[written 10 December 2021 – published now]
The present situation in Ukraine is unsuitable for all parties. Nevertheless, the prospects of a resolution and avoidance of a major Ukrainian war and a NATO-Russian war over Ukraine are improving not failing. Competent leadership and statesmanship are sorely lacking in Washington, Brussels, and Kiev, and although Russian President Vladimir Putin is better at the new cold war’s geopolitical maneuvering than his counterparts, he has fewer resources than his opponents and therefore is at risk of losing in the long-term – especially given his age and the personalist nature of his regime – and this becoming a potential loose cannon. What is worse is that he is anchored to a looser one in his Belarussian ally, Aleksandr Lukashenka. Each party to the conflict – Washington, Brussels, Kiev, and Moscow – is authoritarianizing, making each less peaceable, and coming under greater pressures domestically and internationally as a result of numerous factors: COVID panic, economic uncertainties, globalist oligarch manipulations, and a international system in transition from a unipolar to bipolar or even multipolar structure. There are ways out, but they will require compromises and new thinking on the part of all sides. Requirements that seem increasingly unlikely to be met in time.
The Ukrainian crisis is untenable for all parties concerned. For Kiev, she has lost not just Crimea, Donbass, and much of its economic strength founded on ties with her largest trading partner, Russia, but Ukraine is under the constant threat of war in the east or internal destabilization by radical unltra-nationaist and neofascist elements, who divide not just society but infiltrate the state, creating infighting, aggravating corruption and criminality, and re-authoritarianizing the regime through censorship laws, linguistically discriminatory education and media laws. Conversely, there would be no threat to Ukraine under an international treaty signed by the US, the EU, NATO, and Russia, and resolution of the conflict.
For the West, in particular the U.S., the attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO run a high risk of war with Russia. I would say they carry a a certainty of war with Moscow sooner or later, with later not being all that far off at all. NATO expansion and its attendant EU enlargement and intrusive ‘democracy-promotion’ or color revolution policies led to the conflict in Ukraine that has heightened the risk of war with Russia. Moreover, the mounting conflict with Moscow compicate Western in particular American efforts to contain China’s rise, defend Taiwan, and limit Sino naval and overall power in Asia and the Pacific. The West is constrained in respnding to the ‘Russian threat’ in the west because of the far more real Chinese threat in the east. As a result, Chinese power is enhanced by Russian partnership, Russian power is buttressed by Chinese partnership, and American energies and power are divided between the two fronts of the new cold war.
For Russia, the Ukrainian crisis has led to its further removal from Europe, the revivial of its frequently reactionary security and vigilance culture vis-à-vis` the West, and the fortress mentality’s requisite rejection of political pluralism and republican rule. What will Russia face geostrategically should Ukraine join NATO with or without Donbass, putting aside the loss of its Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol? There is the issue of the status of Belarus and Moldova waiting in the not too distant future. Moldova and its Russia-backed breakaway region of Transdniestr is a case not very dissimilar from Ukraine and Donbass, but with a dastardly complication. Moldova and breakaway have no borders with Russia, but Moscow has been committed to protecting the proportionally large Russian population in the breakaway region, leaving the 14th army there after the 1991 Soviet collapse and Moldova’s attenmpt to return Transdniestr to the Moldovan fold by military force in 1992. Transdniestr is sandwhiched between Ukraine to its east and the rest of Moldova to its west, while Moldova lies east of NATO member Romania. At the same time, there is a large ethnic Ukrainian population as there is a Russian population in Transdniestr. If Ukriane achieves or is close to achieving entry into NATO, one can be sure that it will begin to lobby for Moldova’s entry into the alliance. If NATO has accepted Ukraine into the alliance with Donbass still in breakaway status, then it might also overlook Moldova’s stateness problem in Transdniestr as well. Or in order to help solve Moldova’s territorial stateness problem and facilitate Moldova’s membership in NATO, Kiev could ally with Chisinau (Kishenev) against Transdniestr and the Russian 14th army, stationed there since the Soviet collapse and guarantor of the peace and Transdniestr’s security from Moldova. This might become especially tempting for Kiev if Ukraine is about to become a NATO member or the latter has been inordinately delayed and a more nationalist regime than even the present post-Miadan variant.
At the present time, the West is backing the faultering ‘color revolution’ movement in Belarus, a close ally of Moscow. Any pro-Western regime that is installed in Minsk will create the same Russo-Western struggle over whether or not Belarus should enter NATO as has faced Ukraine during its post-Soviet history of waning then waxing then waning democratization. If somehow Ukraine and Moldova are in or near accession to NATO, Moscow will counter much more intensely against NATO overtures to Minsk and yet another round of expansion along its border. Belarus would become the last bastion and understandably so. Belarus has been the central invasion route into Russia for centuries beginning with the Poles and continuing to Napolean’s Grand Army and Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s forces fought Russian forces deep into Belarussian territory during World War I as well.
Thus, any resolution to the NATO-Russia standoff on the eastern front requires the resolution of three very difficult and dangerous conflicts, and the parties are closer to war than resolution in Ukraine and unengaged with each other in Belarus and Moldova.
A comprehensive solution to this problem, a grand bargain for far eastern Europe/western Eurasia, might be well nigh impossible to draft no less get the parties – the US, EU, Russia, Ukraine, Donbass, Belarus, Moldova and Transdniestr – to sign. Nevertheless, some new ideas might develop in considering such a bargain. As far as Ukraine is concerned, as I have written previously, the only solution Moscow will accept is a neutral Ukraine that will provide some degree of autonomy to the breakaway Donbass Luhanks and Donetsk republics. The Minsk 2 accords are sufficient to deal with the remainder of the peacemaking and normalization process. A UN international peacekeeping force would be needed to keep Ukrainian and Donbass forces separated until Minsk 2 is fully executed. Short of such a solution the situation in Donbass will remain a frozen conflict that frequently thaws into skirmishes and even outbreaks of more concerted war that will risk bringing Russia and/or NATO into the conflict, risking a larger war, with all that can be fraught. A similar approach can resolve Moldova’s stateness issue and obviate any possibility of war there.
Belarus should also be given neutral status, but this would mean its exit from the Collective Security Treaty Organization organized by Russia after the Soviet collapse. How can Russia be compensated for this loss? One way would be to allow to stand Russia’s illegal annexation of either Crimea or, preferably, only Sevastopol and its Black Sea Fleet base. Other options would be either Ukrainian or joint Russia-Ukrainian stewardship over the peninsula with a return to the contract basis for Russia’s lease of the Sevastopol naval base or some mix of the options regarding Crimea, Sevastopol, and the Black Sea Fleet naval base. Accordingly, there could be a treaty on limits on the number of Russian naval and support personnel that could stationed at Sevastopol and an international inspection regime. At the same time, the OSCE’s Helsinki Accords’ stipulations of non-interference in the domestic politics by one member-state in another member-state must be fleshed out and codified in a separate international agreement or at least one addressing these three in-between states.
It must be acknowledged, however, that movement towards such solutions is unlikely to be generated without a larger framework involving a broad Western-Russian, even Western-Eurasian process of designing a new post-Cold War international security infrastructure. One way to generate such a process would be to begin talks on this broader subject as well as a return to a conventional forces in Europe treaty to replace the defunct CFE treaty. To address the even more complex issue of securing global peace, China obviously and India likely would have to be brought into talks. Also, a new geopolitical arbitration process or court might be considered at least for the present eastern European/western Eurasian security dilemma.
Whether or not these kinds of broader solutions can lead to a constructive negotiating process and an end to the Ukrainian and other impemding crises, it is clear that business as usual – continuing NATO expansion, further alienation of Russia from the West, and growing Russian overreactions abroad and de-republicanization at home – cannot stand. Western sanctions, weapon supplies to Kiev, and democracy summits are not solutions but exacerbations of the Ukrainian crisis, and the space for further exacerbation before an explosion of war is or at least should be unacceptable to all—except perhaps for China and Iran.
On the eve of World War I, there was a significant number, but nevertheless a relatively small minority of voices warning of impending disaster should militarism, nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, and semi-autocracy be left unchecked. Brits spoke of Germans, and Germans spoke of Brits in the harshest of terms terms. Both viewed Russians as Mongols. The world was in the midst of socially disordering and disorienting technological, economic, and geopolitical transformations. All this contributed to the Great War. Today, new perhaps softer forms of militarism, nationalism, colonialism, imperialism are extant. Authoritarianism not all that far removed from the monarchical republics that dominated the European a century ago is on the march from Washington to Brussles to Kiev and Moscow, leaving decisionmaking on war and peace and influence on the process to the state and within the state to a small circle of advisors surrounding several national presidents and prime ministers. Given somewhat similar developments a somewhat similar outcome awaits us. Who among us wants anything approximating a great war?
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.