Ukraine War Evolves: Disdaining Diplomacy, Seeking Victory
October 27, 2022
This is the third iteration of an essay on the evolution of the Ukraine War, the earlier two versions published online in Transcend Media Service (TMS) and CounterPunch. The essential argument remains: war-mongering geopolitics in the nuclear age imperils species survival and suppresses the necessity for emergency action to restore sustainable forms of ecological habitability to planet earth.
Ever since the Ukraine War started on February 24, 2022, the NATO response, mainly articulated and materially implemented by the U.S., has been to pour vast quantities of oil on the flames of conflict, taunting Russia and its leader, increasing the scale of violence, the magnitude of human suffering, and dangerously increasing the risk of a disastrous outcome.
Not only did Washington mobilize the world to denounce Russia’s ‘aggression’, but supplied a steady stream of advanced weaponry in great quantities to the Ukrainians to resist the Russian attack and even mount counterattacks. The U.S. did all it could at the UN and elsewhere to build a punitive coalition supportive of international sanctions hostile to Russia, and when this failed to gain sufficient support resorted to a range of national sanctions. US president, Joe Biden, also breached diplomatic protocol by resorting to the demonization of Putin as a notorious war criminal unfit to govern and deserving of indictment and prosecution.
This incendiary flow of state propaganda was faithfully conveyed by a self-censoring Western media filter that built public support for a Western posture of war rather than diplomacy. It did this primarily by graphically portraying on a daily basis the horrors of the war endured by the vivid portrayals of the sufferings being by the Ukrainian civilian population, something the media has been advised to avoid when dealing with U.S. regime-changing interventions or Israel’s violence and flagrant practices of collective punishment unlawfully inflicted on the Palestinian people.
This unduly provocative behaviour, given the wider issues at stake, is underscored by a newly discovered West-oriented enthusiasm for the International Criminal Court, urging the tribunal to gather as much evidence as quickly as possible of Russian war crimes.
This law-oriented posture is contradicted by intense past opposition to ICC efforts to gather evidence for an investigation of war crimes by non-signatories (of which Russia is one) in relation to the U.S. role in Afghanistan or Israel’s role in occupied Palestine.
To some degree, such one-sidedness of presentation was to be expected and even justified given Russia’s aggression, which while irresponsibly provoked was still a breach of the most fundamental norm of international law. And yet the intensity of this NATO response in relation to Ukraine has been dangerously interwoven with an irresponsible and amateurishly pursued geopolitical war waged by the U.S. against Russia, and indirectly against China. It is so far a war fought without weapons, yet with a major potential impact on the structure and processes of world order in the aftermath of the Cold War, further complicated by the ascent of China as a credible regional and even global rival to U.S. dominance.
Such a geopolitical war proceeds on uncharted historical conditions. It is being waged in a manner oblivious to wider human security interests, and in a profound and perverse sense, contrary even to the well-being and fate of Ukraine and its people.
Despite the presence of these features of the Ukraine War, Western minds continue to view the conflict with one eye closed. Even Stephen Walt, a moderate and sensible self-styled realist commentator on U.S. foreign policy, and currently, a prudent, persuasive critic of the Biden failure to do his best to shift the bloody encounter in Ukraine from the battlefield to diplomatic domains nevertheless joins the war-mongering chorus by misleadingly asserting without qualification that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal, immoral, and unjustifiable..” [Walt, “Why Washington Should Take Russian Nuclear Threats Seriously,” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2022].
It is not that such a characterization is incorrect as such, but unless supplemented by explanations of context, it lends credibility to the war-oriented, self-righteous mentality displayed by the Biden presidency, while shielding its geopolitical war dimensions from scrutiny. Perhaps Walt and others of similar outlook were striking this posture of going along with Washington’s portrayal of the Ukraine Crisis as a tactical concession needed to be in a position to propose a Faustian Bargain of self-righteousness as a prelude to endorsing support for finally adopting a diplomatic stance toward ending the Ukraine War, and abandoning the ultra-hazardous militarist path toward victory for Ukraine and defeat for Russia.
Perhaps, Walt frames his argument to gain a seat at the table with influential audiences in Washington. Understandingly believing that even their dire warnings about the rising escalation risks and to improve chances of advocacy of diplomacy will otherwise not even get a hearing from the foreign policy insiders advising Biden/Blinken.
To be clear, even if it can be argued that Russia/Putin has launched a war that is unlawful, immoral, and unjustified, the wider geopolitical context remains imperative if peace in Ukraine is to be restored and global catastrophe avoided. For one thing, the Russian attack may be as wrong as alleged, and yet conforms to a geopolitical pattern of established behaviour that the U.S. has itself been largely responsible for establishing in a series of wars starting with the Vietnam War, and notably more recently with the Kosovo War, Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War.
None of these wars were legal, moral, and justifiable, although each enjoyed a geopolitical rationale that made them seem sufficiently desirable to U.S. foreign policy elites and its closest alliance partners to be worth undertaking despite violating these norms. Of course, two wrongs do not make a right, but in a world where geopolitical actors enjoy a license to pursue vital strategic interests within traditional spheres of influence, it is not objectively defensible to self-righteously condemn Russia without taking some principled account of what the U.S. has been doing around the world for several decades.
Antony Blinken may tell the media that spheres of influence became a thing of the past after World War II, but he must have been asleep for decades not to notice that the Yalta Agreement on the future of Europe reached in 1945 by the Soviet Union, United States, and the United Kingdom was premised on precisely the explicit affirmation of such spheres, which in retrospect, however distasteful in its application, deserve some credit for keeping the Cold War from becoming the disaster of all disasters, World War III fought with nuclear weapons far more potent than the atomic bombs that so apocalyptically devastated the people and cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Such compromised sovereignty of these borderland countries is descriptive of the often tragic prerogatives claimed by so-called Great Powers throughout the history of international relations, not least by the United States through the Monroe Doctrine and its extensions. In this sense, Ukraine finds itself in the long unenviable position of Mexico, and indeed all of Latin America.
Many years ago the famous Mexican cultural figure, Octavio Paz, proclaimed the tragedy of his country ‘to be so far from God and yet so close to the United States.’
The UN itself is a vehicle of geopolitics more than international law
In a somewhat insightful fit of frustration, George W. Bush after a failure to gain UN Security Council authorization in 2003 for the use of non-defensive regime-changing force against Iraq, declared that the UN would lose its ‘relevance’ if it failed to go along with the American imperial plan of action, and so it has. The ambiguity as to international law arises from the UN Charter’s own equivocation, asserting that all non-defensive uses of force are prohibited, a position reinforced by the amended Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court by declaring ‘aggression’ as a crime against the peace while conferring the right of veto on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
How can this right of veto be conferred on these five states, which has the effect of precluding any Security Council decision that clashes with their strategic interests, be reconciled with the Charter and international law prohibition on aggression? Of course, Bush’s frustration was more extreme in the sense that he was expecting the Security Council to sanitize a proposed unlawful war of aggression against Iraq – that is, in a fit of unipolar arrogance, this American president expected that even the veto powers would fall in line, and offer the US/UK attacking coalition the legitimacy of UN authorization.
When this was not forthcoming, the U.S. did not adjust its war plans but resorted to this dismissal of the UN.
The right of exception as embodied in the constitutional framework of the UN is not some peculiar anomaly, and the failed Bush override was an unusual rebuff of imperial geopolitics that flourished after the Cold War. It was seldom noticed that such developments were indirectly anticipated by the post-1945 experience of international criminal law, which from Nuremberg to the present has exempted from accountability dominant geopolitical actors, even for such incredible acts as the dropping of atomic bombs on overwhelmingly civilian targets at the end of World War II.
This grey zone separating law from power continues to be the accepted playground of geopolitical actors, never so dangerous as when its prerogatives, alignments, and constraints are in flux. The Russian and Chinese challenges can be best interpreted as seeking to restore the framework of geopolitical bipolarity (or modified to accommodate tripolarity) that collapsed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This situation led the U.S. to fill the resulting vacuum with a militarist/neoliberal form of geopolitical management consisting of full-spectrum dominance of the instruments of warfare and an ideological insistence that the legitimacy of the internal political order of a sovereign state depended on its adherence to a market-driven logic of private sector dominance at home and internationally, the so-called ‘Washington consensus.’
The momentous open question, aside from worrying about how and when the war in Ukraine will end, is whether the geopolitical world order resting on U.S. primacy will be confirmed or modified. If confirmed, it will extend the period of unipolarity that followed the end of the Cold War. If modified, it will usher in a new era of geopolitics requiring a new framework of meta-legal accommodation. In either case, there exists the additional uncertainty as to whether the post-Ukraine world order will be oriented toward cooperation and the production of global common goods or with hegemonic and conflictual priorities.
Geopolitical Practice: Prudent or Irresponsible
These considerations are mentioned here not to defend, much less exonerate Russia, but to show that the world order context of the Ukraine War is deeply problematic in relation to U.S./NATO claims of normative authority, especially when invoked in such a partisan manner. In contemporary geopolitical relations, as distinct from normal state-to-state or international relations, precedent and Great Power experience generally act as substitutes for norms and rule-governed behaviour, at least on matters of peace, national security, and public economic policy.
What the U.S. claims the right to do and does, can be generally done subsequently by other sovereign states, especially those with some level of geopolitical entitlement. Blinken has again muddied the waters of international discourse by falsely claiming that the U.S., unlike adversaries China and Russia, is as observant of rule-governed behaviour in a similar manner to that regulating the behaviour of ‘normal‘ states in relation to matters of vital strategic interests-
To gain a clearer and more objective perspective on aspects of Russian behaviour in Ukraine it seems appropriate to look back at NATO’s clearly unlawful war of 1999. This non-defensive war, unauthorized by the UN, fragmented Serbia by coercively supporting Kosovo’s claimed right of secession, including political independence and territorial sovereignty. Account should be taken of this Kosovo precedent before uncritically condemning the Russian annexation of four parts of eastern Ukraine, rationalized as the exercise of rights of self-determination in the light of alleged Serbian abuse, and supposedly validated after administering widely condemned referenda. Yet even here an understanding of past geopolitical behaviour is instructive. The NATO military victory didn’t even bother with a referendum before implementing Kosovo’s secession.
The point is not to condemn all such undertakings without legal authority by recognizing that there may be extreme cases where the fragmentation of existing states is justifiable on humanitarian grounds and others where it is not, but to claim that Russia overstepped the limits of law in a context where power has been consistently shaping behaviour and political outcomes in similar cases is to prepare the public for a wider war rather than leading it to seek and be pragmatically receptive to a diplomatic compromise.
In effect, I am arguing for the wisdom and virtue of what might be described as geopolitical humility and self-restraint: do not require of others, what you have yourself done, or at the very least explain non-polemically what is the difference between say Donbas and Kosovo that makes the former unlawful and illegitimate and the latter lawful and legitimate. In the complexity of the internal struggles of a beleaguered ethnic or religious minority, it is along the same lines helpful to acknowledge that Moscow and Washington ‘see’ the same realities of the Donbas and Kosovo in contradictory ways.
This contextual understanding of the Ukraine War is in my judgment highly relevant as it makes the current fashion of mounting legal, moral, and political arguments of condemnation distract attention and energies from following otherwise rational, prudent, and pragmatic courses of action, which from day one of the attack on Ukraine strongly supported the wisdom of making an all-out effort to achieve an immediate ceasefire followed by negotiations aiming at durable political compromises not only between Russia and Ukraine, but also between Europe/U.S. and Russia.
The fact is that the U.S. Government never to this day has publicly manifested any such interest, much less set forth a commitment to stopping the killing and devastation by encouraging diplomacy, in the face of mounting costs and escalation risks associated with prolonging the warfare in Ukraine. Such geopolitical recklessness should be shocking to the conscience of peace-minded persons and patriots of humanity everywhere.
Beyond the immediate zones of combat, catastrophic costs are presently being borne by many vulnerable societies throughout the world from the spillover effects of the war, magnified by anti-Russian sanctions and their major impact on food and energy supplies and pricing.
This deplorable situation is likely to get worse as the war goes on and to intensify in the coming winter months. Beyond this, it is now also bringing closer to reality the growing danger of the use of nuclear weapons as Putin’s alternatives may be narrowing to a personal willingness to accept responsibility for a Russian defeat or to give up his status as an autocratic leader.
While not relenting a bit on implementing an aggressive approach to gaining Ukraine’s ambitions of victory, Biden himself incredibly acknowledges that any use of even a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine would with near certitude lead to Armageddon. This paradoxical duality (combining escalating the war and anxiety as to where it might lead) seems more like a mindless embrace of geopolitical insanity than a sobering balancing of the contradictory sombre realities at stake in Ukraine. We can ask when will this Rip Van Winkle of our time awaken to the realities of the nuclear age?
As always actions speak louder than words. Blinken facing a rising public clamor for negotiations, especially in Europe, responds with his usual feckless evasions. In this instance, contending that since Ukraine is the victim of Russian aggression it alone has the authority to seek a diplomatic resolution and the U.S. will continue to support Ukraine’s maximal war aims, supposedly, for as long as and for whatever it takes, including recently even the extension of Ukraine war aims to the recovery of Crimea, which has been widely accepted internationally as reabsorbed by Russia since 2014.
Context also matters in relation to the conduct of the war. Its major escalation within the month of the sabotage of Nord Stream1 & 2 gas pipelines to Europe, which Blinken once more confounded by this act of sabotage outside the war zone by calling it ‘a tremendous opportunity’ to weaken Russia and force Europe to intensify their efforts to gain energy independence.
Such an operation was initially implausibly attributed to Russia by the U.S., yet later more or less acknowledged as part of the expansion of the war by reliance on ‘terrorist’ tactics of combat. This latest expression of state terrorism is the suicide bombing of the strategic Kerch Straight Bridge on October 7th, connecting Crimea and Russia, a major infrastructure achievement of the Putin period of Russian leadership, as well as a symbolic expression of relinking Crimea to Russia serving as a supply line for Russian troops operating in the Southern parts of Ukraine.
These extensions of the combat zone and tactics beyond the territory of Ukraine contain the fingerprints of the CIA and seem designed as encouragement of Ukrainian resolve to go all out for a decisive victory, sending Putin unmistakable signals that the U.S. remains as unreceptive as ever to a responsible geopolitics of compromise. Biden reportedly refuses even to respond favourably to Putin’s apparent initiative that the two leaders discuss their differences at the G-20 meeting in Indonesia.
Biden’s characteristic response was a defiant refusal, subject only to reconsideration if the meeting was limited to negotiating the release of an American female pro basketball player being held in Russia on drug charges. The U.S. anger directed at Saudi Arabia for cutting its oil production is an additional sign of a commitment to a victory scenario in Ukraine as well as a reaction against the Saudi resistance to U.S. hegemonic geopolitics in its co-management of OPEC+ with Russia.
With such provocations, it is hardly surprising, although highly unlawful and immoral, for Russia to retaliate by unleashing its version of ‘shock and awe’ against the civilian centres of ten Ukrainian cities. Such is the course of these vicious cycles of escalation characteristic of the lawlessness of major warfare! The neglect of the relevant and shameful American precedents in Iraq and Afghanistan is also integral to sustaining a war mentality under siege.
Always lurking in the background, and at Ukraine’s and the world’s expense, is Washington’s geopolitical opportunism, that is, seeking to defeat Russia and deter China from daring to challenge the hegemonic unipolarity achieved after the Soviet disintegration in 1992.
This huge investment in its militarist identity as the sole ‘global state’ that best explains such a cowboy approach to nuclear risk-taking and the tens of billions expended to empower Ukraine at a time of internal suffering in the U.S. and elsewhere coexisting with such a costly expression and dangerous expression of international overreach.
Such a tragic political drama unfolds as the peoples of the world and their governments, along with the United Nations, watch this horrendous spectacle unfold, seemingly helpless witnesses not only to the carnage, but also to do their best to curtail the spillover and Armageddon dangers, and even to react meaningfully against the potential supreme damage to their own national destinies.
Thanks for this thought-provoking article that provides the legal and historical background to the conflict in Ukraine. As this website has repeatedly pointed out, one has to be aware of both the war and the conflict. While President Putin must be strongly condemned for waging an illegal and aggressive war in Ukraine, the West contributed to the conflict that led to the war by expanding NATO, contrary to earlier promises, and pressing Ukraine to join NATO. Although the issue of the choice of the Ukrainian people is very important (if the majority did indeed vote to join NATO), there is also another compelling principle of not threatening the security of other states.
The result of many wrong policies on both sides has been a devastating war in the heart of Europe, economic hardships, exorbitant energy prices, food shortages for the people in poorer countries, and high inflation for millions of people across the world. While in the West we are paying for that conflict by higher prices, the poor Ukrainian people are paying for it with their lives and the destruction of their country.
It is important to find a solution to the war before it swings out of control and even goes nuclear. When the future of humanity and the lives of millions and millions of innocent human beings are concerned, it is important to speak out and try to look for a solution, rather than blindly continue the failed policies of the past by pouring fuel on the fire.
The best way to end the war is for Ukraine to pledge not to join NATO, introducing some form of federalism in Ukraine that ensures autonomy for the Russian-speaking Donbas region, and Russian withdrawal from all the areas it has occupied in Ukraine. The alternative is the continuation and perhaps the intensification of the war that will cause much more pain and suffering in Ukraine and in the rest of the world.