Stop the Dangerous Escalation of the War in Ukraine

A recent series of escalations has brought the war in Ukraine to a dangerous moment that necessitates an equally dramatic change of diplomatic course and push for negotiations for peace.

The current round of dangerous escalations began with the unmasking of the level of US involvement in the war: a level so great that it led Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to declare aloud that Ukraine was a "de facto" member of NATO. That statement was itself an escalation, since it reinforced the Russian view that the war had swollen from a regional war with Ukraine to a wider war with the US and NATO, or as Putin now said, with “the entire Western military machine.”

The recent Ukrainian counteroffensive exposed the direct involvement of the US in the war with the US providing “stepped up feeds of intelligence about the position of Russian forces, highlighting weaknesses in the Russian lines.” The involvement went so far that, the US war-gamed the counteroffensive with Ukraine and advised them that it would fail. The US then, essentially, took over the planning, conducted a new set of war games with Ukraine and "suggested" new "avenues for a counteroffensive [that] were likely to be more successful."

The US-Ukrainian counteroffensive was followed by a further Russian escalation: the absorption of four regions in eastern Ukraine into the Russian Federation, an escalation that saw autonomy or independence metamorphosize into annexation.

That annexation led to the next escalation that made an end to the war more elusive: Zelensky invoked a decree banning negotiating with Putin. The decree "acknowledge[s] the impossibility of holding negotiations with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin." Zelensky added in a video address that "we are ready for dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia," effectively ruling out peace talks.

Zelensky then escalated further, calling for NATO to launch preemptive strikes on Russia. Putin has said that "In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us." According to Russian policy, if the existence of the Russian state is threatened, that could include nuclear weapons. The annexation of the eastern regions of the Donbas, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia makes them part of the Russian state.

On October 6, Zelensky said that “NATO should make it impossible for Russia to use nuclear weapons.” NATO should accomplish that, he said, by launching "preemptive strikes" so that Russia "know[s] what awaits them if they use nuclear weapons. Not the other way around, waiting for Russia’s nuclear strikes," possibly implying that the requested NATO strikes should be nuclear.

The annexations led Ukraine to declare that "Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled." And that promise narrated the next escalation: the sabotage of the Kerch bridge linking Crimea to Russia, an accomplishment that may have been more symbolic than successful, since, despite the dramatic pictures, the bridge seems to have been reopened to trains and, partly, to buses and cars the next day.

That escalation, attacking infrastructure in territory that virtually all Russians and any potential Russian leaders regard as Russian, led to the most recent escalation: on October 10, in response to attack on the bridge, Russia launched cruise missile strikes across Ukraine. Putin claimed that Russia carried out "massive strikes with long-range precision weapons on Ukrainian objects of energy, and military control and communications." Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmigal said that at least eleven key infrastructure facilities had been damaged, and there are reports that strategic infrastructure facilities were damaged in almost all parts of Ukraine, affecting electricity, internet and, apparently, the headquarters of the Security Services of Ukraine.

The two key catalysts of the recent cycle of escalations are both complex: the annexation of eastern Ukraine and the bombing of the bridge.

The West has condemned the referendums in eastern Ukraine as both illegal and a sham. Both claims are complicated. The West has invoked the territorial integrity of existing states that is enshrined in the UN charter. But there is a second principle that stands side by side with that principle in the UN charter that ensures people the right of self-determination.

The problem with the two principles standing side by side in the UN charter is that great powers selectively cite the one that works for them at the moment. Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, told me that "the practice of states and the UN is inconsistent, being driven more by power and geopolitical priorities than law, morality, and the UN." When it comes to the Donbas, the US invokes the principle of territorial integrity; when it comes to Taiwan, the US invokes the principle of self-determination. "Taiwan," Biden insists, "makes their own judgments about their independence. . . . that’s their decision."

On October 4, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in his remarks on the absorption of the new territories into the Russian Federation, invoked the self-determination principle. Arguing that the decision of the eastern regions was "based on the free expression of will by their people made during the referendums," Lavrov claimed that "[t]he citizens of these republics and regions made a conscious choice based on the right to self-determination." He rejected the West’s use of the territorial integrity principle, arguing that the 1970 UN Declaration "seals the duty of states to respect the territorial integrity of states" on the condition that they are "conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples… and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory." Lavrov then argued both that territorial integrity does not respect the self-determination exercised in the referendums and that the government in Kiev stopped representing the people of the breakaway regions with the 2014 coup and the "hostility" toward, and "repression" of, eastern Ukraine’s Russian and Russian speaking population.

In 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia without even the pretense of holding a referendum, the US recognized the declaration against repeated UN resolutions upholding the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.

Falk has said elsewhere that "Each conflict of this character, stressing the rights of aggrieved distinct peoples within the borders of an internationally recognized state, raises a general issue of the integrity of sovereign states versus the scope of rights of self-determination." He says that "geopolitics plays a decisive role" in the interpretation of each case. "This is the only way to understand the treatment of Kosovo on the one side, and Donbas on the other side," he writes. "In one instance, the claims of an existing state to the integrity of its borders is set aside, while in the other it is upheld."

As for being a sham, both sides have raised the question of the problems of war zone referendums and both have accused the other of acts of intimidation. The results of the referendum may or may not be legitimate, but they are not surprising of improbable.

The southeastern regions of Ukraine have historically faced east to Russia and voted for governments with Russian oriented policies. In referendums held in 2014, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the Donbas voted for independence. They would have voted for becoming part of Russia had Putin not pressured them to limit the scope of their referendums. That same year, when the larger question of joining Russia was put to referendum in Crimea, the majority voted for unification.

The second catalyst of the recent cycle of escalation also holds questions. In terms of escalation, the most important question may be whether Ukraine acted without the knowledge of the US or with US approval.

A bold attack in what Russians view as their territory is a provocative escalation. If it was carried out without US knowledge, the dangerous situation it created could anger the US. But, given the clear risks of striking Crimea given Russia’s clear warnings about striking Russian territory, would Ukraine have acted independently?

Ukraine has insisted that, though the US has placed restrictions on the use of US supplied long range missiles for striking inside Russian territory, those restrictions do not apply to Crimea. The US has repeatedly confirmed that: "Any target they choose to pursue on sovereign Ukrainian soil is by definition self defense,” a senior US administration official said, adding that “Crimea is Ukraine.” As recently as October 4, in a press briefing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper said again that "just to be clear, Crimea is Ukraine."

The New York Times has reported that senior Ukrainian officials have recently started to increase “intelligence sharing with their American counterparts," and CNN has reported that Ukrainian officials have recently suggested allowing the US to see their list of intended targets, giving them an effective veto, supposedly to reassure them that longer range missile systems wouldn’t be used to strike inside Russian territory, which, again, would not include Crimea.

Though it is not known, all of these points – US insistence that Crimea is a legitimate target, increased intelligence sharing – point to the plausibility of US knowledge or approval. As one Russia expert I spoke to reminded me, the US helped Ukraine sink Russian ships and kill Russian generals.

As missile strikes continue on Ukraine for a second day and as leaders of the Group of 7 nations promise "undeterred and steadfast" military support for Ukraine at an emergency meeting, there is a dangerous risk of continued escalation. That escalation must be avoided, and diplomatic peace talks must be allowed.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.