Why Ukraine is a testing ground for the contestation of the great powers?
Authors: Alexander Dynkin and Thomas Graham*
Europe is on the brink of war. The United States and its allies are convinced that Russia is planning an invasion of Ukraine, and they are threatening “devastating” sanctions if it takes this step. Moscow vehemently denies such plans, while saying Kiev is preparing for an assault on Donbass separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russian military maneuvers in Crimea, Western Russia and Belarus are unnerving the West, while NATO plans a buildup of forces along its long border with Russia that stretches from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Meanwhile, an intermittent round of diplomacy preserves hope that the crisis can be defused without military conflict – although the “confidential” US response to Russian demands to halt NATO expansion underscores how point the two parties remain distant.
Is there a diplomatic resolution that will bring lasting peace and stability to the troubled region of Eastern Europe? Yes, but to achieve this, one must understand the essence of the current crisis. It’s not just about Ukraine. It is the broader European settlement at the end of the Cold War 30 years ago, which Moscow says was imposed on it at a time of extreme weakness and disregards its national interests. The further eastward expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions – notably NATO, a politico-military organization designed to contain Russia, and the European Union, an economic community that Russia will never be able to join -, according to Moscow, jeopardizes the security and prosperity of Russia. A revived Russia is determined to stop, if not reverse, this process, using any means necessary.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. The great powers, as soon as they can, will seek to revise a peace imposed on them after defeat in a major war. This was the lesson of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, which was negotiated without the participation of Germany or Soviet Russia. Russia’s economic recovery in the 2000s and the rapid modernization of its military over the past decade have given it the ability to challenge the Cold War settlement in the name of what Moscow sees as fairer.
The United States will be reluctant to overhaul a European order that has served its interests extraordinarily well over the past three decades. In the absence of meaningful adjustments, however, intermittent crises such as the current stalemate are inevitable. A lasting peace requires that Russia’s interests be taken into account so that it has a stake in this order. The challenge is to find a way forward that meets at least Moscow’s minimum security requirements without forcing the United States and its allies to compromise their fundamental principles and interests.
It may seem like an impossible task – how to reconcile the irreconcilable? How do you reconcile the principled insistence of the United States that the door to NATO remain open to the membership of former Soviet states, in particular Ukraine, with Russia’s non-negotiable demand for a sphere of privileged interests that would include these former Soviet states?
Admittedly, the way forward is strewn with pitfalls, but it exists. It will take flexibility and creativity on both sides to navigate it successfully. The risk of a war which would turn out to be catastrophic for Europe, and in the first place for Ukraine, and which would threaten to degenerate into a nuclear cataclysm should concentrate people’s minds.
We have both held leadership positions in our governments, and although we no longer represent our respective governments, we believe we have identified an exit ramp for this impasse that could work for our respective countries.
We see four elements to a solution. First, restrictions on military operations along the NATO/Russian border. Second, a moratorium on NATO’s eastward expansion. Third, the resolution of ongoing and frozen conflicts in the former Soviet space and the Balkans. And fourth, the modernization of the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which created a pan-European forum and articulated agreed principles of interstate relations to underpin East-West detente.
These four elements need to be negotiated as a whole, although progress is likely to come at different paces along the four tracks, as the US and Russia need to see where they are going before engaging in substantive talks. on the details.
Curbing military operations. To reintroduce military restraint along the Russia/NATO border, the two countries can start by resurrecting aspects of Cold War agreements that have fallen into disrepair in recent years, with either side losing all interest in joining. Both sides agree that this is an important step, although Russia insists that it should only be taken after the issue of NATO enlargement has been resolved – all the more reason why all aspects of the regulations must be on the table if progress is to be made on either one. of them.
Today, both parties must reaffirm their agreements to avoid dangerous incidents at sea or in the air. They need to negotiate something akin to the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty that regulates military activities in a non-threatening way in border areas, taking into account current realities. They must resuscitate the INF treaty at least for Europe, i.e. no deployment of intermediate range land-based ballistic missiles on the continent. This will force the United States and Russia to resolve the grievances that led to the treaty’s demise in 2019, when neither country was ready to muster the political will to pursue the technical solutions that could meet its concerns. Reaching an agreement on these issues will take time, as was the case with similar agreements during the Cold War, but an agreement is certainly possible.
Accept a moratorium on NATO enlargement. NATO’s eastward expansion is at the heart of the current conflict. One of us has proposed a formal moratorium on expansion into former Soviet states, including Ukraine, for 20-25 years. The other proposes 2050 as the end year of the moratorium. There is nothing magical about the period; it just needs to be long enough for Russia to claim that its minimum security requirements have been met, and short enough for the United States to credibly claim that it has not abandoned the policy of open door. Even if a moratorium cannot be agreed, it should prove possible to find a mutually agreeable way to make it clear that Ukraine will not join NATO for years, if not decades, which US and NATO will readily admit in private. .
At the same time, the two sides should seek an agreement on the limits of NATO activities in and around Ukraine that meet Russia’s security concerns, but again do not compromise the principles of NATO. These could include a commitment by NATO member states not to build or occupy military bases in Ukraine or to supply Ukraine with offensive weapons systems that could strike Russian territory in return for a commitment Russian not to deploy certain weapon systems in a defined area along Ukraine’s borders. . This would not be an extraordinary concession on the part of NATO members. In the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, NATO pledged not to deploy nuclear weapons or substantial standing combat forces in the new member states, as it under no circumstances intended to do so. . Certainly, NATO can now pledge to refrain from certain types of activity with respect to non-members, if that will help allay Moscow’s concerns.
Resolve “frozen” conflicts. Ongoing and frozen conflicts in the former Soviet space and the Balkans, including Crimea, Kosovo and Donbass, all involve a degree of separatism. Everything should be resolved on the basis of some form of local democracy, i.e. a vote to verify the will of the people in the breakaway regions is the starting point, after which a series of agreements techniques must be entered into to settle the issues that would necessarily arise from any peaceful secession of territory from a larger state. The exact form of the vote could be adapted to the particular circumstances of each conflict. It doesn’t have to be a referendum on the issue of separatism. In the cases of Crimea and Kosovo, the most important conflicts, regular elections could serve this purpose, with the stipulation that victory would require a qualified majority of the electorate to vote for candidates who support separatism. The only requirement would be that the vote be internationally observed and then certified free and fair to erase any doubts about its legitimacy. Such votes would undoubtedly reaffirm what most impartial observers know to be the hard truth that Kosovo will remain independent and Crimea will never return to Ukraine. A similar vote could be used to determine how to move forward with the breakaway regions of Donbass, including whether the Minsk agreements should form the basis of the resolution or whether some minor adjustments should be made to accommodate local preferences.
Update the Helsinki Accords. Updating and modernizing the Helsinki Accords would crown a comprehensive settlement, laying the foundation for decades of peace in Europe. In particular, both sides should seek agreement on the interpretation of the 10 Guiding Principles of State Relations, on which all parties have agreed, including respect for sovereign rights, self-determination, non- interference in internal affairs, prohibition of threats or use of force, and peaceful settlement of disputes. The aim is to establish a solid basis for the organization of European security in the future that takes into account historical developments and technological advances since 1975 that affect the way states interact and act on the world stage.
Achieving a comprehensive settlement will take a lot of time and effort, but the time to start is now. As was the case five decades ago, when the Helsinki Accords ushered in a period of detente, no country will get everything it wants and no country will capitulate to an imposed peace.
The final settlement will be far from ideal in the minds of many; critics will denounce it as an appeasement. But the outcome will be better for all parties than any armed conflict could possibly produce.
*Thomas GrahamDistinguished Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, was the Senior Director for Russia on the staff of the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
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