by Richard Falk
We are delighted to cross-post this piece by JWE Board Member Richard Falk.
Prefatory Note: A slightly modified version was published in CounterPunch.
It has become increasingly clear to the world that there is not one, but two, actually three, distinct levels of conflict embedded in what the world’s media and political leadership deceptively insist on calling the ‘Ukraine War.’ The first level was initiated on February 24, 2022 when Russia launched an aggressive war against Ukraine imperiling the country’s most basic sovereign rights as well as its territorial integrity. The second level was difficult to discern in the first weeks of the war, but became soon evident as the NATO countries led by the United States placed an increasing emphasis on lending escalating support to Ukraine’s adopted goals of achieving an unexpected military victory. This support took various forms including the steady supply of heavy weaponry, robust financial assistance, punitive sanctions, and a drumbeat of ‘official’ demonization of Russia and its leadership. In the beginning it seemed appropriate to lend support to Ukraine as the target of aggression, and hail the resistance efforts led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, in defense of a relatively small country being overrun by a large neighbor.
Even this widely endorsed narrative was deceptive and one-sided as it overlooked the provocative nature of NATO expansion, abetted in Ukraine’s case by American interference in the internal politics of the country to help turn the political tide against Russia. It is in this internal setting that on which the third level of the war persists as there is no doubt that anti-Russian elements in Western Ukraine were deeply abusive toward the majority Russian speaking population in Eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas region. The non-implementation of the Minsk Agreements negotiated in 2014-15 to protect the Ukrainians in the East and accept a high degree of autonomy led to oppressive policies by the Kyiv government giving added strength to separatist aspirations. It remains uncertain as whether the Russia/Ukraine level of combat can be resolved without serious addressing Russian and Dombas concerns at the core of this third level of conflict.
What has been apparent to critics for some time is that Western diplomacy has increasingly become primarily committed to the second level Geopolitical War even at the cost of greatly prolonging and aggravating the Ukrainian war on the ground and producing growing risks of a wider war. Only in the past few days has this priority been more or less acknowledged by high officials in the U.S. Government, most dramatically in the visit of Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, and Austin, Secretary of Defense to Ukraine and later in their meeting with NATO counterparts in Europe. What was revealed was that the number one policy goal of the U.S. was ‘the weakening of Russia’ made to military planners a credible undertaking by the unexpected resistance capabilities of Ukrainian armed forces bolstered by a show unified nationalist resolve. In keeping with this line of thinking, arms shipments to Ukraine were steadily increased in quantity and quality. More tellingly, so-called heavy armaments with offensive capabilities began to be supplied to Ukraine, with militarists in NATO countries even proposing attacking targets in Russia. As this dynamic unfolded, Germany joined in by dramatically reversed its proclaimed policy of not providing heavy weaponry. The whole tenor of assistance from NATO countries shifted from helping Ukraine resist to addressing the geopolitical agenda with its two goals: inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia and signaling China not to indulge any doubts about Western resolve to defend Taiwan.
Despite this shift in emphasis, earlier concerns with escalating the Geopolitical War with Russia have not been entirely abandoned. Efforts continue to be made to ensure that U.S. and Russia to not engage in direct combat with opposing weapons system and to not produce situations that push Russian toward a reliance on nuclear weapons to avoid battlefield defeat. White House perceptions of what will cause such recourse to nuclear weaponry at this point seems dangerous divergent. It is widely reported that the Biden presidency continues to resist pressures to establish No Fly Zone in Ukraine because it would greatly heighten prospects for direct combat encounters between the NATO and Russia, and with it risks of this new species of cold war turning uncontrollably hot. But what of Biden’s demonization of Russia as guilty of genocide and Putin as a war criminal who should be driven from power? And what of the continuous increases of political, financial, and military assistance to Ukraine coupled with the absence of any hint that a diplomatic alternative exists that would stop the killing. This has been missing all along. There have been no indications by Washington of receptivity to a diplomacy emphasizing the primary humanitarian imperative of an immediate ceasefire and a political process of compromise and mutual security between Russia and Ukraine the overt international antagonists. It is missing because the U.S. on prosecuting the Geopolitical War as long as necessary, and this takes precedence over the wellbeing of the Ukrainian people, or even the rationally conceived self-interest of the NATO powers.
Zelensky early in the war indicated receptivity to a ceasefire and political compromise, including an acceptance of permanent neutrality for Ukraine, signaled his willingness to meet with Putin to agree upon a process. As time passes, however, Zelensky has pulled back from this dual stance of armed resistance and peace diplomacy, and come to adopt a position that appears seamless with that of the U.S. as if his priority had also shifted to the level 2 Geopolitical War.
My conjecture is that Zelensky, although displaying great talents as a wartime resistance leader has very little sophistication about international relations in general, and seems susceptible to this more militarist line bolstered by promises of decisive support from Washington and possible pressures from his own supposedly hawkish general staff. After all, Zelensky’s background is in theater, until recently he was a performing comedian without any signs of awareness of the wider risks to Ukraine if it subordinates its national interests to the logic of going on with the Geopolitical War wherever it might lead.
As expected, Moscow has already reacted to this escalation of this second level war by warning that it will not back down, but will take all necessary steps to protect its national security interests, intimating if it comes to that, a readiness to have recourse to nuclear weapons. Such inflamed atmospherics can easily produce accidental or preemptive acts that accelerate escalation, which is especially serious in the current context that lacks crisis management links of the sort established between Moscow and Washington in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It took that close encounter back in 1962 with its apocalyptic war scenario that led these superpower antagonists to understand that they had averted a monumental mutual catastrophe by sheer luck, and must take steps to avoid future drifts toward nuclear war however great the crisis in their relationship.
While most attention is focused on the inter-governmental play of forces it is helpful to take account of other perspectives: civil society peace initiatives, the views of the Global South, and the initiatives of the UN Secretary General. These perspectives call attention to the startling fact that alternatives to aggressive war and geopolitical ambition exist. The Western media blithely hides the awkward fact that Russia is more globally supported in the Geopolitical War than is the United States, preferring the balances of multipolarity to the hegemonies of unipolarity. The Global North controls the discourse prevailing on the most influential media platforms, creating the misleading impression that the whole world, except the outliers, are content with U.S. leadership.
Civil Society Initiatives
Almost from the day the Russian attack began, peace activists and NGOs concerned in some way with peace, security, and humanitarianism urged an end to the killing by way of a ceasefire and some political process that dealt with the level 1 and 3 grievances. This is not to say there were not sharp tensions within civil society, especially surrounding how to interpret the pre-war NATO maneuvers or the Russian manipulation of the strife in Dombas. By and large the liberal and left liberal mainstream supported outright condemnation of Russian aggression, but favored an immediate ceasefire and diplomacy to ending the war and mitigating the humanitarian emergency of death, devastation, and displacement. Those who can be crudely identified as the anti-imperial left tended to excuse or at least place major responsibility for the outbreak of war on the context largely fashioned by Western provocations (especially NATO expansion) and interference in Ukraine’s internal politics since 2014 as did some on the extreme right who identified with Putin’s authoritarianism as future wave of world politics.
What contrasted the civil society perspectives in spite of their diversity, with NATO/mainstream media postures, was their shared stress on stopping the killing, the relevance of diplomacy, and their implicit or explicit refusal to condone recourse to the Level 2 Geopolitical War. Typical examples of civil society proposals can be found in the Pugwash Peace Proposal and the Just World Education booklet distributed under the title “Ukraine: Stop the Carnage, Build the Peace”(available from Amazon or from www.justworldeducational.org, containing eight policy recommendations).
The Voice of the Global South
Given little notice in the Global North was the refusal of the greater part of the Global South to support the mobilization of coercive and punitive sanctions diplomacy directed at Russia and its leader. This split from the West first became evident in the two votes on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly. The entire world including the most of the main countries in the Global South supported the condemnation of the Level 1 Russian aggression, but either abstained or opposed support for the Level 2 Geopolitical War Initiated by the U.S. against Russia in the early stages of the attack on Ukraine. As Trita Parti of the Washington-based think tank, Quincy Institute, pointed out much of the Global South actually supported Russia in the Geopolitical War context, which was interpreted as the U.S. commitment to extending the mandate contained in a unipolar world order of the sort it had acted upon since the Soviet collapse and the end of the Cold War. The Global South greatly preferred the dynamics of a multipolar world, and regarded Russia as seeking in Ukraine to reassert its traditional geopolitical suzerainty over its ‘near abroad,’ a stand against the U.S. as the unopposed guardian of security throughout the planet. It should be appreciated that the U.S. has 97% of overseas military bases and accounts for 40% of the world’s military expenditures, greater than that of the next 11 countries.
The U.S. position is no way renounces traditional geopolitics but seeks to monopolize its implementation. In that spirit it views the attempted reassertion by China and Russia of traditional spheres of influence as an intrusion on international law, while the U.S. at the same time defends its practice of managing the first global sphere of influence in world history. Blinken has said as much, declaring spheres of influence as contrary to international law ever since World War II while simultaneously upholding the sole prerogative of the U.S. when it comes to managing security throughout such a rule-governed world (not to be confused with international law, and its efforts at rule- governance). The UN or international law are marginalized with respect to peace and security in the face of this assumption of geopolitical dominance resting on a mixture of political ambition and military capabilities.
The UN Secretary General
Throughout the Ukraine crisis Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has articulated a point of view toward the Ukraine Crisis that contrasts in fundamental ways from the positions taken by the political actors on the three levels of conflict. His words and proposals are much closer in spirit to the calls emanating from civil society and the Global South. He expressed the spirit of his endeavors concisely shortly after Russia attacked: “End the hostilities now. Silence the guns now. Open the door to dialogue and diplomacy.” “The ticking clock is a time bomb.”
Traveling in Moscow to meet with Putin and the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the SG’s message was more in keeping with diplomatic style, yet similar in content: Focus on ways to end war, and desist from carrying the fight against Russia a day longer. He told Lavrov that “We are extremely interested in finding ways to create the conditions for effective dialogue, create conditions for a ceasefire as soon as possible, create conditions for a peaceful solution.” Putin in the one-on-one meeting with Guterres given the aggressiveness of his counterpart in Washington seemed guardedly receptive to allowing the UN and Red Cross to play a humanitarian role in Ukraine and seemed cautiously receptive to seeking a negotiated end to the conflict on the ground. Of course, it would be premature to have much confidence in any assessment until deeds follow words. At the same time we seem entitled to lament the failure to hear a comparable level of peace-mindedness in Biden’s public statements, which so far seem calculated to stir anti-Russian fury and war-mindedness rather than to set the stage for ending this frightening multi-level conflict.
The stark difference between the UN SG’s approach and that of the geopolitical leadership of the world, should make many persons dedicated to a better future initiate a campaign to set the UN free from its Charter framework that accords primacy explicit primacy to its geopolitical actors.
Unraveling the intertwined nature of these three levels of conflict bound up in the ambiguities of the Ukraine War is crucial for an understanding of its complexity and to analyze whether responses and proposals are of service to the general betterment of humanity. It also facilitates the identification of unresponsive policies and proposals that hearken back to the days when matters of war and peace could be left to the discretion of politicians guided by neither ethics nor prudence, but rather have risen to power because they serve the material interests of elites in the private sector. On this basis, I believe that two overriding assessments emerge from an examination of the current interplay of forces in these Ukraine wars: stop the killing by all means available and unconditionally repudiate the Geopolitical War.