Iran, Cuba, and Ukraine: De-escalation and conflict transformation
THE PROTESTS IN IRAN
If you read no other analysis of the protests in Iran, read this: Why You Can’t Understand Iran in 2022 Without Understanding 1978 (Trita Parsi, quincyinst.org, 4 October 2022).
Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute and Middle East expert heading the programme Ending Endless War, writes of the Shah of Iran’s response, in a 6 November 1978 televised broadcast, after months of ever-growing protests:
I heard the voice of your revolution.
He went on to acknowledge past mistakes and promised to amend his ways.
Parsi summarizes the result:
Because they think the shah’s attempt to meet protesters halfway was his most decisive mistake, the hard-line rulers of Tehran have for more than 40 years ruled by the maxim of never giving an inch — lest the entire revolutionary regime fall.
This, in turn, has ensured that
Iranians increasingly have no faith in reform and … [have] conclude[d] that they have no choice but to ask for much more: the end of clerical rule.
The full article canvasses the extreme difficulties that Iranian society, so depleted by American economic sanctions, will face — even if they somehow prevail against the regime — in charting a democratic future.
In the more likely event that the regime succeeds in quelling the protests through brute force, Parsi urges the Biden administration to work in multilateral forums to hold the Iranian government accountable for its human rights violations.
Additionally, in order to avoid punishing the Iranian people (and undermining Iran’s long-term prospects for democratization) for the actions of the Iranian government,
the Biden administration must also seriously rethink its preference for broad-based crippling sanctions.
No news on Iran nuclear deal
A 12 October 2022 Reuters report indicates:
The United States on Wednesday said that reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is “not our focus right now,” saying Tehran had showed little interest in reviving the pact and that Washington was concentrating on how to support Iranian protesters.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price added:
The deal certainly does not appear imminent.
FROM CRISIS TO CONFLICT TRANSFORMATION: UKRAINE UPDATE
The Cuban missile crisis and lessons from history
We turn now to some great Canadian analysis by the co-chairs of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Robin Collins and Sylvie Lemieux. Their Hill Times article of 13 October 2022 is entitled Cuban missile crisis provides 60 years of lessons and the subhead reads in part:
The Cuba crisis ended because sober heads were allowed room to discuss the peaceful route away from Doomsday.
The article describes the important role played by then-UN Secretary-General U Thant in facilitating behind-the-scenes conflict resolution efforts to resolve the immediate crisis, and the resulting collaboration that would benefit both sides and humankind.
Collins and Lemieux write:
The crisis was so severe and tensions so high that far-reaching efforts were made afterwards to reduce risks even further.
Over the next dozen years alone, an array of eight nuclear weapon-related treaties were agreed.
On the current situation, they write:
Today in Europe, 60 years after the Cuba crisis, there is a hot war between Russia and Ukraine, but also a proxy war that risks enlargement and escalation.
The authors remind us of the likely impact of even a small nuclear exchange — information not available at the time of the Cuban missile crisis:
According to modelled calculations, a relatively small nuclear weapon exchange could cause dramatic global cooling and result in a “nuclear famine” that would ravage the earth.
Collins and Lemieux assert, and we strongly agree, that in addition to fostering peace in Ukraine,
we must focus also on preventing this war from “going nuclear,” wherein millions might be endangered in the fallout (and worse).
A role for Canada
And they see a role for Canada in the “de-escalation of tensions and in the replacement security thinking and diplomacy that urgently need to be put into place.” (More about that later in the post.)
Sixty years ago, we saw the quelling of an Earth-threatening crisis quickly lead to major arms control and disarmament opportunities.
This is our urgent task now, too. Canada, get ready to help.
For readers without a Hill Times subscription, the authors have kindly agreed to provide a PDF version available here.
For another excellent Canadian analysis of what we can — and must — learn from the Cuban missile crisis, see the article by consummate peace advocate Doug Roche, O.C., KCSG entitled The world doesn’t want another Cuban Missile Crisis (hilltimes.com, 12 October 2022), also available here in PDF format.
Like Collins and Lemieux, he ends his commentary with a suggested diplomatic peacemaking role for Canada:
We are not bereft of key ideas and high-level persons to find creative ways to end the present carnage. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended because Kennedy and Khrushchev took a risk with crisis diplomacy. Can Biden and Putin take a similar risk for peace?
Canada should push diplomacy, not arms, to end the Ukraine war.
Russia, NATO, nukes, and negotiations
Our blog posts have long cataloged American opposition to, or at best, non-support for, a negotiated end to the Ukraine conflict. For more insights into the Biden administration’s continuing reluctance to negotiate, see The dangers of letting blustery rhetoric dictate US policy in Ukraine (responsible statecraft.org, 14 October 2022) by Benjamin H. Friedman.
The commentary begins:
If you were worried that the Biden administration’s strategy toward the war in Ukraine has us drifting closer to catastrophic escalation in service — not of core U.S. interests — but of unrealistic dreams of an outright battlefield victory for Ukraine, I have bad news: it may be worse than that. Biden and company may be steering toward trouble they see clearly, but for whatever reason will not avoid….
Friedman then quotes from a recent article in the Washington Post:
Privately, U.S. officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table. They say they do not know what the end of the war looks like, or how it might end or when, insisting that is up to Kyiv.
When neither side has a clear path to victory, the obvious, we repeat, obvious recourse is negotiations, and the Biden administration, with its billions in aid, could be urging Ukraine to
use its presently strong battlefield position to negotiate the war’s end, with the sacrifices of some territory, certainly Crimea, and neutrality that will almost inevitably entail.
But this is not what the Biden administration appears to be doing. Friedman offers three possible explanations:
One — the Biden team feels trapped by its own rhetorical excess in declaring a Ukrainian victory vital to global democracy and U.S. security….
Friedman notes — and this applies to all the pundits who decry negotiations as nothing but appeasement, including our very own Andrew Coyne — that this is an easy position to take “when you are neither fighting the war nor funding it.” (The USA and other NATO allies are providing massive security assistance but it is the EU that is underwriting the Ukrainian economy.)
Second — the administration may judge that the war is going well for Americans, and the dangers are manageable.
The third possibility — which Friedman judges the most likely — is that the administration is biding its time before encouraging talks to end the war, believing the sides are just too far apart to usefully talk now.
So why press Ukraine to settle and take political heat when it won’t work anyway? If escalation risk can be controlled, why not let Russia’s losses erode its demands and get Ukraine a better deal?
I hope this [the third option] is what the administration is thinking, and that they’re seriously considering the size of that “if.”
Andrew Coyne says negotiating with Putin equals negotiating with Hitler
Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne’s latest attack on a negotiated end to the war is found in his 12 October 2022 opinion piece-cum-satire entitled This war has gone on long enough. It’s time to negotiate with Mr. Hitler (12 October 2022).
Inconveniently perhaps for Mr. Coyne, the differences between the two wars are manifold.
- WWII was a global war with all major powers and most other nations involved in the fighting. The West had massive numbers of their own citizens fully engaged, including the USA — albeit more than 2 years after the fighting began. China and India were both on the Western side as was Russia from June 1941 — a key ally, with even the US government Office of the Historian recognizing the crucial role that the then Soviet Union played in defeating Nazi Germany and Hitler’s plan for worldwide domination.
- The United States developed and used two atomic bombs against Japan, in 1945. It was at the time the only nation to possess nuclear weapons.
In the current case before us, the fighting is entirely between Russia — a global nuclear power — and Ukraine. China, India, Pakistan, and much of Africa, including South Africa — representing a majority of the world population — have taken a position of neutrality on the conflict. It has been going on for 8 months with huge destruction in one country only — Ukraine.
There is no prospect, we repeat, no prospect of the USA or any other NATO country entering this war at any time, even if Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons — since direct military engagement by nuclear-armed states threatens a global nuclear conflagration that no country can win — as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg keeps reminding us.
These are the facts — and the risks — that Coyne simply chooses to ignore.
An expert argument against negotiations now
For a far more serious set of arguments against negotiations at this time, see Strategic Procrastination: What’s Russia’s Game With Nuclear Signaling? (Vladimir Frolov, carnegieendowment.org, 11 October 2022).
In summary, Frolov argues:
Putin has made it clear that the Kremlin hopes to end the “special military operation” as quickly as possible. If Zelensky does not want to stop his counteroffensive and resume talks, then the Kremlin believes it must convince his Western partners to force him.
In his view:
The warning that Moscow is prepared “to defend Russian land by all available means,” massive bombardments of Ukrainian cities, and the allusion to the use of nuclear weapons are intended to motivate Kyiv and, in Putin’s words, its “true masters in the West” to cease fire and resume negotiations on Russia’s terms.
Much of the Frolov article focuses on the desperate military situation in which Russia finds itself and the lack of a credible risk of Russian nuclear weapons use. In his view:
Despite the frenzied television coverage, it is unlikely that Moscow is serious about using nuclear weapons.
He bases this conclusion on the dire consequences a “showcase detonation of a nuclear warhead” would entail, arguing that it would, among other things:
deprive Moscow of Turkey, India, and China’s amicable neutrality.
He distinguishes the Cuban missile crisis from the current situation in this way:
In contrast to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Moscow and Washington are not currently in a direct nuclear standoff. Artificially creating this standoff would be a difficult and dubious undertaking, because for now the United States is fully capable of ignoring Russia’s signals and avoiding a nuclear conflict.
Ukraine is not Cuba.
Having said that, although Frolov is not supportive of the resumption of Ukraine-Russia talks at this time, he most certainly supports Russia-US efforts to reduce nuclear risks.
In discussing this, he underscores a point made in the Collins/Lemieux piece about the importance of back-channel communications between Russia and the United States, writing:
Of the lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most obvious is the need to create and maintain back channels for dialogue.
Alarmingly, however, that option is no longer available. Frolov writes:
Repeating this back-channel diplomacy feat would be constructive, but following all the diplomatic ousters, there are no good candidates for it left in Moscow and Washington.
The Rideau Institute comments:
Surely that demonstrates rather compellingly why it makes absolutely no sense to cut off or seriously curtail diplomatic representation in the middle of a crisis, including intelligence operatives routinely stationed in embassies.
Parliamentarians and pundits, please take note.
What about the threat of massive bombardments of Ukrainian cities?
Frolov at least addresses the nuclear risk, albeit discounting it as an insufficient reason for considering negotiations now. But, having acknowledged the very real potential for Putin to engage in massive conventional bombardments of Ukrainian cities (of which there have recently been hideous foreshadowings), he does not discuss this threat any further.
In the view of the Rideau Institute:
The failure to take into account potentially unimaginable civilian deaths and injuries from a continuation of the conflict is emblematic of the NATO position writ large and it is, in a word, inexcusable.
Note also, that Frolov appears to overstate Ukraine’s military capacity, according to American military assessments referenced earlier in the Friedman article.
In the view of the Rideau Institute:
Despite saying he is against “capitulating” to Putin’s push for talks, Frolov’s analysis not only makes a compelling case for such talks, but also provides new insights into a possible deal, that takes full account of the current situation on the ground.
In the end, the overriding subtext of his article — whatever his intentions — is that the sooner diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine begin, ideally with the full backing of the US and NATO, the better for all concerned.
In the meantime, what about reducing nuclear risks?
For more on what the United States and Russia can do — right now — to limit the possibility of uncontrollable escalation, see Anatol Lieven’s article Putin annexations mean US-Russian talks more critical than ever (responsiblestatecraft.org, 30 September 2022).
Note that, once the threat of annexation had become imminent, Lieven called urgently for talks in an article that ended with the following observation — one that is even more apt now post-annexation:
War is a highly unpredictable business, and the course of the Ukraine war has defied the expectations of most analysts, myself included. So far, it has done so to the advantage of the Ukrainians. That will not necessarily always be the case.
To seek peace and break the present escalatory spiral is in the interests of Ukraine itself, as well as those of America and the world.
De-escalation and diplomacy: Whither Canada?
After Robin Collins and Sylvie Lemieux submitted their commentary to the Hill Times, the second half of their title was moved to a caption under the accompanying photos. We include their original version here:
Cuban Missile Crisis Provides 60 Years of Lessons:
We face the same risk of escalation and the same possibility of transformation
As both Russia and Ukraine deepen and widen their military engagements, far beyond the Eastern Ukraine front lines, it is clear that new approaches are imperative.
We call upon the Government of Canada to urgently raise within NATO the need for far greater emphasis on diplomacy for de-escalation and negotiated conflict transformation.
In last week’s blog post we featured a webinar hosted by the Group of 78 featuring celebrated Canadian international peace and security analyst and Order of Canada recipient Ernie Regehr discussing War in Ukraine: Possibilities for a Peace Settlement.
The video of that presentation is now available by clicking on the arrow below:
Photo credit: Wikimedia (2021-21 Iranian protests)