On the Brink: Understanding the Ukraine Crises

The following text is a transcript of Professor Sakwa’s presentation at ‘On the Brink: Understanding the Ukraine Crisis and Paths Towards a Just Peace’,  a Massachusetts Peace Action/Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security webinar presented on February 3.

I want to make four basic points. My first point will try to provide some sort of overview, explaining how we got to where we are today. And in a few minutes, I won’t be able to do too much. But simply, I will argue, as follows: between 1989 and 2019, effectively, though, some will take [as an end point] 2014, we had a ‘Cold Peace’ that sort of reprises some of the issues associated with a Cold War. But it’s accompanied by attempts – genuine attempts – to try to resolve the conflictual potential. It’s [like] a new version of what E H Carr called, in interwar years, the 20 years crisis. And you could call this a 30 years crisis. And in the last few years, this has tilted over into what I would argue is now Cold War 2. This is a full-scale confrontation, with all of the mechanisms. I won’t go into the detail of how you would define a Cold War, but it’s clearly ideological contestation, demonization of the enemy, or the protagonist, and a whole stack of other features, which are extremely reminiscent of that first Cold War, all of which take place under the umbrella of nuclear deterrence.

We could also characterize these years as a slow-motion Cuban Missile Crisis … certainly, in these last few months, it’s accompanied by what some people would say, would be a rash move. In October 1962 [the rash move] was putting the missiles on Cuba, today the mobilization and the saber rattling and militarization. [It’s] an attempt to force a some sort of a solution, if not a diplomatic one, to what was perceived to be a fundamental problem. In [1962 it was] Berlin, Jupiter missiles in Turkey, and so on. Today [it’s] the failure to establish what the Russians would call an indivisible security order. So [we have a] slow motion Cuban Missile Crisis, and we’ll have to see in my final section, how it could possibly being resolved.

My bottom line is when answering how did we get to where we are today is that at the end of the first Cold War, in the Gorbachev years – let’s use the date 1989 as the symbolic end of the first Cold War. So we had two peace orders on offer. These were two peace orders, not dissimilar, quite reasonably compatible, but not the same. And the first one was the vision put forward most eloquently by Gorbachev, and indeed, which had long matured within the Soviet Union, which under the moniker of the ‘new political thinking’. This was a view that international politics in the nuclear age, facing environmental issues – which became very prominent in Gorbachev’s thinking at a later point – could be transcended. That with the end of the Cold War, which wasn’t just the end of the [decades] since 1945, it was also the end – perhaps in a different way from Fukuyama – but a sense that that long term internal civil war in advanced capitalist democracies between … socialism and capitalism was transcended. In other words, a whole stack of things were coming together to create the possibility of a genuinely transformed new type of international politics, a new peace order, which really would be indivisible security, and that within that framework, all countries could develop.

In a specific European context it was focused on a common European home … This was a really fundamental vision which culminated in the formulation, based on the Helsinki principles, of two key principles in the Paris Charter of November 1990: free choice of states to join in whatever alliances they wished to, many commentators in Russia today lament the fact that they agreed to that. But the second point, and if you look at that Paris charter of November 1990, it also picks up some of those issues in Helsinki, repeated in the Istanbul Declaration of 1999, the Standard Commemorative Declaration of 2010: that it is balanced by a commitment to indivisible security. Lavrov, in some of his speeches lately, has forgotten that that … formulation is in the November 1990 document. So that’s the first model, a transformative model: that Russia would join the historic West, the political West, as established in the Cold War, to create a greater West, and then the European continent would join to create a greater Europe.

The second view, very specifically, is a challenge to that. And this was announced in George H W Bush’s speech in Mainz [1989] and a slogan just put it just symbolically: ‘A Europe Whole and Free’, which was deliberately designed to challenge the first model, that transformative model. Again, I simply can’t go into detail now, but simply will say it was quite clearly … makes it explicit to seize the intellectual, and indeed the political initiative and stop that upstart. Gorbachev seizing the … Global Intellectual agenda, in other words, every imposition of US hegemony, and dominance. And of course, this then formed and moved into more specific political challenges to a unipolar world. So basically, two models, one based on transformation – an agenda, which, by the way, continues to this day – versus simple enlargement. On enlargement: we could say all sorts of things about that, because it homogenizes political space, it reduces political pluralism, and so on. And it’s only within this logic of competitive visions of post-Cold War peace orders that a NATO enlargement took place … NATO enlargement, in other words, is a symptom of that larger failure, after 1989. It exacerbated [the failure]. Even Zbigniew Brzezinski in1995 said NATO enlargement should go forwards – he was a passionate advocate for it – but he said: ‘well, maybe at the same time, we should establish some larger framework, diplomatic and political, a military security framework with Russia’. Okay, that’s the first point.

My second point would simply say that it’s hardly surprising that Ukraine then becomes the cockpit of these two visions of world order. Both of these earlier visions, by the way, support what I call the ‘charter international system’ established in 1945. So the confrontation takes place over Ukraine, because there was no resolution of the status of post-Soviet space, different types of models of nation building, and state building, and so on. So the Ukrainian crisis is of course a reflection of deep internal divisions and debates about the appropriate model of state development. I’ve argued in my book, Frontline Ukraine, that two models were on offer: the monist model, which can be tolerant, can be quite inclusive, but it’s got a specific vision of how the Ukrainian state should develop monolingually, and … obviously, you can keep the Russian language and any other language ‘in the kitchen’, as they would kindly say, but [it would] not be given civic public status. And the other version is this more pluralistic vision, which would be the one that most Western commentators have been supporting: the sort of way that the multi-plural society has developed in post-authoritarian societies like Spain, and you could argue, Canada, and many, many other federal states.

These were the two models, that’s why these tensions have exploded, because of two models of international politics, two models of Ukrainian state-building and the whole thing blows up.

My third very brief section: ‘why now?’ … The feeling that the trendlines were moving against Russia, that today Russia is at a peak of its power, in the sense that those hypersonic missiles and all the other stuff announced in 2018 gives you a shot in the arms control, arms race business. [Russia] is probably at the peak of its power before the United States, with its massive intellectual and financial resources will quickly catch up and outpace it. Again, a type of 1950s alleged ‘missile gap’ and catching up. In 2018, Putin’s ‘State of the Nation’ speech is quite clear. He says: ‘you didn’t listen to us then, listen to us now’ – referring to the Munich Security Conference speech of 2007. And of course, there are specific issues: the Nagorno Karabakh war, the second war where Azerbaijan seized territory. Plus, the development of two drone technologies and a whole stack of things: the failure, the blockage, in the development or implementation of Minsk II, the strengthening alignment with China. … In other words, it was time to grasp that ‘Ukrainian nettle’, and with it, that whole failure of the last 30 years.

My fourth and final section is simply to say: what are the options today? And there are three possible ways forward, where we could really go now. The first model of where we could possibly go is ‘pathways to peace’. I will say that the US response to Russia’s draft security treaties of the 17th of December [2021], was relatively positive – surprisingly so, talking about diplomatic engagement … But clearly, we’re talking about possibly a moratorium on NATO enlargement, it’s not excluded … Ukraine was not going to be joining NATO anyway in the short term. Some sort of neutrality for Ukraine is not really going to be negotiable. Implementation of Minsk II, yes, the Normandy Format has been meeting … and is due to meet again. Obviously, there’s not going to be a new Helsinki … Helsinki II … or a change of regime in Kiev or Moscow anytime soon.

I actually think that the NATO response was outrageous, but the US response was opening the door to diplomacy. That’s the first part. So there’s paths to peace, which will learn those lessons of how the first Cold War ended.

The second approach is managed competition. Okay, we accept we’re in a Cold War … then how do we go and manage it? Russia will develop its alliance and relations with China, perhaps establish bases in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua … I think, possibly creates permanent deployment of strategic weapons and submarines off the coast of the US, NATO continues. And so we keep on that march of folly, as before 1914.

And the third option is war, quite simply. And just as in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, [when] we came closest to war … until today. And I actually don’t think that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine. All of this was to try to kickstart a diplomatic process. Russia believes that it simply hasn’t been listened to for the last 30 years and so it’s all about trying to kick the door open to diplomacy. [It’s] a rather crude way of doing it but nevertheless, if the door is opened one way or another, then there is a possibility to avoid war. But clearly, the stakes could not be higher. I do believe that it’s quite clear that NATO and its members, egged on by some, you know, better embittered Eastern European countries and London, of course – it really isn’t in a mood for diplomacy. If Reagan and George HW Bush and Gorbachev had use this [type of] language back in the late 1980s, we would never have ended the first Cold War. And so today, I think we need to learn from how the first Cold War ended to maybe mitigate the second.

The whole webinar can be viewed at: https://tinyurl.com/4fwzy4cn

Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent and associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House.