By Cesar Jaramillo
Debates about the root causes of the war in Ukraine, the positions and strategies of both sides of the conflict, and possible scenarios going forward are not heard only in the arenas of politics, diplomacy, and military strategy. They dominate social discourse, sometimes becoming emotional and charged, even hostile and personal. Project Ploughshares’ call for a negotiated settlement has received some fierce, even rude, pushback. Our stand has also received encouraging support from people we respect.
A military path to peace?
Almost all Western states, including Canada, have denounced Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and stand in solidarity with Ukraine, offering military and humanitarian aid. A significant segment of public opinion in the West approves of this aid and wants it to continue until Ukraine achieves a decisive military victory.
But will such support for Ukraine lead to peace? Can it, in the face of Russia’s oft-stated determination not to back down? The current scenario seems to promise only an indefinitely prolonged war in which more people will die and suffer, while the spectre of nuclear escalation grows.
Exploring all avenues to end the war
Russia’s aggression has upended the rules-based international order, adversely impacted civilians, and created the gravest international security crisis in decades. But this acknowledgement is not incompatible with our call to end the fighting.
Project Ploughshares believes that the immediate goal of the international community should be to stop the carnage and minimize nuclear risks. After that, all stakeholders should work to create the conditions in which all areas of disagreement, including the complex issues at the heart of the current conflict, can be addressed – at the negotiating table. The resulting settlement will not involve unilateral concessions but compromises by both sides.
I was a strong supporter of peace negotiations between the government in Colombia (my country of birth, with which I maintain deep connections) and the FARC guerrillas. While there are many differences between the Colombian and Ukrainian contexts, in each case the very idea of negotiating with the enemy was mired in controversy.
Critics of our position equate it with acquiescence and reject the idea of compromise. But this is how most wars since World War II have ended; decisive military victories have become exceedingly rare.
Some supporters on both sides pin their hopes on other wished-for scenarios. Perhaps internal Russian dissatisfaction will lead to President Putin’s overthrow and Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. Perhaps the West will lose interest in supporting Ukraine and Russia will win the war and take substantial Ukrainian territory. But is the world right to base global security on such wishful thinking?
What does a win look like?
Putin’s objectives remain ambiguous to Western observers and perhaps even within Russia. But are those of Ukraine any clearer? Victory could mean the end of Russian attacks on Ukraine. It could mean the expelling of Russian forces from recently and illegally annexed Ukrainian territory but could also mean going back to pre-2014 borders and retaking Crimea. It could mean inflicting a humiliating military defeat on Russia and then putting Russian leaders on trial for war crimes. Which objective is the arming of Ukraine meant to achieve? What is the time frame? When do the losses of life and increased nuclear risks become too high?
The role of nuclear weapons
The war in Ukraine underscores the fragility and grave perils of nuclear deterrence in practice. Although Ukraine has no nuclear weapons, Russia does, as do three NATO supporters of Ukraine. But this game of chicken, which raises the real possibility of global catastrophe, is the inevitable result of nuclear weapons possession.
The optics of “rewarding” Russia with negotiations, despite its threats to use its nuclear arsenal, irks both Ukrainians and many of its supporters. The odious reality, however, is that sometimes nuclear deterrence does work. Our highlighting the fact that there are circumstances under which Russia would consider resorting to its nuclear arsenal is definitely not an endorsement of so-called nuclear blackmail, merely a recognition of the implications of nuclear deterrence doctrine.
Questions about military aid
Project Ploughshares recognizes the role that military aid has played in Ukraine’s ability to resist the invading force and could play in strengthening its position in negotiations, and we acknowledge the well-deserved solidarity of many suppliers of that aid with Ukraine. Still, we consider it critical and highly relevant to ask questions about the implications of arms transfers, not just for certain arms control regimes, but for the direction that the armed conflict might take.
In February, reports first surfaced that China might consider authorizing the transfer of lethal weaponry to Russia. This move, which Western leaders have already cast as dangerous and provocative, only makes confronting the impact of arms transfers on the Ukrainian conflict and its resolution more urgent. Interestingly, NATO members have repeatedly insisted that their unprecedented provision of military air to Ukraine does not imply direct involvement in the conflict. Will China take the same line? Will the rest of the world accept this interpretation?
The path to global peace
Many of the negotiation processes set up to resolve conflicts around the world have been strongly opposed. I was reminded of this fact after I received this comment in response to a recent editorial I wrote, calling for a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis:
I would like to ask Cesar Jaramillo a simple question. If it was his country being invaded and dismembered, its cities bombed and turned into ruins, its peaceful citizens killed and maimed, its women raped, etc. etc., would he still be calling for peace and negotiated settlement?
My answer: Yes. I was a strong supporter of peace negotiations between the government in Colombia (my country of birth, with which I maintain deep connections) and the FARC guerrillas. While there are many differences between the Colombian and Ukrainian contexts, in each case the very idea of negotiating with the enemy was mired in controversy.
Colombian president Santos was accused of appeasing the guerrillas, acquiescence, and capitulation. Many called for the government to continue fighting until a military victory – elusive for more than half a century – was achieved. But President Santos recognized that military victory was not in the cards, and that the costs of prolonging the war were greater than the compromises that needed to be made to achieve peace. He went on to be awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
Project Ploughshares will continue to develop and share positions that are informed by a clear desire to reduce human suffering, a pragmatic approach to reducing nuclear risks, and a strong belief in the benefits of negotiations as an alternative to armed conflict. We will do so unapologetically, with a view to end brutal and costly wars, such as the one in Ukraine.