The Ukraine conflict calls for sharper vision and bolder action

Jul 28, 2022
Flag of Russia and Ukraine
Image: PublicDomainPictures / Petr Kratochvil

The Ukraine conflict is a sign of our dire predicament, potentially a taste of worse to come.

But first, a few words on the decade long conflict. Right now, the fighting is inflicting thousands of civilian casualties, military casualties on both sides in the tens of thousands, destruction of social and industrial infrastructure that will take decades to rebuild, and wholesale displacement of people.

In short, an unmitigated tragedy. The Russian use of force is legally unjustifiable, ethically reprehensible, and an affront to the human conscience.

But Russia is not the only culprit. Poorly thought-out US-led sanctions are hurting developing economies, driving Western Europe into recession, and further destabilising an already volatile international trading and financial system.

The interruption of grain supplies and the associated rise in the cost of foodstuffs, fuels, fertilisers and transport may mean that an additional 50 million people may soon go hungry. The grain agreement signed in Istanbul offers welcome relief, but it covers only the next three months, and implementation remains at best uncertain.

To this must be added the toxic atmosphere in US-Russia diplomatic relations, compounded by the unseemly vitriol and personal abuse directed against Putin by the US political elite, Biden included. All of this sustained by a well orchestrated US propaganda campaign in which Western mainstream media have been willing accomplices.

If the recent sequence of events is distressing, so is the prelude to it.

Successive waves of NATO expansion – something we were promised would never happen – have brought the US-led military alliance right to Russia’s doorstep. The coming to power of a Ukrainian government intent on joining NATO has added fuel to the fire.

Over the last eight years, the US and its allies have been ramping up sanctions against Russia, and NATO deployments and joint exercises in Eastern Europe. And all the way through, the persistent refusal of the West to consider Russia’s longstanding grievances and proposals. The United States and NATO have much to answer for.

War in Ukraine, portrayed by many as a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is essentially a conflict between the US and Russia. A new Cold War is well and truly with us.

The US security establishment has one main aim: to arrest the decline of US power and influence and restore US dominance in a ‘rules based order’, where it sets the rules and others dutifully obey.

To curb Russia’s resurgence and China’s rise, US elites are intent on projecting military power through a network of military alliances and security partnerships, staggeringly high military and security budgets, military bases spanning all continents, and a string of proxy wars.

Are US objectives achievable? Are its two main adversaries willing to play by US imposed rules? Are they prepared to play second fiddle to an America intent on global supremacy?

The answer to all three questions is NO.

Neither China nor Russia is likely to be intimidated. They are laying down clear red lines. Russia will not countenance Ukraine membership of NATO. China will not accept a declaration of Taiwanese independence anchored on US military support.

The question then is: will the US concede that it can no longer exercise exclusive control of the security landscape either in Europe or in Asia-Pacific? Is it ready to coexist with others in a multi-centred world?

The answer to that question is less than reassuring. Hardly surprising, then, that the nuclear shadow should loom larger than at any time during the Cold War. The language used by both sides speaks volumes.

Within hours of Russia’s foray into Ukraine, Putin warned: “To anyone who would consider interfering from outside: if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All the relevant decisions have been taken.”

Soon after, he moved to place Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert. In a later speech, apparently referring to recent missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, he said: “We have all the tools for this, that no one else can boast of having.”

In a recent address at St Petersburg, Putin declared: “We are not threatening anyone, but everyone should know what we have and what we will use to defend our sovereignty.”

Such language is deeply disturbing, but it is not unique to Russia.

Three weeks ago, the NATO summit In Madrid adopted the New Strategic Concept which describes NATO as “a nuclear alliance” committed to “high-intensity, multi-domain war fighting against nuclear-armed peer-competitors”. NATO’s nuclear posture, we are told, relies on the forward deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe.

In this nuclear chess game, the margin for error has drastically diminished.

Unless we check and then reverse the current polarisation in US-Russia-China relations, a nuclear confrontation will become unavoidable.

Behind each of these moves and countermoves lies the relentless logic of ‘extremism’, a concept proposed by eminent British historian E P Thompson at the height of the 1980s missile crisis.

Thompson pointed to the militarisation of politics. As he put it,

Decisions about weaponry now impose the political choices of tomorrow. . . The pressure rises upwards from the laboratories and strategic war-games simulation rooms. . . all the way to the US Defence Secretary and the President’s national security adviser.

Decisions taken in Washington then become the decisions of a non-elected, unaccountable military apparatus: NATO.

The parallel process we’re seeing some forty years later is eerily striking.

So, what is extremism? It is the relentless march of a society’s political, economic and military structures towards extermination. Though the final trigger may be ‘accidental’, extermination Thompson tells us “will not be accidental.” It will be “the direct consequence of prior acts of policy, of the accumulation and perfection of the means of extermination.”

Australia is an integral part of this mess. Successive governments have tied us to the apron strings of a ‘great and powerful ally” – a euphemism for a military-industrial-technological-political machine the outcome of which can only be “the extermination of multitudes”.

Only one conclusion is possible: a lasting peace requires that the cancer of extremism itself be removed. Surgery is called for. This means an overhaul of the structures, processes and personnel that presently shape national security policies.

Such a remedy is beyond the capacity or inclination of nuclear armed states. It is for more principled governments, international organisations and above all civil society to take the lead, and bring about the cultural shift on which structural change ultimately depends.

In Australia, as elsewhere, the public conversation has to consider the perilous situation we’re in and the strategic choices open to us.

Leadership of various kinds and from many sources is needed. It will not come from the political class or the mainstream media, content, as they are, to echo the dictates emanating from the corridors of influence in Washington.

Engaging a wider public is now the urgent task. The first step is to engage strategically placed social networks, in particular those working on aid and development, conflict resolution, civil liberties and human rights, violence against women, refuges and asylum seekers, environment (including climate change), public health (including Covid), justice for our First Nations, and cultural diversity. ALL are adversely affected by great power confrontation, oppressive security laws, rising military budgets and destructive military activities, not to mention the prospect of nuclear catastrophe.

Trade unions, professional networks (in education, law, medicine, nursing, media, communications), farmer organisations, religious bodies, human-centred think tanks and research centres have also much to contribute to the conversation.

Doing this well is crucial. It is not a case of pressing this or that sector to support this or that security policy alternative. The aim is to forge a human-centred discourse that integrates the different objectives, circumstances and capacities of each sector.

Such a discourse will necessarily involve persistence, skill and effective communication. The written and spoken word is critical – publications, discussion papers, fact sheets, podcasts, forums, blogs, use of traditional and social media. But just as important are the visual and performing arts (art workshops. exhibitions, music, theatre, film), not forgetting fiction, poetry, sport, religious services and meditation.

Encouraging signs are coming into view:

  • a re-energised younger generation keen to address the ravages of climate change;
  • all around us, mounting levels of personal and social anxiety waiting to be channelled into constructive engagement
  • a growing appetite for more holistic ways of thinking that connect the personal and the social and integrate economy, environment, culture and security into an ethically coherent framework.

To take full advantage of these possibilities, we need new skills that make for multi-issue, multi-disciplinary conversations and projects, and a new, energising language that breaks with the cliches of the past.

With the Ukraine as the backdrop, it may be time to set in motion well prepared and adequately resourced small and large community consultations to review where we’re at, and where we should be heading – consultations which also allow us to connect personally and organisationally with our friends and partners in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America.

The stakes are high. We need a widely discussed, well considered, comprehensive and multi-step peace plan for Ukraine. A peace plan that quickly silences the guns and over time reshapes Europe’s security architecture, and reframes the international security conversation.

This is our opportunity to imagine and shape a world around the twin notions of human and ecological security, free of the nuclear scourge. Daunting but doable.

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