A war in Ukraine would be the result of extreme diplomatic neglect

Powers have ignored effective proposals struck in 2015 that could have avoided today's crisis

Europe is on the brink of what could be its most devastating conflict since the Second World War. AFP
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It is becoming increasingly obvious that repeated attempts at diplomacy are failing to solve the crisis in Ukraine. In recent weeks, a frenzied series of ministerial talks, presidential summits and rejected proposals has resulted in little more than cautionary tales for future historians to mention while they reflect on how the world, particularly the people of Ukraine, waited desperately for concrete action and got none.

In his efforts to convince Russia to remove its forces from the Ukrainian border region, French President Emmanuel Macron has been rebuffed four times by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who in turn has spoken at length of how his country has been rebuffed by the West for years. Mr Macron’s failed efforts are now summed up in an image of the two sitting at either ends of a vast table during talks in Moscow. The gulf between the two symbolises the gulf between Nato and Russia.

Britain has been treated with even more antipathy. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was told by her Russian counterpart that talking to her was like talking to a "deaf person". Trips to Russia have been matched in number by ones between the capitals of Nato members, as the bloc struggles to form a common approach.

This debacle need not signal the death of diplomacy in Europe. There are no conflicts that cannot be at least mitigated, if not prevented, by effective diplomacy and negotiation. What the situation reiterates is the need for skill and empathy in statecraft, rather than rushed, shortsighted brinkmanship.

What makes the potential for conflict in Ukraine particularly tragic is that there has been an intricate, multilateralist diplomatic solution on the table for years. Struck in 2015, the "Minsk-2" agreements saw all sides come up with a detailed pathway to peace, with backing from the UN Security Council. If realised, it would have brought about the demilitarisation of rebel-held areas of Ukraine, supported by Russia, a restoration of Kiev's sovereign control of the regions but under new measures to ensure the autonomy of Russian-speaking minority citizens and, therefore, quell fears over the future survival of their culture in Ukraine.

These plans have not been realised because neither Russia nor Ukraine have shown adequate desire to work at their implementation. But it is also because of the failure of the international community to keep both sides accountable, while also giving them the necessary attention and concern that their perspectives deserved. The result is the apparent death of a thorough agreement, brought about through negotiations by skilled diplomats. It has instead been replaced by a mania of ineffective meetings, proposals and subjective speeches on history, while innocent citizens from both sides are forced to consider fleeing or taking up arms against their centuries-old neighbours.

There is still time to de-escalate, despite the worrying developments of the past 48 hours, and all sides should work to do so. Globally, its effects are already being felt. Oil prices have risen and are edging close to $100 a barrel. Numerous airlines have cancelled flights to Ukraine. And the Beijing Winter Olympics, which should have ended on a note of global unity, has instead concluded with calls for peace as a vast war looms.

The case for avoiding war is blatantly obvious – far more so than the rationales for starting one, as evidenced by the murkiness of the disinformation both sides are accused by each other of promoting. But making the case might never have been necessary, if the diplomatic efforts that led to the Minsk agreements had had sufficient follow-through. That is the first tragedy of this crisis. It is only to be hoped desperately that there will be no more in the coming days.

Published: February 23, 2022, 3:00 AM