This is not a war between Russia and Ukraine but a war on Ukrainian territory between two nuclear powers, both of which believe they are defending essential strategic interests. That is the opinion of a prominent veteran Brazilian diplomat, Jorio Dauster, now a business consultant.

Or, in the words of Luis Cebrián, former editor of the Spanish daily El País, it is not a war between Russia and Ukraine, but a correspondence war between NATO and Russia. A war from which neither can emerge as the absolute loser “if we aspire to a lasting peace in Europe”, or to prevent the outbreak of a third world war.

For Dauster, what we are seeing “is the tragic evolution of a power struggle that has little or nothing to do with the Ukrainian people’s enjoyment of democracy”. What it is about is the impossibility of Russia accepting NATO’s expansion into its underbelly. No Russian, we are reminded, forgets that Napoleon and Hitler reached Moscow by crossing the vast Ukrainian plains.

Cebrián, in an article published in El País on 13 August, requests an analysis not only of the proximate causes of the war, but also of the distant ones. He cites Washington’s sponsorship of the coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the election of Jens Stoltenberg as NATO Secretary General, “who has pursued an opportunistic policy of declarations of cooperation with Russia and the deployment of forces in the countries of Central Europe”.

The immediate consequence of this war, Cebrián said, has been the absorption of the European Union by a military alliance.

What is at stake

What we are seeing in Ukraine,” Dauster summarised, “is an attempt by the United States, using NATO as a manoeuvring mass, to postpone its gradual loss of hegemonic power, which is threatened by China’s impetuous rise.

The United States was determined to prevent Germany and much of Europe from becoming an “energy colony” of Russia. This explains the destruction of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which supplied Germany with cheap Russian gas, in attacks whose perpetrators have remained in a well-lit shadow.

The nature and importance of what was at stake for Washington in the Ukrainian conflict was evident from the outset, with the rapid mobilisation of NATO and the number of resources allocated to the war, which today total nearly 100 billion dollars.

Added to this is Biden’s request to Congress on 10 August for emergency spending of a further $40 billion, of which $24 billion is for Ukraine, including $9.5 billion to replenish ammunition for Ukrainian artillery and other equipment and $3.6 billion for military and intelligence support. A package to meet the needs of that war during the next US fiscal four-month period, which begins in October.

Biden’s budget request also includes $12 billion to replenish reserves for natural disasters, following the fire that destroyed a Hawaiian island.

But it is not just the United States. Germany announced in mid-August that it will provide $5.5 billion in annual military aid to Ukraine over the next three years.

Various comparisons can be used to measure such spending. It might be useful, for example, to do so with the figure of 33.2 billion managed by the BRICS development bank (the coalition that groups Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, in whose capital they will meet in September) for infrastructure and sustainable development projects. When it was created in 2015, the bank established a contingent reserve fund of $100 billion to deal with potential balance-of-payments problems in member countries.

The death throes of Pax Americana

For Dauster, we are witnessing, “in real time, the death throes of the Pax Americana”, established with the end of socialism in Eastern Europe and of the Soviet Union itself.

If Dauster is right (and it seems to me he is), there are two scenarios to look at if we want to understand the state of a game – like chess – that is in its middlegame.

One, more immediate, is the unfolding of the war, the theatre of conflict. The other requires a longer view and a look towards different horizons, to which we will return in another article.

On the conduct of the war, there is no recourse but to turn to the very abundant and diverse public information available.

Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Co. titled a controversial article, published in Foreign Affairs on 5 June, “An Unwinnable War”. The idea of an ‘unwinnable’ war does not sit well with Ukraine’s rulers and allies. Foreign Affairs itself promoted a discussion of Charap’s proposal and referred us to three texts that could serve as background for the debate.
One of them, published in October last year, was by Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s defence minister between 2019 and 2020, in which he pointed out the path to victory for his country. To win, he said, ‘Ukraine does not need a miracle; it just needs the West to increase the supply of sophisticated weaponry’. It was clear to him that Putin, in desperation, was losing on the battlefield, that he could not prevail against Ukraine and that he did not stand a chance against NATO. He added that only Russia’s defeat could put an end to Putin’s growing ambitions that, in the event of victory, would spread across Europe beyond Ukraine.

A view that Steven Myers, a veteran of the US Air Force and a member of the State Department’s International Economic Policy Advisory Committee for two administrations, does not share. Speaking to USA Today last July, Myers said that Russia’s military tactics were “absolutely inconsistent” with the conquest of Ukraine and other territories. In his view, “the agenda was, is and always will be to keep Ukraine out of NATO at any cost”.

In the spotlight

Perhaps it is worth taking a look back a little further. Andrei V. Kozyrev, Russia’s foreign minister from October 1990 to January 1996 under Boris Yeltsin, now living in the United States, a strong critic of Putin, predicted regime change in Russia in an article published in the New York Times on 20 July 2015. A year earlier, after the coup in Ukraine, Russia had annexed Crimea, following a large majority referendum in favour of the move.

Kozyrev analysed the situation and concluded that ‘regime change in Russia is inevitable, perhaps imminent’. Russia’s government, he added, “is simply incompatible with the reforms necessary for sustainable economic development, which requires liberalisation and competitiveness”. So said in July 2015!

Eight years after, in July 2023, Foreign Affairs again discussed if Ukraine should or should not negotiate with Russia. “The debate how to end the war” was the subtitle of the text.

Aliba Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, and Daniel Fried, former US ambassador to Poland, defended the idea that ‘Ukraine should seek victory, not compromise’.

If the goal is to prevent Russia from threatening democracies around the world, Dmytro Nattalukha, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee, would argue, an armistice in Ukraine would not help. The goal would be a less anti-Western Russia, and for that “Putin cannot stay in power”.

A ceasefire under current conditions would mean ‘victory for Russia and a personal triumph for Putin’, Zelensky’s advisor Mikhail Podoliak said shortly after the ‘peace conference’ held in early August in Saudi Arabia.

Only days later Stian Jenssen, chief of staff to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltemberg, told a forum in the Norwegian city of Arendal that one possibility for ending the conflict would be for Ukraine to agree to cede territory to Russia in exchange for NATO membership. The proposal was rejected by Ukraine. Podoliak himself called it “ridiculous”, forcing Jenssen to explain himself.

Podoliak again had to enter the debate, rejecting a proposal by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to hold referendums “under strict international control” in the four regions claimed by Russia and in Crimea as a way of resolving the conflict.

Podoliakk called them “fantastic” and “criminal” and reiterated that the only way to end the conflict is with Russia’s defeat.

A view similar to that of Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. For Freedman, Putin is running out of options in Ukraine, where in all scenarios – military, economic and diplomatic – the results are negative for Moscow.

A Russian victory “would be a catastrophe” for NATO, says Freedman, for whom it would be best if it were expelled from Ukraine and its army degraded in the process.

But the still very optimistic assessments of Ukraine’s chances published up to June, or July, have been coming up against a different reality.

For Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Moscow, the objectives of the Russian ‘special military operation’ have already been achieved. When this war is over, Ukraine will never again be as aggressive against Russia as it was before, it will be different, he said. He added: “Ukraine needs to stop the war and start rebuilding its state on a healthier basis, before it ceases to exist completely”.

This is the same tone as Moscow, which last Friday, 18 August, will be proposing to the Ukrainian military to overthrow the Kiev regime or lay down their arms.

A negotiated settlement?

There is no doubt that Ukraine faces an existential threat, according to John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and one of the “most famous critics of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War”, according to The Atlantic magazine.

Mearsheimer does not believe in a negotiated settlement. Each side sees the other as an existential threat, to be defeated on the battlefield. Under these conditions, there is little room for a deal. “The Russians will conquer more than the 23 per cent of Ukrainian territory they have already conquered”, which will leave Ukraine as a dysfunctional state, incapable of waging a major war against Russia. “The best solution for now is a frozen conflict,” he said.

But Podoliak asked her: ‘Why would we be proposing to freeze the conflict, as Russia wants, instead of accelerating the supply of arms to Ukraine?

At this stage, it does not seem an option capable of changing the course of the war. On the battlefront, Moscow’s assessment in mid-August was that Ukraine’s military efforts to break through its lines had failed. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, since June the Ukrainian army has lost more than 43,000 men and nearly five thousand pieces of heavy equipment, including dozens of Western, American and German tanks.

Though incipient, reflections on the forms of peace, including Europe’s relations with Russia, are beginning to emerge. But, above all, its effects in an international scenario such as the one perceived by Dauster, with the United States trying to postpone its gradual loss of hegemonic power, with the world witnessing the death throes of the Pax Americana, established with the end of socialism in Eastern Europe and of the Soviet Union itself.

In such a scenario, peacemaking will require more wisdom than deciding to go to war.