All big players in the Ukraine crisis -Russia, the US, NATO, the European Union and Ukraine affirm they don’t want war. And yet, at the same time, they are deploying troops, conducting manoeuvres and strengthening military capabilities. This paradox creates confusion and runs the risk of inducing public opinion to take sides between who are perceived to be the good guys and who are the baddies.

This article provides several analysis criteria that help navigate the complexity of the issue:

The context: three in one. There are always multiple layers to any conflict, like an onion, that need to be identified and analysed to understand the situation better. In this case, the visible dimension is a power struggle between Russia and NATO. Nevertheless, there are two other perspectives one should bear in mind. The local dimension is that of a country, Ukraine, which faces the tensions typical of states that have a diversity of identities – the recognition of cultural and linguistic diversity and the resulting decentralisation of power – and other uncertainties inherent to a democracy in the making, with bitter internal disputes between different interest groups. These tensions led to a civil war in 2014 that left more than 14,000 dead and three million displaced.

On the other hand, a broader viewpoint to the common security challenges in Europe. Today it’s Ukraine. Yesterday was Belarus, and tomorrow it may well be Georgia, Bosnia or Cyprus. Solutions are needed to bring the current crisis to an end, but these solutions must consider the broadest context possible and prevent future problems.

The actors: the visible and the absent. The central character of the situation is Russia, which stationed troops around Ukraine in December, probably intending to provoke the current unrest – a successful endeavour. The primary formal opponent is NATO, which Russia accuses of threatening its security through a policy of eastward expansion. In practice, the US is equally a protagonist because the countries of Europe do not share a common vision and European security and defence policy are still in the making. France and Germany have also sought to maintain a high profile, but both with a less aggressive approach to the US.

Paradoxically, Ukraine has had the least to say in the current dispute and has expressed surprise and questioned the alarmism of the US and its closest allies. Lastly, the inter-governmental institution with a critical role is the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a body set up at the height of the Cold War specifically to work for peace, democracy and stability and currently with 57participating State members.

The common need: security. No one is interested in war. At least, not a conventional war, with clashes between Russian and NATO troops. We know how wars start, but nobody knows how and when they end. They have a cost in economic and political terms that no actor can afford to disregard. Yet, despite this, one cannot rule out that the verbal confrontation may spiral out of control, leading to a tragedy that no one wanted.

To prevent such a disaster, all actors must pay attention to the common need for security through assurances of non-aggression. This is the goal of diplomacy. In this regard, there is much work to be done on the three levels of analysis mentioned above: Russia must feel assured that the rest of Europe is not a threat, and vice versa; Ukraine must be able to consolidate its transition to democracy and resolve its internal armed conflict, and Europe as a whole must undertake a paradigm shift away from confrontation over national interests to collaboration in addressing global challenges such as health and the environment.

Vested interests: the weight of inertia. Such changes call for a breadth of vision and gestures of détente on all sides. However, not everyone is willing to undertake such gestures because many interests benefit from the status quo. In the case of NATO, for example, it would call into question its very nature or at least it would require an assessment on whether its post-Cold War actions have generated greater security or insecurity for its members. Russia, on the other hand, which seeks to regain its role as a significant power broker, seems to be much more interested in fuelling low-intensity conflicts on its periphery as a way of maintaining its prominence on the international stage. And not to mention the arms-producing countries, which benefit from a constant growth in exports due to the new arms race the world is facing.

The options: de-escalate the crisis and prevent the occurrence of new ones. Despite the obstacles, if the fundamental premise is that nobody wants war and that the shared need for security is greater than the interests in maintaining the status quo, there is a series of measures that can be implemented to bring the situation back from the brink:

  • Use inclusive language: avoiding divisive and polarising statements of “us” against “them” and articulating discourse that is an invitation to reconciliation. A return to an emphasis on the concept of “common security”, developed at the height of the Cold War by the Olof Palme Commission and accepted at the time by the parties to the conflict, based on the ideas of interdependence, shared responsibility and “security with” rather than “security against” the other.
  • Reinforce all available diplomatic instruments, which public opinion is generally unaware of. The OSCE, as a forum, to discuss joint security. In addition, the agreements reached in previous years at meetings between NATO and Russia and the European Union Programme for the Prevention of Violent Conflicts. The Minsk protocols continue to be the benchmark for ending the civil war in Ukraine. In short, there is room for negotiation.
  • Take advantage of the NATO summit in Madrid in June to promote critical and proactive analysis of the alliance, not only by governments but also by actors in civil society.
  • Commit to the demilitarisation of conventional weapons and nuclear weapons, as called for by the Dèlas Centre of Studies for Peace, among others.

There are no easy solutions to complex situations like this one. War should never be a choice. Nor does the mere condemnation of war resolve the conflict.

Rather than becoming polarised into advocates and opponents of a firm hand in dealing with either Russia or the role of NATO, further efforts are needed to explore and understand the range of available options to prevent geopolitical tensions from escalating into armed confrontation.

Kristian Herbolzeimer, Director of ICIP.