How to Solve the Russia-Ukraine-West Conflict

21CQ Topic President's Blog


Irvin Studin


9 years ago

No non-governmental group in the world has done more to actively advance and advise on solutions to the eminently soluble Russia-Ukraine-West conflict than 21CQ. We have made interventions at the highest levels in the key capitals on three continents.

Further to my own articles in the summer/fall of 2014 and winter of 2015 in Le Monde, Global Brief, the Straits Times, and Vedomosti, and building on my public lectures in Mexico, New Delhi and Washington, D.C. (upcoming), let me note the following…

There are three major structural tensions in international affairs today: the Russia-Ukraine-West conflict, the collapse of the Middle East order, and the strategic return of China. For the Middle East, there is no solution in sight and every reason for deep pessimism. On China, there is reason for cautious optimism that, at least in the near term, any direct conflict between Beijing and another great power can be avoided, even if the longer term is anyone’s bet. Of the three tensions, only the Russia-Ukraine-West conflict has a potential solution that should provide a basis for cautious optimism in key capitals around the world – provided a few key steps are taken quickly.

Indeed, we are far closer to this solution than many Western observers realize. Under the Minsk 2.0 ceasefire regime negotiated earlier this year by the Normandy Quartet (Paris, Berlin, Kiev and Moscow), the fighting between belligerents has calmed considerably, even if, as the OSCE observers note in their daily reports, both sides continue to commit sporadic violations and casualties – military and civilian alike – have been far from eliminated. Why does this fighting continue? Answer: both sides are, at core, trapped in what strategic analysts classically call a “security dilemma” – that is, without a definitive terminus to the conflict, each side uses the ceasefire to prepare for the next tactical battle, knowing that the other side is behaving similarly, and that retreat or disarming may be viewed as a weakness and could be exploited as a vulnerability.

There is only one way to end this security dilemma – peacekeepers. Moscow called for them at one point but has since changed its position. Kiev, once a skeptic, is now actively and enthusiastically calling for them. But even if both Moscow and Kiev agree in principle that peacekeepers would end the fighting, they are in diametrical disagreement on the desired composition of any peacekeeping force. Kiev is advocating a force comprised of peacekeepers from EU countries. For Moscow, this is understandably unacceptable, as EU peacekeepers mean NATO peacekeepers. Instead, Moscow has expressed interest in a possible peacekeeping force from the countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (or from countries of the former Soviet space). This, in turn, is unacceptable to Kiev, given these countries’ military interdependence with Russia.

The peacekeeping force must therefore come primarily from another continent. That continent cannot be North America, as North America is NATO. It cannot be Australia (Oceania), which is too intertwined in Western security structures, and it is unlikely to be South America or Africa, as these continents are too far removed from the strategic imaginations of both Moscow and Kiev. Enter Asia. But which country in Asia? China does not actively do peacekeeping, and is too strategically threatening to Russia (even if Russia, too, is pivoting to China in the light of sanctions). Instead, the answer is that the peacekeeping force could well come from India.

Why India? India has superior peacekeeping experience, is politically neutral in this conflict, is strategically unthreatening to Moscow and Kiev, and, because of its deep ties with the former Soviet Union, is highly respected in both Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, the feeling is mutual, with Indians, many of whom were in the past educated in Soviet universities, to this day retaining a store of goodwill toward this part of the world.

What is the potential Indian interest in saving Europe from its first major continental conflict of this new century? Under Narendra Modi, New Delhi is actively searching for ‘plays’ that will allow India, in the context of a strategically more sophisticated and assertive China, to make itself known and useful in international affairs beyond its South Asian backyard. Playing a pivotal role in solving this conflict may just be the ‘Indian moment’ that puts the wind into New Delhi’s sails, ushering in an era in which India’s strategic community finally comes of age as a confident and critical player in shaping the terms of global events and transactions.

Would Russia veto an Indian peacekeeping force at the Security Council (given that such a force could only be engineered and legitimated under UN auspices)? For now, yes. But it can be moved. Moscow would presumably want three conditions met in order to agree to the peacekeepers – and not just along the Minsk 2.0 ceasefire line, but also along the Ukrainian-Russian border: first, credible guarantees, in writing and in deeds, that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO; second, that economic sanctions not related to Crimea will be lifted upon the insertion of peacekeepers (Moscow does not currently believe this can or will happen in the foreseeable future); and third, that Kiev will fully deliver on the special status and economic commitments it has made with respect to Lugansk and Donetsk.

If peacekeepers would bring a definite end to the armed conflict, they are by no means a guarantee that post-revolutionary Ukraine will flourish. Instead, Ukraine’s success or failure will turn on two essential factors: whether its new leadership is heroically competent (in demilitarizing the militias, in delivering key economic and administrative reforms, and in reuniting a divided country), and whether Russia can be reintegrated, systematically, into Ukraine’s future even as Ukraine pivots toward the EU. Such reintegration requires us to revisit an idea that was floated in the fall of 2013, just as the revolution was picking up steam – to wit, the erection of a trilateral EU-Ukraine-Russia commission that would be able to address all species of “interstitial” policy and administrative issues between Brussels, Kiev and Moscow. Indeed, this commission could even be viewed as a tactical pit-stop en route to a more strategic, longer-term institutional architecture that creates a common economic space between Liverpool and Vladivostok, with cities like Kharkov, Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk comfortably in between.

If this is to come to pass, the Indian peacekeeping play must happen over the next year, and well before the buildup to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, is right when he says that the World Cup could indeed “stabilize” Europe – such is that massive event’s psychological import. Of course, the reverse is also true: If the World Cup is unsuccessful on account of the conflict, then the psychological rupture between Russia and the West could result in a century-long conflict, and real war down the road, including between Russia and another great power, could not be excluded. In that case, any prospect of solving the aforementioned other two systemic problems – the Middle East and a rising China – would be fatally compromised. The future of the EU would be in doubt, and North American cities could be threatened.

This is an eminently preventable scenario that we ought to prevent with great urgency. And the first major step to preventing could soon see Indians in the Donbass.

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