Is there any way out of the Ukraine crisis?

The last week has seen an extraordinary shift in the world order. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been met with shock and revulsion across the globe.  

The response of European and US lawmakers has been uncharacteristically rapid, robust and unified. Economic sanctions, of a scale never before seen, are designed to effectively isolate and degrade Russia economically so as to cut it off from international financial institutions and undermine its ability to finance future military adventures. At the same time, Germany has announced huge increases in its military budget and agreed to supply lethal weapons to support the defence of Ukraine. Traditionally neutral countries like Sweden, Switzerland and Ireland have been unanimous in their criticism of the Russian action and have fully supported sanctions.

Sanctions have personally affected Putin and other senior politicians and oligarchs with assets frozen all across the world. At the same time, travel opportunities for Russian citizens has been severely limited by closing European and American airspace to Russian aircraft.

While governments have led the way in their retaliation to the Russian aggression in Ukraine, private companies, including some of the world’s most important oil majors, have, almost overnight, decided to exit the Russian market. More than 100 of the world’s leading international firms – from Apple to Zoom – have abandoned Russia and/or refuse to supply their goods and services to the country. Others are finding the logistics of continued operation to be impossible.

Civil society, especially in Europe, has also expressed its outrage as events have unfolded. Huge donations have flooded into Ukraine in cash and cryptocurrency. Ordinary Europeans have collected medical supplies, clothes and other necessities to support war victims and their families. Some have even gone to Ukraine to support the war effort.

And what has been the impact of all of this on Russia? Respected Russian academic Andrey Kortunov has identified several dramatic changes in Russia’s global standing:

  1. “Russia has inadvertently recaptured China’s seemingly entrenched role as a major international villain and opponent of the West.
  2. Moscow has virtually no allies or—at least—sympathetic observers left in the West. As for the United States, the anti-Russian consensus in Washington has grown stronger than ever in the last third of a century.
  3. Russia faces an inevitable and a likely long pause in high-level political dialogue. In the foreseeable future, the Kremlin is unlikely to see a string of presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and foreign ministers waiting in line to meet with Russian leaders.
  4. Moscow will have to endure a long and costly arms race. Considering the events taking place on the territory of Ukraine, the West will set itself the task of making the most of its obvious economic and technological advantages in order to devalue Russia’s military potential, both nuclear and conventional, over time.
  5. Russia has long been a permanent and priority target of Western economic sanctions. Sanction pressure is expected to augment, gradually but steadily.
  6. Russia will consistently be pushed away from the existing and emerging global technological chains—ones that define the transition of the world economy to a new technological mode. As a result, Moscow’s technological cooperation with the West will decline, while Russia’s technological dependence on China will increase.”

In addition to the dramatic deterioration in Russia’s global reputation, its internal politics may yet face convulsions of a kind not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. The recent Security Council meeting – in which some of the most senior figures in Putin’s government seemed disorientated and badly informed – encapsulate the autocratic nature of Russian politics. However, there is already a trickle of powerful voices – including from big business – that are not following the Putin narrative and are speaking openly against the war. Thousands of doctors, artists, historians and other groups have already signed open letters protesting against the decision to attack Ukraine. Street protests have carried on, despite police attempts to crush them. There are signs that some in the military itself are questioning the logic of attacking Ukraine. There is a possibility that these early trickles of discontent might turn into a tsunami of resentment against the current regime within Russia. Mindful of this possibility, the Kremlin is turning off almost all media that are not state-controlled.

In Ukraine on the other hand, Zelensky has become an international hero figure while military, financial and humanitarian support has poured in. Despite the terror being inflicted by Russian bombing in Ukrainian cities and towns, the determination of the people to fight seems to have been reinforced by the support being offered by the international community.

But is there a way to end the senseless violence and killing? At the moment, it seems that the international community is counting on the power of its extraordinary sanctions to change Russia’s direction. Since the war in Ukraine is likely to be protracted, sanctions may make it financially impossible for Russia to sustain its military effort. At the same time, Putin may come under intense political pressure from within (both from powerful business interests as well as from ordinary citizens) to stop the aggression. There are signs that sanctions may eventually lead to these outcomes, with some even suggesting that it may bring an end to the Putin regime.

However, even the fall of the Putin regime is unlikely to bring an end to the Russia’s deep mistrust of the West or its antagonism towards west-leaning neighbours. It is reasonable to assume that over a longer-term time horizon, Russia will remain agitated by NATO in Europe, whoever the Russian leader may be. As NATO has been expanding eastwards, Russia has been investing huge sums in the modernisation of its military. In effect, both sides have been ignoring the concept of “indivisible security” that had been central to the Helsinki process to which all parties had signed up.

What is required now is a new way of thinking. Instead of advocating for all sovereign nations to be free to decide what military alliance to join, we need to create a framework that makes military alliances less important and the creation of political “counterbalances” irrelevant. Such a framework would lead to general disarmament and de-militarisation over an agreed time period (in the same way that climate measures are implemented to an agreed timetable). The creation of this framework needs to involve as a minimum EU countries, the US, China and Russia. It should contain explicit security guarantees and, in the words of the Helsinki Accord, it would include “measurable steps” towards demilitarisation.

Of course, to get to a point where the creation of such a framework is possible, there will be a need for some very considerable confidence-building measures in the short-term. Some of the most urgent might include:

  • Russia ceases all military operations in Russia and withdraws its troops from Ukraine
  • Russia receives legally-binding security guarantees from NATO
  • Ukraine and other concerned former Soviet countries (including Moldova and Georgia) receive legally-binding security guarantees from Russia
  • Belarus reverses its recent constitutional amendment allowing it to hold nuclear weapons
  • Germany and other Western powers suspend plans for significant increases in military spending
  • A Global Peace Fund is established to support the rebuilding of countries affected by international conflict. Contributions to the fund would be a percentage of countries’ military spending.

All evidence suggests that such measures are unlikely in the short-term. Minds are now focused on the conflict and the immediate humanitarian catastrophe that it has created. Most are focused on mobilising the tools that can be used to strike back at Putin’s Russia.  All of this is perfectly understandable and of course aggression of this kind cannot be allowed to go unchecked. Yet, in the medium term, there is hardly a credible alternative to building a new security framework that could bring an enduring peace in Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union.