The attack on Ukraine represents a great paradox: there is public international law that clearly envisages the possibility of international interventions to protect civilians or collectively reduce countries that use war for non-defensive purposes (such as Russia); but we do not have effective global political arrangements to do so.
The UN Security Council, charged with ensuring global peace and security, contains Russia and China as permanent members with veto power. While Russia’s action is unjustifiable, my hypothesis is that certain macro-social processes have been at work that have indirectly favoured aggression. In the following, I will try to point both to some of these developments and to certain alternatives that the EU could take.
EU countries placed much of the responsibility for their security in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a US-led collective defence body created at the same time as the UN to defend Western interests against Soviet communism. The UN (which included the USSR) was intended to preserve world peace, but the West also created its own organisation because it saw the USSR as a threat. NATO symbolises this Cold War, so its eastward enlargement into former Soviet republics is interpreted in Russia as a threatening encirclement. Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO has been a trigger. The European Union has probably been the most successful region in the world in terms of peacemaking through political integration and deepening interdependence and trade. The United States of Europe, however, has not come into existence, in part, because European defence was delegated to NATO. When Trump announced his cessation of support for NATO, the European Union realised the problem of defence dependence. Now, Isn’t it possible for the European Union to continue to integrate and, moreover, to expand eastwards, while not excluding Russia? NATO’s eastern expansion conveys the idea of threat, while EU expansion raises expectations of shared benefits and identity, of interdependence. This may sound idealistic, so a less ambitious prospect would be for the European Union to assume its own defence and complete its political integration.
The humanitarian situation in Ukraine’s pro-independence provinces deserves special attention: it is one of Russia’s arguments for legitimising the invasion. The UN should send international observers to Donetsk and Luhansk, to dispel any shadow of doubt about Ukraine’s behaviour since the signing of the Minsk peace accords in 2014. Putin considers them unilaterally broken by Ukraine. In February, the UN published a notice announcing that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. This is a step in the right direction that could be complemented by the measure proposed here.
This in no way legitimises Russia’s attack, nor its desire to demilitarise Ukraine, nor its call for a coup d’état by the Ukrainian military to simplify negotiations with Moscow. Crossing such a dangerous red line for world peace cannot be ignored: it would open the way for similar actions by Russia or other countries.
However, any military action against Russia, inside or outside Ukraine, would have devastating global consequences, both for Ukraine, Russia and Europe. Likewise, arming Ukraine is a dangerous strategy. Other historical experiences, such as Afghanistan (1978-1992) and Syria, show that arming a population is a ticking time bomb whose place and range of explosion are unpredictable.
Unequivocal denunciations by as many states as possible, diplomacy and economic sanctions seem the only immediate way forward. Russia cares about sanctions: inflation, the freezing of funds and the closing of potential markets for gas sales hurt it. Although it looks like a superpower, its economy is not robust, internal inequalities are rampant, it is threatened by terrorist groups and there is dissent. In the medium term, reducing NATO’s influence (until its eventual dissolution), strengthening European foreign and defence policy and expanding the Union eastwards should be the way forward.
Finally, the transformation and universalisation of the UN’s collective security system, as the only framework for settling international conflicts, but democratised and endowed with indisputable coercive capacity, seems to be the essential collective project if humanity is not to be finally extinguished by the threats it itself produces.
If the federation of the United States of the world takes too long, what is sometimes seen as utopian may be remembered as the practical solution that could not be tried out because of narrow-mindedness but which would have prevented civilisation from succumbing to barbarism.