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March 28, 2023

International Relations

Securing Peace in Ukraine

By Nitin Desai


Securing peace in Ukraine

This requires a compromise on their current positions by both Russia and the US

The one-year-old war in Ukraine is not just between Russia and Ukraine. It is also a conflict between Russia and the United States. The Cold War may have ended. But the antagonism between these two superpowers has not, except for a brief spell in the early 1990s. The Ukraine war may be close to a direct conflict between the two powers, which has rarely taken place in the 75 years of this antagonism except in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.

The origin of this antagonism goes back to the second half of the 1940s when the Soviet Union was led by Stalin, who needed to promote threats from the outside world for his domestic hold on power. He distanced the Soviet Union from various post-war initiatives of his allies and pursued an encroachment on European country politics through support for European Communist parties. The US’s response was initially shaped by George Kennan, at that time a US diplomat in the Soviet Union, and later an influential academic and commentator on foreign policy.

Kennan’s explanation for Soviet Union behaviour was that at the “bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity”, an explanation that still makes sense. Kennan’s suggested response to the US was a policy of containment based on strengthening Western institutions (reflected in the Marshall Plan) and responding similarly to challenges at other geographical points. In his later works, he did not see the Soviet Union as expansionist and even suggested that the US should withdraw militarily from Europe, agree on a neutral united Germany and count on Russia, less threatened from the West, not strengthening its domination over Eastern Europe. In 1997, Kennan described the US drive for the expansion of NATO as a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions”, a prognosis of special relevance as the war in Ukraine is surely attributable, to a significant extent, to NATO seeking expansion to the borders of Russia.

The sad story of the past 75 years is that the US did not buy Kennan’s policy of economic and political containment of Russia and in 1950 opted for military containment, a policy that became even more aggressive after China turned communist. This led to the US establishing a military presence in Europe and conscripting Western Europe, including West Germany, into its antagonism with the Soviet Union/Russia. This rivalry escalated into global military dominance, and this is reflected in the fact that the US, which faces no threat of. territorial intrusion, accounts for 38 per cent of the global military expenditure. Had it remained committed to Kennan’s milder containment policy, the world today would be less militarised.

This explanation does not absolve Russia of its increasingly strident claim of rights over all territories with significant Russian origin citizens. Moreover, Russia has violated the basic UN principle of territorial integrity. Perhaps, as in the case of Stalin, Vladimir Putin’s virulent nationalism, strong opposition to the West and the erosion of democracy are probably designed to consolidate his local power.

Peace in Ukraine requires peace between the US and Russia. Is this possible?

A peace process between warring parties is most often secured at the point when all adversaries are convinced that they cannot get an unconditional surrender and their conflict has reached a stalemate that is hurting them more than the cost of any compromise they have to make to get a ceasefire or a peace agreement. Even then, each adversary will have factions not committed to a peace process, a difference that may be attributable to rivalries between leaders.

In Russia, the chances are that the reality of a stalemate vis-a-vis Ukraine and the US may be recognised and dissent from a pro-war faction is unlikely, given that the only criticism at present is from Russians who are opposed to the war. This, however, is not the case in the US where, with an election due a year ahead, the opposition may well come from the President’s political rivals. The one factor that may work is the reluctance for a direct military conflict with Russia that has prevailed in US strategic policy for 75 years.

How can Russia and the US be brought together to start talking about peace in Ukraine? Can the US be persuaded to forego its policy of expanding NATO to the Russian border? Will Russia dilute its nationalistic goal of extending its rule to all territories with a substantial Russian origin population and be willing to tolerate truly independent neighbours? Can a creative compromise be worked out that will find a way for Russia and Ukraine to share power in Russian majority territories in Ukraine? Can mainland Europe and China plan together to play a moderating role on the US and Russia? Will Germany shift a little towards neutrality to serve as a buffer for peace between West and East Europe? If some of these difficult changes can be made to happen, peace is possible.

India, the current G20 president, has significant links with both the belligerent great powers. It could consider a discreet, very discreet, approach to some G20 members to develop a peace proposal. It should be secret, and not used for domestic publicity. If this secrecy is not maintained, the initiative will end as soon as it has begun.

Initially the approach could be to the G20 members who have been neutral in public, for instance, in the UN votes related to the Ukraine War issue. This could include Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, who constitute the quad of G20 presidents from 2022 to 2025, and possibly Turkey and Mexico. This group together could then try and persuade France, Germany, and Italy to prevail on the US and persuade China to prevail on Russia. The driving force could be the potential threat of an escalation of the Ukraine war to an even more direct conflict between Russia and the US.

The truth is the responsibility for peace in Ukraine now rests in the hands of the two principal belligerents, Russia and the US and the prime victim of this great power rivalry, Ukraine. Let us hope that all three are convinced that there is an impasse to a military resolution of the issue. If their leadership is so convinced, the initiative proposed above may work. Only then can we reduce the risk of the conflict escalating into a Russia-US war, a possibility that will destroy the creaky global system on which we all depend and is the greatest threat to the current G20 slogan “One Earth, One Family, One Future”.

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