Is it still possible to prevent war in Europe?

"It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years," Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau, who is also the current OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, said in a press conference in Vienna on Thursday after talks between Russia and the OSCE.
17.01.2022. BLBens Latkovskis
OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland, Zbigniew Rau joint press conference on 13 January 2022 ©OSCE

Earlier, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko assured that "Russia will use all possible means, including military ones, to respond to its external threats". Russia sees the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit agreement on possible further NATO enlargement as such a threat and is demanding written guarantees that NATO will not be expanded eastwards. In effect, it is calling for the denunciation of this NATO agreement.

Last week saw three separate rounds of Russia-US, Russia-NATO and Russia-OSCE talks, which can be seen as one of the last attempts to use diplomacy to prevent a large-scale war in Europe. The issue at stake is the possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, which will in any case upset the current international security architecture with quite unpredictable consequences.

Both the negotiators themselves and political observers agree that all three rounds of talks have ended without any significant result. In other words, no thread has been found on which to even begin the search for even a minimal compromise. As a general rule, if nothing to discuss can be found in the negotiations, there is a very high probability that one of the parties deliberately does not want to reach any compromise at all.

If one side is not willing to compromise, the question then becomes: but what does it want? In this case, it is Russia that is putting ultimatums on the table. What does it want? It wants to transform the international order that emerged after Russia (the USSR) lost the Cold War. Russia wants to review the results of this war, which some commentators also call the Third World War, and to return to the order that emerged after the Second World War. To the so-called Yalta and Potsdam order, with strictly separated spheres of influence.

Russia is, in effect, calling for the changes in human thinking that have taken place over the last hundred years to be written off and for a return to the rather primitive great power logic that dominated international relations before the First World War - we split the world and the "little guys" should stay quiet. If you listen to Russian propaganda, this idea is broadcast live 24/7 there. We and the US will set the order in Europe, but in Asia and Africa we will also bring in China. Ukraine, Kazakhstan or even Poland (let us not even mention Latvia) are not even worth listening to. They cannot be independent pieces on the big geopolitical chessboard. They are pawns moved (and now and then sacrificed) by the "big guys".

Is the West (USA) ready to restore such a world order? Last week's talks show that, at least for now, they are not. But history shows that if one side is very reluctant to go to war, it is prepared to go very far. It is prepared to make concessions, even to obvious humiliations. This Western desire to preserve peace at all costs is being exploited by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who, through all his behavior and actions (the concentration of troops on Ukraine's borders, Friday's cyber-attack), is making it clear that his hand will not be shaking when the trigger is pulled to start a war.

Until last spring, most observers believed that Putin was simply bluffing, but this is no longer the case among experts. Opinions are divided: some still believe that Putin is not crazy and will not launch such a risky adventure as a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, while others point out that after Russia's many aggressive and undiplomatic statements, the room for maneuvering is almost exhausted and Putin has no real way to retreat.

In the spring, and even in the autumn, there was a version that Putin's main objective was to get the West, or rather the US and President Joe Biden, to come to the discussion table with him, to talk to him as an equal partner, and that it is precisely to achieve this objective that he is using the threat of an invasion of Ukraine, but now all the signs are that the objectives are broader: to restore Russia's clear dominance in the space of the former USSR (with the further goal of Eastern Europe) and to politically destroy NATO (and the EU in between) by turning it into an incoherent, mutually contradictory office of empty rhetoric.

Given the strong anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, there is no way that a pro-Kremlin government can come to power there in a domestic political way. Such a Ukrainian leadership, which would meet Putin's demands, can only be installed in Kyiv with the help of Russian tanks. It is therefore impossible to secure Russian influence in Ukraine except through military action (that is to say, war).

In view of this, I join the group of observers who believe that an invasion of Ukraine is quite likely. However, if I had to put my own money on the line on this issue, I would try to avoid placing such bets. Both for moral and ethical reasons, but also because I really do not want to believe that Putin is so mad that he would be prepared to go to such an unreasonable length.

However, such a scenario must be prepared for, and it would be good if the Kariņš government had a detailed plan on how to deal with it. For example, what to do and how to deal with Ukrainian refugees who might seek asylum in Europe in large numbers?


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