Developing the future of knowledge involves understanding the ‘relationship between what we know and what will happen, for the purpose of improving both, for everyone’. This endeavour demands a questioning and contrarian mindset that challenges conventional wisdom. It requires a festival of ideas that cherishes the diversity of views, becoming a crucible for new knowledge and thought leadership.
What we have witnessed in the public discourse building up to the events in Ukraine does not augur well for creating intelligent and nuanced understanding of global affairs. The single, unsophisticated and wholly unbalanced narrative we have been receiving from Western leaders and the leading global news outlets such CNN, BBC and Sky News is not conducive to resolving global challenges. To the contrary, such brazen and self-serving intellectual ineptitude inflames conflicts. We need to create and embrace new knowledge and innovative frameworks that prevent wars and human strife globally.
The future of diplomacy must be reimagined and reinvented.
For a start, the whole mainstream discourse on Ukraine is ahistorical. It is decontextualised. Ukraine was part of the USSR, the superpower at the centre of the Warsaw Pact – an Eastern military alliance established in opposition to NATO, a Western military alliance. This was the configuration that constituted the military arithmetic of the Cold War. Between 1989 and 1992, the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the USSR disintegrated with the Soviet republics becoming independent nations such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Estonia and Belarus. Russia remained a superpower, having inherited the bulk of the Soviet military and industrial strength, particularly a potent nuclear arsenal.
In 1999, former Warsaw Pact members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO, with vicious Russian opposition to the move. Another NATO expansion came with the accession of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Russia, a global superpower, felt encircled by its former NATO adversaries. Clearly, given the history of the Cold War, Russia’s security concerns are understandable. A particularly mischievous ambition of the Western alliance was to control the Black Sea fleet, thus completely undermining Russia. Putin stopped that adventure by annexing Crimea. It is instructive to note that the ill-conceived expansion of NATO into areas of previous Soviet influence was done in bad faith and in disgraceful violation of an understanding struck between NATO and the Russian Federation at the end of the Cold War; that NATO will welcome the independence of the former Soviet states and satellite states but not expand the military alliance into these territories.
In the context of the recent history of the Cold War, Russian demands that Ukraine must remain independent but should not join NATO are not entirely unreasonable. Ukraine has a nearly 2000km border with Russia, and its joining of NATO leads to the total encirclement of Russia by its current and historical opponents. The posturing by NATO members that Ukraine is free to join since it is a sovereign nation is at best naïve if not an outright manifestation of primitive ignorance. Sovereignty is not absolute. In October 1962, when the USSR placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States, the Americans recoiled with anger leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuba was a sovereign country with the right to have whatever weapons they wanted on their territory. Why was this sovereignty not respected? There was a threat to US national security, and hence that part of Cuban sovereignty was not respected.
This is common sense.
In the end, Nikita Khrushchev backed down, and the Russian missiles were removed from Cuba. If today France was to exercise its sovereign right, pull out of the EU and NATO, and join a military alliance with Russia or China, will the USA and NATO fold their arms and respect France’s sovereignty? Will Western Europe accept a member of a hostile military alliance right at the centre of Europe? Why not? What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
It does not make geo-political-strategic and military sense, nor foster global peace and security to have Ukraine as a member of NATO. Such a scenario presents a patently obvious threat to Russian national security. In fact, by invading Ukraine now, Putin is being preemptive. When Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, Russia will be totally encircled and thus vulnerable. More importantly, any attack on Ukraine then will invoke a swift NATO military response by operation of the NATO agreement. Hence Putin’s demand that Ukraine must never be a member of NATO is reasonable. Both NATO and the people of Ukraine must have accepted this position. This analysis should be clear to all peace-loving people.
So, what should be done? What could have been done?
While asserting their sovereignty and remaining an independent nation, the people of Ukraine and their leaders must commit to NOT joining NATO. Realpolitik demands this. They will not be the first to follow this pragmatic posture. Finland is an example of what Ukraine should do. Finland is fiercely unapologetic about its independence and works closely with Western countries. However, it is not a member of NATO and strategically avoids any confrontation or disagreeable conduct with the Russians. The distinguished and revered former US Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger, eloquently supports this view: ‘Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe. [However] Ukraine should not join NATO … Ukraine should be free to create any government compatible with the expressed will of its people.’
It is also essential to note that Ukraine can never be just another foreign independent country to Russia, given the historical relationship between the two nations. It has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories are inextricably linked with large pockets of Russian speaking folks in Ukraine in the year 2022.
This objective reality must inform Western intellectuals, pundits, and leaders.
Now, what of Western diplomacy with respect to the crisis unfolding in Ukraine? The stance of NATO and Western leaders has been that: ‘If Russia invades Ukraine, there will be no military response from us. We will impose ‘crippling’ sanctions against Russia.’ What a miserably pathetic position! In fact, it is encouragement or an invitation for an invasion! For a start, what is the basis of the assumption that the sanctions will be crippling? The Russian economy is relatively robust and largely independent of the West, with the foundation of that independence in the Cold War, after which Russia inherited a vast military-industrial complex that is still ostensibly intact. The so-called sanctions are to be imposed by only the United States and a few of its Western allies. Really?
There has been no effort to lobby for the involvement of the rest of the world, such as China (the world’s second-biggest economy), the rest of Asia, the rest of Europe, Latina America and Africa. How can a country – Russia – still able to trade with all these economies (in fact 80% of the world) be crippled by sanctions from a paltry number of Western countries? This is so presumptuous and pretentious on the part of the United and its allies.
It would be comical if it were not a war situation.
Surely, these measly NATO threats have not been thought through. How does one stop a leader, and his country, bent on invading a country by threatening to impose ineffectual sanctions? Are those measures not a small price to pay for the big prize? This failure of diplomacy is not helped by global media outlets which do not question these foolish foreign policy pronouncements but act as echo chambers of the unintelligent posturing by Western leaders. In their analysis of the unfolding crisis, the key media outlets do not engage experts or scholars with different viewpoints. They just churn out the same unsophisticated narrative where one cannot distinguish the anchor/journalist from the subject expert. There is total irrational jingoism in the main media outlets. The journalists are emotionally attached to the positions of their national governments. Shameful, indeed.
We need informed and innovative diplomacy enabled by vibrant, ethical, critical and professional journalism and scholarship.
Yes, the crisis in Ukraine could have been avoided if a different understanding of global affairs was at play and world leaders had a better understanding of history and geo-strategic considerations. Journalists and scholars have a duty and an obligation to enrich the discourse around global challenges and not become cheerleaders of absurdities.
We do not want war. We should do all we can to avoid war.
Unfortunately, given the failure by Western leaders to understand and resolve Russia’s concerns and the pitiful folly of their empty and ineffectual threats, the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 was inevitable.
We must create a new body of knowledge that will determine the future of diplomacy – foreign policy positions that prevent or effectively manage conflict and not enable wars.
(Prof Mutambara is Director and Full Professor of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge (IFK) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He is a former Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. He writes in his personal capacity)