Why Isn’t There Peace in Ukraine? A Counterpunch Colloquy in Geneva

J. W. AssociateAntiwar, Blog, Colonialism, International law, Role of Military, Russia, U.S. media, U.S. policy, Ukraine, United Nations, Vietnam War

by Richard Falk, Daniel Warner, and Matthew Stevenson

We are pleased to cross-post from Counterpunch an excerpt of this conversation between JWE Board Member and International Jurist Richard Falk, and Dr. Daniel Warner and Matthew Stevenson.

Richard Falk:  Like many good stories, this one has an improbable beginning. Three of us originally met through a common fourth friend here in Geneva, Eugene Schulman [a CounterPunch supporter and writer who died in 2020]. Gene had arranged some very convivial and stimulating lunches that occurred whenever I came to Geneva, which was frequently in those years because I had a six-year appointment at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva between 2008 and 2014, followed by my wife’s similar six-year appointment that required us to be here in the city every few months. Subsequently, we’ve kept in touch, which deepened our friendship. We learned that we each regularly wrote opinion pieces for CounterPunch. By pure coincidence that perhaps has a certain mystery attached to it, four times our pieces were published on the same day addressing quite different topics. Having accidentally converged on this outstanding online progressive venue, we thought it worth the time to discover whether our collective voice added some things of wider interest than our separate musings. This is both an experiment and a test of sorts, which we hope is worth sharing.

Matthew Stevenson: Here I’ll call you Dr. Warner, but after that, I’ll call you Danny. Tell the readers how you and Richard met.

Daniel Warner: Richard used to come frequently to Geneva, and he’s here this time to help us celebrate the 90th birthday of Georges Abi-Saab, who was my thesis advisor and professor at the Graduate Institute. And Richard has come from Turkey to help celebrate Georges’ birthday. They were classmates together at Harvard Law School, more than a couple of decades ago.

Matthew Stevenson: And I met Danny after I moved to Switzerland in the 1990s, through Gene Schulman, who also knew Richard. When Gene first said to me, Danny and I have lunch with Richard all the time, I told them I remembered, when I was a student at Columbia University, being an intern at Foreign Policy magazine in 1977 – 78. When I was given a promotion, I was allowed to walk out to the front door where the distinguished international law professor from Princeton, Richard Falk, would occasionally hand-deliver his copy for the magazine. So while I met Richard, I’m not sure Richard quite remembers to whom he was delivering copy in 1977.

Here the idea is a three-cornered conversation, not a one-on-one interview. We thought we’d start on why there’s not peace today between Ukraine and Russia, at war for more than a year.

Illusive Peace in Ukraine

Matthew Stevenson: Danny, isn’t there peace between Ukraine and Russia?

Daniel Warner: Certain people are trying to get negotiations started, but they haven’t begun in a positive way. There’s a mentality on the Russian side, the Ukrainian side, and certainly on the American side that someone has to win. On the Russian side, it might be that Ukraine gets absorbed into a sphere of influence, as it was within the Soviet Union; from the American point of view and the Ukrainian point of view, they want to have a sovereign, independent country that can join the European Union or NATO or whatever it decides. We have two extreme positions, with neither side seeming to move toward negotiated settlement. There have been attempts in Geneva and other places to have negotiations start. But all sides in the conflict seem to be under the illusion that someone has to win. And if someone wins, then someone’s loses. That way the war continues with the destruction that we’re seeing and the loss of lives.

Matthew Stevenson: What would be the grounds for you to negotiate a peace settlement between Ukraine and Russia?

Daniel Warner: Ukraine has to continue as an independent country, but there has to be some kind of realization that the region such as Donbas is very close to Russia, Russian-speaking and Russian culturally. On the other hand, the notion at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that one day Ukraine will be a member of NATO or a member of the European Union right next to Russia seems to me to something out of the question and cannot be acceptable to the Russians. What I’m looking for is some kind of compromise or consensus that I’m not hearing from either side for the moment.

Matthew Stevenson: Richard, please give the readers a little bit of your personal background, which is a long journey in law, politics, negotiations. I know from our other lunches and meetings you were for forty years a professor of politics and international law at Princeton. But you’ve done many other things than that and written many books. Give a little flavor for the reader who doesn’t quite know all of your work.

Richard Falk: During all those years at Princeton, I was sort of a refugee from law teaching because Princeton had no law school and no law students. I became interested in the connection between law and politics and particularly as they played out in international politics. But among these concerns two primary ones captured my attention for many years. One was the failure after World War II to do more to get rid of nuclear weapons. And the other was my belief that interventions by the Global North in the Global South were consistently regressive and continued the colonial legacy in a manner that was damaging and likely to fail, as happened dramatically in Vietnam. I suppose my political worldview was shaped by my strong opposition to the Vietnam War but also by my contact with the Vietnamese people who taught me, in ways I couldn’t learn in libraries, what it meant to be vulnerable to high-tech military intervention as well as what they were prepared to pay in life and limb in order to achieve national self-determination in struggles against foreign intervening powers. In this instance, France and the United States.

Matthew Stevenson: Coming to the current conflict in Ukraine, why do you think there’s no peace in Ukraine?

Richard Falk: I think there is probably a multitude of converging and semi-converging reasons for that. I don’t think there’s any one explanation. I think that the various involved governments arrived at misleading understandings of what their interests were and what to do to promote them. And each of the main political leaders had the feeling at various times that, if he persisted, he would prevail. And so the conflict from its outset seemed characterized by gross miscalculations on the part of Russia, Ukraine, and NATO/U.S. Or NATO alone, however one wants to characterize the external or Euro-American response to the Russian attack. I agree with what Danny has been saying about why there have been no negotiations. I would only add that it’s particularly tragic because my sense is that whenever the war comes to an end, it will have the contours of what a reasonable compromise would look like ever since the Russians started the invasion.

Matthew Stevenson: Meaning: we’ll fight the war and get to the point where we could have begun before the war itself had started?

Richard Falk: Well, yes, or at least after the opening days. I think there was a Russian gross miscalculation, maybe based on the Crimean experience or Crimean precedent, that Ukraine was also within the Russian traditional sphere of influence. And that was coupled with this American reaction that thought that if we embolden the Ukrainians enough and give them enough economic and military assistance, they can inflict a strategic defeat on Russia and in the process reinforce the hegemonic global security role of the U.S. This role emerged after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. I think that from its outset, the Ukrainian war was about far more than Ukraine. It was above all else about the geopolitical alignment among the U.S., Russia, and China, and particularly U.S. and China. It came to be believed that whichever side prevailed in Ukraine would also control the last phase of the post-Cold War era and initiate a new pattern of geopolitics, likely configured as bipolarity or multipolarity and thereby displacing the unipolarity that emerged in the 1990s after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Many dimensions of international political order are already multipolar, but the war/peace relations of the current great powers remain what I would describe as ‘geopolitics under siege’.

Daniel Warner: I think Richard’s point about “illusion” needs deepening because it’s a very powerful point. In the beginning, if the Russians thought it was going to be as simple as what happened in 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Crimea, there is now a disillusion. But the reality that has happened after a year has made some fundamental changes not just in terms of loss of life and destruction, but we now see Russia closer to China than it had been before. We see the United States solidifying NATO with Finland and eventually Sweden becoming members. On a larger scale, there is a different reality than what was there in February 2022 when the aggression started.

My question to Richard and Matthew is: At what point are the illusions accepted and at what point are people going to deal with the new reality and try to figure out what this means and how we’re going to live with this? Because if the war continues, Russia is going to become closer to China. We’re going back to a new kind of Cold War, a different one, as you pointed out than the one after the Second World War, but it still is a situation which is far from any kind of world order that can exist.

Kyiv During Maidan

Matthew Stevenson: Danny, I remember meeting up with you in 2014, in what we now call Kyiv [then Kiev]. I came overland with my son Charles. We came from Moscow, Tula, Kursk, Belgorod (now under attack), Kharkiv, and Poltava to Kyiv—to meet you and have dinner there in the midst of the Maidan protests. Coming that way, as if through the back door, into Ukraine, I was initially more sympathetic to the Russian view of Donbas and eastern Ukraine as Russian-speaking, Russian cities, with Russian culture. Yet when the train pulled into Kyiv, and we spent a few days together there in the capital of Ukraine, what struck me very forcefully, and this was then ten years ago, was how much the people that we met didn’t want to be part of the Russian sphere of influence. They didn’t want to be part of whatever legacy of the Warsaw Pact was there. They didn’t want to trade with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They wanted Apple phones and Starbucks coffee in a crude consumer sense. You could say that western Ukraine—the Polish part of Ukraine, if you want to call it that—is more European, while the east could be more Russian.

Let me ask you both of you: at what point is it the people of Ukraine who themselves should decide whether they want to belong to the East or the West?

Richard Falk: I can start a response, and it’s a very important question, because I think it goes to the issue of what happens when the right of self-determination clashes with the strategic interests of the geopolitical actors.

I don’t think Russia or China or the U.S. has given up the idea of spheres of influence. [United States Secretary of State] Antony Blinken talks about the spheres of influence being in the dustbin of history, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for the U.S. when it comes to Cuba or Venezuela and, generally, Latin America and even other places in the world—the Middle East, various parts of Asia—so the notion that self-determination is the primary norm is an illusion somewhat popular among international lawyers and human rights activists, but it doesn’t describe the existential nature of world order which somehow exhibits an unstable tension between geopolitics and self-determination. The countries of East Europe would have given similar feedback to the Ukrainians about preferring McDonald’s and Starbucks to living under a Soviet shadow. But, in fact, probably the geopolitical fault lines that were ‘agreed upon’ at Yalta and Potsdam prevented World War III. In other words, thwarting the self determination of East European countries was a very unpleasant experience for those national societies. But it would have been more unpleasant to have had a nuclear war spiral out of an effort to contain Soviet influence in what they felt was one of the fruits of their victory and defense in World War II, and was the centerpiece of their future security. I think that same collision of ideas is present in Ukraine but without Potsdam and Yalta to create geopolitical fault lines that might have established ‘no go’ zones for geopolitical rivals in the Caucuses and Central Asia.

Matthew Stevenson: Might I ask you, Richard, before we turn the mic over to Danny, would you accept a partition of Ukraine along, say, the Dnipro River between West and East, roughly, if that would reestablish boundaries in Europe that would keep West and East from lobbing nuclear weapons in each other’s direction?

Richard Falk: Well, if it indeed would keep the peace—I don’t know the reality sufficiently to give a dogmatic answer to the question—because in this situation, the views of the Ukrainians do have some bearing on what they’re expected to swallow. I think that one can expect Ukrainian leaders to renounce the prospect of NATO membership, but I’m uncertain whether one could expect them to accept the partition of their country. Ukraine might be prepared to accept or made to accept a kind of UN peacekeeping force between Donbas and the western part of Ukraine. I don’t know.

Daniel Warner: Matthew, your question about dividing Ukraine is a very geopolitical comment about territory and borders. After all, if we’re looking at the world today with the Internet and artificial intelligence, it’s interesting that we’re going back to some very basic concepts of territory and a politics of place. But we are here in Geneva, we are in Switzerland, which is a loose confederation of four national languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Is it inconceivable to see Ukraine, which could be similar to Switzerland, in a loose confederation where part of the country in the eastern part can speak Russian while in the western part they can speak Ukrainian? There can be a central government. Switzerland has a central government, but it also has very strong decentralized cantonal governments. So the question of a decentralized Ukraine which could be neutral, not necessarily a member of NATO or the European Union, seems to me something that could be negotiated as far as the Russians are concerned, including the importance of Crimea as well as the importance of Sebastopol as their only access to a warm water port. That seems to me to be something that also has to be taken into consideration.

When I discuss the war, I always say, what is the view for Moscow? And the view for Moscow, in terms of sphere of influence, is to accept that the United States has not abandoned the Monroe Doctrine. It certainly hasn’t. There has to be a certain reality from NATO’s position. If you view NATO from Russia’s position, you can’t have NATO troops on its border. What would we [i.e., the U.S.] do if there were Chinese troops on the border of the United States, Canada or Mexico? I think there’s an issue that the aggression has been so outrageous that it’s difficult to say that the Russians may have certain valid interests which we have to take into consideration to wind up with some kind of compromise and solution.

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