Stopping the war without starting a new one – The West’s Dilemma in Ukraine

By: Pierre Sarlieve

The discovery of many civilian corpses in Bucha, near Kiyv, in April 2022 has given rise to the feeling that the war in Ukraine is going to reach a new level of intensity. Unfortunately, we can fear that the massacre of Ukrainian citizens by the Russian forces was not an isolated phenomenon, and that others will be discovered by human rights groups on the ground. The recent history of Vladimir Putin’s brutal actions in Syria and, even worse, in Chechnya shows us that only direct force can stop him, and it is high time we face this truth.

The growing alarm about Russia’s violence towards civilians will most likely amplify calls for the West to abandon its institutionalist strategy and instead embrace a form of traditional realpolitik. The goal is no longer to weaken Russia economically and diplomatically; it is military deterrence. NATO must ensure that its military alliance is strong enough to dissuade Russia and, in the future, China from using force to achieve their aims.

In handling the War in Ukraine, Western powers need to embrace a new strategy balancing military strength with a renewed institutional involvement. Instead of abandoning institutional integration in favor of a balance of powers based on military might, Western powers – especially Canada – need to make better use of institutions to exert its influence and limit that of its rivals

A hard line between containment and confrontation

Since the start of the war, the West’s biggest fear has been a situation where the only way out of conflict is through a direct military confrontation. Our diplomats and leaders thus poured their efforts into a response meant to ensure that the conflict could potentially end in a month or two thanks to stifling economic sanctions and a too slow and ineffective Russian military advance in Ukraine.

Despite these massive sanctions and the delivery of Western weapons to Kyiv, Vladimir Putin still demands the capitulation of the Ukrainian authorities, making the possibility of a ceasefire impossible. His army continues to besiege the country and bombard civilians at an ever more incessant pace.

Even if the next few weeks brought a sudden change to Russia’s strategy in Ukraine, and the conflict ended with a diplomatic agreement acceptable to the Kremlin and the Ukrainian government – something that seems unlikely – the current series of events lead us to believe that Vladimir Putin will engage in conflict again. Moreover, the issue is not only in defending Ukraine, but protecting our other allies in Georgia, in Moldova, and our Baltic friends who are all NATO members.

To counter Vladimir Putin, the Western camp is aware that it has already used many of the diplomatic, military and economic cartridges at its disposal. Today, diplomatic officials are probably wondering how to do more to respond to a public opinion mobilized by the Ukrainian cause, as much as shaken by the return of the war in Europe.

These diplomatic sanctions are part of a maneuver that aims to isolate Russia from the globalized world. This puts us in the phase just before the use of force, where economic and diplomatic relations are almost entirely interrupted. The beginning of European sanctions against Russian oil and coal shows that European officials are beginning to converge with the harder-lined North American strategy, but still the thought of an escalation is putting Western leaders in a complicated dilemma where new strategies could involve military escalation and bring the conflict to the world stage.

What comes next?

As stated above, today’s goal is no longer to weaken Russia economically and diplomatically; it is a military deterrence strategy. NATO must ensure that its military alliance is convincing enough to dissuade regional powers from using force to achieve their aims.

But, in the long run, turning entirely away from institutional engagement with aggressive powers would be a mistake. Even the most hardened proponents of realpolitik concede that institutional cooperation is necessary to deal with existential threats such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemic disease. Ensuring that all the great powers remain firmly integrated in institutions that address these collective dangers – such as the Paris climate accord and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – should be the goal.

As a result, the West needs to embrace a strategy of institutional realpolitik. To begin with, it should abandon the idea that the purpose of international institutions is to expand liberal global governance. Rather, international organizations are a tool to manage power politics. The most straightforward and significant aim should be to channel authoritarian ambitions toward institutional forums and away from more violent and destructive behavior like we currently see in Ukraine. International institutions could be designed not to stop competition through power politics but to direct it and make it more predictable by providing channels of communication, forums for negotiation, and clear rules about what counts as appropriate behavior.

In Ukraine, this may seem like too little and too late. Diplomacy in general does not exist outside a balance of power. In times of war, it can only play its part when one side stalls, or when both sides are at their wit’s end. Major powers have not reached that point, yet. Putin is a lawless player who respects nothing and believes in absolute brutality. We will only be able to resume useful discussions with Russia if it suffers a real defeat in Ukraine. Otherwise, Putin’s offensive strategy will persevere.

Had we adopted this strategy earlier, we perhaps could have prevented the conflict. It was better for the West to risk confrontation with an authoritarian power when they were in the early stages of ambition and expansion, not after they have already consolidated substantial gains. If NATO and its allies – with their combined economic, political, and military power – had collectively resisted Russian expansionism from the beginning, Putin would have found himself constantly unable to invade neighboring countries.

Now, there is a high risk that the conflict lasts, where Western powers end up facing increasing pressure to act in ways that risk widening the war from their own public opinion. In the complicated multilevel negotiations and diplomacy that will be required to create an off-ramp for Putin in Ukraine, the United States and its allies will need the same courage and imagination as Kennedy and his advisors did in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

At some point though, the war will be over and it is important to consider what will come next. To return to institutional realpolitik, our ultimate goal should be to redirect a hostile relationship with Russia back into more predictable forums of the kind that stabilized U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Western powers should make such cooperation contingent on Russian acceptance of existing territorial boundaries, including those of Ukraine. At the same time, the West should officially embrace a world in which economic cooperation and a democratic ideal are not enough to solidify a balance of power between increasingly expansionist governments. The next era of great-power politics is already here.

Pierre Sarlieve is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. After having written a Bachelor’s Thesis on the history of French Laïcité and the 1905 Law of Separation of the Churches and the State, he turned to public policy to further understand the intersection of governance, politics and history. He hopes to use this knowledge to become an economist aware of the social forces guiding policy programs and take the past into account in his analyses, giving him a precious resource to develop relevant strategies and reform policies.

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