It is always difficult to admit that one was wrong about something.
I have to confess that I was wrong about Vladimir Putin. I was not alone in seeing his record of the last twenty years as displaying the characteristics ruthlessness and determination, but also of caution, pragmatism and rationality in regard to Russian foreign policy, if not domestically. On that basis I predicted two weeks ago that no invasion of Ukraine was likely. The Russian “military exercises” and the threat they implied, seemed to have motivated President Zelensky to talk about implementing Minsk II again. President Biden reassured Mr. Putin that Ukrainian membership in NATO was at best a distant possibility and acknowledged the security concerns of Russia by offering to give access to NATO missile installations to verify the absence of offensive nuclear weapons. In other words, Mr. Putin had accomplished what he needed. This seemed to me to be the basis of reaching an outcome to the conflict that all sides could live with, given the enormous cost of resorting to war. Russia would keep the pressure on but an invasion would be counterproductive and thus irrational.
I was wrong! Whether Mr. Putin’s decision to go to war was the result of intelligence of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces on the Donbas (the OSCE did report troops massing and cease fire violations) or because he’d lost his marbles, is difficult to say, but is now irrelevant. Clearly, Russia’s war plans go well beyond protecting the breakaway provinces in the Donbas; they may aim to absorb all of Ukraine into the Russian Federation. This is outrageous and indefensible.
It is understandable that Ukrainians are determined to resist this invasion at all costs and look to the international community to come to its aid. It is clear that despite the larger picture of the West “baiting” the Russian bear by repeated provocations (NATO expansion, Kosovo, colour revolutions, Syria, Libya, abandoning ABM, INF and open skies treaties), Russia is the aggressor. The remarkable unity of the international community in isolating Russia is an impressive reaction. Since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, a NATO intervention leading to a direct confrontation between nuclear armed militaries is thankfully off the table. But there is an understandable inclination to do everything short of a NATO intervention to help the heroic Ukrainian resistance in what is universally characterized as their futile resistance to overwhelming Russian military superiority. Numerous states, including most notably Germany, have promised to provide arms. There is even discussion of the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
These reactions are understandable and maybe even laudable – but are they wise? As horrible as recent events have been in Ukraine, I believe that it is our responsibility, as members of the international community, to look at the situation from a wider point of view. Regardless of how sympathetic we may be to the plight of Ukraine, what must be avoided is an escalation of the conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange devastating the planet. It should not require Mr. Putin’s unhinged warning of nuclear attack for outside powers to recognize that providing lethal aid to one side of a conflict (no matter how deserving) will undermine the “neutrality” of those providing the aid and eventually make them targets for retaliation. Such an escalation will lead to a wider war that will not benefit Ukraine and could result in a planet-killing nuclear exchange.
Aside from that calculation, we should be asking ourselves if providing lethal aid is in the best interests of the people of Ukraine. If the long-term outcome of this confrontation is a predictable Russian occupation of Ukraine, regardless of how many weapons the resistance forces are supplied, what’s the point? The prolonged resistance will kill more Russian soldiers (who are themselves mostly innocent recruits forced into someone else’s conflict) which will predictably lead the Russian military to apply more and more indiscriminate violence, in turn killing more Ukrainians and laying waste to the country. What the Russian military is capable of in this regard was well illustrated in Chechnya and Syria (though it must be acknowledged that it not much different to devastation caused by the U.S. in Iraq).
Difficult as it will be to sell, I believe the only responsible policy of the international community is an arms embargo and the provision of only humanitarian aid. The Ukrainian military should be encouraged to immediately put down its weapons, surrender to the inevitable and prepare the people of Ukraine for wide-scale nonviolent resistance. Such a response could make Ukraine ungovernable, perhaps eventually leading to a Russian withdrawal. More importantly, this approach has the best chance of preventing the kind of disaster that was narrowly avoided at Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant, not to mention halting the killing of Ukrainians, the destruction of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, and the escalation of the conflict into a global conflagration.
Arnd Jurgensen teaches international relations a the University of Toronto and is a director on the Science for Peace board.