The US goal to end the Putin regime by overextending and unbalancing Russia has thus far not succeeded. For those nations both directly and indirectly affected by America’s escalatory actions, there is clearly a lot at stake should the US succeed. Increasingly lethal arms shipments provided by Washington and its allies motivate Kyiv to continue the fight, but few consider in any meaningful way that such support escalates and protracts the fighting. External military support has pushed Ukraine to incur greater casualties, indicating that Washington and its allies are more focused on defeating Russia than saving Ukraine.
The ongoing political and military standoff between Russia and the US is the most recent indicator that Europe’s security and economic architecture must be transformed. Washington’s goal, that the departure of Angela Merkel, would bring hardliners to Berlin, appears to have succeeded. In 2015, Merkel famously faced down Republican Senator John McCain who pushed hard to ship massive lethal aid to Ukraine. Her response, correct now as it was then, was that the Ukraine war cannot be solved through military means. Merkel’s strategy of practical and effective conflict avoidance now appears to be lost on Europe’s leaders.
Chief among them, Olaf Scholz who appears to have made a 180-degree reversal from his predecessor. In February 2022, Germany announced a near doubling of its defense budget from 51 billion Euros to 100 billion Euros. In the same speech to the Bundestag, Scholz announced the lifting of a ban on arms shipments to Ukraine as well as the delivery of hundreds of anti-tank weapons to Kyiv.
For those countries that are not directly affected by the US Russia confrontation, the economic and political fallout is equally significant. The war’s global impact comes from the fact that most nations do not support American sanctions nor do they necessarily agree with the position the West has taken on confronting Russia with economic warfare. From an ethical and moral standpoint, there is, for these countries, the issue of shared responsibility that, thus far, the US is unwilling to acknowledge. Mitigating the negative impacts that escalatory actions are having on the global economy and geopolitical stability now appear as important as defeating Russia.
Combined with sweeping sanctions on Russia, the decision by the US to pursue the single biggest arms push since the end of the Cold War has ensured an escalatory path and an ever-widening theater of operation. The US alone has committed an excess of 50 billion in arms to Ukraine.
America’s strategic aim is focused on Russia’s political and economic isolation, regime change, and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. Yet the narrative of Russian aggression instead of “shared responsibility“ remains dominant.
In brief, America’s current policy is a badly planned, ad hoc and misguided effort to disrupt Europe’s status quo relationship with Russia such that rapprochement remains out of reach. For example, America’s preoccupation with military affairs and militarization strategies do little to tackle the conflict’s political and economic dimensions. The decision by NATO to increase its forward presence in Eastern Europe, as well as considering Finland and Sweden membership, have only encouraged greater regional insecurity and suspicion within Moscow.
On the one hand, enlargement confirms Russia’s longstanding belief that Washington and the North Atlantic alliance seek opportunities to undermine its security and statehood by maintaining a strong US presence in Europe. On the other hand, placing both Sweden and Finland under the American nuclear umbrella would make them primary targets in the event of a nuclear confrontation.
Given American determination, we ask whether the war in Ukraine can be resolved. The answer to this question is threefold.
First, Ukraine’s hot war did not start February 24 2022 but has been ongoing since 2014. Between 2014 and 2022 over 15,000 lives have been lost creating an unmet humanitarian disaster for the Donbas, Russia, and Ukraine. Over that period, Ukraine’s protracted conflict, largely ignored by Western media, has been ridden with missed opportunities for diplomatic action, confrontation, and limited strategic thinking. Indeed, escalatory actions that have generated the current crisis have been driven by a number of mis-calculations combined with bad faith diplomacy.
For example, instead of pursuing a diplomatic path, America’s actions have shifted the conflict from one that was subregional to one that is continental if not global. Indeed the US has framed this conflict as one in which all nations must choose a side imposing secondary sanctions on countries that do not support US policy on Russia. Washington is clearly committed to supporting Kyiv militarily. But evidence on protracted conflict shows that such skewed support that is focused on a weak country’s security and military domains generates mostly negative outcomes.
The evidence is unequivocal. Today’s conflicts are more protracted and deadly, precisely because geopolitical rivals intervene to support opposing sides, forcing the hands of recalcitrant allies and other countries. For example, America’s military campaigns in Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan have all failed to support democratic governments, protect human rights, establish robust institutions, and vanquish radical organizations.
If Russia’s actions can be understood as a response to several crossed ‘red lines’, then the war materiel supplied by the US and its allies simply made Russia’s intervention even more likely and intense. It is safe to say that Russia views this conflict as existential, as it continues its pursuit of the occupation of the ‘Novorossiya’ territory in southeastern Ukraine, thereby establishing a land-based bridge to Crimea.
Russia’s actions were not without provocation. According to the Biden administration, in the lead up to the Russian invasion in 2022 there were 3,000 close contact incidents between American and Russian forces. These flashpoints many of which were deliberate in their intent to antagonise and escalate, fundamentally undermined the deterrence that was in place for decades. Sending US strategic nuclear capable bombers within 12 miles of the Russian border was one such provocation.
Second, the failure of NATO to anticipate the negative consequences of Ukraine membership speaks to the absence of a forward looking preventive approach and a failure to satisfy several basic conditions for membership. With Moscow’s clear opposition to NATO enlargement sounding for decades, few should be surprised that Ukraine’s deepening relations with the Alliance created more insecurity than peaceful co-existence with Russia. Rather than promoting stability as a “geopolitical hedge” against threats, America’s stated desire to have Ukraine part of NATO, when it was not ready for membership undermined the very goals of stability and deterrence that NATO was designed to achieve.
In this respect, the key role to be played by NATO is a long term one. Namely confidence building measures and broadening commitments to collective security in which other organisations such as the OSCE and the EU have an integrative role to play alongside NATO. In other words, this is the time for NATO to implement its Comprehensive Approach, focusing on non-military means of conflict management. Although American policymakers have supported alternative negotiations such as the Normandy Format and Minsk II, these processes have not figured prominently as part of the US administration’s current strategy.
An inherent issue is that by pursuing action through a defensive alliance rather than through collective security arrangements such as the OSCE or even the UN or EU, the US has weakened the potential for a negotiated or mediated settlement. This is because those collective security organisations that might be in a position to support a peace process are themselves rendered vulnerable as the result of the ever widening war. For example the OSCE now has no real presence in monitoring the conflict as its representatives are made targets rather than intermediaries.
Third, at some point soon, there will be a need for a negotiated settlement that will need to deal with Donbas, Crimea and other territories now occupied by Russia. As Russia’s occupation of these territories becomes solidified, de facto annexation is the reality on the ground. The Donbas was the focus of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree he issued three days before invading, recognizing the claimed separate status of the region’s two provinces.
It is unlikely the people of Donbas and Crimea will return to full integration into a Kyiv dominated Ukraine with open arms. There is however the possibility for international oversight of these regions in order to achieve even a modicum of autonomy. By separating belligerent groups, partition can provide security and lead to a decrease in the need for interaction among groups that do not get along. When domestic and international violence is considered, a partition’s consequences largely depend on its timing. It must be done quickly rather than dragged out and it must avoid strengthening militias. Partition of a state is not the only solution to protracted war, but it is often preferable to intense ongoing fighting.
Unfortunately, for a partition settlement to succeed, it is not enough for the opposing sides to resolve the underlying issues behind a protracted war. They must also meet the much more difficult challenge of mutually designing (and enforcing) credible institutionalized security guarantees to a long-term agreement to end the violence and to avoid a frozen conflict.
Settlements that are highly institutionalized; that is, they provide long and abiding guarantees for the security, economic and political wellbeing of all parties, are most likely to be enduring. In essence the West can get on board in support of a process that would bring long term de jure stability to the region or it can hand over responsibility for managing the partition process to Russia.
As any long-lasting settlement in Ukraine requires external security guarantors, the demand for Russia-West rapprochement based on a viable process through an institutionalised format becomes even more acute. Unfortunately, since the onset of conflict in February, the West’s diplomatic channels with Moscow have been reduced to few phone calls between Emanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Vladimir Putin. These have been unsuccessful at encouraging any of the sides to compromise.
Beyond the thorny problem of security guarantees for Crimea and Donbas, there are significant implications for those Russians “stranded” outside of Russia proper in the Baltics, Kaliningrad and elsewhere. What rights will minorities enjoy in Ukraine and elsewhere and who will speak for them? And what are the implications for other minorities such as Hungarians in Transcarpathia?
Russia’s insistence on legal security guarantees for its minorities, was the first time we saw such legal assurances being requested among top nuclear powers. Given their rejection without much explanation by the US and the war that has followed, legal assurances are a bit of a last resort when common security is failing. However given that Ukraine has also floated the idea of security guarantees a shared negotiated outcome might be realistic as a last, perhaps desperate, attempt at salvaging peace.
The idea of security guarantees is to shift the focus towards ‘shared responsibility.’ It is useful to consider the re-institutionalization of negotiations as a four part – sequenced – process – that would develop and implement political, security, economic and social “guarantees.” The Steinmeier formula which was the foundation of the Minsk II protocols offers negotiators a template. Given that Russia is now offering citizenship to those people in regions they now occupy and plans to implement local referenda the question becomes what can Ukraine and the US offer in return except for more war to retake territory?
In essence, the conditions for the full reintegration of Russian occupied territories into a highly centralised Ukraine state do not exist at this time. Autonomy or exit are the only viable solutions short of more bloodshed. Not only have regions under Russian control exercised more independence, Kyiv does not have the political and economic capacity to govern let alone manage hostile breakaway regions.
Nor are there leaders or organizations prepared to pressure Kyiv to make concessions. In February and March 2022, Russian and Ukrainian delegations met on several occasions to discuss de-escalation, but with little success. The hardened positions of both sides also prevented any robust agreements on humanitarian corridors. Emboldened by his battlefield successes using Western weapons, Volodymyr Zelensky further narrowed his diplomatic options by refusing to negotiate with any Russian representative other than Vladimir Putin. That will have to change.
Reviving the Normandy Format and the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine is an important first step to implementing negotiations. These multilateral platforms may not directly address Moscow’s long-standing concerns regarding the enlargement of NATO, but they place EU countries like Germany and France as well as Ukraine and Russia, those with the most at stake in regional security, at the helm of conflict management.
David Carment is the Executive Director of iAffairs Canada. He is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and a Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He is the editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and the series editor for Palgrave’s Canada and International Affairs. His research focuses on fragile states, diasporas and foreign policy, and grey zone conflict. His most recent books include Exiting the Fragility Trap and Political Turmoil in a Tumultuous World. His research website can be found here.
Dani Belo is a teacher and scholar of international relations specializing in conflict management and security. He is currently an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Webster University in St. Louis, and a fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa. His research focuses on grey-zone conflicts, management of ethnic conflicts, NATO–Russia relations, and the post-Soviet region. Among other places, his work was featured at the U.S Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, the Royal Military College of Canada, the University of Pennsylvania Law School Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, and the European Commission.