Half a year after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there seems to be no end to the war or even a permanent settlement of the conflict. Militarily, none of the warring parties has the upper hand, and a political-diplomatic solution is not on the horizon. What’s next? Is there still a risk of an escalation of the conflict, possibly to the point of using nuclear weapons? Or can negotiations lead to an end to hostilities?
Shortly after the beginning of the war, experts speculated about the possible military course: The rulers in Moscow (and not only those) expected that Russia would quickly win due to its military superiority and install a puppet government in Kiev. That was clearly a miscalculation. The Kremlin has failed in its attempt to conquer the capital. Accordingly, the Kremlin has changed war aims and is now focusing on controlling the east and south of Ukraine.
A second scenario predicted the successful defense by Ukrainians, who were highly motivated to defend themselves and received Western logistical support and arms supplies. So far, this has been achieved, at least in part. However, the reconquest of the occupied territories in Donbass, but also in the south of the country, seems to be reaching its limits.
Third, there was a fear that the war would escalate horizontally beyond Ukraine’s borders into NATO territory. This could have been expected if NATO had entered military combat with its own troops. Or even if the Russian leadership had bet on the war escalation to prevent the West from supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine. So far, this has not happened, but the situation on NATO’s eastern border is tense. The risk of incidents increases with the transfer of forces and weapons into the eastern NATO member states as well as Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO-membership.
Obviously, a new situation of European insecurity is emerging. Closely linked to this scenario is the danger of nuclear war since the Kremlin deliberately undermined the “nuclear taboo”. Early on in the conflict, President Putin has put his nuclear forces on high alert; and both Foreign Minister Lavrov and former President Medvedev repeatedly toyed in their statements with the possibility of using nuclear weapons if necessary, depending on the course of the war. Fortunately, this has not yet happened. But it does not mean that this a pure “nuclear bluff”.
Today’s situation is probably comparable in its drama with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. As long as nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals, the danger of using them exists. And, the risk of an accidental nuclear war by remains.
Peace and conflict research offers two concepts to assess the risks of escalation, the possibilities for de-escalation and also the basic prerequisites for successful negotiations: the concept of escalation ladders and the right timing for negotiations.
Already in 1980, the Austrian economist and conflict researcher Friedrich Glasl developed a nine-stage escalation ladder that can also be applied to explain the situation in the war in Ukraine. His conflict model ranges from hardening to polemics and deeds instead of words to loss of face, threatening strategies, limited destructive strikes and to catastrophe, in which both are threatened by the common abyss. Russia climbed most of these first few stages of the ladder during the past few years.
Militarily, we are now at Glasl’s level 7 with limited military destruction strikes. This stage is cemented by the present military actions and sanctions of the West, as well as the corresponding counter-sanctions of Russia. Politically, there are narratives on both sides that deny the other side “human quality” and see “limited destructive strikes as a suitable answer”, as Glasl expressed it in 2011 in an introduction to conflict management as typical of this stage.
Russia has started the war and is, without doubt, responsible for the escalation of the previously smoldering conflict beyond the threshold of violence. But the West does not de-escalate either by increasing its sanctions. U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin’s statements that he wants to permanently weaken the Russian armed forces is aimed at escalation level 8, “paralyzing and disintegrating the enemy system.” The logic of violent conflicts pushes both sides into dangerous spirals of escalation. Both sides are certain to be affected by the consequences.
This makes it all the more important to react with sobriety from the West to the “game with nuclear fire” that Moscow rhetorically fuels and to restore the “nuclear taboo”. Otherwise, level 9 (together into the abyss) would be reached. This would imply “annihilation at the price of self-destruction.” The nuclear threat, even hinted at, abandons the rational calculation of the own survival, which even dominated the most nervous phases of the Cold War on both sides of the bloc confrontation. Therefore, it is crucial not to postpone efforts to reconfirm a mutual commitment to a “no first use”.
The continuing danger that violent escalation will get out of control underlines the urgency of the question as to whether negotiations or concerted mediation initiatives offer a way to end the brutal killing. Or if dialogue between the warring parties can help to avoid provoked and unintentional escalations. The desire for an end to the war is understandable. To achieve this by immediately stopping arms deliveries to Ukraine, however, is rather unrealistic at the present time. Offering unilateral concessions from Ukraine or the West could be interpreted as weakness that might have the opposite effect.
The American conflict researcher I. William Zartman has emphasized that wars are only “ripe” for settlement when both sides face a painful stalemate, when the costs and losses become unbearable, but when ways out of the grid-lock can be recognized. This is not the case yet in the current war of attrition. Both sides presently still bank on their own military progress.
Russia is intensifying its efforts to dominate parts of Ukraine for good, despite high losses of its own. The Ukrainian government in March had identified four points as the goal of negotiations: renunciation of NATO accession, negotiations on the status of Crimea in 15 years, direct negotiations between the two presidents on the Donbas and security guarantees for Ukraine. Now the government presented to its people war aims which are more far-reaching, including the recapture of Crimea.
Ukraine’s confidence in the sincerity of the Russian government is understandably low, given the lies constantly spread by Moscow and the experience of other conflicts like in Georgia in 2008. Nevertheless, it is important to take advantage of selective compromise possibilities and, if possible, to develop them further. The agreement on the transport of grain through the Black Sea, which has now been implemented and brokered by Turkey and the UN, is a small but important sign, even if the implementation was initially thwarted by Russia’s attack on the port of Odessa.
Continued pressure on Moscow is undoubtedly necessary. But it must also be made clear to Ukraine that unrealistic and high-risk war aims will not find support from the West, particularly reconquering Crimea. Mediation attempts by actors who have not committed themselves to one of the two sides in this war could facilitate negotiations. Turkish President Erdogan is likely to play a role, even if he is considered a spoiler in NATO and has gradually transformed his country into an autocracy. He was able to contribute with the help of the UN. But even more important would be if influential countries such as China or India were to come into play as guarantor powers for negotiations. Even if the United Nations and the OSCE are so far largely marginalized in this war, it is worth the effort to enable them to assume their intended roles.
First and foremost, a ceasefire is needed, even if there is great disagreement on substantive issues, such as the status of Crimea and the role of the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Given the hardened positions, it is not unlikely that the war will be “frozen” rather than the conflict resolved. In the post-Soviet space, this happened in Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia), Moldova (Transnistria) and Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh).
Experience shows that such frozen wars can quickly become “hot“ again. It is essential to accompany such a negotiation process internationally through observation and verification missions in order to find medium-turn regulations for the controversial issues. Even if the time is not yet really ripe for immediate negotiations, politics and diplomacy are called upon to prepare for exactly that moment.
Otherwise, getting entangled in an escalation logic is likely to lead to a long-lasting war of attrition–with the risk of further escalation. Even without the use of nuclear weapons there exists an imminent nuclear threat, as was dramatically demonstrated by the shelling of the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia in August. This should shake up politicians and the public to discuss not only military scenarios, but also diplomatic options for ending violence.
This article was originally published in German weekly ‘Der Freitag” on September 1, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.