Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Ukraine and the West can use Putin’s rhetoric on self-determination to end his charade, avoid further escalation, and start building a better world order.
We are playing with fire, that is, a nuclear firestorm. Early this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set their Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to “midnight,” a global nuclear Armageddon, the closest to midnight it has ever been. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are getting closer still. Putin’s threats to meet any interference with “such consequences as you have never experienced in your history” and his order to put Russian nuclear forces on high alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War, may indeed amount to “provocative rhetoric,” as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated.
Granted, the prospects of a Russian nuclear attack remain very low; it would be such an ignorant thing to do if the Russians love their children too, as they surely do.
But Putin is a wounded would-be alpha-male: a perpetual victim with grandiose ambitions, arrested development – and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia, believes Putin does not consider a nuclear attack taboo, “the thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it.” In my own study, I explain how a domestic legitimacy crisis, which Putin may soon face, can incite nuclear diversion, especially if Putin believe, for good reasons, that the west will not retaliate if Russia uses some of its two-thousand tactical nuclear weapons. Putin’s existential “no choice” discourse, and its nuclear dimension are alarming, especially when Russians are largely oblivious to what is done in their name.
For over two years, fearing the Coronavirus, we saw what the world is willing to do to mitigate a pandemic with a current death toll of six million, significantly less than the eight million dying each year from tobacco. With a nuclear holocaust back in our collective nightmares, we must ask: what can we do, what are we willing to do, to avoid midnight?
Rationality will not save us; neither will righteousness. In the current showdown between Russia and the West, one side winning means everyone losing – everything. And this crisis may well last for years, with uncertainty and chances of catastrophic incidents mounting each day. Many dangers lurk below the nuclear threshold: bio-chemical warfare, violent spillover, rising prices, global energy crisis and food shortage.
Still, finding a middle ground amidst a battleground requires a common ground, a normative plain both sides can agree upon. Is there one?
Yes – hidden in plain sight, in Putin’s own worldview, and words. Over the past months, Putin reiterated his justification for the coming Russian invasion: The Russians and Ukrainians are a yedinyi narod, “one people,” belonging to the same Russky Mir, a “Russian World.” And since peoples have the right to “self-determination,” which “is enshrined in Article 1 of the UN Charter,” as Putin solemnly stated in his Feb 24 speech, that’s what his move is all about: “Freedom guides our policy, the freedom to choose independently our future and the future of our children. We believe that all the peoples living in today’s Ukraine, anyone who wants to do this, must be able to enjoy this right to make a free choice.”
Let’s have it then: self-determination through and through. While trapping Putin in his belligerent, nuclear rhetoric can lead to further escalation, committing him to his self-determination discourse can help defuse the conflict, and help foster a better world order. During the 2014 Crimean crisis, I argued that it “unearths a global crisis of legitimacy,” and proposed a response: holding a plebiscite in Crimea. We missed that opportunity then; we shouldn’t miss it again.
The Russo-Ukrainian War provides another occasion to take Putin at his word and expose his bluff. If Putin claims self-determination is his end, we should have used it to end his charade and avoid further escalation. We still can. We should continue the humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, to press Putin, while offering him a ladder to climb down, putting a simple proposal on the table: Ceasefire, powers resuming their previous positions, and – following a moratorium and under international supervision – holding a referendum in Ukraine about its sovereignty and borders.
This is a scary move, but not as terrifying the alternative. The West will be rewarding a belligerent dictator, Ukraine might lose territory, Putin will be hoist by his own petard, neighboring a pro-West Ukraine. But with each losing something, we will avoid everyone losing everything. Moreover, this is the right thing to do. People should govern themselves. A referendum is certainly more just than a top-down Munich-like agreement to recognize the ‘independence’ of Donetsk and Luhansk and forestall Ukraine’s Western association. If we keep going on the current path, Putin’s lies become ours.
It is time to favor people(s) over states: de-sanctifying states and their borders, relaxing the principles of uti possidetis (belligerent right to hold onto occupied territories) and territorial integrity. We need a vision for a new world order to inspire new, and better, politics. Elsewhere I have outlined a Declaration on Self-determination, which may help jumpstart the conversation. What I propose for Ukraine is applicable anywhere; when states clash – poll the people.