The Ukraine Crisis: Past, Present, and Future?

Is the Ukraine crisis a turning point in world history? And is this also a potential wake-up call for the “liberal American-dominated Western world order,” due to a conflict whose significance is comparable to and potentially greater than 9/11?

Will the current crisis further empower the rise and global spread of authoritarian regimes, including those of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and possibly, in 2024, of Donald Trump as well? Will Russia’s deployment of state terrorism in Chechnya, Syria, Moldova, and now in Ukraine, lead, along with accelerated global warming and the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic, to an existential crisis for humankind in particular and this planet as a whole?

Stephen Walt (a Harvard Professor  of International Relations) has claimed, the current crisis in Ukraine is “a much-needed wake-up call for Europe.” According to Walt, “the war in Ukraine has in some respects dispelled a whole series of liberal illusions that misled many people during the post-Cold War period. Those illusions include the idea that a major war could never happen again in Europe, and that the spread of economic interdependence and the expansion of NATO would mean that eventually all of Europe would be a vast zone of peace. What European countries have now discovered is that … hard power still matters in world politics, and one can’t simply let defense capabilities atrophy for several decades and expect you’ll never need them … So in a sense, we are returning to a lot of fundamental principles of, I would argue, realist views on international politics—which is unfortunate, because a realist world is often a bleak world.”

Walt has also argued that a second wakeup call was the reminder that “powerful countries often do pretty horrible things when they feel, rightly or wrongly, that their security is being endangered.” According to Walt, the United States did the same in 2003 by invading Iraq: “It was every bit as illegal as what Russia is now doing.”

 

Why this crisis/war, and why now?

From my perspective, the proximate and long-term causes of the present war in Ukraine include:

  1. Competing narratives about the past, depending on the “author’s” political/ideological/cultural vision and memory.
  2. The magnification and actualization of the “threats” to one’s own “security” posed by the “enemy,” as well as competing
  3. Zero-sum security dilemmas–e.g., the more one side’s military builds-up, in the name of national/alliance geopolitical security, the greater the global and regional insecurity, because the other side does the same thing, leading to an arms race in which “our side’s victory is the other side’s defeat,” possibly leading to a race to oblivion.
  4. From a Russian perspective: there has been a century of tension and cold or hot conflicts between Russia/USSR and the West going back to Western interventions to overthrow the Bolsheviks during the Civil War from 1918-21. Despite the brief illusion of allied cooperation to resist Nazism in the early 1940s. Western anti-communism and fears of Soviet “expansion” led to the creation of NATO (in 1949, now with 30 member states), followed by the Soviet-inspired establishment of the Warsaw Pact (created as a balance of power or counterweight to NATO.in 1955, with 8 member states). Soviet fears of a powerful rearmed Germany, based on their experience of invasion by Germany during WW II, led to their proposals for a neutral Germany in the 1950’s, the creation of the Warsaw Pact, and its initial resistance to the unification of German from 1989-91, based on the “false assurance” (from Russian’s point of view) that NATO would not expand eastward beyond a reunified Germany in the 1990s to the present. The results were the (first) “Cold War,” i.e., a global state of nuclear terror from 1945-91, followed by many lost opportunities for greater peace and human security after the dissolution of the USSR, and now to the war in Ukraine (and elsewhere?)….

Security dilemmas haunt all the conflict parties, and Russia’s invasions of parts of Georgia and Moldova, and its current invasion of Ukraine, seem designed to create Slavophonic buffer zones between Russia and NATO, and also perhaps to revive a contemporary version of the Russian Empire as it existed prior to WW I, or the partial recreation of the former USSR as it existed following WWI.

  1. From an Anglo-American perspective: the “threats” to the “liberal Western world order” of the spread of Soviet-style “communism” and Russian and/or Chinese geo-political influence require an ever-vigilant and (semi?) permanent warfare state with multiple regional (NATO, SEATO, Anzus, etc) military alliances to “deter,” roll-back, and, if possible, “defeat” Russian (and Chinese) “expansionist” campaigns, preferably via proxy wars in local (i.e. Vietnam, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and now Ukraine) theaters of regional conflict.

 

What’s to come in the (Near) Future?

Three Possible Scenarios

At present (keeping in mind the uncertainties of prediction, the fog of war, and the role of chance):

  1. The seemingly most likely scenario is: A military stalemate and/or economic paralysis in Russia leading to increasing risk-taking by the current Russian government, including the real possibility of the expansion of the war, via a scorched-earth campaign (resembling Chechnya and Syria) throughout all of Ukraine and possibly its escalation by Russia to the Baltic States and such other Eastern European NATO members as Poland, Bulgaria, and even Slovakia and the Czech Republic, either conventionally or with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), by accident or design. A long-term guerilla war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis intensifies, leading to many millions of Ukrainians and others heading West and South, including hundreds of thousands of possible Covid cases engendering the pandemic’s spread through the host nations. Intensifying economic paralysis and social unrest in Russia lead to retaliatory cyber/info/hybrid warfare disabling and/or crippling communications and financial, and/or health-care/utility, providers throughout much of the advanced industrial world.
  2. A worst-case scenario: The intensification of multiple overlapping existential threats (runaway global heating, the collapse of democratic governance, and out-of-control pandemics) combined with the not negligible possibilities of major nuclear power plant accidents and/or sabotage, and/or a nuclear/WMD confrontation between NATO and Russia, lead to an out-of-control spiraling conflict between Russia and the West, terminating in a global conflagration and nuclear Armageddon.
  3. A best-case, or not-so-awful, scenario might include: Monitored ceasefires in Ukraine combined with successful mediation by Israel, China, Turkey, France, and/or other parties, leading to the gradual cessation of military operations in Ukraine and eventually to either another frozen conflict (like Georgia and Moldova) or to an Afghanistan-like progressive withdrawal of Russian military forces from Ukraine, after enormous losses of lives and fortunes on all sides. Russia and NATO commence serious negotiations for reframing the post-World-War II geo-political architecture of Europe as a whole, and of far-Eastern Europe in particular, leading to…

Ukraine declaring its neutrality and its commitment never to develop WMDs; a federal status for Donbass and Crimea, and, ultimately, to Ukraine’s “Finlandization,” resembling such nuclear-weapons/WMD-free nations as Austria, Sweden, Ireland and Finland, which are outside NATO but inside Europe. The dissolution or transformation of NATO, combined with the establishment of nuclear/WMD-free zones in Central/Western/Eastern Europe and the West’s commitment to the establishment non-provocative and civilian-based defense, engender a new kind of détente with Russia, as well as to serious arms-control and arms-reduction measures. Russia withdraws from and makes reparations to Ukraine and the war’s victims. New security arrangements lead “one demilitarized Europe,” similar to Gorbachev’s proposals following the end of the Cold War.

Might, eventually, a “Cold Peace” prevail?  Can peace by peaceful means gradually transform this conflict from hot to cold and slowly lead to reconciliation among the antagonists? Let us hope that this is the outcome that will prevail.


Interview with Stephen Walt, available here.

Also see:

How the War in Ukraine Could Get Much Worse

“During the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian leaders repeatedly raised the prospect of a nuclear response should the United States or its NATO partners intervene in the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded his speech announcing war in Ukraine by warning that “anyone who tries to interfere with us … must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.” He subsequently emphasized Russia’s “advantages in a number of the latest types of nuclear weapons” while ordering Russian strategic nuclear forces on alert. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov returned to this theme a few days later, noting that a third world war would be a nuclear war and urging Western leaders to consider what a “real war” with Russia would entail. The message was crystal clear: nuclear escalation is possible should the United States or its NATO partners intervene in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Observers have expressed shock at the notion of a return to Cold War nuclear brinksmanship. The U.S. government even tried to reassure Moscow by postponing an intercontinental ballistic missile test planned for early March. These steps are clearly for the best; no one wants a nuclear exchange. Yet the heavy focus on nuclear escalation is obscuring an equally important problem: the risk of conventional escalation—that is to say, a non-nuclear NATO-Russia war. The West and Russia may now be entering into the terminal stages of an insecurity spiral—a series of mutually destabilizing choices—which could end in tragedy, producing a larger European conflagration even if it doesn’t go nuclear.

Indeed, the coming weeks are likely to be more perilous. The United States should be especially attuned to the risks of escalation as the next phase of conflict begins, and should double down on finding ways to end the conflict in Ukraine when a window of opportunity presents itself. This may involve difficult and unpleasant choices, such as lifting some of the worst sanctions on Russia in exchange for an end to hostilities. It will, nonetheless, be more effective at averting an even worse catastrophe than any of the other available options.”


Charles Webel, Ph.D.

Fulbright Specialist in Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Professor Webel is the author or editor of 13 books, including the standard work in the field, Peace and Conflict Studies (with David Barash).

published: 14. 3. 2022