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Dilemmas of the Ukrainian Invasion

Current developments in Ukraine raise many questions. Mark Anstey, a negotiation and mediation expert, provides some insights from his point of view. Mr Putin has worked his strategy well. His support of dissidents in the Donetsk region has kept neighbouring Ukraine in a state of debilitating instability for the last 8 years. He has acted before it can be considered as a member of NATO, limiting its capacity to call on allies for direct military support. He has taken on a fragmented and gas-dependent EU in midwinter conditions. Both the EU and the USA are struggling with problems of internal coherence and COVID battered economies. And he faces a West seemingly progressively unwilling to take on foreign wars, highlighted by the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The timing is surely not accidental.

by Mark Anstey

While his strategy of threat has been obvious for some time, the scope of his actual objectives remains unclear – and may be worked out progressively. Certainly, in the immediate a salami slice approach to eastern Ukraine, and then perhaps hope that this with a little prompting and targeted bombing will cause sufficient internal turmoil to see a collapse of the Ukrainian regime - and/or a reason to offer troops to restore law and order and bring humanitarian aid (ala Kazakhstan). So perhaps ... secure Donetsk and Luhansk then assess the size and cost of Ukrainian resistance, Western resolve and pain to be borne before any further action. If the intent is to have a legacy of restoring Russia to former glory then perhaps larger Ukraine ... and consideration of wider 'restoration' projects from there. Weakness might invite further encroachment; an ill-considered military response, a punch-up the West is not prepared for. The costs of a resisted occupation of course may temper any such projects but there are more sophisticated means of control through sponsored instability or the installation to the power of local dissidents.

The West seems to believe that its tools of economic warfare will be sufficient to deter further invasion, that progressive targeted sanctions will inflict sufficient economic pain to dent Putin's ambitions (whatever these are).

The West seems to believe that its tools of economic warfare will be sufficient to deter further invasion, that progressive targeted sanctions will inflict sufficient economic pain to dent Putin's ambitions (whatever these are). I grew up in Rhodesia and spent much of my life in South Africa. Even small economies find ways to survive. And sanctions can take a long time to be truly effective. Leaders use shortages to harden resolve, to mobilise citizens around the injustices and cruelties of those who impose them, and to build morale. Putin has already campaigned strongly on this front – portraying an evil West putting Russia under a security threat, eroding its values and traditions and the loyalties of neighbours. If there is an internal division within Russia the old external enemy threat tactic is a useful time-tested approach. And he has taken care to portray himself domestically as strong but open to diplomacy. A string of western leaders have been pulled to his door for talks, he has demonstrated himself as willing to listen and then portrayed these leaders as aggressors, ignorant of history and careless of Russian security concerns.

The invasion of Ukraine is in clear violation of the UN Charter which prohibits the use of military force in international relations and limits UN intervention in the domestic jurisdiction of a sovereign state. However following the Rwandan genocide of 1994 the UN-endorsed a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005 to ensure the international community never again fails to intervene when a state commits atrocities, crimes of genocide or ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. Its implementation has divided the UNSC in such cases as Iraq, and Libya. Notably, Putin has attempted to portray the current invasion of Ukraine as warranted by the genocidal acts of the country’s government. If his strategy of gaining direct or indirect control over Ukraine succeeds and a new regime undertakes a brutal and punitive purge of opposition groups what will the UN position on R2P be? The unpalatable reality is that the UNSC is stalemated when faced with the unilateral actions of its members.

The thing no one wants to contemplate is a full-on war. The worst scenario. Does Europe have to play harder by the old adage: if you want peace, prepare for war? A competition of missiles is unthinkable - but its threat cautions everyone. And it gives room for a salami slice strategy for a steady encroachment on neighbouring territories, each too small to warrant button-pushing. A huge troops-on-the-ground confrontation is probably unwinnable for the West - both these options would carry massive costs for everyone. Russia and Ukraine have a history of enormous capacity and willingness to endure the pain of long wars. Has Europe got the stomach for such an exchange or has it grown too comfortable to put up a fight? How many Western European nations would send large numbers of their children off to fight for eastern states under threat? And how many would be capable of doing so in terms of citizen readiness?

We are now in a situation of dilemmas - a conflict that could get quickly bigger with or without meaningful responsive action. A test of resolve. And of course, it presents the old dilemmas of brinkmanship, and also mediation: which, if any, third parties could credibly intervene, under whose authority, using what levers, and at what time ... and what if the party activating the conflict sees greater value in sustaining it than in a de-escalation; and negotiation as useful only for PR and breathing space purposes?

I hope students of conflict are gathering all the rising exchanges in rhetoric and salami slice strategies and dilemmas of response presented for comprehensive timely process analysis. But, of course, we now exist in a set of real-world casualties and dilemmas in a game whose parameters are uncertain. I am hesitant to propose that things can only get worse, but equally that they won't. Who should or could be doing things differently at this stage?

Mark Anstey is a Senior Academy Associate of the Clingendael Institute and an Emeritus Professor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University where he was Director of the Labour Relations Unit (1987-2008). He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Processes of International Negotiations (PIN) Program now with the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. He was a Professor at Michigan State University in Dubai (2008-11) and has taught at the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, and Stellenbosch.


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