As the battle for Ukraine rages on, raising the stakes of great power politics – and with them the possibility of nuclear conflict – it’s worth pausing to ask how we allowed this disastrous situation to unfold. Was armed confrontation the unavoidable result of Russia’s regional designs, or was there a diplomatic escape hatch? Were both parties always determined to fight over every inch of territory in Donbas and Crimea, or could they be convinced to compromise?
To address such questions, and understand the role Britain might play in bringing this cycle of violence to an end, it’s first necessary to recap on the recent history of the conflict. In autumn 2021, as Russian troops threatened Ukraine on its eastern flank, NATO member states deliberated over the appropriate response. While France and Germany initially pushed for a peaceful solution based on dialogue and diplomacy, the US and UK stressed the inevitability of an invasion, and pressured their allies to step up military preparations. For the Atlantic powers, Vladimir Putin’s proposals for a new eastern European security settlement were non-starters – and, as such, there was little chance of defusing the crisis.
This refusal to compromise coloured the subsequent negotiating process. When the Russian premier met his American counterpart at a virtual summit last December, he called for the ratification of the Minsk II agreement as well as legal guarantees that would prevent further NATO expansion to the east, but both requests were roundly ignored by Biden. A week later, Boris Johnson spoke to Putin on the phone and reiterated Ukraine’s inalienable right to join NATO, before dispatching his foreign secretary Liz Truss to threaten the Russian defence minister with crushing economic sanctions.
The Anglo-American axis maintained its rejectionist stance as tensions continued to rise along the border, such that last-ditch talks in Geneva and Brussels went nowhere. Pragmatically, there was no need for them to adopt such a hard line since Ukrainian accession to NATO was a remote (and possibly unrealisable) prospect. But ideologically, it was essential to prove that a Russian sphere of influence would never be permitted by the “international community”. Were Russia to win concessions on the security status of Ukraine and Georgia, this would represent a significant step towards a multipolar order, in which American supremacy could no longer be assured.
On this fundamental question, the US and UK are unwilling to budge. By mid-March, several weeks after Putin launched his murderous invasion, both Russian and Ukrainian sources were briefing that a peace deal was on the horizon – based on a provisional 15-point plan stipulating that Ukraine would declare neutrality and receive security guarantees from western states. Had the agreement been signed, a ceasefire may have been secured and the proliferating horrors of war avoided. But key players in the West were seemingly uninterested in this prospect. On 9 April, Johnson made a surprise visit to Kyiv where he reportedly told Zelensky that the UK would not be party to any such agreement, and pressured him to break off negotiations. According to the Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda: “Johnson’s position was that the collective West […] now felt Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to ‘press him’”.
Three days later, Zelensky informed journalists that negotiations had reached a “dead end” and the war entered a new, intensive phase. This was not the first time the Ukrainian premier had performed such an about-turn. In the 2019 election, he ran as a peace candidate – promising to end the fighting in the Donbas by striking a deal with Russia – and received an impressive mandate. But as the Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko explains, Zelensky subsequently failed to build either an effective political vehicle or a mass movement to advance this policy. In their absence, he had no bulwark against “the most powerful agents in Ukrainian politics: the oligarchic clans, the radical-nationalists, liberal civil society and the western governments”, none of whom favoured a Minsk-style settlement. Thanks to the marginalisation of the Ukrainian left after the Euromaidan revolution, the country still lacks a coordinated political bloc capable of challenging such interests. So when Johnson signalled his opposition to a peace deal last April, he was intervening in a domestic situation where Zelensky’s political capital was already limited. The latter had good reason to doubt whether he could force through a deal without the support of the “collective West”.
Would a deal of this kind, precluding further NATO expansion, have succeeded in preventing the war or stopping the fighting in its early stages? It’s impossible to know for certain. After all, Putin had other motives for launching the assault – including his revanchist belief in the ‘historical unity’ of Russia and Ukraine, his need to offset domestic discontent by whipping up nationalist fervour, and the economic benefits that would accrue from conquering Kyiv. But we do know, based on the testimonies of four different US ambassadors to Moscow, that conferring NATO membership upon Ukraine has long been a red-line for Russia, which threatened to activate the chauvinist impulses of its ruling clique. Given this fact, the most sensible course of action would have been for Johnson and Biden to vigorously pursue peace negotiations and reconsider the need for NATO enlargement. In so doing, they could have deprived Putin of the means to legitimise his incursion and broken the pattern of military brinkmanship.
Yet rather than pushing for de-escalation, Johnson’s successor has doubled down on his inflexible approach. On the same day Putin ordered a ‘partial mobilisation’ to increase Russian troop deployments, Liz Truss pledged to “sustain or increase our military support to Ukraine, for as long as it takes” – adding to the £2.3bn already spent on lethal aid while advocating new rounds of punitive sanctions. Her explicit aim is now “to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine”, including Crimea and the Donbas, and delay peace talks until Putin has been forced into this humiliating retreat. This echoes the maximalist position of the White House, which asserts that if Zelensky is to enter negotiations he must do so in a position of strength, having already trounced his opponents on the battlefield.
In the UK, this policy is yet to elicit meaningful opposition from the public, with 69% of people backing additional weapons shipments to the Ukrainian army. It’s important to note that what has conditioned such widespread support isn’t the situation in Ukraine itself, but rather the absence of a robust anti-war movement that could counter Britain’s dominant political narrative, which equates calls for peace with Putin apologism. This narrative, peddled by both major Westminster parties, has gained further traction since Ukraine’s recent counter-offensive in the north-east. Much of the liberal press now argues that by increasing the flow of weapons to Ukraine, western nations will enable the resistance to protect its gains and ultimately win outright victory. For outlets like the Economist, this is the only realistic way to end the bloodshed – since Putin can’t be trusted to engage in any good-faith diplomatic process.
If we stop to compare this boosterish discourse with the facts on the ground, however, its recklessness becomes apparent. Not only are its premises about the futility of diplomacy and likelihood of Ukrainian success blatantly false, its strategy of spiralling escalation is certain to create a bloody stalemate, which could easily end up triggering World War III.
Writing in Responsible Statecraft, Seth Harp notes that the Ukrainian advance last month only managed to reclaim lightly defended territories whose occupation was a hangover from an earlier phase of the war, when Putin hoped to storm the capital and topple the government. Since then, Russia has reduced its aims to consolidating control over the so-called ‘people’s republics’ and other eastern border regions. It will be much harder for the Ukrainian forces to thwart this plan, not least because the recent annexation of separatist territories has brought them under the Russian nuclear umbrella. Though Ukrainian forces continue to make impressive gains, few analysts believe they could recover the entirety of the Donbas in the foreseeable future.
The same goes for Crimea. As Anatol Lieven has observed:
If Ukraine sets out to reconquer Crimea, this war really does go on forever, because Crimea is a peninsula surrounded by water. Unless NATO was actually prepared to go to war itself by sending in planes, the Russian navy will remain predominant in the Black Sea – suffering losses, no doubt – which makes it physically very, very difficult for Ukraine to conquer Crimea.
This is a strong argument for ending the war as quickly as possible through negotiations, rather than dragging out a devastating conflict in which the Ukrainians are unlikely to triumph. Of course, Truss is well aware of these military constraints. She knows that by preventing negotiations she’s merely creating an intractable situation which will kill more soldiers and civilians. But that’s a price she’s willing to pay for the considerable benefits of the British policy – which has already revitalised the ‘special relationship’, weakened Russia’s global influence, and sent a stark warning to NATO’s principal antagonist, China.
In contrast to this jingoistic policy, the left should advocate a resolution to the conflict which puts saving lives above the priorities of great power rivalry. Such a settlement is not difficult to imagine. For Anatol Lieven, it would involve encouraging western states to revive the deal that was almost clinched back in March. It would also mean a Ukrainian commitment to abjure long-range missiles and repeal the post-Maidan laws discriminating against Russian language and culture. Meanwhile, some version of the Minsk protocols could be used to grant local self-determination to the separatist republics, replacing the sham referenda recently held in the Russian-occupied territories with an independent electoral process.
Only an organised peace movement could put these diplomatic solutions back on the agenda. At this volatile moment, the left must recognise that the effects of the war will exacerbate the cost of living crisis across much of Europe, and thereby open the door for opportunists on the right – who will preach isolationism, rather than internationalism, as the answer to economic hardship. Unless we articulate our vision for resolving the conflict, we could easily find ourselves outflanked by less principled opponents.