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Mediation Perspectives: Reframing the Ukraine Crisis

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Poroshenko, Merkel and Putin at the 70th annual D-Day commemoration. Image:

“They say the next big thing is here,
that the revolution’s near,
but to me it seems quite clear
that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating”

Shirley Bassey ~ “History Repeating”

The board game Risk: The Game of Global Domination is an extreme representation of geopolitical power dynamics. It pits players against each other on a simplified map of the world controlled by soldiers, cannons and cavalry. Although simplified and exaggerated, Risk is a crude model of thousands of years of international history: the rise and fall of empires, shifting balances of power, alliances, betrayals and perhaps the most disturbing factor – that the widespread death and destruction controlled by the ‘players’ is portrayed as a normal and inevitable part of geopolitics.

A recent Washington Post article notes that: “[t]o some, Ukraine has become the geopolitical faultline between the liberal democratic West and authoritarian, neo-imperial Russia under President Vladimir Putin. Foreign policy luminaries in Washington openly discuss the current state of affairs as a new Cold War.” However, this new Cold War has now killed more than 6,000 people, and maimed, scarred and displaced hundreds of thousands. The article goes on to illustrate how over 1,300 years the borders of Ukraine have shifted with the ebb and flow of regional powers, causing the deaths of millions in the process.

Granted, the Ukraine crisis is complex and not just geopolitical. Entrenched corruption and economic stagnation have destabilized Ukrainian society to a breaking point. Regardless of their values or beliefs, Ukrainians have a desire to satisfy their basic human needs, to have quality health-care, education, employment, a better quality of life and to be free from the endemic corruption that plagues many countries around the world. Pro-Russians like to claim that Euromaidan was hijacked by the West to extend its sphere of influence into Ukraine. It would be more apt to claim that Euromaidan was hijacked by a Risk-like model of geopolitics.

Reframing the Ukraine crisis

With realist geopolitics dictating the thinking and actions of many of our leaders, why are we not framing the Ukraine crisis as yet another proxy war like those in Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan? The rules of the game seem to have evolved; new international norms have developed, and globalisation and technology have made us more interdependent – more globally aware but also more threatened by destruction and death.

Nevertheless, international competition and adversarialism are as intense today as they were at the beginning of the 20th  century.  Hence, proxy wars persist.

This means that describing the Ukraine crisis as a struggle between the “liberal democratic West and authoritarian, neo-imperial Russia” is disingenuous. Russia does have very serious internal problems including the murders of many critics of the government, systemic corruption, growing nationalism and an increasing number of alarming policies. However, there are also serious problems in the Western democracies that are criticising Russia –  the City of London is the centre of a global network of tax havens, the practices of the IMF and the World Bank are deeply anti-democratic, Australia’s current asylum seeker policy violates human rights, the questionable legality of the Iraq war continues to undermine American foreign policy and so on. Moreover, painting a picture of ‘good versus evil’ only feeds into the Russian government’s narrative of Western hypocrisy.

In order to have more effective discussions, it may also help to accept that Ukraine has been caught up in a proxy war and to focus on resolving the conflict by designing a proper peace process. Hence, there is no point in arguing over the terminology of annexation vs. liberation; “polite people,” terrorists, Russian troops or Russian volunteers in Donbas, and so on. Such debates will not have a winner.

It is perhaps too idealistic to hope for another paradigm to replace realist geopolitics in the near future. However, at the very least, mediation could be used to address the geopolitical conflict between Russia and the US. The proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan ended in different ways but they all inflicted terrible damage and suffering on the local populations. For people in Ukraine to stop needlessly dying, the US and Russia must stop using war to pursue their interests. Instead, genuine mediation can be a very effective alternative to allow both parties to address their geopolitical concerns.

Creating the space for genuine mediation

Genuine mediation would allow the participants to elaborate on their positions, to explore their underlying needs and to try to find solutions that satisfy everyone. Just as it would be pointless to play Risk, or other competitive games like chess, if all the players reached a permanent peace agreement, it is pointless to try to reach a peace agreement while playing a game of geopolitics.

For more effective and genuine mediation:

  1. Track 1 mediation should bring representatives of the US and Russia to the table, as they are the primary adversaries.
  2. Major EU member states like Germany or France should not play the role of mediators since the EU is too involved in the crisis and is a stakeholder. There is value in having ‘insider-partials’ but they would have more legitimacy as participants rather than mediators. A more impartial mediator is needed who is still committed to the values of human rights and international norms.
  3. The geopolitical reality of the conflict should be accepted while still giving importance to the internal problems facing Ukraine today. The rhetoric on all sides should change from polarised exaggerations to reflect a more nuanced worldview. An international Crisis Group report in May 2014 recommended that “The U.S. and EU need to convey a consistent and measured message, recognising – even if not accepting – Moscow’s take on the crisis’s origins.“
  4. There should be a shift in discussions from divisive positions and ideology (pro-West, pro-Russian etc.) to interests (security, corruption, economic development, the rule of law and the relevant reforms).
  5. For the above parameters to arise, the conflict parties must have the political will to reframe the crisis and to resolve the geopolitical conflict.

Given the political will, the above suggestions could open up space for the US, Russian and EU governments to come to an agreement about their respective spheres of influence. This could help resolve a major driver of Russia’s current foreign policy, which Moscow considers defensive but is perceived as aggressive by the West. The focus could then shift on both sides, helping Ukraine to deal with the consequences of the war and continue creating the country Ukrainians want to live in. As the aforementioned Crisis Group report suggested: “A successful, democratic Ukraine – integrated economically in the West but outside military alliances, and remaining a close cultural, linguistic and trading partner of Russia – would benefit all”.

Alex Azarov is an associate of MediatEUr, a Brussels-based peace mediation NGO. He is currently working on helping Ukrainians to develop dialogue capacity for dealing with the challenges facing their country.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent those of MediatEUr, the International Relations and Security Network, the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, or any other relevant institutions.

Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.

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