If we want to avoid World War III, Europe needs to offer Russia a way out in Ukraine

Russia’s war in Ukraine will soon be one year old. After the sense of elation and excitement in the Western corridors of power about the late successful Ukrainian offensives in the regions of Kharkiv and Herson, the conflict now seems to have reached a stall with intense fighting around the city of Bakhmut in the Donbass.

The West, under the US leadership, has committed itself to provide Ukraine with newer and more lethal weapons and appears intentioned to do so until a complete Ukrainian victory. This would mean that Ukraine reconquers the entirety of its internationally recognised territory, including the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and more crucially Crimea, which Ukraine has not controlled for almost nine years. Yet one of the most likely and unnecessary consequences of an Ukrainian offensive towards Crimea would be Europe edging towards nuclear annihilation. All the lessons learned during the long decades of the cold war and the careful restraint of the MAD (mutual assured destruction) theory would literally be incinerated.

Arguably there must be at the moment very few people left in Crimea or the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk who wish to be liberated by Ukraine. Those who wanted to go and found life intolerable under Russian occupation have probably left over the course of eight years. Even if Ukraine had signalled over many years that its goal was to regain its “temporarily occupied territories”, many Ukrainian prominent figures have often expressed disparaging opinions about the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass and the Crimean betrayers who let themselves fall into the hands of Russia right after the Maidan revolution. So now spurring Ukraine towards a Crimean offensive, something that even the Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s President between 2014 and 2019, refused to consider, seems a particularly reckless thing to do. The proxy war between NATO and Russia in Ukraine could get entirely out of control and easily escalate towards a nuclear exchange – and not just on the territory of Ukraine. Those who dismiss the possibility of a Russian nuclear attack as a bluff should let themselves not be blinded by partisanship and intoxicated by the recent Ukrainian victories.

Ukraine is unlikely to undertake such an ambitious plan with regard to Crimea without full Western backing. The US does not seem to be interested in putting an end to the conflict or at least, seeing itself as powerful, invincible, and well-protected by two oceans. Europe, on the other hand, is really on the front line. One would expect Europe to take a more careful and considered approach. But it has for too long been too dependent on the US for its security and it does not have the political will to depart from the transatlantic US-led consensus.

The Russian war in Ukraine is a mistake, like almost every war, but its deep underlying causes must be traced back to NATO expansion. NATO expansion did not trigger the war but the threat of NATO expansion induced a siege mentality in Russia that led to Russia’s aggression. The West chose to ignore and dismiss all security concerns that Russia had openly expressed at least since 2007. But the West did not care. In 2008 German Chancellor Angela Merkel recognized that Ukraine’s NATO membership would have been perceived by Russia as a declaration of war. Hence Ukraine’s path towards NATO was temporarily halted, but not scrapped.

Last year US intelligence warned about the possibility of an imminent Russian invasion, yet all attempts to reach a solution by diplomacy were flatly rejected and Russia’s demands deemed “non-starters” on principle. “There is no change, there will be no change”, famously said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Did the US believe that Russia, who put hundreds of thousands of soldiers around Ukraine’s borders was just bluffing then too? Or if the US believed that Russia was serious, why did it not care about averting the invasion? Russia, seeing itself threatened and having lost faith in the possibility of talks with the West, did the most terrible thing it could do and, after weeks of smoke screens and staged retreats, it really did invade.
Many in Washington (and in Europe too) sincerely hope for a Ukrainian victory. Some even fantasise about regime change in Russia and even its dissolution – and have done so for years. They see this war as an opportunity. In light of this, it is absurd to expect anything other that total hostility on the side of Russia, which senses it is fighting for its own survival.
The West found in Ukraine a unifying cause. Moral tales can be very powerful indeed – the war for democracy against autocracy – but it is important, especially for decision makers in such tough times, not to lose to see the real, material world for what it is without putting a moral frame on it.

Hence the more responsible and mature states of Europe should take the initiative if they care about the survival of European civilization. They must offer Russia a way out of the conflict. It may be done through secret diplomatic channels to avoid the public pressure of the war party and the barrage of emotional reactions – but this needs to be done. The Russian army may not be as powerful as it was initially assumed, yet Russia still possess a very dreadful nuclear arsenal. One would expect Europe to think carefully before engaging an opponent like and pushing for its total defeat. Yet Europe too is captured into a form of siege mentality and it has been conditioned to perceived Russia’s war in Ukraine as a war against the West, which it was not.

Offering Russia a way out does not mean giving in to Russia. The obsessive Munich paradigm that rejects any kind of compromise as a repeat the diplomatic effort that allegedly emboldened Hitler even more should already have been proven wrong by the fact that Russia started her war exactly because the West, out of a sense of moral superiority and in the name of dogmatically interpreted principles of freedom for Ukraine, rejected on principle any kind of negotiations with a Russia labelled as a pariah state from the very start.

Politics ultimately must be guided by pragmatism. None of us, no matter how morally superior we may be, would benefit from a nuclear war. If things in Ukraine go really bad, the Russian leadership may see itself cornered and really resort to a nuclear strike. This would be the beginning of the end. European statesmen, instead of obediently following the US line, should do everything in their power to reduce the likelihood of this terrifying scenario. The desire for peace and the wish to avert the annihilation of Europe is much too important to be simply and malignantly defamed as “appeasement”.

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