Here are some ideas and proposals for reflection on the need for a political solution to the war in Ukraine. Based on the most recent developments, this text completes but does not replace a reading of my book « Putin, NATO and the war… » (published by « Croquant editions »). This book brings indeed, on this imperialist war started by Vladimir Putin and his regime, keys of understanding more than ever necessary on the causes, on the stakes, and as for the question of the responsibilities in a page of history of 30 years of confrontations of powers.
As the outcome of the war is played out in escalation and uncertainty, in an evolving and uncertain balance of power… the risks increase, and the rationality of the choices made by the actors of the war is put to the test. The possibility is growing of a spiral and a more general conflagration in an open NATO/Russia war. In this context, the dangers, including nuclear ones, are increasing. And the conditions of international security continue to deteriorate in a very worrying way. This evolution is perilous, but the debate on the strategic options to be favoured does not cease to focus on the way to pursue the war, on the question of the respective « virtues » of military victory and defeat.
Let us first note that a clear situation of « victory » or military preponderance won by Russia in the Donbass would raise essential political issues related to the sovereignty of Ukraine, and would act as a fait accompli of state aggression and acquisition of territory by force. Naturally, such an undermining/denial of fundamental political and legal principles is unacceptable in itself. It is contrary to the idea of an international order based on law and the UN Charter. While the exercise of the politics of force and domination in international relations, and the crimes that go with it, are gaining ground over the years.
Thus, we can see that Israel is imposing on the Palestinian people the consequences of its illegal and illegitimate policy of military occupation and colonization. This is done with total impunity. One can even say that Israel (for a very long time) acts in Palestine as Russia is doing today in Ukraine, in defiance of the existing rules and law. There is therefore a double standard in a conception of the universality of law that varies greatly. Whether in Ukraine, Palestine, Kurdistan, Western Sahara or elsewhere, we cannot accept such contempt for international legality and the right of peoples to self-determination, nor the slightest trivialization of the use of force as an unavoidable parameter of an international order in decay under the permanent blows of the logic of power and the politics of force and domination.
On the other hand, it is necessary to measure that a military defeat of Russia, which many political leaders are calling for, including in France, would be the best way to maintain the persistent will of a later revenge by Russia. We must indeed remember that the sanction of a balance of power is never a « solution » but always a state of affairs that imposes itself, and that too often creates the desire for revenge. A military defeat of Russia, beyond the problematic feeling of revenge that it may arouse, could have other critical consequences for the international order and for security. Such a defeat (we would have to define better what we are talking about here…) could indeed produce in Russia a series of destabilizing crises with an international scope.
In this regard, we have noted the statements of Kyrylo Boudanov, Head of Ukrainian Military Intelligence, in the daily Le Monde of February 24. He stressed that Russia will be forced to withdraw from Ukraine, « otherwise it will lead to the collapse of the Russian regime ». He adds that « the question of the political and security architecture of this region, which goes from Eastern Europe to the Asian part of Russia, will arise. (…) The world does not need, he says, a Russian Federation as it exists today, which threatens the whole world. Naturally, the time of war is also a time of ideological battles that pushes to all kinds of calculations and speculations, including the most extreme. But this is not the first time that the option of dismantling the Russian Federation has been brandished as a possibility, if not a wish, in defiance of the risks inherent in such an eventuality.
It is true that a destabilization of the Russian state and an internal political crisis, a weakening or a challenge to the integrity and unity of the Russian Federation could result in the situation created being considered by Moscow as a provoked threat, affecting Russia’s vital interests. This would seriously increase the nuclear risk. The circumstances officially foreseen by the Russian doctrine (see the strategic planning document of June 2020) for the implementation of deterrence for a possible use of nuclear weapons would be entered. The international context would be very seriously affected by a tenfold risk of war between NATO and Russia. We are not there yet… But we must be careful, the imperative requirement of responsibility in wartime is measured by the rationality of the choices made.
Choosing between the major risks of war and the difficulties of peace
One could multiply the extrapolations linked to the possibilities of victory or defeat in war. But it would still be necessary to evaluate the extent to which both are still possible, while the armies that confront each other seem weakened after a year of war of high intensity. A year so deadly and destructive that tomorrow we will probably be shocked and surprised when we will (perhaps) be able to better evaluate the hecatomb of military and civilian victims…
The essential question is not, therefore, how to win or not to lose the war for each of the protagonists, but how to set in motion a political process that can lead to a just solution, in accordance with the law and capable of guaranteeing solid and lasting conditions of collective security. With the withdrawal of Russian troops and with respect for the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine.
No one will say that this is an easy objective to achieve. But everyone can understand that the longer the war goes on, the higher the risks of a major conflagration, and the more difficult it will be to get out of it. Between the major risks of war and the difficulties of peace… one must choose. It is now more urgent than ever to force the way to a negotiated solution. Any proposal in this direction – there are some now – must be taken into consideration. We will come back to this.
Vladimir Putin and his regime obviously bear the overwhelming responsibility for the outbreak of the war and its consequences. But we cannot pretend that the Western powers are strangers to the origins and causes of this war, and to the processes of confrontation that have contributed, along with Russia, to the creation of a context favorable to war over a 30-year period of history. However, these powers act as if their « victory » of yesterday, in the Cold War, could be prolonged today in an indisputable legitimacy and in a strategic « without fault ». This is not the case. The question of the causes of the war is obviously more complicated than is usually said. So is a solution. A political solution will have to consider and decide in particular on two categories of options: those related to the principle of sovereignty, and those related to the principles of collective security. These principles cannot be dissociated and are at the heart of the United Nations Charter. The most lucid are therefore right, who recognize the need to concretize a European security order that necessarily includes Russia. This should have a positive impact on the stability of the international order as a whole, in its rules and functioning. We must not think of a victory, but prepare a solution.
What was not voluntarily built after the collapse of the USSR should finally be designed and built today, when the fighting of this long and terrible war in Ukraine is finally over. At least to be able to install balances and new rules of common life that are accepted by all, for the security of all. Indeed, we remember that at the very beginning of the 90s, a new order became absolutely necessary in a geopolitical moment that changed the course of history. Nothing less than that… However, in this moment of change, dismayingly, nothing decisive will be done, except for the enlargement of NATO to the East. It was as if the United States and its European allies had only one thing to do: to cash in on the spoils of their « victory » in the Cold War, without the slightest regard for the requirements that were necessary at the time: mutual security in cooperation with the overall strategic and political reorganization of the European space. This historic mistake was made despite the clear warnings of recognized experts and personalities aware of the risks. This is an obvious observation, that of a gaping but voluntary political failure, because it was a strategic choice made in full awareness by the member states of the Atlantic Alliance.
Facing all the realities of history
This shortcoming, with its dramatic consequences, was not unrelated to what followed: 30 years of high tensions, permanent conflicts, use of force and military initiatives, especially Russian, to today, come to a high intensity war in a de facto conflict between NATO and Russia. A violent page of history in a chaos of threats and structural instability. It is not acceptable that these realities of history, of our history in Europe, can be so much evacuated from the public debate today. How many deaths, how much destruction, how many tragedies will the peoples have to endure before a minimum of common security and collective responsibility can finally be imposed? Is the history of wars in Europe not enough?
War is a tragedy. A tragedy for those who suffer the heavy consequences. A tragedy for those who make it and who fight on the field until they lose their lives. But a tragedy for what? Vladimir Putin, in spite of the territories he may still be able to seize, is facing a clear strategic failure. He sees himself held in check by his ambitions of power and revenge, where he thought he could easily impose himself. This is a lesson. A lesson that others have already experienced in very different circumstances. Even in France, some people have not measured what war cannot offer them.
How can we not remember François Hollande exulting on February 2, 2013 in Bamako. Carried away by enthusiasm, he declared, pathetically, « I have undoubtedly lived the most beautiful day of my political life. » He then felt that he had achieved a complete victory against rebel groups considered to be terrorists in an operation by French forces in Mali. Nearly 20 years later, France has been held in check in that country, in Burkina Faso and more generally in the Sahel. The Libyan disaster has seriously added to this. How can we not also recall Washington’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the size of the military forces involved? The « sauve-qui-peut » of American forces fleeing Kabul in August 2021, along with NATO’s failure, are another sign of the constraint of the reality of these unwinnable wars, of impossible victories. Many of those who castigate Putin’s war in Ukraine often have some difficulty remembering their illusory ambitions of power, and their own strategic failures.
China and Brazil take the lead
On February 24, 2023 (the date is not a coincidence) China presented two political documents. First, a « global security initiative », and second, a « position on the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis ». The first document is a general text proposing a global conception of the challenges of international security, a conception that places the UN at the center of an approach that above all translates an evolution in Chinese political positioning, an affirmed desire to be a power playing a positive role in the international order. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the policy actually pursued by China, particularly in its immediate vicinity and on the adjacent seas where Washington is in full force, does not appear to be systematically consistent with the principles set out in this text.
The second document outlines in 12 points the principles that should guide a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis (the word war is never used), as well as a number of measures on concrete issues. China is moving forward cautiously. In the Western and NATO political world, this comprehensive initiative has been criticized for a lack of credibility due to China’s failure to condemn the Russian aggression. In truth, it is precisely because Beijing is a very close and powerful partner of Moscow that China can have weight and real influence on Russia. This, of course, can give relevance to the Chinese initiative, including on the international level.
It is certainly for this reason that Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, in a remarkable coincidence of times, clearly sought to break the credibility of the Chinese diplomatic effort by declaring that Beijing was « getting ready » to supply arms to China. At the time, the US Administration did not have any information to support such an accusation, but it seems that more details on this issue will be provided later. The American criticism therefore consists of denouncing the fact that Beijing would thus keep two irons in the fire: that of negotiation, and that of involvement in the war. This is not demonstrated. Mr Blinken does not specify how many irons in the fire Washington is keeping.
And then, despite the reservations that are always possible in a context of power competitions to which both sides actively contribute, we cannot refuse to note that China is the first country to explicitly commit itself to a very formalized process of political settlement, far from the dominant debate in the Western world, since this debate, as we have seen, revolves almost exclusively around the respective stakes of military victory or defeat. We will have to get out of it.
A new situation
Also noteworthy is the initiative of Brazilian President Lula da Silva. On February 9, during his visit to the United States, Lula proposed the creation of a « peace club » or a group of countries that would take on the issue of a political settlement of the conflict in Ukraine. This group would include China, Indonesia, India (which is chairing the G20 for 2023) and other countries that are neutral or not involved in the war. We can thus see that convergences and a new situation are emerging thanks to the so-called countries of the South. A South that is not « global », as some persist in saying, but within which a desire for independence and free choice is constantly rising, if not a clear rejection of the policies of the Western powers.
What focuses the attention of the United States and the Europeans is first of all to leave the decision of the talks to Kiev, to give priority to the strategic necessity of a military defeat of Russia, and to assure Ukraine a future military capacity to face Russia in any circumstances. In the Wall Street Journal of February 24 Bojan Pancevski and Laurence Norman write that « NATO’s top European members are considering a ‘defense pact’ with Ukraine. The journalists point out that « Germany, France and Britain see closer ties between NATO and Ukraine as a way to encourage Kiev to start peace talks with Russia later this year. They add that « Washington has said it wants Ukraine to be sufficiently armed after the war to deter any future Russian attack. (…) We need to make sure, » they say further, « that Ukraine has the capacity to deter aggression and, if necessary, to defend itself effectively against it. »
The Wall Street Journal reporters do not address the Chinese and Brazilian initiatives, but they do point to the growing doubts about Ukraine’s ability to win the war, with the belief that Western powers could not help support the Ukrainian war effort for too long. This is at the same time a kind of admission of the illusory and fragile nature of « solutions » based on force and the military.
What are the solutions to stop the war ?
Obviously, a negotiation is necessary. The belligerents must sit down around a table. But the mere necessity of a dialogue is not enough. And that is not the way things are done. A political process can take complicated, indirect and confidential paths at first. The very idea of negotiation… is negotiated, is tested mutually. Each one needs to know what perspective it wants for itself, what is possible, what are the real intentions of the other. The difference must be identified between a simple posture and a willingness to truly engage. The negotiation of a political settlement requires external contributions, sponsors, mediators/facilitators who are determined to promote a credible, « professional » and transparent political process. They must resolutely push in this direction to make politics the uncontested priority. It is therefore also for these reasons that positions (such as that of France) that consist of sparing the goat of military power relations and the cabbage of future negotiations can hardly constitute a positive contribution.
It is essential, in fact, to contribute to a climate, a context and, above all, a collective or multilateral will for a political settlement. The United Nations framework or a major pilot role for the UN should be used for this. The goal is not only to break the tragic stalemate of the fighting, even if a cease-fire must be obtained as soon as possible. It is to bring the protagonists to make decisions that may be difficult in order to reach a settlement that is as indisputable as possible in its foundations, in its intentions and in its consequences. For this to happen, external support must be clear, unambiguous and very determined.
A settlement does not exclude compromises, which are much talked about, but we do not start there. You don’t prejudge the conclusions. You negotiate on issues. Such an approach must therefore be based on fundamental principles: sovereignty, the prohibition of the use of force, territorial integrity… We must ensure that international law is applied and that the rules and practices of collective security as formulated in the United Nations Charter are respected. In particular, for Ukraine, respect for internationally recognized borders and the withdrawal of Russian troops. This approach must also provide for pragmatic settlements on specific
specific sensitive issues in order to contribute, with care, to the establishment of a secure outcome for all actors.
Respect for fundamental principles and the law must be able to incorporate this need for specific provisions of common interest to ensure the conditions for a lasting solution that is mutually accepted down to the last detail. Since in diplomacy too the devil hides in this way… One can think, for example, of the elaboration of a strategic status of neutrality for Ukraine, of a particular convention for the Russian naval forces in Crimea, of mutual agreements on the military level, of an autonomy for the territories of Donbass or, failing that, a referendum process… The list and the nature of the problems to be solved is also to be negotiated, knowing that such « endorsements » are very important, and must obtain solid international guarantees, unless the conditions for a future war are maintained.
Covering all the causes that led to the war
Finally, it is essential that a political settlement be part of an approach that aims to cover all the causes that led to the war. The solution to be built therefore goes beyond the Russian-Ukrainian conflict stricto sensu. Moreover, everything is linked. Some of the political and strategic issues characterizing the NATO/Russia relationship will have to be addressed in the form of mutual commitments between the United States, the Europeans and Russia in order to initiate new talks concerning, in particular, the need for a lasting strategic dialogue, arms control, especially nuclear arms, disarmament, and the general conditions for a new collective security order in Europe. It will be necessary to show that we have understood this page of history of 30 years of confrontation.
In this spirit, the question of the « perimeter » of NATO, and therefore of Ukraine’s membership in the Atlantic Alliance, must be raised as a major issue. Do we want to exacerbate the strategic confrontations by joining the Alliance, or should we seek, on the contrary, a stabilization that guarantees a maximum exhaustion of the causes of the conflict?
Broadening the political settlement process to include these major issues does not complicate the negotiations. It places them at the necessary level, at the level of all the global stakes characterizing this war which, from the start, was in reality, and whatever one may say, a NATO/Russia conflict.
A process that should lead to a just solution must therefore have as its essential aim to provide answers that will create a new situation for all of the issues at stake. History shows that unresolved problems (and there are many) contribute to the accumulation of political time bombs. And these always end up exploding. This is the inevitable result of power struggles and strong-arm politics that create contexts in which diplomacy and multilateralism have a hard time surviving. If an acceptable political solution to this war is reached tomorrow, then it can be said that a breakthrough will have been achieved, despite the tragedy, with the demonstration of what diplomacy and politics can achieve against force. But not only is the price to be paid exorbitant, unjustifiable, but this dirty war is not over. In the days, weeks and months to come, the actions of states, governments and politicians will have to be judged by the efforts they make to end the war. For the Ukrainian people. For human dignity… and for their own good name. 01 03 2023