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De-escalation instead of war of attrition

by Lia Becker
The call for negotiations alone is no longer enough. In a situation in which parts of the Western alliance are struggling to find ways out of the war and at the same time more and more heavy weapons are being supplied for a war that will last for years, the social left should campaign more strongly than before for "mutual de-escalation" and security guarantees, for European independence
De-escalation instead of war of attrition

A plea for a left-wing peace initiative

By Lia Becker

[This article posted in July 2023 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

In the face of Russia's war of aggression, the social left finds it difficult to take a position. While more and more weapons are supplied, military victory of one side is hardly possible. What can a social-ecological peace policy look like in this situation? Lia Becker, consultant at the Institute for Social Analysis of the RLS, proposes a left initiative that advocates mutual de-escalation and security guarantees, an EU accession of Ukraine and European autonomy vis-à-vis NATO.

Russia's brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has been going on for almost a year and a half, and there is still no sign of a way out. The war is causing immeasurable suffering, first and foremost in Ukraine itself, of course, with death, trauma, destruction and flight. Well over a hundred thousand people have so far paid for the war with their deaths, including - according to UN figures - at least 9,000 civilians. The blood toll has recently risen sharply. In the new battles of attrition around Bachmut, about 1,000 soldiers died every day. Many millions are traumatized. The country's infrastructure is being destroyed by Russian attacks and fighting in frontline areas. The cost of war is piling up and the impact of the war is being felt far beyond Ukraine. People in the global South are being hit by the consequences of war through a drastically worsened food and energy price crisis - without this leading to a "turning point" in the policies of the "Western"" power elites. The cancellation of the grain agreement by Russia could further exacerbate this development, with hunger and migration movements becoming weapons in the war.[1]

The war threatens to expand further: There are drone attacks and in the Belgorod region, troops of the "Free Russia Legion" officially operate independently of governments on Russian territory, while Russia continues to target infrastructure and civilian targets from the air. The bridge to annexed Crimea is repeatedly attacked and the Russian government has "tactical" nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus. The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam has caused a humanitarian and ecological disaster and is likely to complicate the advance of Ukrainian troops. Both sides are gearing up for a long war by building drone and tank factories; Rheinmetall, for example, announced plans to build a tank factory in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government receives cluster munitions from the U.S. that will be dangerous to its own civilian population for many years, and their use is outlawed by many countries. A coalition of NATO countries wants to supply Ukraine with fighter jets and is training pilots on F-16 bombers. Russia is mobilizing new troops in light of the Ukrainian "summer offensive" that began a few weeks ago. The risks of escalation are increasing.

Yet the prospects for a military victory by either side are rather slim. Since the fall, neither the Russian attackers nor the Ukrainian troops have succeeded in making major breakthroughs. The "summer offensive" is already faltering. It shows how lossy, bloody and uncertain even limited terrain gains are against dug-in Russian forces. The war is being fought with heavy losses along a nearly frozen front line. It is already becoming apparent: Ukraine's offensive will lead at most to the (temporary?) recapture of limited areas in the Donbass, but not to the complete withdrawal of Russian troops. This assessment is not only found in the critical public, but is also conceded within military and diplomatic circles of the "West". At the end of 2022, U.S. Chief of Staff General Mark Milley came to the assessment: "The likelihood of a Ukrainian military victory, defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine, including the Crimea they claim [...], is not high in the foreseeable future." (quoted in Zellner 2023, 93; see also Scheidler 2023).

Thus, the war has long continued over manageable goals: Russia wants to permanently hold the occupied and annexed regions, Ukraine wants to recapture territories in the Donbass and especially southern Ukraine; for Russia as for NATO, who controls land access to Crimea and the Black Sea region has great geopolitical significance. However, this is too rarely stated openly for reasons of war tactics. The militaristic rhetoric of a "victory truce" and the rhetoric used by EU Commission President von der Leyen, among others, that human rights, democracy and "our" security are being defended in Ukraine make it difficult to have a sober discussion about Western war aims.

The path to a ceasefire and peace negotiations remains blocked - nor do both sides expect to achieve more on the battlefield (see also Zellner 2023). The Ukrainian government expects further and qualitatively stronger arms deliveries (especially more modern battle tanks, long-range missiles, but also combat aircraft). The Russian military, in turn, has had time over the winter to secure the front line and dig in. The Putin regime can count on numerical superiority; according to independent estimates, about 500,000 soldiers are currently mobilized, and the potential is likely to be as high as 800,000. There, one calculates with a decreasing readiness to support of the Western alliance.

A Russian "victory" (whether in the form of further territorial conquests in central or western Ukraine or through control of the Ukrainian government) or complete reconquest by Ukraine (including Crimea, occupied in 2014, and territories in the Donbass and Luhansk already controlled before February 2022) are unlikely. Clearly more likely are two scenarios:

(a) A long "war of attrition" over limited areas in eastern and southern Ukraine, possibly dragging on for years, with ultimately uncontrollable risks of escalation. The way is being paved for this scenario with the increasing arms deliveries. Moreover, should there be a further mobilization of the Russian army or arms deliveries from China to Russia, this would come to a dangerous head. The arms deliveries by the Western alliance have long been part of an escalation dynamic and will become a fatal dead end if the war is prolonged in this way for years until the occupied territories are fully recaptured.

b) The alternative would be a - temporary - ceasefire (at the end of the year?) after the Ukrainian offensive. Such a cease-fire would be largely determined by the U.S. as the most powerful player and by NATO, because the Ukrainian government has so far affirmed that it wants to continue the war until the Russian troops have withdrawn completely. Within the Western alliance, there have long been discussions about the possibility of an exit from the war, which is difficult to control and expensive.

It remains to be seen whether social pressure from below in the NATO countries can help to force a cease-fire. At present, it does not look that way. The social left is on the defensive in terms of foreign policy and unable to promote a broader mobilization dynamic for de-escalation and cease-fire. Rather, a peace movement that is entrenched in its interpretive patterns and (younger) activists who are more concerned with the climate crisis and authoritarian-right developments in different parts of the world threaten to further alienate themselves from one another.

Left search movements in the contradictions of war

The prehistory of the war includes the internal contradictions and the evolution of the Russian state into an authoritarian oligarchic regime, whose power bloc is based on a fossil-fuel rentier economy (see Ishchenko 2022a; Jaitner 2022). Modernization and diversification of the economy failed. The Putin regime reacted to the internal contradictions resulting from social cuts, brutal impoverishment and social inequality with a patronage-based social policy, repression and nationalist-authoritarian mobilization of enemy images. The danger of civil society uprisings in neighboring countries was equated (also in light of the Arab Spring) with regime change strategies coming from outside as part of U.S. policy. But the prehistory also includes an imperial policy of NATO expansion to the east and EU association agreements, which was rightly criticized by the left.

In this context, an authoritarian-imperial line within the power bloc has prevailed even before the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law. It aims to defend and regain control over the post-Soviet space, including by force (see Ishchenko 2022a; Jaitner 2022; Faure 2022). In addition: the Putin regime's power bloc depends on high returns in a fossil capitalism. Approaches to decarbonization and changing investment strategies in the EU pose a threat, as does the U.S. effort to dominate the European energy market and cut Russia off from it (cf. Dörre 2023). Underestimated (also by larger parts of the left) was how far the regime would go in defending its power base.

The war leads to a strong brutalization and at the same time promotes an authoritarian turn inward in Russia: Further authoritarian transformation of the regime and intensified persecution of dissenters, LGBTIQ, conscientious objectors, and others are the result.

In Ukraine, too, an oligarchic system of rule developed in the wake of the post-Soviet transformation and neoliberal economic policies, with a power bloc divided between more pro-Western, pro-Russia, and flexible factions. The country's social, political, and cultural divisions were deepened by the actions of Russia, the United States, and the EU, leading to a simmering civil war beginning in 2014 (see also Ishchenko 2022a). In the slipstream of the war, harsh anti-union laws have now been enforced, freedom and minority rights severely restricted, and more than a dozen parties banned. The Ukrainian left is under intense pressure and forced to simultaneously address national defense and the authoritarian consequences of the war (see Georgiev 2023; Maurer 2023).

Contradictory Dimensions of War

The war creates a contradictory situation in which the social left in Germany and other European states has so far failed to find a coherent position that goes beyond taking sides either with the Putin regime or with the Ukrainian government and is suitable for mobilizing social pressure for a ceasefire, against escalation and armament. [2] This is also related to the fact that the various dimensions of the war and their complex interrelationships are repeatedly lost from view (cf. on the dimensions of the war, among others, Watkins 2022; Dörre 2023; Cedillo 2023.) Thus, the Ukrainian government is waging a defensive war that is legitimate under international law. It is supported by large parts of the Ukrainian population for various reasons, but by no means by all people living in Ukraine. It is also inadequate to view the war solely as a defensive war for Ukraine's national sovereignty. To relativize the authoritarian and imperialist character of the Putin regime and its responsibility for the brutal war of aggression is a minority position in the German left. In the contexts of the still existing peace movement, however, it leads to distortions and contributes to the fact that no renewed, socially broadly based peace movement is emerging.

What is crucial, however, is how this contradictoriness is understood and what political consequences are then drawn from weighing the contradictions. Thus, the multidimensional war cannot be reduced to a "proxy war" between Russia and the U.S. or "the West" - that would mean leaving out the long history of domination between Russia and Ukraine and reducing the actions of the people in Ukraine to a dependent variable of world politics. Nonetheless, the outcome of the war over Ukraine is ultimately overdetermined by the imperial confrontation between the United States and China for dominance in a changing world order. Possible outcomes depend significantly on the balance of power in and between China and the United States, the strategic calculations in Washington and Beijing (see Solty 2022; Watkins 2022). In my view, the danger of escalation that arises from this dimension of the imperial struggle for world order is ultimately decisive for a left-wing stance on this war of aggression, which is contrary to international law. The fact that China has made it clear to Moscow that it will not tolerate the threat of the use of nuclear weapons has made the worst case scenario of a nuclear war or even a new world war less likely. But it still cannot be ruled out.

A dimension that is too little considered: This war is a "harbinger" of intensifying imperial conflicts in the age of "the end of cheap nature," according to Jason Moore (2023). The war and the intensifying bloc confrontation not only make global cooperation for a socio-ecological response to the climate crisis more distant (see also Mahnkopf 2022). The connection between the climate crisis, the exploitation of fossil raw materials and the appropriation of oil and raw material rents, intensifying imperial competition, and nuclear armament in turn increases the danger of world war (cf. Dörre 2023; Foster 2023; Moore 2023). The world order dominated by the West has been in crisis for some time, and war promotes a polarization in which authoritarian nationalist regimes, such as in Russia or India, can also stage themselves as the voice of the global South (cf. Dörre 2023).

One of the contradictions of the war is that without the prior rearmament of the Ukrainian army (mainly, but not only, by the U.S. and U.K. after the annexation of Crimea), Russia's military would probably have brought larger parts of the country under its control. Since mid-2022, Western arms deliveries are now de facto prolonging the war waged over a few hundred square kilometers in the Donbass, Luhansk, and Kherson regions, with many more thousands of deaths, traumatized people, and gigantic destruction of infrastructure. If these arms and especially ammunition supplies were stopped overnight - and at the same time if China's tolerance of Russia's war were to continue - Russia would probably extend the war further in the direction of Kiev and occupy larger parts of the country. Ukraine would have to capitulate sooner rather than later, and the war could turn into a civil or guerrilla war. That would indeed be a "victory" for the Putin regime's imperial project.

Never since the end of World War 2 has the threat of world war been so great. Helping to end this war as soon as possible is therefore also one of the pressing political imperatives of our time.

Left in a dilemma

At the same time, the left in the countries directly or indirectly involved (USA, EU, China) is currently far from an effective social mobilization for de-escalation and against arms deliveries and rearmament. There are various reasons for this: Parts of the (old) peace movement do not distance themselves enough from the authoritarian Putin regime, to put it mildly. But the left is also weakened by a sense of powerlessness in the face of complex world events and a perplexity about how to achieve the negotiations demanded by the peace movement. Despite the widespread fear of further escalation (30 to 60 percent of the population is worried that the war could expand and escalate), many are having a hard time with the question of arms deliveries.[3] This is also because a defensive war is legitimate under international law. Against a war of aggression by an authoritarian-right regime, it also appears to many to be morally and politically the ultima ratio.

Jürgen Habermas, who supported arms deliveries and thus the line of the SPD in the German government and at the same time warned of the great danger of escalation of this war, has publicly called for a more precise definition of the goals of Western war support. His imperative: Russia must not win the war, Ukraine must not lose the war. But everything must be done to prevent an escalation of the war, he said (see Habermas 2023). Negotiations for a cease-fire and arms deliveries were therefore not contradictory, but the latter were the condition for negotiations that did not simply amount to a Russian "victory peace." In parallel with military support, he said, there must always be diplomatic initiatives and a willingness to negotiate. The "Western alliance" would have to define its war aims; the reconquest of Crimea by Ukraine was not one of them because of the potential for escalation (ibid.). This conditional support for Ukraine - limited arms deliveries tied to concrete war aims, but no direct NATO participation in the war - also finds resonance in parts of the social left (see, among others, Schäfer 2023).[4] In my view, however, these positions underestimate the danger of escalation, which is uncontrollable in the final instance, and often neglect the dimension of imperial confrontation in times of climate crisis and the new bloc confrontation. Most importantly, the concrete conditions and limits of financial as well as military support for the Ukrainian defensive war often remain unclear (different: Achcar 2022; Schäfer 2023).

It has long since ceased to be a question of Ukraine's "sovereignty" as a state. The Putin regime no longer has any prospects of completely subjugating Ukraine in the short and medium term.

The arms deliveries have de facto led to a military "stalemate" (see, among others, Haas/Kupchan 2023) and turned the rapid Russian attack into a "war of attrition." With the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the war is entering a new phase that poses further risks of escalation. It has long since ceased to be about Ukraine's "sovereignty" as a state. In this respect, Ukrainian resistance has been successful and the Putin regime, due to the weakening of the Russian army, which is also tied up in the occupied territories, no longer has any prospects of completely subjugating Ukraine in the short and medium term. The position of "conditional support" runs the risk of falling short of what critical voices from the military and diplomacy in the NATO states themselves concede: Neither can Ukraine win this war militarily, nor can it achieve its official war goal - the complete restoration of territorial integrity - in the short term through negotiations.

Struggle for an Exit in the Western Camp

Relevant parts of the Western alliance are looking for ways out of a long and costly war. Timing, goals, and the initiative for negotiations should not be left to China or third actors, is the tenor suggested, for example, by Ischinger, the former head of the Munich Security Conference (see Ischinger 2023; also Solty 2023a). What is disputed is the right time for negotiations and the question of territorial concessions by Ukraine. Ischinger argued-also in response to the Chinese negotiation initiative and critical voices such as those of Jürgen Habermas-that the time would come when Ukraine had achieved important war aims (other than the recapture of Crimea) and that negotiations would, of course, have to be conducted under NATO leadership.

Most recently, two prominent former advisors to the U.S. government called for a change of course (see Haas/Kupchan 2023). Against the background of the aforementioned military "stalemate," they advocate a dual strategy: the United States and its allies should prepare a diplomatic negotiation initiative for the end of the year. Until then, they should support the Ukrainian counteroffensive with more weapons to improve Ukraine's negotiating position. At the same time, the Ukrainian government should be forced by the U.S. and EU to engage in such negotiations and also to compromise on territorial issues before the end of the year.[5] The two find clear words that should also be directed at the Ukrainian government: "Ukraine should not risk its self-destruction for goals that are probably unattainable. By the end of this fighting season, the U.S. and Europe will also have good reason to abandon their stated policy of supporting Ukraine, in the words of U.S. President Joe Biden, 'for as long as necessary.' Preserving Ukraine as a sovereign and secure democracy is a primary goal. But to do so, the country does not need to regain full control of Crimea and the Donbass in the short term. Nor should the West worry about pushing for a ceasefire before recapturing all of Ukraine's territory-that will not lead to the collapse of the rules-based international order." (ibid.: 78)

There is more clarity in the Western camp regarding ideas for a postwar order shaped by NATO: "robust security guarantees" for Ukraine by NATO countries, but below the threshold of direct NATO intervention in case of defense, and a long-term massive rearmament of Ukraine. They are intended to help freeze the war permanently and deter Russia from attacking again. The sanctions against Russia are to remain in force even after a cease-fire, until a complete withdrawal of Russian troops (see Zellner 2023). Because of the dangers of escalation and the necessary approval in all NATO countries, NATO accession demanded by Kiev and the Baltic states appears unrealistic for the time being. NATO is therefore seeking selective integration of Ukraine. The NATO-Ukraine Council as a newly created instrument can be seen as a step in this direction.

A strategy paper published by the think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in the context of the NATO summit in July sees Ukraine's admission to NATO as "central," but at the same time outlines a "flexible approach" that has likely long been pursued in NATO (see Klein/Major 2023): integrating Ukraine into the Western military structure and stationing NATO troops in Ukraine, for the time being without full member status. The aim was "the stabilization, intensification and long-term financing of arms deliveries" (ibid.), including the development of the Ukrainian arms industry and the massive strengthening of the arms industry in the NATO countries. The goal of this "long-term systematic military support" (ibid.) and deterrence ties in with existing thinking such as the Kyiv Security Compact, initiated by former NATO Secretary General Rasmussen and the head of Selensky's presidential office, Yermak. It envisages close military coordination between a core group of NATO countries and Ukraine - with the goal of NATO and the EU arming Ukraine for "several decades" (see Kyiv Security Compact 2022). To this end, the activities of the EU, G7 and the more than 50 military supporting nations are to be coordinated under NATO leadership. Germany and the NATO site at Ramstein could play a major role in this. This would transform Germany into the "central defense and armaments nation in Europe in the next few years," according to SWP researcher Klein.

The call for negotiations is no longer enough. The question has long been: negotiations when and on whose terms?

Such a path ties in with the NATO strategy of recent years and relies exclusively on deterrence rather than de-escalation and mutual security vis-à-vis Russia. The result would be a further spiral of rearmament and the risk of escalation would be prolonged into the future.

A way out of the spiral of war and rearmament

The call for negotiations and diplomatic initiatives, which could be heard from different sides (from China and Brazil, from the Pope, from left-wing and social democratic intellectuals) at the beginning of this year, is no longer sufficient in this new constellation. The question has long been: negotiations when and on whose terms? In the following, I make suggestions as to what a left-wing peace initiative might look like that would represent an alternative to the planning in NATO circles described above. It is a sketch intended to help advance a constructive left discussion. It is based on well-founded premises regarding the dimensions, scenarios and war aims of the various actors, which are, however, in flux (cf. on the assessment of dimensions, scenarios and war aims in more detail Becker 2023). Jan van Aken has rightly pointed out that an important experience with peace processes is that solutions can be found at the end that were not yet conceivable or speakable in the process. With all due thoughtfulness as to when and on whose terms negotiations between the warring parties can become promising, the need remains to intervene with an independent position from the left.

The only way out of a war of attrition that has lasted for years and a confrontation that will smolder over the next decade and could tip into a hot war at any time would be a negotiated settlement that includes security guarantees for both sides. Concessions (measured against the current front lines) must be demanded from both sides to permanently "freeze" the war. Based on this, negotiations on mutual security in Europe would have to be initiated. Security guarantees for Ukraine and the principle of mutual security need not be mutually exclusive. For relevant parts of the Ukrainian population, territorial concessions are an imposition, and this must be taken seriously. This makes it all the more important to have reliable security guarantees and a social structure for reconstruction in Ukraine that helps to improve the working and living conditions of the population.

The question of security guarantees for Ukraine must no longer be neglected by the left.

In the search for ways to negotiate peace, the difficult question of security guarantees for Ukraine must no longer be neglected by the left. In view of NATO's emerging exit strategy, which amounts to a spiral of rearmament lasting for years, alternatives are needed. But whoever wants to organize more pressure against further and permanent (!) arms deliveries and the associated dangers of escalation and the strengthening of the military-industrial complex, must also be able to convince the larger parts of the population, which position themselves in solidarity on the side of the attacked Ukraine.

Territorial concessions and mutual security guarantees

So what might solutions to the two sticking points - territorial conflicts and security guarantees - look like?

Territorial concessions

Gilbert Achcar (2023) and Peter Wahl (2022) have proposed UN-controlled referendums on the status of the Donbass and the other territories annexed after 2022: "in the absence of a collapse of the Putin regime that would radically change the situation, the only way to get Moscow to abide by the terms of a political settlement in perpetuity is for it to be settled through the UN, where it would require both Russia's and China's consent. Genuine self-determination referenda must be organized by a UN-mandated body, along with the deployment of UN troops in the disputed territories. Any other way to end the war would be at best a brief respite in a long-drawn conflict pitting nationalist ambitions against each other." (Achcar 2023)

Unlike the Minsk Agreement, such a process would have the advantage of finding a solution that redefines state borders and can consolidate them with security guarantees. Thus, a strategy of de-stabilization through civil wars is at least made more difficult, if not impossible. This could be taken a step further: The status of these regions and the security of the people living there would have to be laid down in a treaty between Russia and Ukraine, the USA, China and the EU, as well as by the UN, and presumably protected (to some extent) for several years by UN-mandated troops. However, it would make more sense to negotiate a contractual solution for the territories annexed by Russia before self-determination referendums and then have them voted on in referendums.

Ukraine's offer to negotiate (the so-called Istanbul Declaration), agreed with Turkey a few weeks after the start of the war, says in substance: "The status of Crimea should be negotiated by the sides with a time horizon of 15 years, and the status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by the two presidents. International security guarantees should not extend to those areas whose status had not yet been settled." (Zellner 2023, 91). This could be followed up-although the initial conditions are worse today.

In order to persuade Russia to accept a permanent ceasefire and significant partial withdrawals, Crimea could be recognized as part of Russia. This would also complicate later wars over Crimea. The border demarcations of Donbass and Luhansk should be negotiated by the two governments and included in a peace agreement, which could then be decided as an "overall solution" in referendums in the regions and in the two national parliaments. However, this would almost certainly result in Ukraine losing larger parts of the Donbass and southern Ukraine. This, in turn, would mean that larger parts of the people who fled the Russian war would not be able to return to where they lived before the war (even if this were regulated differently by treaty). This would be a great loss for many.

Would this be a "Russian victory peace"? In the territorial demarcations by no means unrestricted. For Russia would also have to withdraw from parts (!) of the territories occupied since the beginning of the war of aggression in 2022 as part of a negotiated settlement. There could therefore be no question of surrender. Such an agreement would be territorially better for Ukraine than the status quo and better than a long war with even more casualties and further destruction of infrastructure. Nevertheless, such a negotiated settlement would virtually lock in territorial gains by Russia.

Security Guarantees

An important dispute over the future of Ukraine and Russia-EU relations revolves around the shape of security guarantees. NATO and the G-7 are discussing security guarantees for Ukraine that would de facto integrate the country into their structures even without NATO membership. As argued, these security guarantees include permanent high armaments and military logistics. Previously alliance-neutral EU states such as Austria and Ireland rightly view EU military assistance guarantees for Ukraine critically. Security guarantees would therefore also have to be defined more precisely from the left.

In addition to the military integration promoted by NATO, various forms are conceivable: A contractual assurance of a non-aggression guarantee by Russia within the framework of a peace agreement - but this would have no consequences in the event of an attack. Or an EU guarantee of assistance, which would take effect after a successful freeze of the war through a peace agreement. Combined with the perspective obligation to provide assistance in the event of Ukraine's accession to the EU, this would be an effective deterrent. The mutual assistance clause in the EU treaties under Article 42(7) provides that in the event of an "armed attack against the territory of a Member State," the other EU Member States are obliged to support the Member State. Unlike the NATO alliance case, they do not necessarily have to enter the war and no precise measures are defined. This means that (among other things, alliance-neutral) EU states could also limit themselves to purely civilian measures. Security guarantees by a UN-legitimized alliance of guarantor powers that would also supply limited weapons in the event of an attack in violation of international law would also be conceivable. From the left, the demand for a permanently demilitarized border strip on both sides, controlled by the UN or the OSCE, would be particularly strong. However, this alone would not protect against air attacks.

The conflict could be frozen by a cease-fire, and this status could be secured threefold: 1. by a demilitarized border, 2. by a UN-legitimized alliance of different guarantor states including China and Brazil, which would thus not simply be an extension of NATO interests, and 3. a binding prospect of accession to the EU. This could be one pillar of an exit plan.

This is likely to be realistic only if significant pressure is exerted on the Ukrainian government from parts of the Western alliance and Russia is either on the defensive militarily or feels tangible pressure from China.

Bringing Ukraine into the EU

Thomas Meaney, in a plea worth reading, writes: "Historian Stephen Kotkin recently argued that Ukrainians should define victory as joining the European Union rather than as a complete recapture of all Ukrainian territory." (Meaney 2023). There is much to suggest that at the end of a war there will be a de facto partition of Ukraine. In the transnational leftist discussion, Volodomyr Ischenko has also proposed EU accession as an alternative to escalation or surrender. "Achieving a sustainable peace settlement for Ukraine as soon as possible is the best way to help the country. This does not require empty words of solidarity or ad hoc support for some marginal progressive initiatives. Instead, the fundamental overhaul of the security architecture in Europe must remain on the agenda of the left. The confrontation between NATO and Russia has proven to be a disaster. (...) It is a matter of negotiating a political compromise. The EU owes the Ukrainians something, has to offer them something after all the empty promises of the last years - for example EU membership. This would allow Selenski to declare victory, regardless of the outcome of the war. Ukraine would not have to simply capitulate, but could also achieve something." (Ishchenko 2022b).

What is clear is that even before the war, the EU pursued its own imperial interests in Ukraine with, among other things, the neoliberal-influenced Association Agreement and the targeted funding of liberal to nationalist civil society organizations. In the context of possible EU accession, Ukraine, as a candidate country, is demanded austerity in terms of social benefits and also a more effective "fight against corruption." The latter sounds self-evident, but at the same time it is about the further opening of the Ukrainian economy to European and Western investors and the corresponding disempowerment of those capital factions and oligarchs that have so far stood in the way of this (see also Ishchenko 2023). With regard to strengthening social rights and democratization, nothing can be expected from the dominant forces in the EU. There could be progress and pressure on the Ukrainian government with regard to the situation of Russian speakers and liberal fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and LGBTIQ rights (cf. ibid.).

Risks and pitfalls

Of course, there are pitfalls and risks that need to be discussed in more detail: How can the EU be prevented from becoming a direct belligerent in a future Ukraine war? Here, it would depend on new security treaties and the design of stand-by guarantees without direct intervention of troops from EU countries. In the wake of the war, the EU has tied itself even more closely to NATO and its rearmament policy. Meaney points out that, with the exception of countries that were neutral during the Cold War, every EU accession to date has been preceded by membership in NATO. In this respect, implementing this proposal would be uncharted historical territory - and could perhaps be an entry point into a perspective of European autonomy from the left. The social left would have to make a strong case for an alternative to the new bloc confrontation, to the role of NATO and to the imperial constitution and militarization of the EU, and it would also have to be able to tell the story. At the same time, it would have to make clear that it is not indifferent to the security and future of the people in Ukraine and the Eastern European states. Such a "third position" would require a rethinking and a coming together in the left-wing discussion. In the new phase of the war, however, it could contribute to a greater social resonance if it would at the same time make people more aware of the connection between war, imperial confrontation and the climate crisis.

The question of mutual territorial concessions is more difficult. For it is, of course, perfectly legitimate to reclaim occupied territories and convincing that ultimately the Ukrainian people should decide sovereignly on the country's borders. Quite rightly, leftists in Ukraine hope for "an end to the war that will make it possible for a Ukrainian left to actually continue to exist after the war. They also want to be included in left-wing debates about what a different world order might look like. They want Russia's war of conquest to end and their country to be rebuilt without continuing to face military danger from Russia." (Georgiev 2023, 21). In doing so, they fear that the war could end on terms that would further exacerbate nationalism in the country and pose an existential threat to leftist forces (cf. ibid.). This danger is real. At the same time, a long war would also promote nationalist mobilization and hardening. There is no easy way out of this contradiction. A cease-fire and corresponding conditions, including security guarantees, would have to be negotiable for the Ukrainian government. At the same time, they would certainly be attacked from the right. Security guarantees and social conditions of reconstruction can help; alone, the marginalized Ukrainian left can hardly survive these confrontations.

However, the discourse of defending Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy (against Putin's authoritarian regime), which characterizes the mainstream in this country, obscures the view of the disputes in Ukraine and of the military-political balance of power: The Ukrainian government can only achieve the recognized territorial borders of the country, if at all, at the price of a long-lasting war with uncontrollable risks of escalation. However, a years-long war would worsen rather than improve the conditions for socio-ecological reconstruction and democratization of the country.

Unlike the discourses of NATO, the EU and the Ukrainian government, it would be about a socio-ecological perspective and more democratic sovereignty of the wage-earners.

Territorial concessions by Ukraine in return for the perspective of joining the EU as soon as possible do not mean that Ukraine loses its "sovereignty." A semi-peripheral country integrated into the neoliberal-imperial EU has only limited sovereignty. Unlike the discourses of NATO, the EU, and the Ukrainian government, it would be about a social-ecological perspective for more democratic sovereignty of the wage-earners and marginalized parts of the population. Even if this will always be limited in a peripheralized country with strong class antagonisms. However, a pure sovereignty argument also loses sight of the broader dimensions of war (see also Solty 2023b), such as the consequences of years of war for the socio-ecological crisis. Social polarization and tendencies of authoritarian rightward shift in the EU as in other countries will not end with war. But a long war promotes militarization and changes mentalities. The patriarchal-nationalist subjectivity that accompanies a "war regime" (Cedillo 2023) further worsens the conditions for emancipation and democratization movements.

Elements of a left peace initiative

1) Negotiations instead of further arms deliveries

Further arms deliveries to Ukraine would prolong the war. Stopping arms deliveries is therefore a key means of exerting pressure to reach negotiations for a lasting ceasefire. Non-humanitarian financial assistance to Ukraine should also be tied to a willingness to participate in ceasefire negotiations. Mediators for cease-fire negotiations should not be primarily NATO countries. Instead, they could be a balanced and UN-mandated group of representatives from countries that have agreed to the UN resolution condemning Russia's war of aggression and that are not supplying weapons, including the U.S. and France, China and Brazil.

2) Securing the ceasefire by the UN

A UN-mandated supervision of a ceasefire along the previous (!) frontline would be central. It would also involve limited permanent demilitarized zones along both sides of the border. Wolfgang Zellner points to the high costs in the billions, in which Russia or the oligarchs in Russia would have to participate (cf. Zellner 2023: 94). In addition, possible attacks on UN observers would have a high potential for escalation.

3) Mutual security guarantees and EU accession instead of high-level armament

Ukraine needs security guarantees that make a renewed war of aggression de facto impossible (see below). And Russia would need a non-aggression guarantee covering both the status of Crimea and parts of the currently annexed territories. In return, Russia would withdraw from other territories. Part of the agreement would also have to include a Russian non-aggression guarantee to Russia's neighbors and to EU states. NATO would have to refrain from arming Ukraine with tanks, combat aircraft and long-range missile systems and from stationing NATO troops, while Ukraine would have to refrain from joining NATO. Russia, in turn, would have to commit to arms controls.

A peace treaty could be guaranteed, first, by a UN-mandated alliance of states, including the United States and China. The alliance would launch diplomatic initiatives to mediate in the event of a violation of the treaty-and pledge concretely defined support for the attacked country in the event of a war of aggression condemned by the UN General Assembly. Second, EU accession would place Ukraine under the protection of the EU's mutual assistance commitment. Unlike the alliance case in NATO treaties, the EU does not mandate direct participation in war, but keeps the means of support open. Thus, EU accession would significantly raise the hurdles for a renewed Russian war of aggression. The principle of double security guarantees for Ukraine would be an alternative to the NATO proposal of years of rearmament, if combined with the demand for disarmament in the EU and on all sides (see also the "Minus10%" campaign).

A "just peace" would not be that, but it is not possible in the present military and imperial balance of power without fractures.

A "just peace" would not be - but such a peace is not realistically possible without ruptures in the current military balance of power and imperial confrontation between the USA, EU, Russia and China. "Mutual de-escalation", i.e. concessions on territorial issues and steps towards mutual security are instead the only ways out of the enormous danger of escalation of this war. A left position must deal offensively with this contradiction - and could at the same time, in the sense of "revolutionary realpolitik," make two proposals that go beyond it:

4) Reconstruction after war and crisis.

It is about a better life for the people in Ukraine, in the EU and in Russia. Reconstruction in Ukraine must focus on social infrastructure, social rights and poverty alleviation, energy transition, a social-ecological investment program, and democratization, unlike the previous plans for reconstruction already being negotiated with the participation of the IMF and allies the U.S. and EU (see Roberts 2023).[6] A comprehensive debt cut is also necessary. A corresponding campaign, directed first and foremost at the IMF and the World Bank, but also at the EU Commission and the EU states, is supported by the Ukrainian Left, which is also calling for social guarantees in reconstruction (cf. Georgiev 2023).

Offers for socio-ecological economic cooperation should also be made to Russia (see, among others, Scheidler 2023). However, their implementation (just like a socio-ecological reconstruction in Ukraine) depends on a currently unforeseeable democratization of the country.

These proposals would have to be combined with demands for social guarantees, radical redistribution, disarmament and a socio-ecological reconstruction in the EU, in view of inflation, precariousness, housing shortages and the noticeable consequences of the climate crisis in many European countries. A left perspective must make it clear that the oligarchs' fortunes in Russia and Ukraine (as well as those of multi-millionaires in this country) must be used to finance reconstruction. The costs of reconstruction and post-war order must not be passed on to wage earners in this country.

5) A new initiative for security and cooperation between the EU, Russia and China.

A peace treaty should also be linked to the start of (medium-term) efforts for a new security agreement between the EU, Russia and China, especially with non-aggression guarantees and arms control regulations.

The LEFT has called for a relaunch of the CSCE process, and speaks of a "new conference on security, environmental and energy policy and cooperation 2.0, actively working out ways and mechanisms for a new conception of security on the European continent. Europe was far from a common security architecture even before the war, and the West was not uninvolved in it; the Russian attack has broken it completely." The related idea: a lasting peace does not work without a new security-political as well as economic basis. Socio-ecological peace and cooperation agreements would have to include Russia and China. In the negotiations on economic relations, Russia would also have to be given a way out of its dependence on a fossil-fuel-based rentier economy.


The question of what a new European peace and security order could look like that could at least (temporarily) contain the intensifying imperial confrontation urgently remains to be discussed further (see Jokisch 2023). It must be soberly conceded, however, that not only the political will is lacking among the aforementioned actors for such a CSCE process. The intensified imperial competition is a completely different precondition for "détente" in times of multiple crises of fossil capitalism and the crisis of U.S. hegemony compared to the 1970s. Today, both the Putin regime and NATO are far from de-escalation and rapprochement. It is also questionable whether and under what conditions the Russian power bloc would agree to security guarantees for the neighboring countries and Eastern Europe, i.e. whether it would be prepared to accept the status quo in the neighboring region. The decisive factors are likely to be, on the one hand, the disputes in Russia itself and, on the other, Europe's independence vis-à-vis the United States. The question of a new economic basis for socio-ecological cooperation, mutual security and peace is thus raised, but by no means answered. From the left, it would be important to distinguish the perspective of a socio-ecological de-escalation policy both from the instrumentalization of climate protection for imperial policies of the EU and from the idea of a "Eurasian alliance" with the Putin regime. It would be about a radical-reformist alternative to the global bloc confrontation and about breaking with the hunt for raw materials and sales markets in the "endgame" of fossil capitalism. It is about democratization, social rights and a socio-ecological transformation, in Russia as in Ukraine, in China as in the EU.

Contemporary anti-imperialist perspectives such as those of the Spanish intellectual Raúl Sánchez Cedillo, meanwhile, go further and, in the face of the new phase of imperial confrontation, emphasize the need for breaks with the "war regime" and breaks with the capitalist property relations and increasingly authoritarian state transformation associated with it. Cedillo (2023) fomulates this as the horizon of a "constituent peace." A social-ecological policy of détente and a renewed ecological-socialist anti-imperialism that critically distances itself from the perspective of a multilateralism of imperial actors - these points mark the range for the search for left responses to the "turn of the times" heralded by the Ukraine war. Further discussion is urgently needed here to contribute to a renewed peace movement that should see itself more as a climate, justice and peace movement. Such a movement is urgently needed in view of the growing dangers of war in this decade. An epochal task lies ahead of us, for the solution of which we need the readiness for a solidary cooperation of different left forces and the will to discuss some open as well as uncomfortable questions.

In the fall, when the prospects of the Ukrainian offensive are more foreseeable, the social discussion in this country could change again and open a new window for intervention from the left. The call for negotiations alone is no longer enough. In a situation in which parts of the Western alliance are struggling to find ways out of the war and at the same time more and more heavy weapons are being supplied for a war that will last for years, the social left should campaign more strongly than before for "mutual de-escalation" and security guarantees, for European independence vis-à-vis NATO and for a social-ecological peace policy.

[1] For good hints, additions, discussion and critical feedback I thank Jan van Aken, Mario Candeias, Sophie Dieckmann and Barbara Fried.

[2] As a trans*feminine person and critical Marxist scholar myself, I have struggled to position myself on the contradictions of the Ukraine war. Writing can never be separated from one's own location in the world. I try to inform myself about the difficult situation of queers* in the face of state of emergency and occupation and about the discussions of the Ukrainian left. But I am also aware of the persecution of queer and trans* people by the Putin regime, which funds trans* and queer-hostile, right-wing, and racist movements and forces worldwide and aims for nothing less than "our" erasure. But I think the idea that these conditions can be overcome by war and the overthrow of the Putin regime from the outside is dangerous. Leftist criticism of imperialism must not turn into (indirect) partisanship in favor of authoritarian regimes or into acceptance of militarization.

[3] About one third is critical of further arms deliveries to Ukraine.

[4] More broadly, Balibar's plea for NATO to militarily defend Ukraine's sovereignty in 2022.

[5] Heusgen, the acting chairman of the Munich Security Conference, had also joined other NATO experts in advocating an intensification of arms deliveries, including combat aircraft. However, without peace negotiations in the near future (cf. Heusgen et al. 2023).

[6] In parallel, there are indications that reconstruction, the cost of which is estimated at 500-700 billion euros, will not only require state aid from the West, but will also be an economic restructuring along neoliberal lines, dominated by Western corporations and investors. (cf. Roberts 2023 as well as the official Ukraine National Recovery Plan 2022) and the results of the Lugano Conference in July 2022.

Lia Becker is a consultant for contemporary diagnosis and socialism at the Institute for Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin.
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