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War in Ukraine escalates

In recent days the war in Ukraine, alarming as it already was, has escalated further. This development  reflects a shift in the balance of power between militaristic ‘hawks’ and more diplomatically inclined ‘doves’ in Ukraine and especially within and between NATO countries. 

First of all, Russian authorities report a series of Ukrainian attacks on targets across the border inside Russia. Western governments implicitly acknowledge this; the UK says it is legitimate for Ukraine to target Russian logistics even outside Ukrainian territory. A symmetrical response would be for Russia to say that it is therefore also legitimate for Russia to target Ukrainian logistics even outside Ukrainian territory – in Poland, say, instantaneously triggering World War Three. Fortunately, the Russian defense ministry has said Russia will respond only by targeting decision-making centers in Ukraine, including those where Western advisers are present. 

Second, talk of negotiations and compromises has faded from the public realm and been replaced by analysis of warfighting scenarios, some unrealistically envisioning limited use of nuclear weapons. Hawkish politicians like British foreign secretary Liz Truss now urge Ukraine to eschew compromise and go on fighting until the last Russian soldier has been expelled from Ukrainian territory. They admit that Russia is likely to respond aggressively to such a stance, making for a long war that cannot be expected to remain at the current level. 

As a consequence, both Western and Russian media have begun anticipating direct hostilities between NATO and Russia as a real possibility. A former NATO deputy strategic commander for Europe, Richard Shirreff, has called upon the West to ‘gear up’ for ‘the worst case scenario of war with Russia.’ Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said on TV that Russia is already fighting a proxy war with the whole of NATO and the risk of nuclear war is ‘serious, real’ and ‘very significant’ – greater even than during the Cuban missile crisis, due to a complete breakdown in relations.

BBC commentator Steve Rosenberg has asked whether Putin would resort to nuclear weapons rather than accept defeat in Ukraine. (February 28). He points out that in a 2018 documentary Putin said that ‘if someone decides to annihilate Russia’ he would retaliate even though doing so would be ‘a catastrophe for humanity and the world, [because] what need have we of a world without Russia in it?’ 

This sentiment expresses the ultra-nationalist character of the Putin regime; Gorbachev’s ‘pan-human values’ are long forgotten. Nor is either side now committed not to use nuclear weapons first, and we cannot exclude the possibility of a Russian pre-emptive strike in the event that the Kremlin correctly or incorrectly believes that a Western attack is imminent.

Moreover, Putin is undoubtedly aware of Russia’s historical experience of defeat in war leading to revolution. He may view this outcome as no less likely in 2022 than it was in 1905 and 1917. And it is not only his own regime that is at stake. Sudden collapse of a centralized autocracy revives centrifugal forces and may even end in the disintegration of Russia as a state. And that is the ultimate aim of the West. It has been Putin’s great mission to consolidate Russian statehood by overcoming the disintegrative tendencies of the late 1980s and 1990s. He may well perceive the prospect of a new disintegration as a form of the deliberate ‘annihilation of Russia’ that would justify retaliation. In Putin’s logic his own removal from power is equivalent to the annihilation of Russia.

Prevention of nuclear war is an existential imperative for human civilization. Conflicting values and interests that in the pre-nuclear age often led to war must now be constrained within tight bounds. The age of heroic crusades against evil must be put firmly behind us. The ‘good war’ against Nazi Germany was the last such crusade. And had the Allies learned in 1943 or 1944 that Germany had acquired nuclear weapons it would have been the height of folly to insist upon unconditional surrender. Hitler would have been offered a way out that fell short of total defeat, one that would have allowed him to save some face. 

Now, if we wish to ensure our survival as a species, it is Putin who must be offered such a way out. It is he who must be allowed to avoid the reality or appearance of total defeat and save some face. Ukraine and NATO must make a few concessions that enable Putin to claim at least a partial victory. Until quite recently it seemed that Zelensky was willing to make such concessions (a neutral status for Ukraine, some sort of autonomy for the Donbas in accordance with the Minsk Accords). And above all there must be a ceasefire, for warring parties are hardly likely to reach agreement when they are always waiting for the result of the next clash of arms. A ceasefire in the very near future is essential also in order to restore agriculture and limit the scale of the burgeoning humanitarian disaster.   

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