Andrew L. Urban
The Western alliance against the Russian Federation’s Ukraine invasion is characterised by soft leather shoes, white shirts, diplomatic suits and dresses. The Putin side of things wears army boots and flak jackets, helmets, and carries a gun … Among world leaders only Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is dressed for battle in his khaki army style T shirt, even when not at the front line – which is quote often. It tells you something, I think, about the mind set of Western leaders. And it’s not flattering.
When China used the first anniversary of the invasion on February 24, 2023, to put up a peace plan, it was so vague, self serving and absent of detail that a comedian friend called it a piss pan. China’s President Xi called for a cease fire and accused the West of provoking the conflict. Victim blaming.
Not to be seen churlish, perhaps, Zelensky made positive noises. Russia stated that negotiating with Kyiv to broker a peace deal is an impossible goal.
When 141 members of the UN general assembly voted the day before the first anniversary of the invasion in support of a resolution demanding “that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”, China was not among them. That’s not neutrality, it’s complicity. Mind you, neither were India, Iran, South Africa and 28 other countries. Weak as piss, to continue with that imagery.
This is the realpolitik: Putin’s Russia is the aggressor, storming into Ukraine against international laws and norms, trashing agreements that stipulate Russia would not and should not do this. There is not much point even thinking about a peace deal which relies on agreements that require Putin’s signature. Besides, there is something morally askew in the notion that Ukraine should ‘negotiate a deal’, which almost certainly implies giving up some of its territory in return for Russia’s withdrawal. Really? It would be akin to house invaders being offered a deal to keep the stolen jewels but hand back the cash.
Putin won’t (can’t) back out. Zelensky’s Ukraine won’t give in. The Western alliance is hoping for a miracle.
It’s time to play hardball with Putin. Actually, it was time to do that a year ago, but we can’t turn back time, as Cher acknowledged wistfully in her famous 1989 song.
But the Western alliance can move time forward, so to speak, fast-tracking Ukraine’s NATO membership. Of course it can be done. The NATO alliance is made up of 30 nation states, not concrete blocks. It does take will and resolution – and leadership. (Yes, that’s the real challenge…) Members make the rules. Members can change the rules. It takes a ‘can do’ attitude.
The plan could be something like this: NATO Council meets urgently (Article 9) and agrees that it is accepting and fast tracking Ukraine’s application (Article 10). Simultaneously, NATO confirms that as soon as Ukraine is officially a member (subject to any undertakings NATO requires), it will be entitled to its protection (Article 5). Ukraine has only to request such help. The Russian Federation would be required to immediately stop hostilities and be given a reasonable time – say three weeks – to pull out all its forces from the territory of Ukraine, as defined and accepted by the UN, not Russia. Failure to do so would trigger a military response from NATO. Unlike Russia, NATO would be acting legally.
In the context of Putin’s propaganda that NATO on Russia’s border is a threat, it is important to keep in mind that NATO is a defensive organisation, with no powers to invade, attack or threaten any other nation. Article 1 states: The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.
The Western alliance has to understand (bone headed politicians have still not learnt this) that Putin is not a diplomat in soft leather shoes with cocktail party conversations. He is a determined autocrat who is now pursuing a scorched earth policy in Ukraine and silencing opposition at home. This is his ultimate effort to re-imagine, nay, remake, contemporary Russia in the garb of a Russian empire. He is all in. All his chips are in the middle of the table. It wasn’t meant to be an existential risk, but now it is.
The massive irony would be that Putin’s delusional propaganda for domestic consumption, that the West is out to destroy Russia, would be hung around his own neck. Not by NATO attacking or invading Russia, but by negating his huge bet against Ukraine, sweeping his chips off the table, decimating Russia’s position in world affairs. In reality, the Russian people would also be beneficiaries, their sons no longer cannon fodder, their resources no longer sucked into war.
At the same time, the West should seize all of the estimated US$600 + billion in frozen Russian assets, including around US$100 – 200 million of Putin’s own, to help pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Hardball. Michael Doyle, Dorothea Koehn and Janine Prantl argued as much in The Washington Post back in March 2022, urging the assets be used first for humanitarian purposes. Can’t argue with that. The US Congress has already passed legislation to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs for that purpose … it’s a start.
It would take courage by NATO, of course. Courage is not a bad thing in human affairs. That it has been lacking so far is the reason the Western alliance finds itself facing the impasse characterised earlier: Putin won’t back out, Zelensky won’t give in.
There is perhaps only one other way to end the war and stop the carnage: a comprehensive and immediate military package including the tanks, the fighter jets and everything else Ukraine needs to finish the job. But that, too, takes leadership and courage to deliver. On February 24, 2023, US President Joe Biden told a journalist Ukraine didn’t need F16 fighter jets right now. We see the problem. It isn’t just Putin. It’s us.
Andrew L. Urban is the co-author of Zelensky – the unlikely hero (Wilkinson).
Not surprisingly, Ukraine agrees and makes the case, as argued in Foreign Affairs, June 1, 2023 by ANDRIY ZAGORODNYUK, Chair of the Centre for Defence Strategies. From 2019 to 2020, he was Minister of Defense of Ukraine:
“European states spent years ignoring Ukraine’s NATO application precisely to avoid antagonizing Moscow—and to precisely zero effect.
It is time, then, to let Ukraine join—not sooner or later, but now. By entering the alliance, the country will secure its future as part of the West, and it can be sure the United States and Europe will continue to help it fight against Moscow. Europe, too, will reap security benefits by allowing Ukraine to join the alliance. It is now apparent that the continent is not ready to defend itself and that its politicians have largely overestimated its security. Indeed, Europe will never be secure from Russia until it can militarily stop Moscow’s attacks. And no state is more qualified to do so than Ukraine.”