This essay is written to distance proper understanding of Russia’s war against Ukraine from any false equivalence that this is a conflict between two belligerents, whose perspectives deserve equal recognition, as a prelude to a negotiated outcome. Attempts to explore alternative avenues to peace, and identify differentiated messages and appropriate envoys and institutions should not drift into “servile diplomacy”, but remain principled and grounded in the imperative of upholding existing global norms, laws, and instruments of accountability and redress.
Nine months is enough gestation to bring a human being to birth, but Vladimir Putin cannot in this time realize the abject folly of his war against Ukraine. He and his régime must go, and any talk of negotiating with him or his current government only prolongs his claim to power. This does not mean that a time will not come to talk to a new Russian leadership – it will and it must.
For many decades, indeed for the better part of the past century, the Soviet Union, and subsequently the Russian Federation, played a major role in advancing humanity’s progress in science, technology, medicine, culture, and outer space, and indeed in engaging in technical and development cooperation with the newly independent countries that followed the post-World War II era of decolonization.
It is hard to realize that, today under the regime of Vladimir Putin in sharp contrast to all his predecessors, Russia could not be further away from that legacy than it finds itself now, indeed increasingly a pariah state recognised mainly for its rogue behaviour by the vast majority of UN member states.
From aggression against Georgia in 2008 and continuing its destabilization of Moldova, Moscow’s arc of hostility has gone global in the subversion of domestic politics in Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, EU countries and the Balkans. Since its initial unprovoked aggression against and invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Putin’s régime has embarked on a further diplomatic frenzy that has increasingly alienated Russia’s erstwhile closest friends and foreign partners, even threatening nuclear war and bringing its aggression into outer space, with threats of attacks on foreign commercial satellites.
Russia’s own military recognized the madness of such a war beforehand, when Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov called for Putin’s resignation, on behalf of the vast majority of members of the All Russia Officers’ Assembly. The statement accused Putin of destroying Russia, without any real threat from NATO, to avoid responsibility for “the main threat” to the Russian Federation: “This is a threat of an internal nature, emanating from the model of the state, the quality of power and the state of society. And the reasons for its formation are internal: the inviability of the state model, the complete incapacity and lack of professionalism of the system of power and administration, the passivity and disorganization of society. In this state, any country does not live long,” Ivashov wrote.
The isolation, failure, paralysis, and decay of Russia, that we now witness were accurately predicted by Ivashov, who rightly also identified the gross failures of Russian diplomacy.
Yet just four years ago, Russia was party to UN Security Council resolution 2417, “The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict”, which recognized for the first time the intrinsic link between hunger and conflict and the essential role of international humanitarian law in preventing and addressing hunger in armed conflict, condemning the starving of civilians as a method of warfare — as well as the unlawful denial of humanitarian access to the civilian population. It also supported UNSC resolution no. 2573 “Protection of Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population”.
Now Putin’s regime obliges Russia to behave in stark defiance of these norms. This year alone, on four separate occasions, the UN General Assembly has resoundingly rebuked Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and unwarranted and egregious violations of UN norms, expressed in four strongly condemnatory resolutions.
In addition to increasing sanctions against it, Russia has been suspended from membership in the UN Human Rights Council, from the Council of Europe, from which it then withdrew completely, and has lost its seat on the Governing Council of the ICAO. In the meantime, it has obstructed the implementation of UNSC resolution 2254 relating to Syria. It has again obstructed grain exports for Ukraine, even if only momentarily.
In a resolution adopted on March 4, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva also agreed to establish a commission to investigate violations committed during Russia’s invasion. Its special session on May 12 (resolution S-34/1) examined the deteriorating human rights situation in Ukraine stemming from the invasion and accumulating evidence of thousands of war crimes, upon which the later report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine submitted findings about events during late February and March 2022 in the four regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, through the Secretary-General.
Beyond that early period, evidence has mounted of tens of thousands of war crimes committed by Russian forces acting under command responsibility, as distinct from occasional rogue elements; of official statements, policies, actions and systemic politically-driven campaigns with clear genocidal intent, including widespread ethnic cleansing, deportations, and direct repeated large-scale missile and artillery targeting of civilian populations, in urban centres, residential zones, health, educational, and commercial facilities, institutions and vital civilian infrastructure.
For a comparatively minor but illegal territorial gain, the Putin regime ruling the world’s largest country has sacrificed its global name & socio-economic well-being – but worse, the ricochet effects have also surged around the world in food and energy insecurity, escalating inflation, and widespread impoverishment. There would never have been a “good time” for such a wilful misadventure, but coming in the wake of the Covid pandemic, and the onset of climate change, is absolutely the worst time.
The increasing mendacity of the Putin regime is now so severe, that not only can they not be trusted by Ukraine and the international community, already victims and witnesses of its flagrant violations of international norms, they cannot even trust each other. Some examples: the lies about the Ukrainian “genocide” of Russian speakers in Donbas, and a western “coup” in Kyiv in 2014, Nazism in Ukraine, followed then and now by false narratives of Ukrainian dirty nuclear bombs and bio-weapons, Putin’s failure to deliver his quick blitzkrieg victory over Ukraine, Lavrov’s repeated lies about “no invasion planned”, Ramzan Kadyrov’s, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, accusations that Ukrainian forces are fighting a war on Russian territory (presumably he means annexed Ukrainian lands) and convicted convict-turned-Kremlin power broker Yevgeny Prigozhin’s denials that he had anything to do with the creation of Wagner mercenaries.
As Putin loses grip not only of the information space, but of the battlefield, and the Kremlin and its siloviki are increasingly consumed by internecine conflict, Putin will have no choice other than to crack down on Kadyrov and Prigozhin, or be “retired” himself.
Luckily, Russia has now shared with the United States its details on its nuclear drills (while accusing non-nuclear Ukraine). Russia’s own prospects today are the dimmest they have ever been since World War II: break up into chaos, rogue criminality, mass displacement, warlordism, nukes, etc.
By supporting Ukraine, Western leaders can allow this to play out, whilst stating publicly that while they have no intention of interfering in the “sovereign” integrity and internal governance of Russia, nonetheless they demand or expect its full compliance with its international obligations, including the UN Charter, international law, norms and treaties, and stand ready to support the legitimate aspirations of the diverse peoples of the Russian Federation to enjoy their human rights, and civil, economic and social well-being.
At this stage, the explicit inclusion of Russian local governments and municipalities in the global effort to tackle climate change and pandemic recovery, through advancing means and methods for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, could be an opener to subsidiarity and the de-concentration or levelling of power. When Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, several US states and municipalities strengthened their commitment to it.
Nonetheless, we are already witnessing the “early warning signs” of degradation of the now fiscally-unsustainable Russian state, not only viz sanctions impact, military weaknesses/defeats, but fragmentation within the Russian body politic, with two warlords now challenging Putin’s authority.
The Russian élite, beyond this ailing régime, need to take stock of the decline of their federation, not with a view to yet more adventures in misguided neo-imperialism, but with a view to harnessing the energies of Russian society, reforming its institutions, and removing the cancer at the top and in its heart. The real Russia is deeper and richer than the stolen billions in assets and the forfeited lives in genocidal wars against brotherly nations.
The real Russia, including its repressed civil society, and its talented emigrés, can strive to optimise broad-based outcomes that uplift the people of Russia and enhance their lives whilst restoring international partnerships and global respect, only through openness, transparency and accountability of elected leaders at all levels, divorced from the power of money, media, and mania.
Multiple networks of Russians abroad need to coalesce around a reform agenda that removes the Putin régime, and ushers in a new era of benign leadership that puts the well-being of the Russian people before the narrow predatory interests of the kleptocratic megalomaniacs now ruining Russia.
Ironically, during the worst period of the Covid pandemic, various Russian-based networks of civic activists with enlightened ideals and social innovators have gone online with exponentially-expanding audiences around the world. Today they represent a considerable antidote to Kremlin repression, and a well-spring of ideas and practical wisdom to nurture good governance, public service, accountable leadership and participatory democracy in a post-Putin future. And that is an indispensable condition for a global normalizing of international relationships with Russia, beyond its return to full compliance with the UN Charter, Human Rights, and all its other international legal and treaty obligations.
The West and the Rest should therefore focus their attention and resources not only on enabling Ukraine to win the war in its territory and recover all of it, but also encourage and support the need for a process of reconciliation and convergence that unites all the various and often conflicting elements of the Russian opposition both internally and in its diaspora. In other words, the efforts for “peace negotiations” should perhaps be better expended on bringing coherence to the Russian opposition with a view to régime change. It was the unifying of the Serbian opposition DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia), with the support of OTPOR (influenced by the non-violent methods of Gene Sharp and the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi) that led to the overthrow of Milosevic and his régime.
A recognition of the dilemmas and internal stresses that Russia is facing, as distinct from but in addition to the harm caused to Ukraine and the world at large, warrants attention at the G-20 summit. The stifling of civil society and dissent has deprived the people of Russia of their rightful freedom of expression, debate, and coherence. Despite various opinion polls supposedly indicating a majority support Putin’s “special military operation”, this cannot be credibly authenticated.
By its behavior and utterances alone, the Kremlin has disqualified itself from international relations, and from the representation and governance of Russia. It is time world leaders acknowledge that a change of tack in Moscow is essential, and indeed, a change in its leadership.
The West and the Rest must act to help empower alternative voices. The global networks, institutions, and methods, that can enable capacity for mediation and negotiation in conflicts around the world, are vital resources to foster engagement with Russian civil society, which is largely silenced internally but not abroad or can be approached virtually at the local/municipal levels. Getting Russian civil society to converge on peaceful alternatives and a different narrative than the Kremlin’s is the key to de-concentrating political power, and incubating real participatory reform.
It may also be the key to preserving world peace.