Given the devastating effects of this war, first in Ukraine but also, through sanctions, on the world economy and the risks of famine that they entail, it seems obvious that the first task of any diplomat and political leader should be to end this war.
The problem is that there are at least two ways of considering how this will end and they are irreconcilable.
The first, which until recently was the view of the U.S. government, which is the view of the Ukrainian government, European Greens, and the majority of our media, is that the Russian invasion is illegitimate, unprovoked, and must simply be repelled: Ukraine must regain all of its territory, including Crimea (which has been attached to Russia since 2014).
The other, supported by individuals as different as Chomsky, the Pope, Lula in Brazil, and Kissinger, is that a negotiated solution is inevitable, which in practice means Ukraine giving up territories such as Crimea and Donbass and presumably other regions, as well as agreeing to the neutrality of that country.
The supporters of the first solution shower those of the second with insults: Putin-lovers, pro-Russians, supporters of appeasement in the face of Russian fascism etc. But we can ask at least two questions about this first solution: is it fair? And is it realistic?
The fundamental problem with the fairness of this solution is that it assumes that there is one Ukraine and one Ukrainian people under attack by Russia. But Ukraine, which became independent in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, was not a former nation annexed by Russia in the past. Certainly, there was a historical Ukraine that had been absorbed into the Russian empire, but what became independent in 1991 was the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, created in 1922 following the October revolution and which incorporated Russian-speaking populations in the east of the present Ukraine, and to whose opinion was never asked by anybody. It included also territories in the west added to Ukraine in 1939-1945 as well as the Crimea added in 1954.
The disintegration of multi-national states such as the USSR or Yugoslavia or even the former colonial empires opposes the idea of state sovereignty, including the “territorial integrity” of the state, against the idea of the right to self-determination of peoples. At the time of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the territorial integrity of this state was considered illegitimate in the West in the face of the desire for independence of the Croatian and Slovenian peoples; but the borders of the Croatian republic then became sacrosanct in the name of the right to self-determination of peoples, while a good number of Serbs lived within these borders. They did not accept their new situation and were eventually expelled from Croatia by force. A similar situation occurred in 1999 with Kosovo, which was part of Serbia but whose majority of the population, Albanians, wanted to break away. There, NATO took it upon itself to bomb Serbia for 78 days in order to obtain the de facto independence of Kosovo, with the expulsion of many of the non-Albanian speaking minorities living there.
If the right to self-determination of peoples is sacrosanct in the face of the territorial integrity of states in which they are minorities, then why does the territorial integrity of republics, which were in part administrative entities in dissolving multinational states, suddenly become sacrosanct in the face of the aspirations of minorities living in those republics?
The precedent of the Kosovo war is often recalled by the Russians: if the NATO intervention there was legitimate to support the Kosovars, why is the Russian “military operation” to protect the inhabitants of Donbass not legitimate?
There have been many other conflicts of the same kind, and much bloodier: for example, the partition of the British Empire of India in 1948 between India and Pakistan, which initially included the present Bangladesh (called at the time East Pakistan) that became independent after a fierce war in 1971.
There is no simple solution to this kind of conflict. In principle, there could be one: ask by referendum on a local basis to which state each population wants to belong. But this solution is accepted by almost no one: if a referendum in Crimea is in favor of joining Russia, of which Crimea was a part between 1783 and 1954 (and, at that time, the joining of Crimea to Ukraine was decided in a purely authoritarian way), the West declares it illegitimate. If other referendums are held in the rest of Ukraine, they will also be declared illegitimate.
What we should hope for in order to resolve these local conflicts is that foreign powers do not use them to advance their economic and strategic interests. However, the United States and Britain have done exactly the opposite since 2014 (if not before) in Ukraine, first encouraging a coup that led to the overthrow of the legally elected president, Yanukovych, who had to flee for his life. This president was seen as pro-Russian, and the United States and Britain were not prepared to accept the situation. As the new power in Kiev was not only violently anti-Russian but also hostile to the Russian-speaking part of its population, a fraction of the latter demanded more autonomy within Ukraine, which was refused. Since then, there has been a more or less low-intensity war between part of the Donbass and the Ukrainian army.
Again, in principle, a peaceful solution could have been found through negotiations with the leaders of the rebel provinces, and this is what the Minsk agreements, accepted by the Ukrainian government but never implemented by it, provided.
It is true that there are other minorities in the world who are persecuted or badly treated by their governments, but it was particularly irresponsible for the Kiev government to behave in this way towards its minority in the east of the country, knowing that it could benefit from the protection of the Russian “big brother." And it is unlikely that this conduct would have been adopted without the encouragement and political and military support of the United States and Britain.
This is why it can be considered that it was the American-British policy that pushed Russia to intervene. One can obviously condemn this intervention as contrary to international law, but then one would have to answer the question: what should the Russians have done to protect the populations of eastern Ukraine, assuming that their demands for autonomy are accepted as legitimate (and if not, in the name of what to refuse them)? Wait? Negotiate? But that is what they have been doing for eight years, sending very clear signals at the end of 2021 that their patience had limits.
Moreover, it is difficult for the architects of the wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan to pose as great defenders of international law in the face of the Russians. Whatever one thinks of their military intervention in Ukraine, it is less illegitimate than the Western wars mentioned above.
One can obviously react by saying that “Putin has fallen into the trap” set for him by the United States. But, on the one hand, this is admitting that the United States has indeed pushed Russia into war and, to know whether he has really fallen into a trap, we will have to wait until the end of the hostilities. If Russia wins, at least in part, it will be the United States that will lose face and be caught in its own trap.
It is also necessary to point out the incredible hypocrisy of the discourse on the war in Ukraine, and on the accompanying sanctions, on the part of most of our journalists and intellectuals: when did we do anything similar during the US invasion of Iraq? Of course, no economic sanctions were taken at that time, but no symbolic sanctions either, while in the case of Russia everything is sanctioned: political figures, but also sportsmen, artists, scientists. Even the works of the past are “canceled." What does Dostoyevsky have to do with the war in Ukraine?
The only way to justify this double standard is to openly admit that we are on the side of the United States, either because we share their values or because it is in our interests.
As far as values are concerned, we should go beyond facile slogans about democracy, which nobody, and certainly not the Russians or the Chinese, is endangering here, and become aware of the monstrosity of American foreign policy. Even without going back to the war in Iraq (or Vietnam) one can think of Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is waging a war far more brutal than what Russia is doing in Ukraine and which is armed by the United States and its European allies. Or Afghanistan, where the United States has confiscated half of the public treasury while the country is suffering from famine. Or think of the human consequences of the embargoes and sanctions taken by the United States against a multitude of countries: Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Iraq (between 1991 and 2003).
In terms of interests, it is clear that the United States is using every weapon at its disposal, including espionage, to favor its businesses at the expense of ours. But more profoundly, their policy is increasingly opposed in the non-Western world: the most surprising aspect of the reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is perhaps the fact that the majority of countries, while condemning the invasion in principle (which was the minimum to do given their adherence to the UN Charter – and large countries such as India and China did not even perform this minimum service), did not apply any sanctions to Russia.
The recent “Summit of the Americas," from which Biden excluded Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, was criticized and even boycotted for this reason by several Latin American countries, including Mexico. The ASEAN countries gathered in Washington refused to condemn Russia; they are probably going there to recover (some) money and investments but certainly not to align themselves with Washington. Relations between China, another country in Washington’s sights, and the rest of Asia are better than they have ever been.
African countries “remember” the support of the USSR during the independence struggles and recently had a very cordial summit with Lavrov in Moscow.
We can shrug our shoulders and say that these countries are driven by anti-American resentment or that they do not weigh much in the world economy, which would be a rather typical “Western” reaction, but totally contrary to our long-term interests. We Europeans have no influence whatsoever on American policy and our “alliance” with this country is purely a matter of following them. But the effect of this following is that we inevitably share the hostility that the United States draws to itself from the rest of the world. And while hostility is expressed toward the masters, it is combined with contempt when it comes to their servants.
As for realism, a distinction must be made between the economic and the military aspects. On the economic issue, i.e. the sanctions, for the moment it is a total failure: the ruble has strengthened instead of collapsing, the Russian economy is surviving and reorienting itself towards Asia. Moreover, the majority of the world’s countries refuse to implement the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, and everything indicates that these sanctions are going to hurt the Western economies, without even considering the effect of possible Russian counter-sanctions.
As for the military issue, it is difficult to make definite predictions, but for the moment the Russians are moving forward, even if much more slowly than at the beginning. No Ukrainian counter-offensive has had a lasting effect. Some hope for a reversal of the situation following the delivery of sophisticated weapons to Ukraine by the United States and its allies, but this remains to be seen, and various voices in Washington itself are considering the need for negotiation as the only solution to the crisis. In any case, it seems unlikely that Ukraine’s war aims of recovering the entire eastern part of the country and Crimea can be achieved. The Russians consider these territories, and especially Crimea, to be part of the “motherland” and they are far from having committed all their forces to this battle. For the Ukrainian war objective to be realized, there would have to be a complete collapse not only of the Russian military but of Russian society as a whole, with a regime change and the installation of a pro-Western leader in Putin’s place. The least we can say is that this perspective is not, for the moment, in the cards: the main criticisms addressed to Putin in the Russian public opinion are that he is too soft in the conduct of the war and too lenient with what he continues to call his Western “partners."
Of course, as always in wars, a reversal of the situation is possible. So, wait and see.
If we were to embark on the path of negotiations, we would first have to see what the Russians are asking for: recognition of the attachment of Crimea to Russia, independence of the Donbass and probably of other regions such as Kherson or Zaporizhzhia, demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine. If the first of these demands are legitimate, or at least if their legitimacy could be verified by means of referenda, the last two are much more questionable: to ask that one’s neighbor be disarmed when one is overarmed oneself is a typical behavior of a great power, and the “denazification” of Ukraine is too vague a demand to be really implemented (at what point does one stop being extreme right-wing to become a Nazi?)
In an ideal world such a demand as the demilitarization of one’s neighbor should not exist. But the context again matters: the original intention of post-2014 Ukraine was to be part of NATO, not just to have an army. This was again an irresponsible policy, since it was obvious that Russia would never accept this membership and that it had the means to prevent it, as history has shown. As for the reproach that Russia is pursuing a gre0at power policy, it should be remembered that the United States did not accept the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 and even considered the Sandinista revolution of 1979 in tiny Nicaragua to be a threat to its national security. Great power policies can only be ended if their rejection applies to all.
In the end, it is likely that the only ones who will have defended the true interests of the Ukrainian people (as well as those of Europe) will be those who have advocated from the beginning (i.e., at least since 2014) for a negotiated solution to the conflict.
Jean Bricmont is a retired Belgian theoretical physicist. He is the co-author with Alan Sokal of Fashionable Nonsense Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Picador, NY, 1998), of Humanitarian Imperialism; Using human rights to sell war (Monthly Review, NY, 2007), and of Quantum Sense and Nonsense (Springer, 2017).