This story originally appeared in Common Dreams on Feb. 22, 2022. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) license.
The urgency of diplomatic steps to avert a war in Eastern Europe reached new heights Tuesday following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to recognize two breakaway regions in Ukraine as independent and deploy troops—described as “peacekeeping” forces—to the Donbas, heightening fears of an all-out military conflict.
In a statement late Monday, a spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that he is “greatly concerned by the decision by the Russian Federation related to the status of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.”
Guterres “calls for the peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, in accordance with the Minsk Agreements, as endorsed by the Security Council in Resolution 2202,” said the spokesperson. “The secretary-general urges all relevant actors to focus their efforts on ensuring an immediate cessation of hostilities, protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, preventing any actions and statements that may further escalate the dangerous situation in and around Ukraine, and prioritizing diplomacy to address all issues peacefully.”
The statement came as the US, the European Union, and the United Kingdom prepared to respond to Putin’s actions with a “barrage” of fresh economic sanctions targeting Russia itself as well as Donetsk and Luhansk.
Shortly after Putin signed decrees formally recognizing the independence of the two self-proclaimed people’s republics in eastern Ukraine, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order barring Americans from investing in the regions and prohibiting “the importation into the United States, directly or indirectly, of any goods, services, or technology from the so-called DNR or LNR.”
During a call with reporters Monday evening, a senior administration official made clear that Biden’s executive order and other policy moves expected Tuesday “are not the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine”—an indication that far more sweeping sanctions could be on the horizon.
But analysts have cautioned in recent days that economic warfare by the West likely won’t bring the burgeoning conflict with Russia to an end—and could have deleterious economic and humanitarian impacts.
As such, progressive lawmakers, peace activists, and experts on the region called on world leaders to prioritize diplomatic negotiations to avoid a potentially catastrophic war.
“De-escalation and diplomacy are the only way to secure peace,” British MP Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour Party leader, said late Monday.
Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote Monday that “American condemnation of Russia’s latest action should be accompanied by continued efforts at compromise with Russia.”
“War between nuclear-armed powers is not an option,” Lieven wrote, alluding to the fact that the US and Russia together possess more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. “Russia’s action has narrowed the space for diplomacy to resolve this crisis, but not yet destroyed it. As long as there is any hope of preventing a wider war, it is our duty to pursue it.”
Specifically, peace advocates have called on the US to compromise on its stated readiness to welcome Ukraine into NATO—a position that, as he reiterated during a lengthy address Monday, Putin views as a major security threat to Russia.
“Biden has said repeatedly that the U.S. is open to diplomacy with Russia, but on the issue that Moscow has most emphasized—NATO enlargement—there has been no American diplomacy at all,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, wrote in an op-ed for the Financial Times on Monday. “Putin has repeatedly demanded that the U.S. forswear NATO’s enlargement into Ukraine, while Biden has repeatedly asserted that membership of the alliance is Ukraine’s choice.”
“The U.S. should propose a guarantee that NATO will not enlarge to include Ukraine in return for a full withdrawal of Russian forces from the Donbas region and an end to Russian support for the independence of the two Moscow-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, a demobilization along the Russia-Ukraine border, and an assurance of Ukrainian sovereignty,” Sachs argued. “If the U.S. won’t do this, then France and Germany should step forward instead.”
During an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Monday in the wake of Putin’s address, Rosemary DiCarlo—the UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs—raised alarm over increased shelling and ceasefire violations in the Donbas in recent days and implored all parties to devote their full attention to achieving a diplomatic resolution.
“The risk of major conflict is real and needs to be prevented at all costs,” said DiCarlo. “Amid the current risks and uncertainty, it is even more important to pursue dialogue.”
With tensions dangerously high, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is set to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Tuesday. Later this week, Blinken is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva.
“Even during the most difficult moments… we say, ‘We are ready for negotiations,'” Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday. “We are always in favor of diplomacy.”