A Japanese View on the Conflict in Ukraine

The way Russia is pressured is creating an existential threat, against which it might use nuclear weapons. This would lead to a Third World War or Third European War. It is not worth it, and all countries concerned have to be unified to find a common exit strategy out of this conflict, writes Kazuhiko Togo, Visiting Professor at the Global Centre for Asian and Regional Research at the University of Shizuoka, and Advisor for External Relations for Shizuoka Prefecture. 

First, in my view, the conflict in Ukraine needs to enter to a ceasefire as soon as possible and its major activity should be switched from military people to diplomats. Presidents in all warring countries should remain, but their major functions are to find a common exit strategy from the war. If that alone takes place, it would be such a relief for everybody. 

Second, there is an absolute need that both sides relinquish the notion of “winning the war.” If one side insists on winning the war and introduces a strategy to achieve its objective, the other side is bound to react and introduce a new strategy which counters his enemy’s strategy so that his position is more advantageous than his enemy’s position. If by following this path, the war never ends, there is no other way than escalation. Simply put, nobody’s able to exit the security dilemma. 

The only way a ceasefire may be achieved is that both sides become willing to embrace a new perception that “neither side wins”, which means that “Russia is not defeated,” but “Biden and Zelensky are not defeated either.” Putin must have reasons to assert that he is not defeated and his honour is protected. Similarly, Biden and Zelensky must have reasons to assert that they are not defeated and that their honour is protected. 

Third, to reach that situation of “neither side is winning,” all parties concerned should share that common purpose. At the same time, however, that shared purpose should be backed up by the actual situation at the battlefield. This is the most difficult aspect. The conflict is still going on. It is natural that both sides desire that their side gains more victory. For that, both sides may continue fighting forever. This is precisely what should be stopped. 

How can we stop? An analysis to be made by a third party, very presumptuously including this short paper. Some articles in Responsible Statecraft, or Dmitry Simes’ appearance in Russian TV programs such as Bolshaya Igra (The Great Game) give us hope for a better understanding of Putin’ approach. Some articles which are posted in Responsible Statecraft leave us with the same hope: “Why Japan should take a stand in NATO tensions with Russia” (January 24, 2022) and “Japan’s own scars offer wisdom for Russia-Ukraine ceasefire” (April 4 2022) might provide a hint on how the conflict started and when and where a possible ceasefire existed, even after February 24. 

Fourth, at least one opportunity for a ceasefire emerged at the peace talks in Istanbul on March 30, comprised in the Ukrainian proposal. When I read the Ukrainian proposal then, I was truly astonished and admired the Ukrainian strategist-diplomat because the proposals included everything necessary to implement a ceasefire. First, it proposed Ukrainian neutrality, to be guaranteed by international powers. When it came to be known that Russia might become one of those powers, the question of neutrality began to have even a more worthwhile consideration. But what was more interesting was the proposal concerning Crimea and Donbass. It was truly stunning that the proposal excluded these two regions from areas of Ukrainian neutrality. On Crimea, it proposed 15 years of talks between Russia and Ukraine. On Donbass it also proposed that Russia and Ukraine discuss areas which could be outside the scope of neutrality. The Russian reaction was reportedly very positive. But then, immediately after this progress, news about Bucha’s 410 victims spread out, where Ukrainian and Russian versions were completely apart. This paper does not delve further about the “truth in Bucha,” but on April 2nd, Ukraine reversed its peace talk proposal and took Crimea out from the exclusion of neutral Ukraine. This was a catastrophic back away from the March 30 proposal. Lavrov immediately reacted and stated that the new proposal cannot be accepted, and peace talks haven’t been held in any serious meaning of the term since then. Zelensky, on the contrary, began his wide international plea to supply Ukraine with advanced weapons to drive back invading Russians, and this pattern is basically continuing to this day. 

There seem to have emerged efforts from both sides to seek a ceasefire, but none have borne fruit. The military situation in eastern and southern Ukraine continued as a stalemate but perhaps will very gradually favour Russian influence. I skip all periods of possible missed opportunities, which are analysed in detail in my Japanese book, and jump to the present day rising tension. 

Fifth, when and where did the present-day tension rise? Who rocked the status-quo most to have heated the tension? Was it any action by Putin, such as his call to the Russian people on September 21 for the introduction of partial mobilization that heightened the tensions? Was it his announcement of the referendum of four regions to take place from September 23 to September 27 that alerted Biden and Zelensky? In my view, none of these Russian actions were the original cause of recent tensions. These were actions of a defensive nature taken by Russia against overwhelmingly aggressive actions taken by Zelensky and backed by Biden. 

On September 11, a change of mood was seen when the Ukrainians had an unexpected victory; they successfully attacked and took back areas in the Kharkov Region. Unexpected Ukrainian success created a sort of euphoric atmosphere in Ukraine but the overwhelmingly aggressive actions taken by Zelensky and backed by Biden date back about one month earlier: the Ukrainian attack of Crimea, backed by Biden.

That has entirely changed the character of the conflict in Ukraine.

What happened in Crimea? Needless to say, after the Maidan revolution in February 2014, when democratically-elected Yanukovich was ousted from Kiev by Maidan revolutionists, Putin seized this occasion and conducted a swift referendum and incorporated Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia. The action was enormously popular in Crimea and in Russia. John Mearsheimer soon began maintaining that Crimea is best off if it remains in Russian hands. Putin’s annexation of Crimea became the cause of four rounds of economic sanctions and the expulsion of Russia from the G8, but what took place this time was something totally different. 

On July 23, Zelensky made a statement that he had decided to reincorporate Crimea in Ukraine, and he made the decision without consulting anyone. On July 24, as if to echo his decision, Biden announced a $3 billion Ukraine military aid package. As of August 9, Ukraine began attacking Crimea, and on September 7 formally acknowledged that the attack had been made by Ukraine. 

It has been my clear understanding that a physical attack on Crimea is an attack on Russia itself, which Putin will never accept. It is a matter of national security, and he is bound to retaliate. Zelensky’s decision to take back Crimea by force and Biden’s openly supportive actions will inevitably lead to some kind of retaliation by Russia. This is undoubtedly the real beginning of today’s crisis. Everything that has followed has been the consequence of this Zelensky-Biden attack on Crimea. 

Sixth, in the Western media, including in Japan, the discussion we hear is “why is Putin elevating the level of the warfare?” But there is no one who mentions that attacking Crimea goes well beyond any acceptable red line for Putin. Nevertheless, Zelensky declared this objective with Biden’s full encouragement. Putin is bound to counter against Zelensky and Biden. 

As a part of this defensive reaction, national referenda took place in four regions. Western media, including the Japanese press, described these referenda before they took place as “sham referenda”. What they are entirely missing is that among those who agree to the referendum, there are some ethnically Russian Ukrainians who genuinely seek the protection of their identity. If their identity is protected by the President of Ukraine, it goes without saying that they do not need protection by Russia, hence no necessity of any referendum, But if becoming part of Russia is the only way to ensure their identity and safety, they may have well said “yes” in the referendum. They are desperate.

If there had been a Ukrainian President who was cognizant that among his presidential responsibilities, he had an obligation to protect the rights and safety of some Ukrainian citizens who wanted that their close-to-Russia identity be protected and honoured, it goes without saying that there was not any need for a national referendum.

But President Zelensky, ever since the Bucha incident speaks out for his responsibility to ensure the territorial integrity of Ukraine but never-ever spoke about his responsibility to protect some Ukrainian people, whose identities remain affiliated with Russia. As a simple Japanese outsider, I get the impression that in President Zelensky’s eyes, these people do not exist, because they are just collaborators of Russia, who deserved to be executed or at best forced to change their views. 

But at least I can say that Zelensky-Biden’s insistence on retaking Crimea in full resulted in a serious reaction by Putin, including disclosing the nature of Zelensky’s regime to pay attention only to regaining territorial integrity with no understanding of his Presidential responsibility towards some Ukrainian people who wanted to maintain their close-to-Russia identity. 

Seventh, in concluding. Done is done and at the time of writing of this paper, national referendums in four regions were actually taking place. 

I cannot but agree that overall, the conflict in Ukraine is moving in a more desperate direction.

For Putin, Ukraine is just fighting a proxy war and the real enemy is the US, now combined with some NATO forces. Putin cannot lose the war. It could mean that Putin may be recognizing that a war without a “formal declaration of war” has already begun between Russia and the US, backed by some NATO countries.

Putin’s September 21 speech includes an ominous ending, that “pressuring Russia, aiming at its defeat” will be met with an existential reaction, possibly involving the use of nuclear weapons. 

My only view as a Japanese is to take Putin’s warning at face value. Putin warns that the way he is pressured is creating an existential threat, against which he might use nuclear weapons. This would lead to a Third World War or Third European War. It is not worth it, and as I have already stated, all countries concerned have to be unified to find a common exit strategy out of this conflict.

Modern Diplomacy
Nuclear World: Invisible Deterrence and New Scenarios of Escalation
On May 12, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion titled “Russia-USA: A New Era of Nuclear Deterrence?” Andrey Sushentsov, Programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club, who moderated the discussion, noted that there is currently a crisis in European security, and that the Ukrainian crisis is an important component of it.
Club events
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.