in theater and as a performing comedian without any signs that he is aware of the wider risks at stake if Ukraine goes along with the premises of the Geopolitical War.

As expected, Moscow has already reacted to this escalation of the second war with the warning that it will not back down, but will take all necessary steps to protect its national security interests, intimating a possible recourse to nuclear weapons. Such inflamed atmospherics can easily produce 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 with an all out war scenario that led these superpower antagonists to understand that they had averted a monumental mutual catastrophe by sheer luck.

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 war and geopolitical ambition exist, and that Russia is more globally supported in the Geopolitical War than is the United States. 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 strife in Dombas. Provocations. By and large the liberal and left-liberal mainstream supported outright condemnation Russian aggression, but favored an immediate ceasefire and diplomacy to end the war and mitigate 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 heavy emphasis on the context of Western provocations and interference in Ukraine’s internal politics since 2014 as did some on the extreme right who identified with Putin’s authoritarianism as the wave of the future.

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 with its 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, or more than the next 11 countries.

The U.S. position in 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 claiming for the U.S. the sole prerogative of managing security throughout such a rule-governed world. The UN or international law are subjugated 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 to Moscow to meet with Putin and the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the message was the same: Focus on ways to end the war, and desist from carrying on 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 their one-on-one meeting 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 willing to seek a negotiated end to the conflict on the ground. Of course, it is premature to reach any assessment until deeds follow words, but we have yet to hear a comparable level of peace-mindedness in Biden’s public statements, which so far seem calculated to stir anti-Russian fury 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 geopolitical primacy.

Conclusionary 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. On this basis, I believe that two overriding assessments emerge: stop the killing by all means available and unconditionally repudiate the Geopolitical War.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.