Yves here. It’s frustrating to see Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies not understanding the history of and stakes in the Ukraine conflict, perhaps because they are not willing to see that the only peace settlement that will occur is when one side is defeated, and that side is not likely to be Russia. Moreover, despite Putin recently maintaining that conflicts eventually end in some sort of talks, as we have pointed out, many wars have ended with no pact.
Even though Putin keeps making ritual noises about being willing to negotiate, Russia kept trying to reduce security threats without a protracted conflict, even through the end of March in Istanbul. Russia has since gotten confirmation of its worst suspicions and allegations: that the West wants regime change, and even dismemberment of Russia; that as Angela Merkel revealed, the US and Europe were simply playing Russia with the Minsk agreement, buying time to arm Ukraine and never had any intention of implementing the deal.
I have trouble with the assertion that Europe regarded Russia as a security threat. They would not have become energy dependent were that case. Even the rabid Baltics get electricity from Russia. The more consistent interpretation of the facts is that the US and NATO were confident they could subjugate Russia if it became uppity.
In light of his falling for a supposed peace deal to set up Russia for defeat, out of what he now regards his naive belief that could have normal commercial relations with the West and have a seat at the geopolitical table as a major power, Putin’s embittered remarks last week do not come off as exaggerated:
I have pointed out many times and have written in my articles that the goal of our strategic adversaries is to weaken and divide our nation. This has been so for centuries, and there is nothing new in this now. They believe that our country is too large and poses a threat, which is why it must be diminished and divided. Wherever you look, this has been their goal over the past centuries. I will not provide any examples now; you can find them in the relevant materials. They have always nurtured this idea and such plans, hoping that they will be able to implement them, one way or another.
For our part, we have aways or nearly always pursued a completely different approach and had different goals: we have always wanted to be part of the so-called civilised world. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, which we ourselves allowed to take place, we thought for some reason that we would become part of that so-called civilised world any day. But it turned out that nobody wanted this to happen, despite our efforts and attempts, and this concerns my efforts as well, because I made these attempts too. We tried to become closer, to become part of that world. But to no avail.
On the contrary, they undertook, including with the use of international terrorists in the Caucasus, to finish off Russia and to split the Russian Federation. There is no need to prove this to many of you in this room, because you know what took place in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s. They claimed to condemn al-Qaeda and other criminals, yet they considered using them on the territory of Russia as acceptable and provided all kinds of assistance to them, including material, information, political and any other support, notably military support, to encourage them to continue fighting against Russia. We overcame that complicated period in our history thanks to the people of the Caucasus, thanks to the Chechen people, and thanks to the heroism of our military personnel. We have survived those trials, growing stronger in the process.
It took off from there, as the saying goes. Not to offend anyone, but I will still say that our geopolitical rivals started using every opportunity they had to pursue their agenda. They started brainwashing people across the post-Soviet space, primarily in Ukraine. And they have been quite successful at that and well prepared, since back in the Soviet era they had entire institutions working on these matters.
After the 2014 government coup in Ukraine – let me emphasise that we spent decades trying to improve our relations in the new geopolitical environment – we did everything to build not only neighbourly, but brotherly relations: we granted them loans and supplied them with energy resources for next to nothing. This lasted for years. No, nothing worked. I mean nothing.
Let me remind you that when the Soviet Union was breaking apart, Ukraine withdrew from the union. In its Declaration of Independence, and I think – I am actually certain that back then the Russian leadership took this into consideration – Ukraine wrote that it is a neutral state. For this reason, we can understand why the Russian leaders at the time did not see these threats. They viewed Ukraine as a neutral state, a brotherly nation sharing a single culture with us, as well as having common spiritual and moral values, and a shared past. They did not see any threats. However, our adversaries persisted in their efforts, and we must recognise that they have been quite effective.
We pinned our hopes, it seems, on our efforts to improve these relations, but they proved ineffective and failed to reach the desired objective. Let me emphasise that we have nothing to blame ourselves for. I say this with full responsibility.
You know my position on this matter: we have always treated the people of Ukraine as a brotherly nation. I still think this way. What is currently happening is, of course, a tragedy. It is our common tragedy. But it does not result from our policy. On the contrary, it results from the policies carried out by other countries, by third countries, which have always wished to split the Russian world apart.
They succeeded, to a certain extent, and pushed us to the brink we are at now.
So, after the 2014 coup – I am not going to talk about the reasons behind this coup and will only say that it was unacceptable. As you may remember, in February 2014, three foreign ministers from Poland, France and Germany arrived in Kiev and put their signatures as guarantors of an agreement between the opposition and the incumbent government. The coup took place several days later. Everyone forgot about these guarantees, as if they had never existed. What should have been done instead? All they had to do was say, “Friends, we are the guarantors and major European countries, so please go back to the negotiating table, go to the polls and resolve the power issue using political procedures.” That is all they had to do.
Everyone realised perfectly well that, for better or for worse, the then government would have certainly lost the elections, especially since the then president agreed to almost all the opposition’s demands, including early elections. And when I ask our so-called colleagues why they allowed the coup to happen, they have no answer to that. They just shrug their shoulders and say it just happened. Good grief. It just happened? That way they let us know that no pro-Russian forces, and all politicians, journalists, or public figures who were even slightly in favour of developing relations with Russia were simply killed in the street, and no one thought about investigating anything. It became clear that we would not be given any chance, simply no chance whatsoever to restore relations with this portion of our former common country. No way. In fact, they used terror in a shameless and brazen manner.
The brainwashing of the citizens of Ukraine and the neo-Nazi and extremely nationalistic ideology that went on for decades did their job, one way or another.
What is it all about? Hitler’s acolytes were elevated to the rank of national heroes, and no one seemed to care. Indeed, they are nationalists, but there are nationalists in any country, and we have them as well. But we are fighting manifestations of neo-Nazism and fascism; we are not elevating it to the rank of national policy. While in Ukraine they do and everyone pretends not to notice it. Nationalism does not seem to be a bad thing since it is about fighting for national interests, but the fact that this is done on the basis of a Nazi, neo-Nazi ideology is simply ignored. They walk around wearing swastikas in central parts of major cities, including the capital city, and they make it look as if it were nothing unusual. Why? Because it is the same approach they used in the 1990s and the early 2000s with the international terrorists fighting Russia. Pardon me, but they did not give a damn that those were terrorists, recognised international terrorists. They did not care, because they used them to fight Russia. It is the same now: neo-Nazis are used to fight against Russia. No one cares about the fact that they are neo-Nazis. What matters to them is that they are fighting Russia. But we do care.
It became clear back then that a clash with these forces, including in Ukraine, was inevitable, the only question was when. Military operations and hostilities always come with tragedy and loss of life. We are aware of this. But since it is inevitable, better do it today than tomorrow. I think that everyone in this audience understands perfectly well what I am talking about, including the state of our Armed Forces and the availability of advanced types of weapons and other equipment that we have but other countries do not. All of the above gives us a certain margin of safety.
We know our advantages: the nuclear triad, the Aerospace Forces, the Navy in certain segments, and so on. We know this, we have it all, and all of it is in the right state. We also see what we need to do to improve the Armed Forces, including the Ground Forces, our counter-artillery warfare, communications systems, and so on. Everyone in this room understands what I am talking about, and I am sure you agree with me.
There is something I want to emphasise. We in Russia (there are very few such countries in the world, and certainly not our neighbours, who will be left with nothing soon except for foreign handouts such as money, weapons, ammunition, only handouts – things are completely different in Russia), we have everything. I want to emphasise this: we have every single thing, we have the resources to build up this potential, and we will certainly do this without cutting any slack. Moreover, unlike many other countries, as I said, we will rely on our own (I want to emphasise this) our own scientific, technological, production and personnel resources. Moreover, we will attain our goals without detriment to economic growth or social development, while unfailingly fulfilling our social obligations to our citizens. All the plans outlined here, all our long-term goals will be achieved, and all plans will be carried out.
We will not repeat the mistakes of the past, when we harmed our economy to boost our defence capabilities, regardless of whether it was warranted or not. We are not going to militarise our country or militarise the economy, primarily because we have no need to do it at the current level of development and with the structure of the economy that we have. Again – we do not intend to, and we will not do things we do not really need, to the detriment of our people and the economy, the social sphere.
We will improve the Russian Armed Forces and the entire military component. We will do it calmly, routinely and consistently, without haste. We will attain our objectives to strengthen our defence capability in general as well as meeting the goals of the special military operation.
As another Russian official (IIRC Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov) pointed out last week, the two sides have “incompatible positions” or as your humble blogger likes to put it, no bargaining overlap.
And that’s before adding in that the West is not agreement capable. As lawyers often observe, an agreement is only as good as the parties to it. And we’ve demonstrated our commitment means nothing. So why should Russia play this game any more? Russia might go through the motions for appearances in the extremely unlikely event that there were a major change in the US/NATO/Ukraine position. But Russia could easily blow up any talks by insisting that, say, China be among the guarantors.
By Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies, the authors of War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict, available from OR Books in November 2022. Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and the author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood on Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.
On December 27 2022, both Russia and Ukraine issued calls for ending the war in Ukraine, but only on non-negotiable terms that they each know the other side will reject.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Kuleba proposed a “peace summit” in February to be chaired by UN Secretary General Guterres, but with the precondition that Russia must first face prosecution for war crimes in an international court. On the other side, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov issued a chilling ultimatum that Ukraine must accept Russia’s terms for peace or “the issue will be decided by the Russian Army.”
But what if there were a way of understanding this conflict and possible solutions that encompassed the views of all sides and could take us beyond one-sided narratives and proposals that serve only to fuel and escalate the war? The crisis in Ukraine is in fact a classic case of what International Relations scholars call a “security dilemma,” and this provides a more objective way of looking at it.
A security dilemma is a situation in which countries on each side take actions for their own defense that countries on the other side then see as a threat. Since offensive and defensive weapons and forces are often indistinguishable, one side’s defensive build-up can easily be seen as an offensive build-up by the other side. As each side responds to the actions of the other, the net result is a spiral of militarization and escalation, even though both sides insist, and may even believe, that their own actions are defensive.
In the case of Ukraine, this has happened on different levels, both between Russia and national and regional governments in Ukraine, but also on a larger geopolitical scale between Russia and the United States/NATO.
The very essence of a security dilemma is the lack of trust between the parties. In the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis served as an alarm bell that forced both sides to start negotiating arms control treaties and safeguard mechanisms that would limit escalation, even as deep levels of mistrust remained. Both sides recognized that the other was not hell-bent on destroying the world, and this provided the necessary minimum basis for negotiations and safeguards to try to ensure that this did not come to pass.
After the end of the Cold War, both sides cooperated with major reductions in their nuclear arsenals, but the United States gradually withdrew from a succession of arms control treaties, violated its promises not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, and used military force in ways that directly violated the UN Charter’s prohibition against the “threat or use of force.” U.S. leaders claimed that the conjunction of terrorism and the existence of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons gave them a new right to wage “preemptive war,” but neither the UN nor any other country ever agreed to that.
U.S. aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere was alarming to people all over the world, and even to many Americans, so it was no wonder that Russian leaders were especially worried by America’s renewed post-Cold War militarism. As NATO incorporated more and more countries in Eastern Europe, a classic security dilemma began to play out.
President Putin, who was elected in 2000, began to use international fora to challenge NATO expansion and U.S. war-making, insisting that new diplomacy was needed to ensure the security of all countries in Europe, not only those invited to join NATO.
The former Communist countries in Eastern Europe joined NATO out of defensive concerns about possible Russian aggression, but this also exacerbated Russia’s security concerns about the ambitious and aggressive military alliance gathering around its borders, especially as the United States and NATO refused to address those concerns.
In this context, broken promises on NATO expansion, U.S. serial aggression in the greater Middle East and elsewhere, and absurd claims that U.S. missile defense batteries in Poland and Romania were to protect Europe from Iran, not Russia, set alarm bells ringing in Moscow.
The U.S. withdrawal from nuclear arms control treaties and its refusal to alter its nuclear first strike policy raised even greater fears that a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons were being designed to give the United States a nuclear first strike capability against Russia.
On the other side, Russia’s increasing assertiveness on the world stage, including its military actions to defend Russian enclaves in Georgia and its intervention in Syria to defend its ally the Assad government, raised security concerns in other former Soviet republics and allies, including new NATO members. Where might Russia intervene next?
As the United States refused to diplomatically address Russia’s security concerns, each side took actions that ratcheted up the security dilemma. The United States backed the violent overthrow of President Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014, which led to rebellions against the post-coup government in Crimea and Donbas. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and supporting the breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Even if all sides were acting in good faith and out of defensive concerns, in the absence of effective diplomacy they all assumed the worst about each other’s motives as the crisis spun further out of control, exactly as the “security dilemma” model predicts that nations will do amid such rising tensions.
Of course, since mutual mistrust lies at the heart of any security dilemma, the situation is further complicated when any of the parties is seen to act in bad faith. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently admitted that Western leaders had no intention of enforcing Ukraine’s compliance with the terms of the Minsk II agreement in 2015, and only agreed to it to buy time to build up Ukraine militarily.
The breakdown of the Minsk II peace agreement and the continuing diplomatic impasse in the larger geopolitical conflict between the United States, NATO and Russia plunged relations into a deepening crisis and led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Officials on all sides must have recognized the dynamics of the underlying security dilemma, and yet they failed to take the necessary diplomatic initiatives to resolve the crisis.
Peaceful, diplomatic alternatives have always been available if the parties chose to pursue them, but they did not. Does that mean that all sides deliberately chose war over peace? They would all deny that.
Yet all sides apparently now see advantages in a prolonged conflict, despite the relentless daily slaughter, dreadful and deteriorating conditions for millions of civilians, and the unthinkable dangers of full-scale war between NATO and Russia. All sides have convinced themselves they can or must win, and so they keep escalating the war, along with all its impacts and the risks that it will spin out of control.
President Biden came to office promising a new era of American diplomacy, but has instead led the United States and the world to the brink of World War III.
Clearly, the only solution to a security dilemma like this is a cease-fire and peace agreement to stop the carnage, followed by the kind of diplomacy that took place between the United States and the Soviet Union in the decades that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which led to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and successive arms control treaties. Former UN official Alfred de Zayas has also called for UN-administered referenda to determine the wishes of the people of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.
It is not an endorsement of an adversary’s conduct or position to negotiate a path to peaceful coexistence. We are witnessing the absolutist alternative in Ukraine today. There is no moral high ground in relentless, open-ended mass slaughter, managed, directed and in fact perpetrated by people in smart suits and military uniforms in imperial capitals thousands of miles from the crashing of shells, the cries of the wounded and the stench of death.
If proposals for peace talks are to be more than PR exercises, they must be firmly grounded in an understanding of the security needs of all sides, and a willingness to compromise to see that those needs are met and that all the underlying conflicts are addressed.