Ukrainians are now suffering under an illegal and brutal invasion by Russia. Although Russia certainly did not start the eight-year-long war in Ukraine, Putin did massively expand the war zone and is, therefore, under Nuremberg principles, primarily responsible for the deaths that follow in its wake.
International aggression has major consequences and can lead to massive loss of human life: 2.4 million dead in Iraq, 1.2 million dead in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. war against the Taliban. Senior American defense officials claim that Russia is still holding back and that its bombers are primarily focused on military targets. These same officials also warn that civilian casualties could massively spike if Russia does decide to enact an Iraq- or Chechnya-style bombing campaign.
Can that kind of fate still be prevented in Ukraine? That is the primary question that should concern all commentators. That and the prevention of further escalation, nuclear war. Where do we go from here?
Weapons are not going to help
The West is sending more weapons to Ukraine. Will that help? Let’s get down to the numbers: Russia’s “limited military operation” is currently deploying 150,000 Russian soldiers. Although there were some tactical defeats, the Russian army continues to advance. There are one million Russian soldiers on active duty and another two million on reserve duty to be deployed. Let alone a full mobilization of the adult population of Russia. There is no way this war can be won. In other words, more weapons will prolong the war and lead to needless bloodshed.
Admittedly, after a long war, Russia may perceive the costs to be too high and withdraw. Think of the American defeat in Vietnam. Or the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. Those wars have resulted in millions of deaths. The count in Ukraine now stands at a few thousand. Is that really a scenario we want? Both U.S. and European policymakers are already preparing for a protracted guerrilla war with Russia. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even openly supports the idea of turning Ukraine into a new “Afghanistan.” In fact, similar to the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, U.S. military planners have been conciously aiming to “provoke” (in their own words) Russia into a war. As such, Ukrainian political scientist Ivan Katchanovski rightly points out that Western countries “want to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian.” That is downright bloodthirsty and criminal.
Finally, it is important to note that Ukrainian lives are not only threatened by the Russian military. Several Ukrainian battalions—like some of the pro-Russian rebel forces—have committed a litany of war crimes over the last eight years and reportedly continue to do so during the current escalation. Before the Russian invasion started two months ago, UN figures suggested that 80 percent of civilian deaths over the last few years were caused by the Ukrainian military. Not only can weapon deliveries needlessly prolong the war, they can also directly facilitate war crimes.
To be clear, however, during the current invasion, UN figures indicate that the vast majority of civlian casualties are caused by Russian bombings, not by the Ukrainian military. Several eyewitness testimonies, satellite imagery and videographic evidence further show that Russian soldiers committed war crimes against dozens of unarmed civilians in Bucha, atrocities that could further escalate as the war drags on and further radicalizes Russia’s view of the conflict. Clearly, criticism of Western arms deliveries are not about Russia-apologetics, but about preventing the situation from spiraling from terrible to worse.
Arming Ukraine also carries a high risk of “blowback.” The global Salafi terror movement, for example, was created by the massive CIA operation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when they armed the Mujahideen (including Osama bin Laden) in their fight against the Soviet Union. The arming of rebels in Syria led to the growth of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
Let it be clear that the majority of the Ukrainian army is not neo-Nazi. Yet it is no secret that neo-Nazis have been integrated into the Ukrainian Army, such as the Azov Battalion. Neo-Nazis in Ukraine have already received training and weapons from several Western countries in recent years. Researchers on right-wing extremism in Europe and North America point out that many neo-Nazis are now heading to Ukraine to gain experience in warfare against Russia. It is not an inconceivable scenario that these fighters later return to their home country and open fire at a mosque.
Sanctions won’t help
The West is also pushing for sanctions. These will have major consequences for the Russian population, as well as for the populations of Central Asia, who are hugely dependent on seasonal work in Russia and the remittances these workers transfer to their families.
The West’s sanctions against Afghanistan—after 20 years of war—are already leading to large-scale hunger. In Venezuela, current sanctions have caused an estimated 100,000 deaths. In Iraq, in the 1990s, sanctions killed up to half a million children, according to UNICEF. Sanctions are not a light or harmless means to deploy. They are a weapon.
Sanctions have not stopped Russia from invading. They will not stop Russia now either. According to an extensive study of 115 sanctions regimes, only five of them achieved results and others actually improved the position of the sanctioned government. The anger of the population usually focuses on a clear external enemy, with which the incumbent can fuel nationalism. That is exactly the strategy Putin is pursuing. Sanctions are therefore not only immoral, but also counterproductive.
Take a hard line on tax avoidance
It is no secret that Russian billionaires have huge amounts of money outstanding in tax havens around the world, money that is often channeled through letterbox companies on the Zuidas in Amsterdam to overseas areas of Great Britain, such as the Bermuda Islands. That is where you can really tackle the Russian elite to punish the invasion.
An end to tax avoidance necessarily also means an end to hypocrisy. The Western and Ukrainian elites will also be hit. The anger at Russia’s invasion can be used to tackle global inequality once and for all.
Gulf oil and U.S. shale gas are not an alternative; green energy and degrowth are
The idea of moving away from Russian gas and oil should also be viewed with great caution. U.S. President Joe Biden was considering an oil visit to Saudi Arabia, the same country primarily responsible for the genocidal invasion of Yemen. That war has already caused 400,000 deaths—the majority children—all carried out with Western weapons. Are these deaths somehow more acceptable?
Oil and gas companies in Europe and North America are lobbying to increase their production as an alternative to Russia. The biggest players are American shale gas companies, which are hugely polluting for the climate and also devastating for the land rights of Indigenous peoples in North America.
Only an urgent green transition, combined with low energy consumption, offer real alternatives to the fossil imperialism of Russia and the West.
More money for NATO is fuel on the fire
Germany has announced that it will increase its defense budget by $113 billion in one fell swoop, more than Russia’s entire military budget. NATO’s military budget already accounted for the majority of military spending worldwide in 2020, seventeen times the size of the CSTO, the military alliance of Russia, Belarus and a number of other post-Soviet countries.
More money for NATO only propels a hugely skewed arms race forward. It is mainly the arms corporations that stand to benefit, whose shares have skyrocketed in recent weeks.
NATO has already ruled out the possibility of Western troops actually fighting in Ukraine, a wise decision that could otherwise lead directly to nuclear war, potentially killing billions. However, that also means that new NATO weapons and expanded army units will mainly be used for Western aggression against other countries, such as the American bombs that are still falling in Somalia.
Like during the Cold War, it will mainly be small, non-nuclear countries that will fall victim to the proxy wars between Russia and NATO. That is exactly why most countries in the Global South—despite great pressure from the West—refuse to join in another cold war against Russia.
The war between Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s primary grain exporters, is also threatening large parts of the Global South with hunger and famine, raising the stakes for a quick diplomatic solution to the conflict. Clearly, the Global South has nothing to gain from a long worn-out proxy war in Ukraine.
Nuclear threat is real
There is also not only a stark mismatch in conventional weapons. The United States is invariably trying to obtain a first-strike capability, which would allow it to wipe out Russia’s entire nuclear capability with a surprise nuclear attack.
The United States is currently building a missile installation in Poland, 100 miles from the border with Russia, and openly talks about the possible installation of nuclear missiles in Poland. That is the same distance that caused the Cuban Missile Crisis at the time, when the Soviet Union placed missiles, potentially armed with nuclear weapons, in Cuba, 90 miles from the border with the United States.
Such tensions can also lead to “accidental nuclear war,” through false alarms in highly tense radar systems. History shows that the world has already been on the brink of collapse several times during the Cold War.
Whatever your opinion of Putin’s regime—dictatorial, imperialist and neoliberal—we should never take such a risk again. We cannot gamble with the lives of billions of people.
NATO expansion must stop
The Western threat against Russia has deep historical roots. Western invasions against the Soviet Union alone, during the Russian Civil War and World War II, are estimated to have cost nearly 40 million lives. The Nazi invasion of the East resulted in the greatest loss of life in wartime ever: over 20 million.
NATO itself was explicitly created shortly after World War II for a potential war against the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has applied for NATO admission several times in order to transcend this dynamic, but to no avail. It is therefore understandable that Russia views NATO with deep mistrust.
It is by now well known that a promise was made to Soviet leader Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “an inch to the East.” Fourteen countries have since been added.
For Western analysts who talk about a verbal promise, including racist stereotypes about Russians who like to make appointments “in the sauna with a glass of Vodka,” I would like to point out the following: Verbal promises in international diplomacy were very common during the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961, when the world was on the brink of nuclear war, was resolved through an informal agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev. This agreement is therefore very relevant.
That Russia feels threatened by NATO expansion is not only in Putin’s head. Every Russian leader, from Gorbachev to Yeltsin, was clear about this. Polls consistently show that the Russian population is equally united on this. In fact, countless top Western officials saw the danger that NATO expansion would lead to war with Russia. We can no longer ignore these voices.
Diplomacy can end the war
It is by far Russia’s most important demand in this war: military neutrality of Ukraine between Russia and NATO. Without rock-solid concessions in this area, this war will likely be fought to the last drop of blood.
It is not an unacceptable concession either. It has always been a misconception that Ukrainians overwhelmingly want to belong to NATO. In reality, it was only very recently, since Russia’s troop build-up last year, that majority support for NATO membership emerged at all. Over the last years, the NATO project was mainly propagated by a pro-Western political elite in Kyiv, not by the population itself.
Russia’s other demands—recognition of independence for the rebel republics in Donbass and the annexation of Crimea—can be accepted in the context of self-determination. The overwhelming majority of locals in these areas no longer want to be part of Ukraine.
Russia has said it will stop the invasion “in a moment” if Ukraine agrees to the above demands. It is up to the West to fully support such an agreement, broadly including possible concessions for Ukraine. Consider, for example, EU membership without NATO membership, such as Sweden and Austria enjoy.
The first signs about the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine are promising and could bring an early end to the war. This is a crucial difference with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. outright refused to consider any diplomatic solution and was even unwilling to accept a full surrender of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban.
That window of opportunity in Ukraine must be used quickly to prevent months, or possibly years, of needless bloodshed. Even a full acceptance of Russia’s demands—which would, in fact, restore sovereignty to most of Ukraine—seems an utterly reasonable alternative to the prospects of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and a fully decimated economy.
If NATO itself publicly renounces Ukrainian membership prospects—leaving the choice outside of Zelenskiy’s hands—and the EU does offer a realistic fast-track membership trajectory, that would give Zelenskiy an opportunity to accept a peace treaty without losing face. Yet neither statements are forthcoming from either NATO or the EU.
Several NATO members seem unwilling to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty to independently negotiate a peace deal and will likely continue their sanctions if they consider the treaty to be too favorable to Russia. As the Washington Post reports, based on senior-level interviews: ‘’for some in NATO, it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep fighting, and dying, than to achieve a peace that comes too early or at too high a cost to Kyiv and the rest of Europe.’’
Debt forgiveness and a Marshall Plan for Ukraine
The West could make a peace deal more attractive by promising Ukraine forgiveness of all its debts and co-financing a kind of “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine’s reconstruction, along with Russia.
Even before the war, Ukraine had been pushed deeply into poverty, largely due to neoliberal austerity policies imposed on it by Western banks such as the IMF. The accords with the IMF—consisting of highly unpopular policies—were signed in 2014 by the unelected interim government in Ukraine, under great pressure from the United States and the European Union. The West therefore also has a responsibility to accept.
The needs in Ukraine are also urgent in the short term. Most civilians do not fight in war but try to survive. Millions of Ukrainian citizens need urgent humanitarian aid. That should be the priority for Western deliveries to Ukraine, in addition to the safe reception of all refugees. Indeed, that the UK and the United States, among the most jingoist supporters of war against Russia, are hesitant to accept Ukrainian refugees is a shameful indictment of their priorities.
Demilitarization for a long peace
Most NATO countries now want to invest more money in weapons. But what we need is an end to the arms race and the party that is most responsible must logically take the lead. That means reducing NATO’s military budget in exchange for comparable concessions from Russia.
Such a deal would not only be good for peace in Europe, but also for peace in the world. NATO countries have caused by far the most bloodshed in the 21st century. The War on Terror alone is estimated to have killed six million people.
The disproportionate attention that the Russian invasion has received from Western media has everything to do with geopolitical interests and racist sentiments, which makes the lives of Yemenis and Afghans seem less valuable. We cannot go along with that.
In time, NATO—an imperialist organization of the richest countries on Earth—can also be dissolved and Europe’s security issues can be transferred to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in which all European countries are represented.
The dismantling of all nuclear weapons—through a binding treaty with all nuclear countries—is also crucial. NATO will also have to take the lead here, as it has nuclear preponderance and the United States was also the first to withdraw from nuclear treaties with Russia.
Crossroads for humanity
Humanity is now at a crucial crossroads. Are we going to spend more money on weapons and war, or on cooperation to tackle the great crises of our time?
The amount by which Germany has increased its defense budget in one fell swoop is greater than the paltry climate financing that the Global South had been promised years ago by the Global North, but has yet to be delivered.
The developments of the last few weeks show how easily money is available for more killing machines, and how difficult it is to protect life on Earth. Those priorities have to change. The fate of humankind depends on it.
With gratitude to Volodymyr Ishchenko for providing feedback for this article.
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Chris de Ploeg is an investigative journalist, grassroots organizer, speaker, moderator and author of Ukraine in the Crossfire.
Chris was a lead organizer in the historic student movement of 2015 that occupied the humanities faculty and the managerial headquarters of the University of Amsterdam for nearly two months, under the banners of De Nieuwe Universiteit and the University of Colour.