Ukraine: To war or not to war?

Both Russia and the US already gained all that they can from the Ukraine crisis, so why persist on the path to war?

Russian President Putin and his American counterpart Biden are seen talking at the June 21 US-Russia summit in Geneva
It is high time to reject warmongering and embrace appeasement, writes Bishara [Peter Klaunzer/Pool/AFP]

The much-anticipated war in Ukraine may have not started, but it has already achieved most of its objectives. Which begs the question: why persist on the path to war, a bloody destructive war with assured blowbacks, when diplomacy could finish the job?

The main protagonists, Russia and the United States, are cynically using the good old Cold War playbook to advance their national interests at the expense of Ukrainian, indeed European, and international security.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has pushed Ukraine and its Western backers into a corner during the past few weeks, amassing some hundred thousand troops close to the Ukraine border under various security pretexts.

Putin’s move has led President Joe Biden to assume Russia may invade Ukraine imminently, perhaps as early as mid-February. British speculation about a Russian plan to install a puppet government in Kyiv added another dramatic twist to the evolving crisis.

By escalating tensions over Ukraine and rolling out the drums of war, Moscow and Washington have reclaimed their old dominant roles in Europe after years of doubt and confusion.

Putin is finally being taken seriously in the West with regard to his opposition to NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.

In light of this dangerous military standoff, there is little or no doubt about Russia’s determination to do what it takes to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Or, about its willingness and capacity to project force in all the areas of the former Soviet Union and beyond. Its intervention on the side of the government during recent disturbances in Kazakhstan is a case in point.

Likewise, Biden, the Cold War liberal, is finally being taken seriously in Europe and Russia, as he uses the Putin scare to get the reluctant Europeans back in line behind the US. Even the leading European powers, France and Germany, that openly seek autonomy and even independence from the US in security affairs, are now following in Washington’s footsteps, albeit unenthusiastically.

And to Biden’s delight, a reinvigorated NATO is back in action under US leadership after having lost its raison d’etre twice – first following its Cold War victory and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and then again, following the fall of Kabul and its humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, last year.

After two decades of NATO’s “out-of-area” operations failing miserably, the US is successfully resurrecting the Western military alliance and placing it squarely in its traditional theatre of operation, Europe, under the pretext of a newly manufactured Cold War.

So, why in hell would Putin and Biden persist in the escalation towards war, after having improved their national and international standing, and strengthened their strategic posture, as the de facto guardians of European security?

Why risk wasting these accomplishments in war, a devastating war to be sure, when longstanding disagreements could be worked out diplomatically?

Make no mistake, the alternative to diplomacy would be devastating for Ukraine. The US has already declared that it won’t defend it if attacked, since it is not a NATO member.

Nor is war beneficial to the US and Russia for it will quickly spiral out of control.

Putin may not be planning for a total invasion and occupation of Ukraine; not with merely one hundred thousand troops. But even a minor incursion into eastern Ukraine is bound to trigger a dangerous cycle of actions and reactions, with the US imposing massive and unprecedented sanctions against Russia, aimed at crippling its economy.

That’s why Putin is seeking the support of China’s strongman, Xi Jinping, whom he’s scheduled to meet next week on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics. With China on its side, Russia hopes it could resist US sanctions and successfully rebuff Western pressures.

But even victory could come with a hefty price of its own, weakening Russia and forcing it into a junior partnership with China in Asia. Not long ago, the United Kingdom won the second world war, but lost its empire and became a junior partner of the US.

China has already called for calm, making it clear that it opposes NATO’s expansion to the Russian border. But Beijing also has a vested interest in Moscow’s success against Washington in Ukraine, as it would pave the way for its own success against the US in Taiwan and the rest of Asia.

Yet another reason why Biden should avoid war in Ukraine – a war that is bound to further embolden Russia and strengthen China; a war that is bound to unite Beijing and Moscow against not only regional nuisances, but also their global nemesis, the US, all of which is bound to destroy the international order as we know it.

By contrast to all these apocalyptical scenarios, diplomacy is a walk-in-the-park panacea. And it is incumbent upon the Europeans to try and bridge the differences between the US and Russia.

In fact, it boggles the mind that European powers have not stood firm against such an escalation considering they have the most to lose from a war in Europe.

Two decades ago, Germany and France showed the necessary courage to oppose the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which turned out to be disastrous, not only for Iraq and the Middle East, but also for the US and Europe.

This is the time to take a similar stand, by pushing both Russia and the US to pull back from the brink, and showing them the way towards a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Indeed, the European powers could end the escalation by vetoing NATO’s expansion eastward. It is that simple.

Putin may be making big demands of the US regarding NATO’s military presence in Eastern Europe or the deployment of intermediate-range missiles on the continent, etc, but as leading Russian expert, Dmitri Trenin observed in Foreign Affairs, “Moscow’s demands are probably an opening bid not an ultimatum”. He reckons Russia seeks to stop NATO expansion, not annex more territory from Ukraine.

The Biden administration could certainly accommodate the Russian red line since Ukraine is not even on the path for NATO membership. In return, Russia may provide the necessary assurance and commitment to an independent and free Ukraine.

Presidents Putin and Biden have shown clever brinkmanship; they should not let it get out of control because of personal and national pride. It is high time to reject warmongering and embrace appeasement; yes appeasement; mutual strategic appeasement to avoid another devastating European war and dreadful world crisis.