War in Ukraine: origins, impasses and horizons

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By TADEU VALADARES*

Lecture at the Political Observatory of the Brazilian Commission for Justice and Peace.

I would like to thank the Political Observatory, especially my friend Gilberto, for inviting us to exchange views on the war in Ukraine, origins, impasses and horizons. I am sure that the dialogue that will follow my presentation will enrich us. In a way, today I resume the thread of reflection that led me to talk to you last year, not even after the start of Russia's special military operation, seen by the Kiev government as an unjustifiable imperial invasion.

All of us have certainly read a good number of articles, newspaper reports, essays on the interpretation of this war. We've all seen videos and heard radio programs about it. We all have, therefore, a reasonably formed opinion about the most violent conflict, on European territory, since the end of the Second World War. Because I take that for granted, I do not propose to go beyond what is essential to better debate what opposes the Russian Federation to Ukraine, the United States, NATO and the European Union.

Even so, some basic references are essential.

For me, the origins of the war go back to the long and still unfinished process of expansion of NATO to the East, started in the 90s of the last century, when the Atlanticist organization took advantage of opportunities created by the vacuum resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the imprecisely called real socialist.

I would also highlight: since 2008, when he participated in the NATO summit in Bucharest, President Putin began to refer with increasing emphasis to the 'red lines' which, if crossed, in particular with regard to Georgia and Ukraine, would end in the outbreak of a serious crisis between Russia and the largest military alliance in the West, an organization that claims to be defensive, but which, in practice, proves to be remarkably expansionist. Since 2008, therefore, NATO has been alerted to the risk involved in ignoring Moscow's interests in the larger framework of European security and stability.

Six years later, the coup against President Yanukovych, also called the 'Color Revolution of Maidan Square', led to Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula; the complete deterioration of ties between Moscow and Kiev; to the intensification of the civil war in Donbass,'oblasts' from Donetsk and from Lugansk; and, finally, to Vladimir Putin's crucial initiative: starting the special military operation, a decision that even took into account the failure of the Minsk agreements. On February 24 last year, Russia invaded Ukraine and incorporated the two 'oblasts' insurgents.

It is important not to forget: that same month, exactly 20 days before the start of the special military operation, the Russian head of state visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing. On that occasion, they announced the establishment of an unlimited strategic partnership. This event has enormous geopolitical and geostrategic weight as it constitutes the first step towards the creation of a Eurasian hub that sees itself and presents itself as an alternative to the 'rules-based international order' through which the United States exercised full unilateralism over during the first two post-Cold War decades.

That said, there are some questions.

What is being generated by the war in Ukraine, when we relate it to the 'rules-based international order', synonymous today with threatened American hegemony? Apparently, the war in Ukraine, when inserted into the larger framework of the ongoing metamorphosis of the international system, signals the entry of all states and societies – the so-called international community – into a new stage, tending to be multipolar. This process became clearer at the turn of the century, but has not yet reached its turning point.

This point, once passed, will indicate that the game is played, that there will be no turning back, that all states and societies will have to act immersed in a new type of international arrangement. The order created at the end of World War II will be superseded. It is, therefore, a crisis that unfolds over the long term, a process whose dynamics are oscillating, but whose vector is, ultimately, the transition from one type of hegemony to another. What began at the turn of the century may come to have an accelerated pace, even depending on the course that the war in Ukraine takes.

Regardless of the name we might give to this contradictory dynamic – which some call the new cold war; others, of transition of hegemony; others, still, of multipolarity under construction –, it is worth reflecting, even if we escape a safe conclusion, whether the war in Ukraine will boost this transformation 'in fieri' of the global system or, at the other end and depending on the outcome of the military conflict, it will end up weakening it.

These questions, doubts and issues are legitimate. All the answers, however, at this moment are still nothing more than attempts that in common only seem to indicate the strengthening of what, if confirmed, will be a structural rupture of the 'liberal order' that works as a synonym of the international system electively related to the weakened American hegemony . If this dynamic continues on its path of strengthening, the decline of American hegemony will cease to be an object of debate and become an undeniable object of consensus. So yes, the 'tipping point' will have been reached.

How to evaluate and interpret what has been happening since the beginning of the war in Ukraine? How to articulate this warlike dynamic with the transition from one type of hegemony to another in the larger framework of world geopolitics and economy? How to see the war in Ukraine from the emerging multipolarity, and how to analyze this multipolarity that is present in the war in Ukraine?

How to properly take into account all the great actors in the tragedy that is the war between Russia and Ukraine, and how to perceive, more or less adequately, the paths of the other members of the international system, in particular the middle powers that live the encrypted drama in the transition from unilateralism and unipolarity to a new type of multipolarity and multilateralism?

How can we not fail to consider – at least as a problem – that in the current era the capitalist mode of production presents itself, in terms of socio-economic formations, as the most recent avatar of ancient imperialism? How not to problematize the new represented by the instigating fact that all the major actors directly or indirectly involved in the Russian-Ukrainian war represent different variants of the same planetary capitalism, each of these variants governed by political regimes that are also different and conflicting?

If our focus of attention is – as in this exhibition – mainly centered on the conflict between Moscow and Kiev, even so, the analytical difficulties are gigantic. We want to think clearly, but in fact we live under the heavy 'fog of war'. That is, submerged in a type of opacity whose most notable everyday effect is the 'death of truth' as ​​a result of the mass communication strategies of the contenders, both those who fight directly and others. This programmed disorientation, imposed by the big global media and its regional branches, disseminates and exacerbates ideological and political passions that, at the limit, become irrational. War starts to be read and lived through a Manichaean lens, the nuances with which critical or skeptical thinking works, starting to be systematically ignored.

Despite everything, something is relatively clear: in the conflict that pits Russia against the quartet that is not Alexandria, but the one formed by the United States, Ukraine, NATO and the European Union, there is a sixth actor, a discreet, careful, persevering character. : China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. The People's Republic, with remarkable subtlety and determination, achieved the feat of proposing the 12-point Peace Plan and, at the same time, continuing to strengthen the limitless strategic partnership. In other words, by acting in a sophisticatedly calculated manner, Beijing continues to support Moscow. This operation, which superficially has something of juggling, at its deepest level, defends its own interests. Beijing knows that a Russian defeat will jeopardize its counter-hegemonic project, the hallmark of Chinese strategy. Or, at the very least, it will weaken you in a perhaps irreparable way. A Russian defeat, those in Beijing know, will allow the United States to concentrate its own and 'Atlantic' efforts on solving the 'Chinese problem”.

Another relatively clear point: in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict each of the major Western actors plays a carefully determined role. A show of division of labor, as Adam Smith would say. Thus, the Kiev regime must provide officers and combat troops modernized to NATO standards since before the Maidan coup. It is up to the members of the transatlantic alliance to support the Zelensky government militarily, politically, economically and diplomatically. The European Union has a task dominated by an expansive logic: through successive rounds of economic coercion, bring the Russian economy to its knees. The results obtained so far are not spectacular, far from it.

Running on the outside, but not really on the outside, it is up to the Western mainstream media and its offshoots in the Global South to guide hearts and minds. With that, it is up to him to avoid the erosion of passionate-popular support for the version of war as a Manichean synonym of Russian imperial brutality and of Vladimir Putin's psychic imbalance. So far, things have been working fine. Seen this way, with a multifocal lens, war is the most recent and complete historical illustration of the concept of total war, a highly complex phenomenon, but above all extremely dangerous. Extremely dangerous because war takes on an existential character. Victory is a matter of life and death for both states involved and their respective societies.

Under these circumstances, at least three levels of risk are detectable. The minimal risk is that the outcome of the war does not lead to some form of peace, even an 'unfair peace', Versailles style. In other words, the minimum risk would be the metamorphosis of war into chronic or even temporarily frozen conflict. That is, the current impasse would not be overcome, but simply replaced by another. Unstable outcome in the form of larval war or frozen conflict.

This hypothesis could come to be configured later this year, before the arrival of the northern winter, or next year, in case the Ukrainian counter-offensive runs out more quickly or less, that is, in the time that is counted in weeks or months. Such a scenario threatens to come true if the Russian forces, although victorious in their resistance to the Kiev counter-offensive, suffer wear and tear to such an extent that they are unable to launch their own counter-offensive. In other words: if Russia is victorious, its triumph will be far from the image drawn by Vladimir Putin when announcing the special military operation. This, in general, what would be the so-called minimum risk.

But there is a greater risk: that of the war brutally intensifying over the next few months, which could lead the belligerents to repeatedly double their bets, in the process building a spiral of violence that could get out of control. In that case, Ukraine would receive even more weapons and technological and military resources from NATO, especially long-range weapons and more and more advanced combat aircraft. This second level of risk, reaching the extreme level in terms of conventional war, could take a leap in quality either by decision of one side or both, or even due to chance. Direct conflict, which today is geographically limited to two countries, would spill over to reach the entire European theater.

In principle, neither NATO nor Russia wants the territorial extension of the war. As for Kiev, the option of trying to involve the Atlantic alliance directly in the clash against Moscow may prove to be an almost imperative necessity. That is, if the military and the government, at some point, should the ongoing counteroffensive fail, come to the conclusion that the collapse of the regime established by the 2014 coup is imminent, prefiguring a total catastrophe for the State and society. What can this 'medium risk' scenario entail, if it becomes an effective reality? In a nutshell, let the maximum risk scenario succeed you.

I speculate: the transition from war with conventional weapons to war with tactical nuclear weapons would become, in purely military logic, something feasible, perhaps even desirable. But this 'quality change', this first nuclear step, in turn would soon open the door to the ultimate ascension: employment by the four nuclear powers in direct combat – the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Russia –, of the respective strategic-nuclear triads composed of missiles installed in silos, nuclear submarines and planes specially designed for this type of operation. Ukraine and all of us, in the event of this mega-catastrophe, would be reduced to a mere footnote.

Despite the somewhat frequent statements issued by both Russian and Western academics, experts, civilian and military analysts, in defense of the use of nuclear weapons in the context generated by the dynamics of the war in Ukraine, my feeling continues to be – somewhat naive, perhaps – that the logic of species survival will prevail over the logic of mutually assured destruction. The unthinkable of nuclear war, theorized by Herman Khan and others, will remain theory. If transformed into history, it will mean, with the arrival of nuclear winter, the extinction of the species or its return to a state left far behind, when a certain ape passed to the illusory condition of Homo sapiens.

I come to the end of my speech. It will focus mainly on a text circulated on June 23rd by one of the most renowned theorists of the realist school of international relations, John Mearsheimer (posted in Brazil by the website the earth is round). Throughout this analytical essay, suggestively entitled 'The Darkness Ahead: Where is the War in Ukraine Going', John Mearsheimer considers that only three actors are effectively decisive: Russia, Ukraine and the United States. He dismisses NATO and the European Union from this equation because, in his understanding, with regard to the war in Ukraine, the directions that Washington dictates are disciplinedly followed by both NATO and the European Union.

Essentially, warns the professor, the western alliance – in fact, Washington – has decided to impose a strategic defeat on Moscow from which it will be unlikely to recover. To this end, the United States uses Ukraine as an intermediary. Russia, once defeated, will definitely cease to be a great power. For the USA, at the limit or ideally, this triumph will give rise to the desired change of the Russian regime and the emergence of another one, structurally favorable to the West. Even better: the Russian defeat could even lead to the fragmentation of the country. The ghost of Yugoslavia would haunt Moscow. Transatlantic maximalism could not have been expressed more forcefully.

On the other hand, since his participation in 2008 at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Putin began to underline the red lines that, crossed by the Atlantic alliance, would sooner or later lead to a strong Russian reaction. Even then, 15 years ago, Vladimir Putin was perfectly aware of NATO's strategic objectives 'vis-à-vis ' the Russian Federation. More recently, last February, in a speech marked by its geopolitical nature, he emphasized: 'The western elite has made no secret of its objective: the strategic defeat of Russia'. Then he amended: 'This poses an existential threat to our country'.

A direct result of what the President of the Russian Federation said: all that remains for Moscow is to face the enemy and defeat him. But what is the scope of this victory against the 'existential threat' built over decades by the 'Western elite'? For Vladimir Putin, Russia will be victorious: (i) if it manages to transform Ukraine into a neutral, demilitarized state; (ii) if it maintains under its sovereignty the territories already occupied and annexed, today equivalent to 23% of pre-2014 Ukraine; and (iii) if it can exercise a kind of 'right to protect' the Ukrainian populations which, continuing in what will be left of the country, are composed of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who speak Russian fluently. A fourth point, associated with the first, would be the 'denazification' of Ukraine. Conclusion: Russian maximalism is as evident as its opposite, transatlantic maximalism.

But we still have to consider a third maximalism, the Ukrainian one. Kiev has as its invariably proclaimed goal the recovery of all territories lost since 2014, including the Crimean peninsula, where Sevastopol is home to the most important Russian naval base. That is, the mission of the Ukrainian forces is to reconquer 23% of the national territory.

Both the maximalism of the United States/NATO/European Union and that of Ukraine silence, for obvious reasons, something that could turn from possible into probable. If the Kiev counteroffensive fails, and Russia is in a position to then mount its own counteroffensive, the result of an eventual Russian military advance could be the conquest and annexation of another 4 'oblasts': Dnipropetrovski, Kharkhiv, Mykolaiv and Odessa. All with significant Russian-ethnic populations and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In that case, in more months, maybe in more year, the Russian Federation could come to control 43% of the Ukrainian territory. The conformation of this ideal scenario for the Russians would reduce Ukraine to an amputated, dysfunctional state. Ukraine would become a shadow of itself. Such a reduced state, of course, would be unable, as far as one can imagine, to threaten Russia again.

Brutally simplifying: the conceptual and rhetorical framework that guides the actions of NATO/US, Ukraine and Russia are three extreme conceptions of what military victory means. Two of them, so far convergent. The third, the Russian, is symmetrically opposed to them. In the light of this carefully assembled picture by John Mearsheimer, the American realist understands that a Ukrainian victory is practically impossible. But, given the weight and determination of the US and NATO, and also taking into account the combative spirit of the Ukrainian forces, Russia has no way of achieving a decisive victory, a definitive victory.

The possible triumph is immensely distant from the victory proclaimed in its maximalist version by Vladimir Putin, initiating the special military operation. Russian victory will come because Moscow enjoys insurmountable advantages. But let's see, what would these advantages be?

The current phase of the war results from the shift this year from a war of movement to a war of attrition. In a war of attrition, three factors are usually predominant: the willingness to fight; the dimensions of the populations involved; and the ratio between the forces and means employed, on the one hand, and the lethality rate suffered by the respective armed forces. Since in the war in Ukraine the enemy is seen as an existential threat, the Ukrainians' disposition to war more or less corresponds to that of the Russians. But the population of Russia, according to data for 2021, is 143 million. That of Ukraine, 43 million. That is, Russian is three and a half times superior to Ukrainian. Since then, eight million Ukrainians have left the country. Of those eight million, three migrated to Russia. Furthermore, something like four million inhabit the territories today under Russian sovereignty. Moscow's advantage over Kiev in population terms would currently be five to one.

As for the ratio between forces and means employed versus the respective lethality rates suffered, the existing information is inaccurate and totally divergent. Each side minimizes its losses and multiplies those of the enemy. However, as the war is one of attrition, it is reasonable to assume that Ukrainian losses are much higher than Russian ones. For John Mearsheimer, this is virtually certain because Russia has much more artillery and superior air cover. In a war of attrition, artillery is by far the most important weapon. If, on top of that, you have strong air cover, this advantage tends to prove decisive. The available information, says Mearsheimer, allows calculating that the Russian advantage ranges from a minimum of 5 to 1 to a maximum of 10 to 1.

Taking this into account, Ukrainian losses would be at least double those of Russia. Furthermore, there is a 'rule of thumb' according to which, 'coeteris paribus', an army that attacks must have three times more troops and equipment than an army that defends itself. All things considered, the realist theorist concludes: 'Kiev's only hope for winning the war is for Moscow's fighting spirit to collapse. But this is unlikely, given that the Russian leadership sees the West as an existential danger.'

Because that is his vision, the American polemologist does not believe that in the foreseeable future there will be a way for diplomacy to be able to restore peace. The combination of Russian, Ukrainian and American maximalism blocks this path, despite the efforts of the Pope, Lula, China and Turkey, the African Union and even, for a short time, Israel.

For the realist theorist, therefore, one can only count on what is still a remainder, a surplus: “The best possible way out is for war to become a frozen conflict in which each side will continue to seek opportunities to weaken the other; in which the permanent danger of a return to hostilities will be present'.

With this very somber and debatable assessment, whose horizon line suggests a permanent stalemate, even with a temporary reduction in violence and the greater risks generated by the conflict, I conclude my presentation.

* Tadeu Valadares he is a retired ambassador.


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