Foreign Policy Blogs

In Ukraine, Peace Should First be Made with Words


If there is one commonality bridging the gap between East and West over Ukraine, it’s the overzealous usage of empathic words to signal one side’s resilience and self-righteousness in the face of the other’s perceived aggression. It’s no surprise then that many commentators have played fast and loose with sensationalistic analogies to explain Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Putin “behaves like Hitler,” and the West like “Chamberlain at the Munich conference.” Meanwhile, we are “witnessing a new cold war,” a new “Cuban missile crisis,” and a new “Berlin wall.” These were just some of the overused analogies pundits and politicians alike have drawn. Chatham House even published a research paper to counter this “seductive,” but ultimately “misleading,” rhetoric.

That is why an event that was held on June 11 via teleconference in three cities — Moscow, Kiev and Brussels — where leading academics and experts sought to establish stronger connections between civil society organizations in Europe, Ukraine and Russia is of significance. It was one of the first such initiatives, where all parties in the conflict were sitting at the same, albeit virtual, table without trading insults but simply exchanging views and seeking to cut in half the proverbial knot separating them. The purpose was to drill beneath the headlines and the clichés surrounding the conflict in Ukraine and find the first elements for a meaningful, grassroots dialogue among Ukraine, Russia and Europe.

Unfortunately, the war of words continued unabated in the background. Putin trumpeted on June 16 that “more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defense systems will be added to the make-up of the nuclear arsenal this year,” shows the spine-chillingly levels reached by this rhetoric of aggression. Russia has undertaken military exercises close to the Ukrainian border in the past and is now set to increase their scope and size in the coming months. These exercises have focused on simulating military strikes on Ukraine as was well as nuclear attacks on Europe.

Of course, this has created a lot of concern among the international community, and why wouldn’t it?

However, the response has not been diplomatic, rather, NATO followed suit and increased its own military exercises in the Baltic region. BALTOPS, a huge simulation that took place in the Baltic Sea involved 17 countries, almost 6,000 troops, 49 ships and 61 aircraft.

At the same time, the U.S. has promised to store tanks and heavy weapons in Eastern Europe, a post-Cold War first for Washington. On June 15, Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, said, “we want to make sure that NATO allies are defending their territory on a 24/7 basis and we’ll continue to support them and exercise vigilance in that regard.” Republicans in Congress are putting pressure on the Obama administration to give the go-ahead for the provision of lethal aid to the Ukrainians.

The tit-for-tat approach taken both by the U.S. and Russia will only create more tension and could potentially lead to disaster. It looks ever more likely that these escalatory responses are only set to continue and will put further pressure on the states involved. Such a climate of distrust and insecurity is truly worrisome and has historically led either to stalemates (warm peace) or outright war. It’s precisely this logical continuum that needs to be broken by means of a peaceful solution, focused, in the words of Henry Kissinger, not on “absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction.”

Even though there was a ceasefire agreed between Russia and the Ukraine on Feb. 12, which was supposed to end large-scale battles between the two countries – skirmishes, however, have been occurring continuously. Indeed, Newsweek recently ran an on-the-ground report detailing “the ceasefire that never was.” On June 21, two more Ukrainian soldiers and one civilian lost their lives following a rebel artillery barrage. The danger here is that this low intensity violence could easily escalate and lead to disaster.

Individual commanders, on both sides of the front, have easy access to high-grade military weapons that, in a circumstance where someone misinterprets the actions of the opposing side, could result in the eruption of a full-scale war. Unlike politicians hiding behind their desks in the capital, the commanders have to make split second, on-the-ground decisions and perceptions matter significantly more in Piksy, in Donetsk, in Mariupol than they do in Kiev.

So how can we move forward and prevent an imminent disaster? How can policy actions change the discourse away from escalation and intimidation to reconciliation and compromise? That was precisely the purpose of the June 11 teleconference. Yossi Beilin, former Israeli Minister, summed up the overall consensus of the conference as “instead of a new Berlin Wall, we need dialogue.”

Indeed, diplomatic actions need to be put at the forefront of the conflict, instead of massing NATO and Russian forces in the region. The international community can no longer sit back and watch the Cold War-like mentality of starting an arms race without any care for the past, present and future lives lost.



James Nadeau

Originally from Maryland, James Nadeau is a European affairs advisor and foreign policy analyst currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His writings have been featured in The Kyiv Post, The Hill and RealClearWorld.