The War in Ukraine is a two-act tragedy, with a third quite possibly looming. Act one took place in late 2021 through February 2022, with the rejection of a Russian draft agreement, along with Ukraine’s refusal to implement the key provisions of the Minsk I and II agreements of 2014-15, which would [a] have brought about a cease fire of hostilities against Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lukansk regions, and [b] paved the way for referendums in those eastern regions on limited autonomy, under which they would remain within the borders of Ukraine.
The second act is the carnage and devastation to Ukraine’s people, infrastructure and economy resulting from the Russian invasion of February 2022—now a one-year-plus attritional stalemate, punctuated by daily claims of advances by both sides, a scenario eerily reminiscent of the trench warfare of a conflict a century ago.
Act three—which many feared and foresaw from the outset – would be an evolution of the conflict within and confined to Ukraine, to full-blown hostilities between NATO and Russia, with the [not wholly fanciful] prospect of a nuclear dimension [possibly Russian tactical nukes targeting NATO military installations in Eastern Europe]
This third, and potentially apocalyptic, dimension is brought all the closer to reality by the recent attacks from Ukraine on Russia—in the southern regions of Bryansk and Belgorod. Now, as my fellow ACURA board member, Anatol Lieven, has quite rightly pointed out, a Ukraine that has undergone more than a year’s relentless assault from Russia has every right to retaliate in this way. The problem lies in the fact that the response has been enabled by the use of US/NATO weaponry. Worse yet may be Moscow’s assumption that the retaliation occurred with the connivance and / or approval of Washington, thus upping the ante for a broader conflict that has always been the u.S. Intention. We may deny, we may scoff at this, but the important thing is not how we see it, but how Russia sees it—especially a Russia stung and wounded by a year-long conflict that has not, so far, gone entirely its way.
There are at least two other factors that darken the plot from Russia’s point of view, and which have been in play not just for the past year of Ukraine conflict but arguably since the cold war’s end.
First, consider the history of our support for the so-called ‘color revolutions’. NATO did not just expand eastward—despite repeated promises made to the contrary—but Moscow looked on as coups of various hues were carried out with western approval in Tbilisi, Kyiv, Bishkek and Belgrade [and the resolve in 2008 to welcome Ukraine and Georgia into NATO surely reinforced the signal of western intent]. In this—for Russia—destabilizing course of events, the fear in the Kremlin has been that the ultimate prize, the color of choice, is that of Moscow. Given past comments by u.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and others, this cannot be dismissed as mere Putinesque paranoia.
Second, the attacks on Russian soil, while originating in Ukraine [and presumably authorized by Kyiv] involve dissident Russian forces. This is a toxic combination, given that domestic opposition to the war [ or ‘military operation’, as mr. Putin describes it] has been harshly dealt with. A further aggravating factor is that among the opposition forces are ultranationalist or even Neo-nazi elements. While the specter of civil war in Russia, or even serious concerted opposition to Putin, seems remote, Russia’s response is difficult to predict. For us—and, not for the first time in recent history, it behooves the united states and its allies to take care in choosing sides.
It has been argued that the chief stumbling block for the mutually critical task of avoiding a catastrophic third act described here is the absence of a constructive interlocutor in Russia with whom to talk terms. To this, I would pose two questions: one, is Russia’s reluctance to sit down and negotiate perhaps due to skepticism over what we might be willing to see brought to the table—in terms of Russia’s legitimate security interests? [this was certainly a contributing factor in the failure of diplomatic engagement in 2021-22, and even later, in the aborted efforts by President Erdogan of Turkey.] Two, given the history of commitments reneged upon during the thirty post-cold war years, from military alliance expansion to abrogated arms control treaties [ABM] to ill-fated and mendacious invasions [Libya], have we truly acted in what Moscow might see as good faith? Our repeated message to Russia, especially concerning NATO expansion, has been ‘this is old history—just get over it’. Well, first, getting over it is not something we are particularly good at, I’d suggest; second, NATO expansion is not mere ‘old history’ for Russia, which has a genuine and understandable concern over missile defense sites in Poland and Romania. As we know, missile defense is potentially an offensive weapon.
Finally, to come back to the first act of this ongoing tragedy: it is in a sense the darkest—as heinous, as destructive to Ukraine [and to itself] Russia’s assault has been, it could have been prevented. The third act may yet be, but to achieve it will take a dose of sober reassessment of missteps by all the players in the first two.
David C. Speedie was Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York from 2007 to 2017. He is a member of the ACURA Board of Directors.