After years of undeclared war in the eastern Donbass region, this week has seen the risk of a full-fledged confrontation between Russia and Ukraine increasing, which threatens to involve Ukraine’s military intelligence chief. NATO Kyrylo Budanov warned the Military Times that over the weekend Russia “had more than 92,000 troops massed around Ukraine’s borders … preparing for an attack by late January or early February.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the accusations and replied that “the number of [Ukrainian] provocations multiply and multiply significantly ”, and that these threats“ are carried out with weapons provided by NATO countries ”. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has vowed that US commitments to Ukraine are “rock-solid”, following a statement released by President Biden last September declaring US support for the Ukraine and its attempts to join NATO.
Media outlets like Reuters describe reports from numerous US, Russian and international analysts expressing concern over the “construction crisis” but concluding that “almost all have agreed that an invasion is unlikely to be imminent.” Rather, analysts suggest that Russia, Ukraine and the United States are positioning themselves to designate geopolitical “red lines” that they will not tolerate crossing.
But whether or not this particular confrontation escalates into all-out war is incidental. The absence of war does not make peace, and the situation in Ukraine, divided by a civil war against Russia-backed separatists in a frozen seven-year conflict, is gruesome and unsustainable. If all parties are serious about ending the cycle of fear of war, diplomatic fallout and forgotten conflicts, the crisis at the center of this entanglement must be addressed. To do this, Ukraine, Russia and the United States must establish a new diplomatic status quo that addresses each other’s strategic concerns while establishing a neutral balance of influence on all sides.
Ukraine is no stranger to crises. Europe’s poorest state, alongside neighboring Moldova, Ukraine has struggled with stagnation, corruption and powerful oligarchs – issues familiar to much of the former Soviet Union – since its independence from the USSR in 1991. But this particular crisis, the civil war and threat of war with Russia, is not the work of Ukraine. From 2014, protests erupted after then-president Viktor Yanukovych canceled a deal with the EU that would bring Ukraine into the West, choosing instead to forge closer ties with Russia. . Street fighting in Kiev would see Yanukovych and many other officials resign, but also Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine would declare independence and Russia would annex the Crimean peninsula in an internationally contested referendum. Both movements were supported by undeclared Russian troops.
The 2014 protests raised fears in Russia of Ukraine’s possible integration into the EU, so it invaded it in an undeclared war. This summary gives us an overview of the origin of this crisis: the value of Ukraine’s strategic geopolitical position makes it impossible for Russia or the US-NATO to allow strong ties with each other.
As Americans, it is natural for us to understand this like any other “Russian concern”: when in doubt, stand against Russia. This is why the United States and NATO are sending ammunition, weapons and money to Ukraine to stop the Russian aggression and contain its influence with our military support. This concern is not unfounded; Putin’s aggression against his neighbors makes it clear that Russia’s interests are not entirely defensive. But to have a strong ally on the border with its biggest European rival would have benefit NATO and the United States – their support for Ukraine is not altruistic. Rather than cooling the conflict, looking at the crisis in Ukraine through the prism of these strategic interests only exacerbates tensions and increases the risk of conflict.
Simply put, Russia will never give up its own strategic interests in Ukraine. From the point of view of its leaders, it cannot afford it. A Ukraine aligned with NATO and the United States is an existential threat to Russia’s security, an intolerable danger to its regime right on its border, so promising Ukraine more weapons and more military support does not only forcing Russia to invest more of its own resources in the region and make stronger threats of war. As the Foreign Office wrote in an article on the crisis, giving strong promises of American aid to Ukraine both invites Russia to bluff and risks “misleading”[ing] Ukrainian leaders expect support that will not materialize, ”leading Ukraine to take a dangerous decision that the United States is unwilling to support. And because the Russian regime views a NATO-aligned Ukraine as an existential threat, it will always be ready to go beyond distant Washington. In the end, playing chicken with a desperate diet in your backyard is a bad bet. The United States must stop pretending it has the geopolitical will to push Russia harder than Russia is willing to push back.
If we really want to end the fighting in Ukraine, we have to look at reality. Even if Ukraine wholeheartedly wanted to align with NATO and the United States, that could not happen. Unfortunately, Ukraine is a precious strategic real estate, on the border of an unstable and paranoid autocratic regime. The reality of this geopolitical situation will prevent Ukraine from fully acting on its own initiative. Russia is not going anywhere, and despite all the ideals we may have about national sovereignty, defending those ideals here would be playing with the existence of Ukraine. Unless we, the people who wish to see Ukraine free from war and conflict, are prepared to invade and dismantle the Russian Federation which threatens it, we must recognize that Russia exists, that its interests exist and that some of these interests must be recognized in order to achieve peace. As Business Insider says, “One may not agree with Moscow’s security concerns; however, it is necessary to address them in the pursuit of a peaceful resolution. “
Divorcing the strategic US and NATO interests of peace is the only realistic way to prevent the conflict from escalating, as those interests inherently prevent Russia from sitting at the table. This may not bring immediate peace, nor force Russia to altruistically withdraw its other designs on Ukrainian sovereignty, but strict assurances that Ukraine remains outside NATO alignment will allow to all parties to speak with a clearer head. Keep the stakes low and facilitate the search for diplomatic solutions. The greater the threat of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, the more Russia feels it needs to act aggressively, so if the US and NATO clearly and officially state that they will not seek to place their military interests in Ukraine, Russia will have less need to threaten war and may in fact benefit from this status quo.
Russia would have less reason to threaten escalation and might indeed be less willing to play the role of aggressor without the specific justification for combating US aggression, as new sanctions and greater diplomatic isolation in Europe are also not in Russia’s interest. But if Russia were to continue on its aggressive path in this scenario, the international community could support Ukraine, not by siding with NATO-US interests, but by defending state sovereignty.
Peace is neither cheap nor easy, and if we really want it, some compromises have to be made. But peace in Ukraine, with Ukraine intact, is achievable. Ukrainian sovereignty should not be discussed in purely pro-Russian or pro-NATO terms, as this assumes that Ukraine’s only two options are Russian or American vassalage and ensures that one side will view the situation as geopolitically intolerable. If Ukraine is offered a third choice, allowed to be independent from either side while still being able to cooperate with both, a war between the nuclear powers can be avoided and a new status quo that benefits all parties can be built. Finally, Ukraine could enjoy peace.