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The Path of Old Wars Need Not Run Through Ukraine

Days prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Kenya’s ambassador to the UN Security Council made a poignant moral plea denouncing the irredentist nostalgia beneath Vladimir Putin’s belligerent posture toward’s Russia’s sovereign neighbor. The relentless campaign to undermine Ukraine’s progression towards internal stability and self reliance and the blatant disregard for Ukraine’s territorial integrity had parallels to the tactics of empires that had once colonized his own country; that had imposed their own ideas of what was and was not a nation upon many African peoples as they divvied up the continent. His message was clear: the temptation to unite peoples and empires divided unjustly throughout history is a recipe for destruction that assails the very heart of the modern world order; one rooted in achieving peaceful conflict resolution in the context of rules, respect for internationally-recognized boundaries, and multilateralism.

Putin would have been advised to heed the ambassador’s wisdom before unleashing his reckless military invasion against his sovereign, independent neighbour. He would have been wise to respect international law before annexing Crimea or recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the Ukraine. Two weeks into Putin’s war, the brazen immorality of his nostalgic campaign to re-establish whatever idea of “Mother Russia” guides his hand has galvanized the will of the people of Ukraine, who continue to valiantly resist the occupation of their country by an aggressor with seemingly imperialist aims.

With his impassioned social media posts to the world Volodymyr Zelensky who was, quite literally, a laughing stock before he became Ukraine’s President has demonstrated what fearless leadership in a democracy looks like. He has come to symbolize the despair of an innocent people besieged by the destructive whimsy of a tyrannical player with colonial ambitions. His defiance and courage has mobilized his people to fight; it has forced the world to wake up to what’s at stake when toxic men like Putin have lethal weapons at their disposal and are willing to employ them in their savage, misanthropic aims.

Putin’s unspeakable act has roused the long moribund NATO alliance from its complacency, but has also sent it scrambling over what to do in terms of a credible response, which is an embarrassment given all that was known about Putin’s feelings on this issue. Neutral nations, whose non-alignment affirmed their unwillingness to get dragged into violent conflagrations, are so spooked by Putin’s wanton flouting of international law they have been talking about reversing their course. This should concern Putin, given some of these countries are within missile striking distance from Moscow.

Together, it all amounts to a world completely caught off guard and morally outraged by Putin’s military gambit in Ukraine. That’s saying plenty given the countless instances when Putin’s foreign and domestic policy left many incredulous from its sheer audacity – yet hard-pressed to fashion a credible response. He manages to outwit and out-flank those who try to game him; finds another way when circumstances appear to have him in a corner. For anyone who truly believes, “In the long run, good always wins,” watching Putin tally one strategic victory after another has been infuriating to watch.

For years, righteous outrage at Putin’s ham-fisted means has been tempered by the ability – even among detractors – to wade through the maze of ethically tainted diplomatic tradecraft to find a rational end. But this? For those who have grudgingly watched Putin bare knuckle his way through world affairs, his war against Ukraine is an extraordinarily risky gamble in a very high risk, quintessentially Machiavellian track record. The costs of failure are significant, not only for Russia’s standing in the global arena, but also for Putin on the home front. His ever tightening grip on political power depends on the willing acquiescence of powerful benefactors (the business oligarchs) who will only tolerate the patronage system of a quasi-dictator as long as it pays off.

If Putin’s end-goal was to keep NATO from an aggressive posture and keep Ukraine NATO-free at all costs, this move seems like a colossal strategic blunder. This is the most disconcerting feature of Putin’s international rule-flouting war against Ukraine. He’s thrown everything built to normalize international relations since the Cold War under a bus in a single, ill-conceived move. He has also crystallized European fears that will likely increase, rather than decrease NATO’s posture towards Russia. Ostensibly, he has thrown European and global security under the bus – and all because of Ukraine.

All that said, here’s a hard truth: America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the first step down this slippery slope. It’s possible Putin would have harboured this false equivalence as he mobilized his troops for war against Ukraine on the grounds it was necessary for Russian national security. It explains the magnitude of his outrage at the sheer depth of sanctions imposed on Russia so quickly in response to the invasion.

While Putin may have a point, at least technically, the regional security dynamics that include the Ukraine of 2022 are nothing at all like those entailed by the Iraq of 2003. The Iraq of 2003 had a nuclear weapons program (demolished by fluke in the First Gulf War and only very slowly reviving from scratch, contrary to US intelligence falsehoods at the UN Security Council); it did wage a deadly ten year war against one neighbour (Iran), had recently invaded another neighbour (Kuwait in 1991), launched mid range missile strikes against another neighbour (Israel), routinely threatened to destroy any number of its neighbours at any time if provoked, and had a medium range missile program well underway to buttress the belligerent posture. Iraq also had a very large and growing armed forces with tactically offensive capabilities.

None of this on its own justified America’s military invasion, but Iraq – or more rightly, Saddam Hussein – had a long, sordid history as a rogue nation. Parallels between America’s posture towards Iraq in 2003 and a Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 are few and far between, except in one respect: both are of highly dubious legality, insofar as international law is concerned. If Saddam Hussein were a less repugnant figure than he actually was, and America had not been so raw from the 9/11 tragedy, the world might have been more outraged about how the U.S. totally flouted international norms in its invasion of Iraq. Be that as it may, it does not change one inconvenient fact: America was given free hand to do as it pleased, innocent civilians of Iraq, be damned.

Up to now, Putin may have been many things: ruthless, dogmatic, shrewd, cunning; but he’s never been insensibly rash, at least where foreign policy is concerned. This is what makes the coming weeks tenuous for those seeking to de-escalate this conflict. Putin’s state of mind is anyone’s guess, but it obviously is not as coolly rational and calculating as it once was; it obviously is not tempered by a keen eye for the long game in this instance. His concerns are immediate and intense.

Putin is emotional about Ukraine in a way he has not been emotional about other foreign policy postures. Whether we like it or not, whether or not it makes rational sense, we now have to respect his reality on this issue – in light of Russia’s actual military might – as we engage him diplomatically for sake of the Ukrainian people and European security. We cannot appease Putin, but we must temper our level of outrage at the fact Putin has trampled on the rules of international order in such a fantastic way – one that is by several degrees more offensive than the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but in the same ballpark. We have to find a way to balance Putin’s security concerns on the one hand and Ukraine’s interests as a sovereign nation on the other.

The intensity of Putin’s posturing and sabre rattling over Ukraine prior to his invasion made some sense to those who know a little Russian history and understand how this might matter in the context of Putin’s personal history. It was partly steeped in crass geopolitics, but also partly influenced by the inherent paranoia and contempt for Western democracy one might expect from a man who was a lifer in the KGB and in East Berlin when the Soviet Union collapsed; who said the fall of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest tragedies of history – not because he was an avowed communist (he loathed Lenin and the Bolsheviks) but because it led to the gradual carving away of countries comprising the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before that.

At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse there were promises made by NATO to not expand, which were ignored or reneged on, especially in the early days when Russia assumed a much less provocative posture towards the West (because they had little choice – criminals and oligarchs were looting the country as Yeltsin buried his head in the sand). From the perspective of a man in the Kremlin, one who is deeply skeptical towards Western platitudes about progress and peace, why would all that expansion, especially at a moment of Russian weakness be necessary?

What this all added up to, in Putin’s mind, was the conclusion that NATO expansion had been advanced to further emasculate Russia more than it had already been after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The amassing of such military might could be used in the future to back Russia into a corner, to force its capitulation to an unreasonable demand, to coerce its acquiescence to multilateralism in ways contrary to its national, unique interests; to settle old scores.

To anyone out West such notions should not rightly occupy the mind of a twenty-first century leader. From the view of Russia’s seventy year old President in the Kremlin, a man who spent two thirds of his life as a Cold Warrior for the KGB, a man steeped in Russia’s checkered history with Europe’s great powers it is. Many Westerners are ignorant of history; many Russians, Vladimir Putin especially, are not. He sees a history replete with ambitions of Russian conquest from Continental Europe that begin with Napoleon, pass through Hitler, and end up with the Baltics and Ukraine as members of a more assertive, more well-armed NATO alliance.

The recent imperialist, rule-flouting behaviour and unilateralist posture of one of NATO’s most powerful nations – the U.S. – crystallized Putin’s fears of further NATO expansion as a prologue to a future European adventure that might once again mortally threaten Russia. Under that logic, a sensible leader in Moscow would be fool were he to fail to adequately prepare Russia against the next European zealot; or the next European ideological movement. Russia acquiesced to the NATO expansion into countless former Warsaw Pact countries, contrary to its early promises. Membership of the Baltic states was a tough pill for Putin, which is why a line in the sand was drawn at Belarus and Ukraine – figuratively and literally closer Slavic cousins to Russia than the other former Warsaw Pact countries who are NATO’s newest members.

Since the end of the Cold War the delicate diplomatic balance for NATO has been to ensure ideas about the need for the collective military alliance would evolve with shifting global realities. Part of that was seeing former Warsaw Pact countries and NATO’s role in the wider global context in a totally new light. Another part of that was to frame the alliance’s posture vis-à-vis Russia in a modern light – which would always depend on who was sitting in the Kremlin.

In some ways NATO did a decent job of that – particularly in the post-9/11 security environment where counter-terrorism was a top priority. In others, NATO failed to properly articulate to those on the outside looking in, those less likely to trust at face value NATO’s commitment to rules-based military restraint, the raison d’etre for its expansion. Even within the alliance, the modus operandus was unclear. It led to a bit of antipathy within NATO; to increasing instances of member countries engaging in one-off, issue-based side-deals with non members. The expansion and mixed messaging about what it all meant left countries like Russia and China asking the question, “Expansion against who? If the aim is peace why the need to expand a military alliance? Why is NATO not dis-banding?”

Most importantly, NATO failed to appreciate and communicate in good faith with the current Russian leader what it was doing and why, especially in its expansion with former Warsaw Pact countries that share a border with Russia. Whatever fears and apprehensions Putin had always harboured about NATO and the West’s intentions were intensified by these maneuvers. This is not to suggest Putin’s paranoia about the West, his contempt for democracy, and irredentism, first in Crimea and now in other parts of Ukraine, are fair, reasonable and lawful in the context of international rules-based order. They clearly aren’t. Putin’s recent postures in Ukraine and Georgia recklessly, violently, and inexcusably flout the new world order; just like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 did.

At the same time, the attitude within NATO given Putin’s quasi-Cold War posture about the Alliance and its expansion has bordered on glibness in some instances and contempt in others. This was especially evident when the U.S. signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership with Ukraine in November 2021, essentially signifying NATO expansion into that country was a done deal – despite Putin’s clear signals about Russia’s feelings on the matter. I imagine Putin saying, “I seized Crimea, I seized parts of Georgia, I put my guy in Belarus, and I have tried to put my guy in Ukraine. Don’t they believe I’m serious about Ukraine?”

It is a dangerous habit of democratically-minded Americans and Westerners to readily dismiss the protests of those who do not accept our rhetoric extolling ideas of “progress” at face value. They are quick to see flagrant hypocrisy in we who tout principle when it suits us and flout them when it does not. By that token, they work hard to secure their interests, by going against the grain as we see it; to ensure their country is not victim to our unpredictable, and often unprincipled whimsy.

In this peculiar Western habit, any skeptic readily infers a mixture of self-congratulatory navel-gazing, the bluster of mutual admiration societies, and the patina of self-righteousness run amok. The self-fulfilling echo chambers render us daft to certain unpleasant, conflicting realities far more conspicuous in matters of international security: not everybody drinks the same Kool-Aid, not everybody draws the same lessons from history, and not everybody sees their future in the same light as those in the West. Not only must we respect the reasons why that might be, but we have to accept our role in casting doubt about our intentions among detractors and do our part to resolve, in good faith, the grievances that remain. Too often this is where we Western nations lose the plot.

If we deign to be decent diplomats who seek the peace, we must at least try to apprehend the divergent views of reality out there, whether we like them or agree with them, and engage those who possess them with a level of respect consistent with their role as leaders of sovereign nations. We also have to respect the normal fears and doubts that come with change of any kind and confront them not with condescension or derision, but with understanding; to make genuine efforts to determine their source with an eye to allaying them with candour and purposeful dialogue (rather than platitudes and feel-good slogans). The axiom about change: it happens whether we want it or not, a precept those who try and force it upon those who fear it are wise to remember.

Putin invaded Ukraine. None of us believed he would do it. None of us really believed his apprehensions about NATO’s posture were sensible or legitimate; and maybe they weren’t – for us. Perhaps none of us took an honest view of NATO expansion from the Russian side of history. If there is a path to peace, a way to save more Ukrainian innocents and Russian soldiers from their needless deaths, we must find a common kernel of truth between the sides and sow the seeds of discourse and diplomacy on that basis. Only then can we hope our efforts blossom a peaceful resolution.

I originally began writing this post to join the echo chamber of unequivocal denunciations of Putin’s senseless invasion of Ukraine. To call him a tinpot dictator, a madman, and a fool. To call for his war-mongering hide to be dragged to the Hague and tried as a war criminal. It’s easy to do that – from this side of the fence; to see the millions of Ukrainians fleeing their homes to seek refuge in neighboring lands; to see President Zelensky’s impassioned pleas from Kiev to stop the carnage; to see bombed out buildings, bridges, and roads; to see all that and utterly denounce the man who unleashes such carnage on an innocent country as a beast unworthy of any effort to rationally engage.

But none of that excoriating talk de-escalates the conflict nor spares an innocent Ukranian life in the short-run. None of it accounts for certain uncomfortable realities that were a prologue to this conflict. Ukraine is a very weak, fragile, and emergent democracy. Geopolitically, it lies between two formidable rivals – NATO and Russia – that have both done their fair share of sabre-rattling of late. Ukraine’s key objective now is to build robust, transparent political institutions consistent with democracy, which prioritizes nation-building over choosing sides – or allowing itself to be used as leverage – in geo-strategic imbroglios seething between much larger players. President Zelensky’s further investment in the pursuit of NATO membership last November, and what this signalled to Putin about Ukraine’s security posture were misguided; his seduction by NATO the regrettable pitfalls of being an unseasoned statesman.

Many more Russians like Putin than we in the West care to acknowledge – despite his frighteningly anti-democratic inclinations and habitual use of fraud and intimidation to pad his electoral victories (attributes that sound eerily similar to the previous President of the United States and his affiliated party). Many Russians share his desire to see Russia’s return to its rightful place as a major player in world affairs and may indeed share his skepticism and fear of Western aims signalled by NATO expansion. Many citizens inside NATO countries have similar apprehensions, though for far less paranoid reasons (this writer included); in particular how the constant expansion of a military alliance of any kind aligns with rhetorical commitments to peace. Putin was never equivocal in his objections to further NATO expansion. Never.

In no way is this to suggest Putin’s incursion into Ukraine is legitimate – at least in terms of international law. It was illegal. It is illegitimate. It is also morally wrong and senselessly violent. That is true of most military engagements between nations; including the US. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the long run these always prove to be needless, violent conflagrations that do nothing to improve global stability and more often result in vastly increased instability. The abject futility of the military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq – regardless of the justifications (legitimate or otherwise) defending the actions – suggests there are better ways besides militarism to conduct diplomacy. Logically, those who set about expanding a military alliance are suggesting, by their actions, they believe the opposite is true.

If you accept that logic, Putin’s apprehensions about the West and NATO expansion, particularly into Ukraine are not entirely baseless. In his case, they are serious enough to compel him to risk heavy consequences from choosing military engagement to signal his resolve to put a stop to it. For diplomatic efforts that stand a chance at negotiating a lasting end to this conflict, we must deal with the reality of Putin’s world view on these matters and engage him on those terms. We cannot wish he had a different view; expect him to take our rhetorical statements about the benign posture of NATO expansion at face value.

Self-righteous outrage that the innocent civilians in a relatively weak country are being killed by a zealous bully with deadly weapons did not compel the world’s outrage when those innocent civilians were being killed in Iraq. Why would that be? Like it or not, those who are not bombarded by Western delusions day after day do tend to see things in this way. They do not readily believe self-serving, Western hokum about our good intentions for military violence, nor do they forgive or forget glaring instances where Western hypocrisy about the waging of war cost thousands of innocent (albeit non-white) lives. We have made war as wickedly, on as equally flimsy, equally vacuous grounds in recent decades as Putin makes war today.

It’s easy to get caught up in speculation about what Putin’s Ukraine invasion signals about Putin’s ambitions, or Russian ambitions for the future to justify ratcheting up the provocative discourse and escalate this conflict from the safety of our pulpits. It’s easy to dig in our heels on the premise that Putin’s incursion into a sovereign country is not only criminal but insane for the risks of escalation it entails. Some of us believed the same thing when the U.S. stormed into Iraq in 2003; when it relied on fabrications and propaganda to convince others it was justified.

Putin has always been a pragmatic player in matters of global brinkmanship. For those who deplore nearly all of Putin’s foreign policy postures (like the writer), especially over the last ten years, there was definitely respect for his cunning and diplomatic acuity. His skullduggery has won Russia several strategic victories over the years, while the West glibly pursued several foreign policy agendas – some well-meaning, others of specious origin – that resulted in abject failure; that cost the lives of many of our soldiers and trillions from our treasury, not to mention the lives of innocents in the theatres where these fiascos unfolded.

It may seem like total madness for a modern, twenty first century leader to harbour the kind of crass, irredentist nostalgia Putin seems to have invested in his posture towards Ukraine, let alone to employ military means to execute such retrograde notions in a post-Cold War world order. Setting aside the larger issues, such as the risks of escalation, or speculating about what Putin’s future plans may be, the way to contain this war now is to temper our outrage at Putin’s audacity – which can be dealt with later – and find solutions that work to end Ukraine’s immediate suffering.

Here are some salient points to set the stage for the West and Zelensky to engage in a realistic dialogue to end Putin’s military aggression and spare the lives of the Ukranian people:

  • NATO is not a glee club. It is a military alliance that includes three of the world’s five major nuclear powers (focus on ‘major’) whose combined firepower boasts the most formidable, tactically and strategically offensive military force on the planet. It is a war-fighting monolith. Its recent policy of ever-continuous expansion is reasonably viewed as a provocative gesture and increasing military threat to any nation that might have reason to believe it may one day find itself a NATO adversary (China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India, etc).
  • NATO is not analagous to a police force charged by authorities with the task of keeping peace and order in a crime-ridden city. Only a UN Peacekeeping force, or a UN-sanctioned military operation (such as existed to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991) has that kind of legitimacy. In reality NATO is far more analagous to the largest, most well armed organized crime syndicate in a lawless metropolis – whose low profile cloaks its real business; whose benevolence is selective and self-serving. We in the West are absolutely naive, and typically, maddeningly ethnocentric, about the view of NATO from outside the looking-glass. We cannot expect others to believe self-serving tropes about how increasing our arsenal of nukes, long- and medium-range missiles, bombers, tanks, and battalions – already unrivalled in the world – are facets of a benign, peaceful posture. To anyone not inherently convinced of the West’s noble intentions, NATO expansion increases the alliance’s capacity to pursue an aggressive, militarist foreign policy agenda while decreasing the relative capacity of non-aligned nations to deter or respond.
  • The legitimacy and legality of Putin’s stance vis-a-vis Ukraine is less salient now that he has launched a military invasion to make his point. Western outrage, bluster, sanctions, and all other forms of righteous indignation will punish ordinary Russians – who will eventually direct their ire at Putin, which may or may not be politically effective in changing his course – but in the short term will not stop Russian tanks and artillery from advancing towards Kiev and killing Ukrainians.
  • Think about this: What if Putin waited until Ukraine was a NATO member before launching his military campaign? Two weeks in, why has he not unleashed the full wrath of his air force and missile capabilities in attacking Ukraine? In military-speak, Putin is waging a war of limited means, which won’t last if Zelensky doesn’t get to the bargaining table – or more Russian lives are lost (thanks to feckless assistance from NATO, which helps kill more Russians without helping Ukraine “win” in the long-term). This signals there is some “rational” breathing space and an opportunity for Zelensky to vie for peace – for his people, without care or concern for NATO’s or America’s long-term objectives.
  • The U.S. invasion of Iraq was illegal, unjustifiable, and based on wilful obfuscations before the UN Security Council – later condemned by the man (Colin Powell) who unwittingly made them. It killed thousands of Iraqi citizens and involved several acts that are rightly considered war crimes. Where was the outrage and sanctions to protest this illegal act by the United States? It may be easy for we in the West to overlook the disparity in treatment of the U.S. back then versus what Russia is being subjected to now for similarly dubious military invasions, but it is naive and foolish to expect others to do the same. This should inform the severity and scale of NATO and the West’s response or its provocations in this instance.
  • Last November the U.S. and NATO made overtures to suggest its genuine interest in Ukrainian membership that were, in the context of a very unclear NATO posture and Putin’s clear objections to it, provocative (see point about glee club above) and foolish. Despite President Zelensky’s valiant, courageous defiance in the face of Russian aggression today, his acceptance of NATO’s overtures and signature of a security agreement was a grave, strategic error for Ukraine. Now that his country is being shelled by a man who sees his decision to join NATO as a threat, Zelensky must honestly reflect on the question, “Is joining a military alliance of any kind – NATO or Russian – really good for Ukranians?”
  • Western leaders need to calm down and assess their own emotions, because the provocations in the current discourse confirm everything Putin always feared about NATO: we do want to expand our aggressive military posture, we do want the power to dictate (or deter) Russian foreign and security policy that does not suit us, and we do want to turn Ukraine into a Western (as opposed to Russian) pawn that sits right at Russia’s doorstep. To skeptics, it appears certain NATO countries are keen to achieve these objectives while Ukrainian civilians die; without putting NATO’s skin in the game – without actually helping Ukraine “defeat” Russia, which will not happen without NATO engagement (What was NATO’s response to Zelensky’s request for a “no fly zone” again?). In the end, the path Ukraine might wish to take to secure the peace for its own sake is a little more clear given the disparity in NATO versus Russian resolve this conflict has revealed; one that leans heavily toward non-alignment.

Western sanctions may feel good to impose, and they are warranted. Russia should pay a heavy price for its war of aggression against a much weaker neighbour without a laundry list of rogue-like behaviour to warrant such a posture (unlike, say, Iraq). But we have to stop deluding ourselves about what these measures will achieve in the short run; the degree they won’t immediately spare the Ukrainian people from the current carnage. We must help Zelensky vie for peace with Putin.

This begins by toning down the bluster about NATO expansion and putting the brakes on ratcheting up any more anti-Russian sanctions while heads are still hot. This only further inflames Putin and makes Zelensky feel emboldened to dig himself and the Ukrainian people deeper in the geo-political rabbit hole with pleas to NATO to come to his defense. On the one hand, this plays into Putin’s narrative of Ukraine’s security posture as embodying Western enmity to Russia. On the other, it increases Putin’s suspicions that Zelensky and NATO were more in bed than he previously feared. Together, these misapprehensions partly explain Putin’s harrowing bluster about readying Russia’s tactical nuclear capabilities in response to Western sanctions and weapons shipments to Ukraine.

In reality, no NATO country wants to risk engaging in a conventional war with Russia that too readily risks spiralling into a much more existentially perilous nuclear engagement. In reality, why would NATO want to take such a risk for Ukraine, a small, militarily weak, economically insignificant, fledgling democracy that is not a NATO ally? NATO would have been wise to think about the implications before making such provocative overtures to Ukraine in the first place. Putin’s military invasion of Ukraine should leave no room for interpretation about what NATO’s expansion into Ukraine really means for him.

I wish things were different in the world. I wish undemocratic, iron fisted, bellicose, paranoid leaders did not win power in countries with frightening military arsenals. But they do. I have studied war history and worked in global affairs for over three decades. It has all made me come to discount the utility of militarism as a sensible tool of foreign policy, not only because it costs too many innocent lives as it disrupts and displaces tens of millions of others, but also because it never works. Sadly, I have also learned far too many world leaders – the bellicose and paranoid ones, along with the witless and hawkishly suggestible ones – do not see things quite the same way and unleash their destruction on the world accordingly.

So, we must deal within the ugly realities that make armed conflict such a mundane feature of international affairs; to figure out how to pull men from the brink of flawed and foolish miscalculations that led to guns being drawn in the first place. On this point, we must see how our view of NATO expansion into Ukraine as mostly benign is seen in a completely different light in the wary eyes of a man like Putin. Invading Ukraine in response may seem an extreme over-reaction to the West, but for Putin it was a necessary last chance to stop Ukraine from waltzing aimlessly into a military alliance he views, rightly or wrongly, as a mortal threat to Russia. Better Putin make his military move now, before doing so implies a direct engagement with NATO. In his mind, this gambit was the last chance to make it clear he will not allow Ukraine to dig in deeper the shiv NATO’s been slowly sticking into Russia’s guts for the past three decades.

The next step for Zelensky is to determine what is better for Ukraine and its people, irrespective of what the West, NATO or Russia wants; and how to achieve that without ceding Ukrainian sovereignty. Without agreeing to become a Russian vassal state, two weeks into a Russian limited military invasion, it seems like a national policy of neutrality, or non-alignment and an agreement to draw down procurement of tactically offensive military capabilities for the foreseeable future in exchange for a Russian cease fire and withdrawal from Ukraine – and perhaps a UN Peacekeeping mission to ensure everyone sticks to their promises – is not such a bad deal for Ukraine and a tolerable middle ground for Putin. Nobody really wins in this scenario: lives have been lost on both sides and Ukraine has been physically and mentally scarred by this unspeakable act of Russian military aggression. However, the sooner acceptable terms of a cease fire can be agreed upon, the sooner more losses of life and property can be avoided.

It bears repeating: neither NATO nor Russia are running glee clubs; they’re running crime syndicates on two sides of a lawless town with Ukraine in the unfortunate position of being the neighborhood that comes between them. Both sides want to convince Ukraine their only option is to choose their side. When Ukraine signed up with America in November they chose a side, and now Putin’s making it clear what that means. The innocent people of Ukraine are paying a very heavy price for that decision. The folks on the side chosen are sitting on the sidelines, outraged but unscathed. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but it is not too late to save Ukrainian lives by walking back that decision and finding a way forward that makes everyone feel less threatened.

Maybe the future lies in being a peaceful oasis in a lawless town. Maybe there’s a way to thrive and survive without picking sides – by respecting the concerns of both as Ukraine goes about its business. After two weeks of being pummeled by the side not chosen and left holding the bag by the other, the path from the small, ramshackle, battered and bruised neighbourhood that is Ukraine today to a prosperous, thriving one in the future is a lot more clear: it lies with neither.

Given that, the goal of Ukraine’s leader must be to ensure the country is never made a pawn in an age-old war between behemoths in a lawless town. This requires a deft statesman, which Zelensky has not been, but must now become to save his country. Going forward, the commitment must be to stay strong in the face of hollow promises made by one side, which speciously prey on fears provoked in the threats made by the other.

The harsh reality is that both sides care more about gaining a tactical edge in the violent turf war they’re waging with the other than they do about what is in Ukraine’s best interest. It is a delicate and difficult diplomatic tightrope any Ukrainian leader must walk; convincing both sides Ukraine is neither with nor against either one, and proving that by engaging in foreign and trade policy relationships with each side as and when it best suits Ukraine’s domestic interests. Up until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, most NATO countries were doing just that.

This is no easy feat given one of those sides has so brazenly and recklessly violated Ukrainian sovereignty and proceeds to raze the country and its people. But is the other side completely off the hook? In persuading Ukraine into an extremely provocative military alliance by dangling desperately needed foreign capital, who gains the most strategically from that arrangement and who bears the greatest cost? It is clear now, NATO may have won a strategic and moral victory in winning Ukraine’s affinity to its side, but it is the people of Ukraine who now pay a grim price for it. Ukrainians are dying because NATO has never taken Putin’s vitriol about NATO expansion seriously; they convinced Ukraine’s leader to double down on the premise Putin was bluffing, and they were wrong.

For sake of the future of Ukraine and its people, if there is any hope of clinging to sovereignty in the face of a formidable, committed thug who harbours disproportionate fears about what your recent allegiance signifies, a path of neutrality must now be forged.

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