The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has started a war that, in addition to the humanitarian, economic, political and environmental consequences, will have a dire impact on peacebuilding efforts, not only in Ukraine but also in Europe and the rest of the world.

The news in recent months has focused on the deployment of forces, military manoeuvres and arms transfers to the area.  But they have not helped us understand the historical context of relations between the two sides, nor the diplomatic and social initiatives of dialogue undertaken for years to avoid the current situation.

Local framework

The immediate background of the current Russian invasion took place in 2014, when the two easternmost regions of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, declared their independence.  Within months, the confrontation between pro-independence militias supported by Russia and Ukrainian forces resulted in some 14,000 deaths.  The diplomatic efforts to end the conflict were led by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, consisting of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  The diplomatic effort succeeded in crafting the Minsk Agreements (September 2014 and February 2015), which established a ceasefire and a road map for resolving the conflict that included, among other measures, the self-government of Luhansk and Donetsk.  Both sides have repeatedly violated the ceasefire, as documented by the OSCE.  Both sides have also been reluctant, for opposite reasons, to implement the reforms envisaged in the agreements.

In parallel to diplomatic efforts, there has also been a proliferation of civil society initiatives to promote dialogue between people living in the secessionist regions and the rest of Ukraine.  As we know well in Catalonia, the polarization inherent to any political conflict projects stereotypical images and mental frameworks of “us” and “them.”  Joint analysis spaces have also been promoted between Russians and Ukrainians to contribute proposals to the political agenda.  And there have also been efforts to strengthen the OSCE’s monitoring capacity.

European framework

The tension between the West and Russia reached its peak during the Cold War. A few years after the end of the Second World War, the Warsaw Pact and NATO military alliances were created. A particularly alarming arms race ensued due to the proliferation of nuclear missiles on both sides. This absurd dynamic spurred the pacifist movement in Europe and was finally contained following several initiatives highlighted below:

In 1975, after two years of negotiations, 35 states – including the United States, Canada and all European states except Albania and Andorra – signed the Helsinki Final Act in an attempt to improve relations between the Communist Bloc and the West.  The accords included an agreement to refrain from the threat of the use of force, the inviolability of borders, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

In 1982, an Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, with people from the two opposing blocs under the leadership of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, presented a report under the novel concept of “common security.”  The basic idea behind this concept is that no country can obtain security by taking unilateral decisions on its military deployment because security also depends on the actions and reactions of potential adversaries.  Therefore, security can only be found through dialogue and cooperation with these adversaries,.

Shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and based on the Helsinki Accords, an international summit led to the Charter of Paris for a New Europe.  The aim was to bring the countries of the former Eastern Bloc into the political and ideological framework of the West.  The Paris Charter laid the foundations for the creation, in 1994, of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which comprises 57 member states, to guarantee peace, democracy and stability.  The OSCE comprehensively approaches the issue of security from political-military, economic, environmental and human perspectives.  The declarations of Istanbul (1999) and Astana (2010) reaffirm that “the security of each participating state is inseparably linked to that of all others.”  The OSCE deals with arms control, human rights, democratization, police strategies, counterterrorism, good governance, energy security, media freedom and minority rights, among other issues.

Finally, in 1997, NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security.  Both sides affirmed that they did not see themselves as adversaries and were committed to building a stable and lasting peace in the Euro-Atlantic area based on democracy and cooperative security principles.

The future of peace and security in Europe

Western relations with Russia have deteriorated over the last few decades despite declarations and commitments.  NATO was expanded, first in 1999, and then in 2004, with ten new members from the former Soviet orbit.  And in 2008, the then NATO Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, inauspiciously offered Ukraine and Georgia future membership, one of the gestures that Putin has used as an excuse to invade Ukraine.

If Putin had not attacked Ukraine, the crisis with Russia would have been a good reason for a critical review of NATO’s role and Europe’s security architecture.  Despite international agreements, there has been an escalation in military expenditure in recent years, and the European Union has been adopting language and measures that distance it from its commitment to the importance of democratic values and human rights.

However, the war in Ukraine makes it unfeasible, at least in the short term, to put proposals for disarmament and demilitarization back on the table.  On the contrary, the Russian president will succeed in strengthening NATO, and European public opinion will ask why we don’t stand up to Putin with the force of arms.

The immediate future is unpredictable.  It is clear that Putin’s words have no credibility, and perhaps it will be necessary to wait for his political demise until the path of dialogue and cooperation can be resumed.  It will also be essential to learn from the mistakes of the past and establish a new peace and security architecture that is sufficiently solid to avoid the destabilization that unbridled leaders can provoke.

Article published in Crític on February 25, 2022.