Updated: May 6
Arnd Jurgensen teaches international relations a the University of Toronto and is a director on the Science for Peace board.
Contributed article for Working Group on Nuclear Weapons.
© Can Stock Photo / Svitlana
The images we are seeing of the conflict in Ukraine continue to shock and generate understandable sympathy for the people of Ukraine that find themselves in the middle of this nightmare. It is entirely understandable that the first instinct of the people of Ukraine is to fight the invaders with everything they have. It is equally understandable that the first instinct of many around the world is to do what they can to provide Ukrainians with the means to defend their homelands. As understandable as all this is, it is crucial that those of us lucky enough not to be caught up in this conflagration, respond to it on the basis of a critical analysis of the conflict and its global implications, not on instinct. This requires us to look at the conflict not through the lens of those immediately involved but to think of the larger risks the conflict poses to the rest of the world. If we do so, it will become evident that the only rational option is to end the conflict as soon as possible, not to prolong it by supplying ever more military hardware to the Ukrainian side, no matter how sympathetic we may be to it.
Consider the “precautionary principle”. It advises that if a situation has the potential of producing a catastrophic outcome, avoiding that catastrophic outcome must take precedence over all other considerations. As catastrophic as the situation in Ukraine appears to be, it is not even close to the worst-case scenario of how things might develop. The worst-case scenario is that this conflict escalates from a conventional regional conflict to an exchange of nuclear weapons between Russia and NATO.
This is far from a hypothetical possibility, even in the absence of a direct intervention by NATO in the conflict. Several NATO members (including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany, Poland…) are supplying the Ukrainian side with billions in lethal weapons and intelligence allowing them to more effectively attack Russian forces. This support undermines any claims that NATO is neutral. As more and more Russians are killed the use of more brutal weapons including the use of tactical nuclear weapons is likely, the temptation for Russia to attack supply convoys or their countries of origin only increases. From there a tit for tat escalation could quickly lead to World War III and a full nuclear exchange.
Such an outcome would not help Ukraine and whatever we do with respect to Ukraine must not increase the chance of this outcome. The only sane policy of the international community, in this context, is to insist on an immediate halt to all hostilities and a return to negotiations to address the legitimate security concerns of all parties. Lamentably the current policies of NATO push in precisely the opposite direction of prolonging the conflict by arming the Ukrainian side. These policies not only increase the chance of unleashing the scenario described above but also make more likely a nuclear disaster involving one of several civilian nuclear installations in Ukraine.
Bringing the hostilities to an immediate end is crucial for other reasons as well, chiefly the disruption of food and fertilizer production in Ukraine and Russia. The absence of these supplies if the conflict continues, could kill more through starvation in the Global South than are dying in the conflict itself.
A cease fire is not the same as defeat or capitulation. Since Russia seems incapable of achieving its ambitions in Ukraine and Ukraine seems equally unlikely to defeat Russia, sooner or later this conflict will have to be settled through negotiations. Why not now? It’s is not a matter of being pro-Russia or pro-Ukraine, it is a matter of being a human being on already dying planet for which World War III will be “Game Over”.