Ukraine – time for geopolitics and diplomacy

The New Zealand government has firmly come in behind the United States position of supporting Ukraine in the war arising out of Russia’s unjustified invasion. At one level this appears the right position to take. But when one drills deeper a more nuanced position should be considered.

When one goes beyond Europe, North America, and former British colonies like Australia and New Zealand, many more countries (including in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia) have a more nuanced position; that is; neither supporting Russia’s or the United States’ positions.

Eleven months ago

On 10 March 2022 I published my first and, until now, only blog on the war in Ukraine. At that time I placed the war not simply in the context of the invasion of one country by another (Russia).

I also placed it in a wider context of longstanding and escalating tension between the United States, largely working through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and Russia.  

When a bigger country militarily attacks a smaller country it is intuitive to support the latter. But what if the bigger country is only a medium-sized capitalist economy and the smaller country is supported by a much bigger capitalist superpower and also leads a military alliance which includes several other medium to large capitalist economies? Is the smaller country much more  than a proxy?

I described the war as a case of the continuation of politics by another means and argued that it could only be resolved through a self-determination based strategic approach. Self-determination required to resolve a war which continues politics by other means.

Starting point

I still adhere to what I wrote 11 months ago but with two main qualifications. First, I underestimated the far right, including fascist, influence in Ukraine.

Second, and more important for this blog, the way the war has escalated and protracted, a self-determination approach is utopian in the short to medium term at least (but it remains central for a sustainable long-term solution).

There is no justification for a war that creates such a humanitarian crisis as this one has. This is not alleviated by the fact that Ukrainian troops have been responsible for innocent deaths in Luhansk and Donetsk in the east. Here the war resembles more of a civil war.

There needs to be a starting point for considering the war in Ukraine. For me it is that the Russian invasion is morally unjustified. It is inhuman, barbaric, oppresses the innocent, and responsible for the avoidable deaths of thousands.

The threat to Ukrainians is intensified  by the invader also being a nuclear power. Whatever the eventual outcome, the lives of millions of Ukrainians will be devastated to varying degrees for many years.

Beyond the starting point

When one country invades another (regardless of its backers) it is inevitably the invader rather than the invaded who is primarily, but not exclusively, responsible for the loss and devastation of innocent lives. This statement ranks high among self-evident truths. But the starting point is not the only point to consider.

Journalist Serge Halimi, diplomatic solution needed

I found a paywalled article by French journalist Serge Halimi published in Le Monde Diplomatique (November 2022) particularly helpful in working through this consideration: diplomatic solution is needed to end the war .

The war can’t be explained by a claim of ‘Russian expansionism’. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had not sought to takeover Ukraine; it was more concerned with the relationships between the two neighbours. This is in the context of gradual expansion of United States’ influence in the name of NATO towards Russia’s borders.

There is an argument that Russia was provoked by this expansion but in no way is this a justification for invasion. In fact, to the extent that it was used as a justification, it has proved to be a disastrous own goal with the previously neutral Finland and Sweden now seeking NATO membership along with Ukraine itself. Russia’s invasion has had the perverse outcome of strengthening NATO.

Saving Ukraine from fascism!!

Just as the invasion of Ukraine can’t be explained by Russian expansionism, neither can it be explained by President Vladimir Putin’s claim of saving Ukraine from fascism.

President Putin uses false claims to justify invasion

This does not mean that ultra-nationalism is not prevalent in Ukrainian politics. It is, particularly in the western part of the country. With the strong support of fascist forces it was a powerful influence in the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected president, President Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014.

The previous year Yanukovych had ended trade integration talks with the European Union in which the latter had been pressing for stringent neo-liberal measures to be adopted. Instead he resumed economic negotiations with Russia.

The United States then became engaged hands-on in a destabilisation campaign against the Yanukovych government which led to the successful coup the following February.

Yanukovych was a corrupt leader but so were those who preceded and succeeded him. Political corruption has been the norm for Ukrainian ‘democracy’ for decades. His election was democratic by these Ukrainian standards.

More important was the large polarisation in Ukraine which was highlighted by Yanukovych’s election. His support was centred in the regions, especially in the east, (his party was called the ‘Party of Regions’) where Ukrainians generally favoured close relations with Russia. Support for the coup was centred in the urban centres, particularly in the west, where Ukrainians generally favoured closer EU relations.

Ukraine was anything but a liberal democracy where, following the coup, ultra-nationalist forces have had a prevailing influence, including over President Volodymyr Zelenskyy elected in 2019. Although fascists were electorally insignificant, they were influential in the 2014 coup and are powerful in the wider politic (especially in the military and militias) operating within the smelly armpit of ultra-nationalism.

Media coverage has focussed on the suppression of dissent, including imprisonment in Russia of Russians who express their disagreement with the invasion. But there is little coverage on the suppression of left-wing  Ukrainians  who express their disagreement with aspects of the Zelenskiy government’s attitude to both Russia before the invasion and the response to it.

Dissent is suppressed in both countries. In fact, prior to the invasion, under its ultranationalist influence the Zelenskyy government was responsible for repressing the use of the Russian language by Ukrainians.

As mentioned above, in my earlier post on Ukraine, I underestimated the influence of fascists. However, Putin’s claim that Russia’s ‘special military operation’ was driven by the need to defeat fascism in Ukraine is a fabrication.

Ultra-nationalism is also influential in Russia and within it a fascist movement. The difference between its influence in the two countries is one of degree rather than kind. Recent commentary suggests that if Putin was to be overthrown in a coup, it likely would be led by ultra-nationalists more hard-line over the war than him (as difficult as this is to believe), possibly even pro-fascists.

War crimes hypocrisy

Hypocrisy over this war is evident in many forms. One is the charge led by US President Joe Biden that Putin should be tried as a war criminal. The hypocrisy of this is well dealt with by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill in The Intercept (11 February):  US hypocrisy on war crimes.

Suffice to say, the double-standard of Biden wanting to pursue war crimes against Putin but not against George W. Bush for his war crimes in Iraq stands out before even considering Scahill’s article.

American journalist Jeremy Scahill exposes US hypocrisy over Putin war crimes charge

Scahill pointedly notes that the logical venue to prosecute Putin’s alleged crime would be the International Criminal Court. But the United States, Russia and Ukraine stand outside the ICC which has overwhelmingly focussed on African nations and has never indicted a leader of a major world power.

President Joe Biden’s war crimes claims hypocritical

The ICC does not have jurisdiction over war crimes in Ukraine largely due to the United States’ opposition to amend its rules to prohibit prosecuting personnel from countries that do not formally recognise the Court.

Learning from the Cuban (Turkish) missile crisis

In his article Serge Halimi raises an interesting historical reference to the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 (equally so it could have been called the Turkish missile crisis) which involved an escalating dispute between the planet’s then two superpowers – United States and Soviet Union.

It began with the former’s decision to locate missiles in Turkey which shared a border with the latter. The latter then proceeded to locate missiles in Cuba; that is, in the former’s ‘backyard’. With both superpowers veering towards the brink of nuclear war a secret agreement was reached between their leaders – John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev.

The outcome was the withdrawal of missiles  first from Cuba (coupled with a promise from Kennedy not to invade the island) and then subsequently missile withdrawal from Turkey. Kennedy was a politician from the political right; Khruschev headed up an autocratic leadership system. But both had sufficient insight to deescalate and lower the temperature    

Geopolitics and diplomacy

Joe Biden needs to match John Kennedy’s political astuteness

Halimi approvingly quotes President Kennedy’s rationale for his secret agreement with Khruschev:

While defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. [Diplomats should] avoid unnecessary irritants and purely rhetorical hostility.

A winner-takes-all war strategy as promoted by Biden won’t work. It is unlikely that there will be a winner; wars solve nothing. What is required to end it is a negotiated outcome. For this to happen there must be a ceasefire; all military action ceases so that the slaughter ends.

Then, through diplomacy, the geopolitical realities need to be addressed. These include the need for Russian withdrawal, the need to review territorial boundaries in eastern Ukraine (Luhansk and Donetsk) recognising that many of its population would prefer to be part of Russia, and the need to address Russia’s fear of NATO encroachment into Ukraine.

President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev meet at the American ambassador’s residence in Vienna, Vienna, Austria, June 3, 1961. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin needs to match Nikita Khrushchev’s diplomatic astuteness

Only by diplomacy, perhaps facilitated by representatives of countries outside NATO, based on the need to achieve a negotiated geopolitical foundation can a resolution be reached that provides a foundation for more sustainable outcome consistent with the principle of self-determination for both Ukrainians and Russians.

This international ‘bread and butter’ approach would be worth being advocated by New Zealand’s domestic ‘bread and butter’ government.

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