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The conflict in Ukraine two years later

Science for Peace

Contributed article for Working Group on Nuclear Weapons. 

Donetsk Regional Military Civil Administration, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

It has been two years since Russian forces crossed the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine in what Vladimir Putin coined a “special military operation”.  Science for Peace, while recognizing that the invasion was not unprovoked, none the less denounced the resort to violence by the Russian state as completely unacceptale.  Much has changed since then but unfortunately the crucial facts relating to the conflict that caused us to argue for an immediate halt of hostilities and a return to negotiations, at the time, have remained the same.    There is still no military solution to this crisis and while negotiations still seem to be the only road to peace, finding a negotiated outcome acceptable to both sides is harder to envision than ever.   


We now know that the breakout of the conflict almost immediately resulted in a successful attempt to negotiate.   Representatives from both sides met in Istanbul, agreed on a withdrawal of Russian forces in return for a pledge of neutrality from Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk 2 agreement that provided for regional autonomy for the primarily Russian speaking regions of the Donbas, within a federal Ukraine.    Apparently, this outcome was unacceptable to the governments of the US and UK which intervened to convince the Ukrainian government to fight on.   This was before Russian forces occupied much Ukrainian territory and before they officially annexed any of the Donbas.  


Two years later, Russia occupies roughly 20% of the territory of Ukraine, more than a half a million Russians and Ukrainians (exact numbers are unknown) have lost their lives or been injured and much of Ukraine lies in ruins.   Russia claims close to a third of Ukrainian territory.   The prospects for Ukraine being able to reconquer any of the currently occupied areas, even with more western military supplies, are dim, given the limits of Ukraine’s ability to procure artillery or to recruit more soldiers.    The rejected deal of April 2022 is no longer an option and the situation, more dangerous today than it was then.


NATO’s expansion eastward and the inclusion of Ukraine may not have been the only or main reason for the invasion but it seems clear that it was an important factor.   This motivation was made clear in the proclamation issued by Lavrov in the months before the invasion, which was dismissed by US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, as a non-starter.   The inadvisability of NATO’s eastward expansion was also understood by the US.   Then Ambassador to Russia Nicholas Burns sent a cable to Washington in 2008 provocatively entitled “Nyet means Nyet.” Burns clearly states that rejection of NATO expansion to Ukraine is the consensus among the entire Russian establishment, including Putin’s most liberal critics.   If so, this consensus is likely to shape what is viewed as acceptable by Russia in any future negotiations.


If Russia felt threatened by NATO in 2021, is it less threatened today with NATO more united than ever, Sweden and Finland now members and the alliance drastically ramping up its capacities?   Yet it is unlikely Russia has the capacity or the inclination to threaten NATO countries with invasion. Nevertheless, as a result of the brutal invasion of Ukraine, leaders in Europe and Washington are more united than ever in perceiving such a threat.   Given that perception the word “appeasement,” whether appropriate or not, is likely to be thrown at anyone suggesting negotiations and a compromise on territory.   If, as now seems inevitable, Ukraine can not recapture control of its former territory, will Europe, London and Washington come to accept the need for a negotiated settlement, or feel compelled (especially in an election year in the US) to double down and intervene directly?   Where this would lead is frightening and obvious. 


As unlikely as it is that Russia will seek further invasion of NATO countries, given its aging demographics and the losses it has already suffered in Ukraine, Russia’s nuclear arsenal clearly suggests extreme caution.   By refusing to discuss Russia’s security concerns before the invasion and prolonging the conflict since, NATO leaders and the administrations of Boris Johnson and Joe Biden in particular, bear considerable responsibility for the consequences. They, in effect, have played with all our lives and have made inevitable the destruction of much of Ukraine without achieving anything.  


To make things worse, relations with China, and, in particular, the issue of Taiwan’s status is now being seen by leaders both in Washington and Europe through a similar lens of zero-sum security competition, with similar implications.


The reality obvious to many of us in February of 2022 is just as obvious today: there is no military solution to this unnecessary crisis.   Continuing to try to find one risks our collective survival.    The current crisis in and over Ukraine is yet more proof that the global security is indivisible


Finding a lasting peaceful outcome can only be achieved by talks aimed at establishing borders that reflect the preferences of those that have to live within them and building a security architecture that includes and addresses the concerns of all affected states.   While international law is clear in declaring any violation of the sovereignty of member states a crime, it is also committed to the principle of the right of self-determination of peoples – both issues addressable through a process of UN monitored consultations/referenda in areas claimed by Russia.   Ending this conflict, so dangerous and threatening to the world order, will, in the end, require a careful and judicious balancing of these two aspects of international law.


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