Ukraine crisis exposes need to reform European and global peace architecture

In this blog, Dr Thania Paffenholz critiques the West’s polarising response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and advocates for reform to ensure the participation of different actors in the pursuit of peace.

As Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine and the targeting of civilians continues and reports of war crimes mount, the international community is struggling to find effective solutions to broker a ceasefire and move towards a peace agreement.

This evolving crisis is exposing flaws in international diplomacy and peace and security architecture, shaped in the image of the West following World War II. It is revealing and catalysing a new world order, which demands the West rethink approaches to global peace. 

At the outset of this war, a familiar rhetoric took hold, the West drawing sides between “tyranny” and “freedom”: it is not only war in Ukraine, but also a fight between democracies and autocracies, as US President Joe Biden said in an impassioned speech delivered in Poland in March.

West’s polarising response

The West’s response to Ukraine has revealed entrenched bias, hypocrisy and racism within outdated systems. Support for Ukraine poured in when humanitarian crises raging in Tigray and Yemen have not received a fraction of the funding or attention.  This has caused further divisions and tensions between the West and the rest of the world and jeopardises future opportunities for peace.  

So how can Europe and the US move on a path from confrontation and polarisation to dialogue and ultimately cooperation with Russia without stopping to support the people and the government of Ukraine? To reach a ceasefire and move to a peace agreement will require meeting Ukraine’s needs and pushing for a broader deal allowing for Western and Russian security interests. 

Outdated systems 

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was set up after World War II to stay in dialogue with Russia. The UN Security Council was founded to secure world peace. Indeed, Russia was serving as the President of the UN Security Council, and their ambassador delivered a speech to that same audience on the exact day of the invasion. This is a tragic symbol of the futility and limitations of the current international peace and security architecture. 

Protest against Russian invasion of Ukraine on the Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo: Matyas Rehak 2022

In 2012, the EU received the Nobel peace prize for the project of a peaceful Europe. However, we see that the instruments of peace and security in the world, the UN and in Europe the OSCE are not fulfilling their potential. If these bodies are not functioning to the level needed, we need to re-negotiate the peace and security architecture in Europe and the world. 

New space for dialogue

It does not mean we need to abolish all existing systems, but we might need to renegotiate the terms and conditions of the existing ones and start new ones. It is vital to give space for an emerging world order in which countries in the Global South take a lead role.  This would mean setting up new constellations and spaces for security and peace dialogues. 

Part of this will also involve a deeper reflection on the role of organisations such as the OSCE, and whether the current escalatory rhetoric and mobilisation will deliver a more stable, peaceful future in both the short term and longer term. 

Perpetual peacebuilding

Overall, this should be informed by what I call Perpetual peacebuilding, a never-ending, constant process of renegotiating the social and political contract within and between states. It also requires a more dynamic multilateral approach to peace and security, not one that becomes fossilised or dysfunctional due to geopolitical shifts and growing multipolarity, but one which embraces this messy reality and seeks cooperation and compromise, rather than consensus. 

Unfortunately, a peaceful settlement in Ukraine is not going to happen easily, nor quickly, nor in a manner that will appease all sides. Compromises, including elements of Ukrainian sovereignty, will be required. 

The history of peacemaking in Europe and beyond shows us that there are broadly two roads which can be pursued. In seeking to put an end to the violence, all sides reach an agreement which barely holds and creates grievances on one or both sides that sow the seeds for future conflict.

The second option is to seek an agreement that catalyses immediate security needs with a comprehensive ceasefire agreement and a broader set of changes around how the West and Russia address peace and security through dialogue spaces. This would involve creating platforms for collaboration, compromise and non-violent resolution of disputes that are open to realpolitik and lessons from existing spaces that did not work. 

This is a moment in history to acknowledge and attempt to fix the flaws in an outdated global peace architecture. This a moment to start new dialogues between the West and the rest of the world.