WAR WATCH - Russia launched its massive invasion of Ukraine on February 24 flagrantly violating the most fundamental norm of international law—
the prohibition of recourse to international force except in exercising the right of self-defense against a prior armed attack. Yes, there were a series of irresponsible provocations by NATO that aroused understandable security concerns in Moscow, including the relentless expansion of the Cold War NATO alliance after the Cold War was over, the threat from the Soviet Union had disappeared, and promises were made by Western leaders of no further NATO expansion. Such geopolitical behavior amounted to imprudent statecraft by the West, especially given the Russian anxiety about being surrounded by hostile forces. Such eminent figures as George Kennan, Jack Matlock (respected former U.S. ambassador to Russia), and Henry Kissinger issued warnings to this effect, but they went unheeded in Washington.
The Ukraine War is best interpreted as a two-level war. In the active combat zones of Ukraine, it is a devastating war between Russia and Ukraine producing an increasingly severe humanitarian crisis that includes massive civilian displacement refugee flows and internal movements away from embattled cities and throughout the country.
This primary war phenomenon interacts with an ongoing secondary proxy war pitting Russia against the United States, with Russia trying to impose its will on Ukraine and the U.S. pursuing several geopolitical objectives. These include revitalizing and strengthening NATO and mobilizing unity in Europe by inflaming anti-Russian sentiments, which as during the Cold War rested on fear and loathing of Russia, then the Soviet Union. There is no military engagement at this point in the proxy war, although its indirect confrontations are at risk of escalating dangerously, even putting inhibitions on nuclear threats and risks to their greatest test since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Perhaps, It should be appreciated that the fog of war is denser in the secret sessions of proxy war advisors and leaders than even what is hovering over the Ukrainian battlefields. Strategic objectives in this two-level war are confusing, being neither coherent nor consistent, and because there are no current images of death and destruction, the very real negative effects of the proxy war tend to be ignored, such as prolonging the killing, delaying a ceasefire.
On the surface, Russia is seeking to reestablish its sphere of influence over its ‘near abroad’ in Ukraine and the U.S. is seeking to blunt this Russian mission at a high cost to Ukrainians. It is doing this by sending weapons and other forms of assistance to help the Ukrainians resist more effectively. In addition, strong sanctions are being imposed on Russia with the announced intention of exerting enough economic and political pain on Moscow and Putin to make Russia reverse course. To augment coercive policies Biden, in particular has used language of incitement to attack Putin, climaxing with this outburst a few days ago while in Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power.”
I find both of these war strategies dysfunctional and dangerous. For Russia to impose its will on Ukraine by military force is unlikely to succeed while inflicting great harm on Ukraine and Ukrainians, as well as on themselves as a result of the sanctions and diplomatic isolation. One symbolic result has been the activation of the International Criminal Court in pursuit of an indictment of Putin. Some critics are urging. the UN to establish the type of tribunal used to prosecute surviving Nazi leaders at Nuremberg after World War II. Although these gestures towards accountability for international crimes are plausibly associated with the Russian leader’s behavior, their wider credibility is gravely compromised by moral, legal, and political hypocrisy given past U.S. comparable behavior that was carefully spared similar scrutiny.
Looked at differently, for the U.S. to pursue a militarist strategy toward Russia in this manner is to choose a path leading toward frustration and danger, drawn out humanitarian suffering, disastrous economic spillover effects already leading to food insecurity throughout the Middle East and North Africa by way of spikes in prices and shortages, renewed pressures to turn to nuclear power and fossil fuels in the vain search for energy independence, and the likelihood of inducing a severe global recession coupled with an escalation of geopolitical tensions of the West with Russia and possibly China. In other words, these antagonists on the geopolitical level of conflict are on a treacherous collision course, with only China so far acting prudently throughout the crisis, remaining on the sidelines, unwilling to give either Russia assistance or to endorse its massive military encroachments on Ukrainian sovereignty while opposing sanctions and punitive action directed at Russia.
There is another, better way to proceed to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Russia should have learned from its earlier Afghanistan invasion that military superiority cannot overcome determined national resistance, particularly if externally supported. This is the unlearned lesson for the U.S. of the Vietnam War and all subsequent regime-changing wars of the Ukraine variant as the outcome of the Iraq War of 2003 again made clear. It is past time to recognize that military superiority has lost much of its historical agency in the post-colonial era.
At the same time, the U.S. has been losing out globally, overplaying its geopolitical hand ever since the end of the Cold War. Instead of dissolving NATO when Moscow ended the Warsaw Pact, it sponsored anti-Russian political forces all along the Russian border as well as taking the lead in converting NATO into an expanding offensive alliance to be used anywhere in the world, defying its European founding mission as specified in the underlying treaty arrangement. Since the Soviet collapse the alliance was being illegitimately used by Washington as a global policy tool to provide a collective cover obscuring the unilateral lawlessness of controversial U.S. foreign policy undertakings that involve uses of military force.
The U.S. would have much to gain by shifting the emphasis from a pro-active level 2 strategy to a level 1 diplomatic approach. By this is meant that instead of inflicting pain on Russia and demonizing Putin and Russia, the U.S. should be seeking to solve the humanitarian crisis by opting for diplomacy and political compromise, stopping the killing as its highest priority, and also moving to ease the nuclear dangers associated with escalation and prolonging the Ukrainian ordeal of this Level1 war. Such a behavioral abandonment by the U.S. of its Level 2 irresponsible geopolitical tactics of confrontation and incitement would also have the great national advantage of minimizing the adverse spillover effects outside of Ukraine on food, energy, trade, and political stability.
This seems an opportune moment to renounce the triumphalist unipolar pretensions that took over in Washington at the end of the Cold War. It is time to take account of the self-inflicted wounds of grotesque prolonged U.S. over-investment in the military (more than the combined expenditures of the next eleven countries) and under-investment in humane state-building at home. Those who seek peace, justice, and economic stability in the political spere should explore further the restorative potentialities of a UN/international law centered geopolitics of multipolarity.
At present, neither side seems ready to move in such constructive directions. Biden articulates current Level 2 strategy as based on bolstering Ukraine’s military capabilities to carry on a successful war of resistance, while seeking to pressure Russia to the point of acknowledging that their leader should be replaced and Moscow renounce all security claims justifying action beyond its borders. Backing Putin into such a corner is a recipe for pushback, likely giving rise to an escalation spiral that comes ever closer to the nuclear threshold, which as it unfolds would lead to a Western response that was more prone to engage in the active defense of the Ukraine. Escalation along these lines would heighten the nuclear danger, amounts to starting a second cold war, and seems oblivious to the risks of World War III. In the interim, climate change challenges, despite their urgency are placed once more on the back burner of international attention where they were relocated during the COVID pandemic since 2020. Put simply, the U.S. wants to police a unipolar world, while Russia and China in different ways are insisting on geopolitical norms of multipolarity, which include geographically proximate spheres of influence.
The UN has been sidelined, international law is flaunted, and the killing goes on. Only civil society in the form of public pressure from within the main geopolitical antagonists can bring these two governments to their senses and bring an end to this terrible two-level struggle. A few countries, among them Turkey could offer to mediate peace negotiations to end the Level 1 Ukrainian War but the Level 2 antagonists seem stubbornly entrapped in their lose/lose war paradigm. As long as this is so, Ukrainians will continue to die and the peoples of the world suffer the consequence of dysfuncitional geopolitics.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.