We teach our political science students that international relations involves three levels of analysis: the international order, the state or states under study, and the individual leaders who make the decisions. Often articles, books or theses will focus on one level even as they recognise that all three are interrelated. For example, the Ukrainian war-crisis arose from the intensifying clash over the need to revise the US-dominated world order that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War. Such revision implies reordering the hierarchy and status of international powers as global decision-makers. For this to occur, there has to be a moment when each power tests its rivals’ mettle. Sometimes that moment takes the form of war.
The main players in the current war in Eastern Europe are Russia and Ukraine. Both are living, breathing entities of the human community. Each possesses an array of military, economic, cultural and other capacities that it brings to bear on the conflict, the results of which are contingent on the relative stamina, cohesion and patriotic resolve of the combatant parties. Political and military leaders and their aides form the decision-making bodies in charge. They forge alliances, identify and find out about their enemies, and set the aims of strategic and tactical warfare. Decisions of war and peace, such as whether to prolong the conflict or head to the negotiating table, are contingent on the makeup of the leaders’ mental maps.
This is the level of analysis that assesses a leadership’s degree of wisdom or folly in taking the fateful decisions that lead to victory or defeat, or to the preservation or loss of their country’s territorial integrity. This crucial link is at the heart of many history books. It is the stuff of epics, of legends of heroes and statesmen, and of tales of treason ending in suicide. Whereas the international order and the aspirations of a state take analytical priority at the outset of a confrontation, it is the character of the individual leader that determines many subsequent courses of action. The more precarious, sensitive and uncertain the circumstances, the more important this factor becomes. History tells us of many wise men who knew how to attain their goals without letting the lure of more dazzle their vision. More often history speaks of the fools who imagined they had a historic destiny that entitled them to more.
In the Ukrainian war both wisdom and folly have been on full display. President Putin was a hero, at least among the Russian public, and he won widespread admiration for having sided with China in the demand for a revised world order, asking Ukraine not to let NATO move in right next to Russia’s borders. The Russian geo-strategic argument was strong and supported by its weight as a military and nuclear power. But then he pressed his luck. He ordered the military intervention in Ukraine, setting his sights on disarming Ukraine, changing its regime, and annexing portions of its territory. One form of folly is biting off more than you can chew. Putin failed to grasp this when he withdrew from Kyiv and turned to an offensive in the south and east in order to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea.
His adversary, President Zelensky, became the Ukrainian “Churchill” who vested his faith in his people, their patriotism and their spirit of self-sacrifice. Not only did he repel the Russian siege of Kyiv, he succeeded in winning support and crucial assistance from the West by dint of his steadfastness and his impassioned speeches before Western parliaments. Ultimately, he channelled vast reserves of anger into a counter offensive that succeeded in liberating Kharkiv in the northeast, and key areas of the south, all of which made the Russians pay an enormous price for their expansion. But now Zelensky, too, wants to bite off more than he can chew, because he insists that Russia must leave the whole of Ukrainian territory in the east and south, including Crimea.
Wisdom and folly are in the balance. Wisdom is to accept a minimal level of victory and avert a maximum defeat. Putin currently controls the Donbas to which he has a certain claim in that its inhabitants are native Russian speakers who feel an allegiance to Russia. Seeking more than this would protract the conflict, which has already turned against Russia, wreaking yet more economic and military attrition. The longer the war continues the greater the buildup of domestic pressure which, in turn, will yield more repression and desperation, perhaps to the point of using tactical nuclear weapons.
Zelensky, for his part, has achieved a lot. He has preserved the integrity of all the territory whose population feels allegiance to Kyiv, scored remarkable gains against a great power, including the recapture of Kherson, and secured himself a seat in the EU. To set his sights beyond this to the Donbas, which may not shift allegiances easily, or to the historically disputed Crimea will stretch Ukrainian capacities and feed the growing resentment in Europe over the sacrifices being made to keep the war going.
In our modern era, it takes a lot of sagacious help to push combatants from folly to wisdom. Generally this comes from third parties who need considerable support from international powers or from luck. As we have seen in the votes and speeches that have taken place in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, the majority of international opinion has sided morally with Ukraine. But a majority also voted in another way when they refused to sever their relations with Russia, which is of a size and consequence that cannot be sacrificed without throwing the global balance off kilter.
In recent weeks, it has become increasingly apparent to most members of the international community that the war is not only ruinous to its immediate belligerents but to the entire world. The worldwide crises in food, energy, supply lines and inflation afford tangible evidence of this. It is little wonder, therefore, that calls are emerging out of the four corners of the earth, not for the victory or defeat of either Russia or Ukraine, but just for that war to stop. This is where the countries that have the greatest interest in ending the war come in. Of course, these countries must also possess the wherewithal to mediate effectively, and China and India spring foremost to mind in this regard. They have been at the forefront of the nations to express anger and alarm at the devastating global effects of the war, and both enjoy long-standing relations and agreements with Russia, the West and Ukraine itself.
History would honour them for stepping forward to undertake this humanitarian service which would entail brokering a ceasefire and initiating a settlement process that would include a new referendum in the territories recently annexed by Russia, but this time under full UN supervision. Of course, many technical details would have to be hammered out, requiring experts and reserves of patience. However, first, the belligerents would have to give it a chance. Russia might reject the offer in anticipation of what the 300,000 troops it has mobilised might accomplish on the battlefield and Ukraine could just as easily spurn the offer because it thinks victory is just around the corner. Both sides would be gambling on folly and risking the incalculable costs that come of overreach. I do not think the world can sustain the costs, let alone Russia, Ukraine and the West.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.