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In Ukraine, Neither Side Is Blameless

Updated: May 23, 2023

Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Sandbrook and Arnd Jurgensen

(in discussion with the Board of Science for Peace, Canada)

Richard Sandbrook Arnd Jurgensen

Richard Sandbrook is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at University of Toronto. Arnd Jurgensen lectures in international relations at University of Toronto. Both are executive members of Science for Peace, whose board members debated the issues discussed here.

Contributed article for the Critical NATO Studies Working Group.

One prevalent explanation of the war in Ukraine pins the blame on Russia; the other, which has little institutional backing in the West, but far more outside the West, blames NATO. Proponents of each view largely ignore the opposing interpretation. Both sides agree the war is illegal under international law, but there the agreement ends. For those who blame NATO, their declaration of the illegality of the invasion is largely a formality because, from their viewpoint, NATO provoked Russia to invade Ukraine. For those who blame Russia, the invasion is not only illegal under international law but also a travesty of “unprovoked” aggression.

Yet neither side is blameless in this terrible war. To acknowledge that fact is an important step to envisioning a just and lasting settlement.

Conflicting Viewpoints

Consider first the anti-NATO interpretation. They see the existence of NATO as a problem. It is not hard to understand why.

NATO portrays itself as a strictly defensive club of democracies that share basic values and is compelled to admit other North Atlantic states that ascribe to them. Yet all military alliances need an enemy to justify their existence. The external threat that gave rise to the alliance – the USSR and the Warsaw Pact - disappeared in 1991, as should have NATO. NATO lost an opportunity in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union expired, to build bridges to Russia. NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia and its willingness to arm and contemplate future membership of Ukraine and Georgia in NATO were provocations. Russia considers Ukraine as within its cultural, economic and political sphere of influence. Russia, of course, does not have a “right” to a sphere of influence, any more than does the United States in its own neighbourhood. But spheres of influence have always gone along with Great-Power status, whether we like it or not. Russia would inevitably feel threatened if NATO and the European Union incorporated Ukraine, with its close historical links and proximity to Russia, within its “Western” sphere.

However, from the opposing viewpoint, Russia for its part has made aggressive moves that frightened its neighbours. Eastern European states were not forced to join NATO; they applied for membership because, from historical experience, they mistrusted Russia. Within historical memory are Stain’s partnership with Hitler, 1939-1941, and the postwar imposition of Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe. In recent years, the intervention of Russian forces in Georgia and Moldova and covert use of Russian troops in Ukraine’s Donbass in support of separatists have rekindled the fears of former Soviet client states. Moreover, the brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stirred further resentment and fear in neighbouring states, such as Finland and Sweden (who are now joining NATO).

In short, neither side is without some responsibility for this dreadful and unnecessary war.

Blame and Conflict Resolution

Apportionment of blame for the current conflict, however, is currently a distraction from the need to bring the war to an end. Such discussions must at some point take place to determine issues of reparations in the context of negotiations, but they must not derail attempts to engineer a ceasefire. The same is true concerning international law. Clearly the invasion of Ukrainian territory was a violation of the sovereignty of a recognized state, and it is, as such, a crime of aggression (which, as Justice Robert Jackson of the Nuremberg tribunals explained, is the highest crime under international law as it entails all the evils war necessarily brings with it). The United Nations Charter also recognizes the right to self-determination of nations, which implies the right of the Donbass and Crimea to declare their independence from Ukraine (a principle that NATO endorsed with its armed intervention in Kosovo).

These principles, again, raise issues that must ultimately be resolved; but disagreements on these issues must not stand in the way of ending the killing and destruction in Ukraine. Other oft-cited issues are also irrelevant to a settlement, including corruption in Ukraine or autocracy in Russia. These issues are relevant for the people of Ukraine and Russia, as are the personality traits of their leaders, but not to the need to end this war.

At present, neither side is inclined toward negotiations and a cessation of hostilities. Negotiations will have to take place sometime - unless Russia achieves total victory (and it’s not clear what that would look like), or Ukraine does (which is highly unlikely, given Russia’s much larger pool of recruits for the armed forces and actual and potential firepower). A Ukrainian victory would also risk igniting a nuclear war. However, if the upcoming Ukraine counter-offensive ends in stalemate, both sides may judge that their interests are best served by negotiating a peace settlement.

Reconciling Conflicting Principles

What might be the terms of a settlement that is (barely) acceptable to both sides? If we accept the shared responsibility for this war, each side will have to compromise. A resolution demands that two principles of international law be recognized: the inadmissibility of aggression leading to land-grabs, and the right of peoples to self-determination, if a clear majority opts for this outcome. Boundaries will have to be drawn that reflect the preferences of those who live within them. Unless the borders reflect such preferences, they will remain unstable and a future source of conflict.

There is no prospect of the ongoing destruction moving in the direction of resolving this dimension of the conflict. Instead, a UN monitored process of consultation and popular referenda would be most likely to produce such an outcome. To have legitimacy, the vote must include those who have fled their homes as well as those who have stayed. These boundaries will also have to be secure. In the long term, that can only happen through neutrality for Ukraine, border guarantees, and the creation of a new security architecture including Russia (perhaps including the withdrawal of long-range missiles from Poland).

Recognizing the Dangers, Forging Peace

The need for action is acute. If Ukraine should strike into Russian-held territory, using western weapons and intelligence, the possibility of escalation and nuclear war rises ever higher. Ukraine has the right to defend itself, but can Ukraine ever defeat a nuclear power with a much larger armed forces, even with weapons from the West?

To let this conflict fester poses an unacceptable risk to the survival of humanity. The only sane position is peace negotiations now - based on the notion of shared responsibility for this war.


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