Today, peace talks between Ukraine and Russia seemed to edge towards some convergence, raising hopes for an end to hostilities which are taking the lives of civilians and soldiers alike.
A shift was flagged earlier this week, when Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that the country would not seek to become a member of Nato. Some commentators saw it as a significant concession on a day when the bombardment of Kyiv increased and Russian troops appeared to tighten their grip on the besieged port city of Mariupol.
Zelensky, however, said in his view that negotiations with Moscow were becoming more “realistic” as the Russian advance was not going as Moscow expected. As with everything emanating from the region in the past few weeks, it is difficult to ascertain what is happening on the ground through the fog of war.
At the last attempt at peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov spelled out Russia’s three demands to end the war. These demands are constrained to three points, namely No Nukes, no Nato, and the recognition of the breakaway regions of Donbass and Luhansk, but that is not to say that as the military conflict proceeds the Russians will not make higher demands. The situation with talks is changing by the day.
The main narrative percolating in the West is that an ageing dictator has finally lost his sanity and has gone on a crazed militarist adventure to rebuild a Russia of some past age. Perhaps he is trying to rebuild the Soviet Union, as some have suggested. Perhaps he is trying to rebuild the Russian empire of Peter the Great.
In Russia a different version of this story exists. Vladimir Putin gives three reasons for the invasion of Ukraine – which underpin the demands conveyed to the world’s media at the peace talks.
He has stated that there are three red line issues for Russia, and claims they have been a cause of growing tensions over the past decade.
These are that:
1. Ukraine does not join NATO and have NATO troops positioned on the Russian border;
2. That there are no nuclear weapons positioned in the Ukraine;
3. The breakaway Eastern Regions of the Ukraine are recognised, and that hostilities against the Donetsk and Luhansk regions cease.
In addition, at this point, the additional demand from both parties is obviously a cessation of military action in Ukraine.
Ukrainians, naturally, have a very different view of these matters. They argue that as a sovereign nation, any decisions regarding military alliances are for the Ukraine to make, and that economic agreements with the West should not be seen as a threat to Moscow.
Those who have an understanding of international diplomacy and geopolitics have been pointing out the tensions building because of these issues for some time, however.
A fascinating thread compilation shows the large number of senior international political analysts who both warned and were warned about the escalating situation. It includes defence secretaries, ambassadors, leading geo-political scholars, and more.
Most fascinating thing about the Ukraine war is the sheer number of top strategic thinkers who warned for years that it was coming if we continued down the same path.
No-one listened to them and here we are.
Small compilation 🧵 of these warnings, from Kissinger to Mearsheimer.
— Arnaud Bertrand (@RnaudBertrand) March 1, 2022
George Kennan, the US diplomat who has been described as the architect of his country’s cold war strategy warned that NATO expansion in the region was a “tragic mistake” that would ultimately provoke a “bad reaction from Russia”. Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister of Australia, said in 2014 that “the move east [by NATO is] provocative, unwise and a very clear signal to Russia”, adding that this would lead to a “difficult and extraordinarily dangerous problem”.
The political scientist John Mearsheimer, recently told the Economist that he believes ‘the reckless expansion of NATO provoked Russia’. His view is that the tension “started in April, 2008, at the Nato Summit in Bucharest, where afterward Nato issued a statement that said Ukraine and Georgia would become part of Nato.”
“The Russians made it unequivocally clear at the time that they viewed this as an existential threat, and they drew a line in the sand. Nevertheless, what has happened with the passage of time is that we have moved forward to include Ukraine in the West to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. Of course, this includes more than just Nato expansion. Nato expansion is the heart of the strategy, but it includes E.U. expansion as well, and it includes turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, and, from a Russian perspective, this is an existential threat,” he said
Most Western commentatary has failed to understand that existential threat – that Russia is reacting to what it sees as a hostile threat on its borders. That failure, and the move by the West to “encourage the Ukrainians to get tough with the Russians” is a disaster for Ukraine, Mearsheimer says, as the country “will be wrecked”.
This is John Mearsheimer – probably the leading geopolitical scholar in the US today – in 2015:
"The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked […] What we're doing is in fact encouraging that outcome." pic.twitter.com/tJCUlueMqb
— Arnaud Bertrand (@RnaudBertrand) March 1, 2022
The University of Chicago professor describes himself as a realist, and was an outspoken opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He does not chiefly deal with the morality or otherwise of the current conflict but with the reality of what tensions between powerful countries or alliances, and what an escalation of tensions or perceived threats can lead to. His noted 2014 article on the growing strain in the region is entitled, ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’, and he observes that the Clinton administration in the mid-90s – a time when NATO was bombing Bosnian Serbs – began a relentless expansion of the military alliance in Russia’s backyard.
Mearsheimer notes that George Kennan knew the Russians would “react quite adversely” to NATO’s enlargement. “There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else,” Kennan said.
The nuclear threat in particular is a major concern to Russia, and would contravene the non-nuclear proliferation treaty (NPT) which has been in force since the 1970s. Since 1994 Ukraine has been a signatory to this treaty, which made talk by Zelensky at the Munich Security conference in February about joining NATO and possibly arming Ukraine with nuclear weapons, a matter of grave concern for Moscow. Rightly or wrongly, it was seen as a provocative move.
Russia say their three demands have their legal basis in a number of treaties, namely the NPT, The Budapest Memorandum, and the Minsk accords.
The Minsk accords were signed in the Belarusian city of Minsk in 2014 and 2015 and they deal with the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, namely within the separatist Donbas and Luhansk regions. It agreed, amongst other things, a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry, humanitarian assistance, and monitored elections.
It was Angela Merkel who directed the emergency talks to get the Minsk accord agreed upon. Whether she did did because the Russian backed forces were achieving supremacy or because this was an intractable humanitarian disaster is a matter for debate. Certainly the Washington war lobby never let human casualties in far flung regions of the world get in the way of their strategic objectives.
Anyway, once the Minsk accords were signed they were dutifully ignored, and the ensuing conflict in Donbas has reportedly resulted in some 14,000 deaths since 2015 to the point where Russia invaded on February 24th of this year. The ongoing conflict on Russia’s border arguably targeting a Russian-speaking ethnic group, was, as noted by experts like Mearsheimer, was a matter of growing concern for Moscow.
So in effect the civil war that raged in Eastern Ukraine – which was supported with military arms by Russia on one side, while the West including the US backed the Ukrainian army on the other – never ended. Moves by the Ukrainian government to outlaw the use of Russian in schools and make the use of Ukrainian mandatory for public sector workers, even in regions where Russian speakers were plentiful, served to stoke anger further.
While the Washington Post described the Donbas region as a “war zone” in 2018, it is interesting that this war theatre was largely ignored in the western media and all eyes are kept on the less strategically relevant standoff at Kiev.
Putin did point out that wars in support of separatists have been engaged upon by the United States under a principle that they called “Responsibility to Protect”. It was under this principle, unilaterally concocted by the US, that the US waged war on Yugoslavia in 1999, to enforce a separatist Kosovo campaign. It is noteworthy that Joe Biden, even since his time as VP in 2014 has been entangled in the policy of the Ukraine and its armament.
The Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994 at the OSCE (organisation for security and cooperation in Europe) conference in Budapest and it brought Belarus, Kazakstan, and Ukraine under the NPT. Under this agreement Ukraine cannot seek nuclear armament.
There are, of course, many commentators who argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demolished any claim of legal basis that Putin may have made regarding his demands. They would also argue that, even if NATO encouraged countries in region to join the alliance, those countries did so freely. In order to facilitate a peace agreement, however, it is unwise to ignore the historical and political realities which have led to tensions thus far.
One thing that is notable from the outset, is that the Russians have not committed their full military potential to this. With an availability of over 200,000 soldiers they have committed around a quarter of that number, and the offensive, unlike the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 has not, so far, included a “shock and awe” artillery bombardment. There is still time for this war to escalate, but there is also time for negotiations based on Russia’s three demands.
War brings horrors unimaginable to many of those who are thousands of miles from Eastern Europe but recklessly calling for increased Western involvement.
Just last year, economist Jeffrey Sachs , writing in the Financial Times, also warned that “NATO enlargement is utterly misguided and risky” and that “true friends of Ukraine, and of global peace, should be calling for a US and NATO compromise with Russia.”
Perhaps it is not too late for the West to listen.