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A long-awaited war

Ola Tunander
Ola Tunander
Tunander is Professor Emeritus of PRIO. See also wikipedia, at PRIO: , as well as a bibliography on Waterstone
UKRAINE / It may seem as if the West, like Icarus in its youthful hubris, has flown too close to the sun. The principle of self-determination of sovereign states cannot be at the expense of the security of other states.


Already 20 years ago, it was clear to everyone who studied security policy that a NATO enlargement to the east would sooner or later lead to war. The agreement on Germany's unification in 1990 stated that NATO could not move to the eastern part of Germany. An extension beyond Germany, to Central Europe, was completely unacceptable. Moscow received promises from all Western leaders that this would never happen. The man behind NATO's policies during the Cold War, George Kennan, in 1997 described a NATO enlargement to the east as a mistake of "epic proportions". Anyone who presumably did not realize that it would lead to war was reminded of it at Vladimir Putin's speech in Munich in 2007. A NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia was immediately referred to as "a red line", which means that Moscow would prevent a NATO enlargement to Ukraine by military force, if necessary with nuclear weapons. In 2014, Henry Kissinger proposed a Finnish (neutrality) solution for Ukraine. He warned that Ukraine could join NATO. There have been more than 25 years of warnings from Russia. Today, Russia has entered Ukraine. What should surprise us is that Russia has been waiting so long.

The immediate reason for the incursion seems to be the untenable situation for the Russian-speaking separatists in Donetsk-Lugansk. The Minsk agreements between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany from 2014-2015 would give the Russian-speaking republics local autonomy. The United States and powerful groups in Ukraine wanted to prevent the agreement and take the breakaway republics by force. For Russia, this was unacceptable.

But for Moscow, it was probably even more important that Russian control of eastern Ukraine would make Ukraine's border controversial. This would make it virtually impossible for Ukraine to apply for NATO membership. It would quiet NATO in the face of an immediate war with Russia. At the same time, Moscow wanted the Russian-speaking voices in the populous eastern Ukraine to still win elections, as they did when Viktor Yanukovych won in 2010. If Russian forces want to occupy eastern Ukraine (something Putin has denied), it must have given up the hope of a good neighborhood.

We will face a bloody conflict. But the conflict is ultimately not about Ukraine, but about what security architecture Europe should have.

The rhetoric of the western world

It may seem as if the West, like Icarus in its youthful hubris, has flown too close to the sun. Icarus had attached wings to his body with wax, but the wax melted by the sun's rays. He crashed and drowned in the sea.

Western countries today are ruled by a generation that does not understand that nuclear weapons are a reality. These leaders say that any state is completely sovereign and can choose its own alliance without caring about the consequences this may have for the neighboring country. Ukraine should be free to choose to join NATO, it is believed, without caring about the Russians' security needs. This hubris, this thought, which has lately been elevated to dogma, makes any diplomacy impossible.

The question is: "how close to the sun do we want to fly"? What crisis does it take for us to realize that we are not alone on this earth? If we listen to the rhetoric we now hear on the Western side, we as sleepwalkers will be heading for a new war, which will not be limited to Eastern Ukraine, but which will also be aimed at American, British and Russian military targets. , before a new way of thinking will be possible.

The principle of self-determination of sovereign states cannot be at the expense of the security of other states. This applies to the Nordic countries and it applies to Ukraine. It may seem elementary. Own rearmament and alliance affiliation will necessarily provoke the other party to a corresponding rearmament with mutual uncertainty as a result. In today's debate, many have forgotten our own Nordic experience from the Cold War, when relaxation between the great powers presupposed military restraint or "a Nordic neutralism". We never allowed the United States to deploy combat forces in Norway or have military exercises in Finnmark. In 1949, Norway opted for a restrictive base and northern Norway policy in order to reduce Russian unrest over a possible American attack.

It was a wise and responsible policy. In Sweden, in the 60's, Minister of Defense Sven Andersson built air bases to be able to receive US bombers with the aim of attacking the Soviet Union before Sweden was attacked. It was less wise. In the 70s, Prime Minister Olof Palme changed this policy. He would not allow the US Air Force to use Swedish air bases if Sweden had not already been attacked by the Soviets.

The Swedish bases would, almost certainly, be beaten out with nuclear weapons.

Russia has repeatedly experienced how Western powers have attacked Russia and killed millions of people. American rhetoric about the United States' victory in the Cold War did not improve. It is understandable that Russia will take its precautions. In 1994, we invited the Russian Lieutenant General, Vladimir Cheremnikh, to the PRIO. He had been responsible for war planning for Northern Europe. He said that in case of war, the Soviets would seek to take Finnmark and thus secure a buffer against American attacks. And they would try to beat Bodø. But one would not attack Sweden if the United States did not already use Swedish air bases. In such a case, the Soviets would knock out these bases, he said. But the Soviets would lose too many aircraft if conventional weapons were used. The Swedish bases would, almost certainly, be beaten out with nuclear weapons.

A new security architecture

In other words, Sweden would be far safer without American aircraft on its soil. One might even avoid being drawn into a war. Advancing American air forces was a problem for the Soviet Union, and thus indirectly for Sweden and Norway.

Ukraine's unwillingness to accept neutrality increased the risk of a Russian pre-emptive strike. Russia now says it wants to strike Ukraine's offensive weapons and "disarm Ukraine", strike air bases and command centers, before retreating. Neutrality for Ukraine will be negotiated, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has now (at the time of writing) said he is willing to do. Tjeremnikh said in 1994: "We do not like you [the West] kicking us when we are down."

In other words, we must take into account the security of the other party if we want to guarantee our own security. This is not only about law and the individual state's right to self-determination, but also about a sensible security policy. To ensure a relaxation between the nuclear powers, we must establish some form of "neutral zone", such as Sweden and Finland in the Nordic countries during the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev wanted such a zone to be extended down through Central Europe to reduce the risk of a pre-emptive strike.

We now have to look at the security architecture that Europe benefits from – a European security architecture of which Ukraine is a part.

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