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The thawing of a frozen conflict



Global warming, much in the news of late, has been accompanied by another unwelcome thaw. The ‘frozen conflict’ in the East of Ukraine between a Western-backed, Ukrainian nationalist government and Russian-speaking rebels with cultural affinity with Moscow, has been heating up alarmingly. Back in 2015, the Minsk 2 Agreements were signed between Ukraine and separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk with various ‘guarantors’ and ‘mediators’ also adding their names to the document — Russia, France and Germany. Notably, the United States, which is the lead backer of the Ukrainian government, was not a party. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, the Minsk Accord of 2014, Minsk 2 is functionally dead — with none of its provisions having been implemented.

The result has been a volatile front line with periodic shelling causing misery for local inhabitants. The conflict has, however, been prevented from spreading more widely by a certain balance of deterrence. The Russians, who provide the rebels with moral and material support, have not gone further than this (despite periodic scare claims in the West), have no desire to assume responsibility for the breakaway regions themselves. Similarly, Ukraine, at least until recently, has recognised that it has been unable to secure control of the area by force and that it would have no Western backing (beyond ongoing arms and training) for an open offensive.  

Recently, however, there have been some worrying shifts in the balance. The US is reported to have deployed a military command ship, the Mount Whitney, to the Black Sea as well as a missile destroyer. At the same time, the US imposed new sanctions on Russia on 23 November (in response to the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe which would allow Russia to compete with more expensive imported US natural gas without it transiting Ukraine). Recent Western reports also state that the US has increased military activity around Russia’s borders, has offered an ‘open door’ to NATO membership for Ukraine, and is reactivating a Cold War nuclear missile unit in Germany, equipping it with hypersonic missiles.

While Secretary of State Blinken has claimed that much of this is in response to a Russian troop build up on Ukraine’s borders, Ukrainian officials themselves have denied that such a build up has happened. The Ukrainian government has, however, tabled a new bill in the Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) which would officially disown the requirement to cooperate with the rebels in organising elections contained in Minsk 2. 

Ukraine is suffering from fuel shortages (partly due to Russia suspending coal shipments on 1 November in response to a recent Ukrainian drone strike on rebel positions). President Zelenskiy has just lost his parliamentary majority and the leader of the largest parliamentary opposition party, Viktor Medvedchuk, has been under house arrest since May (with the television channels which he controlled shut down since February).  


'If this conflict does indeed ‘unthaw’, it risks horrors at least as great as those of climate changeand in a much shorter timeframe.'


In such a febrile atmosphere, there is the risk of a serious miscalculation on one side or the other. The US president, Joe Biden, has a long association with Ukraine — famously boasting in a 2018 conference, that: 

‘it just happened to be that was the assignment I got. I got all the good ones. And so I got Ukraine. And I remember going over, convincing our team, our leaders toconvincing that we should be providing for loan guarantees. And I went over, I guess, the 12th, 13th time to Kiev.’

Indeed, so close was the relationship that he went on to describe how he threatened to withhold those guarantees from that country’s government in order to have a Ukrainian prosecutor fired. As it happens, the prosecutor was then investigating corruption by the owner of Burisma, a Ukrainian oil company of which Biden’s son, Hunter, was a directoran investigation which seems to have ceased shortly after the firing.

With that history of closeness and President Biden’s falling approval ratings, it may be that some in both US and Ukrainian governments believe that unfreezing the Donbass war with US military support will boost the fortunes of a struggling economy, give both US and Ukrainian leaderships a popularity boost by bloodying the nose of the Bear and even strengthen Western Europe’s allegiance to the US.

If so, it is a dangerous calculation. Limited wars between nuclear powers are generally thought to be a contradiction in terms since the accepted wisdom on all sides has been that any direct conflict between nuclear powers will automatically escalate to a point where a catastrophic nuclear exchange becomes inevitable. If this conflict does indeed ‘unthaw’, it risks horrors at least as great as those of climate changeand in a much shorter timeframe.


Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking at Holodomor Remembrance Day. (Preseident.gov.ua) 

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Ukraine, USA, Russia, Putin, Biden, Zelenskiy



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Existing comments

Thank you, Justin, for such a deep and unbiased analysis of this fraught situation. Please God both sides have the good sense to de-escalate the looming crisis.

Michael Furtado | 30 November 2021  

Thks Justin

Tony Kevin | 30 November 2021  

It is a complex situation. Christianity came to Russia via the Ukraine when Prince Vladimir converted. Russians regard themselves as the Big Brothers and Sisters of the Slavs. They have already annexed the Crimea. One of the political, not moral, mistakes the Ukrainians made was giving up their nuclear weapons. Russia would never have attacked a nuclear-armed Ukraine. 'Ukrainian separatists' in the East are actually ethnic Russians who want to be part of Russia. Despite bagging by the US and Australian press, I think Biden is handling this situation well.

Edward Fido | 01 December 2021  
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Well said, Edward.

Its also happens that Eastern Ukrainians are Orthodox and the others are Catholic. Religious division still casts a deep shadow across the Slavs; although I'm grateful that Justin avoided constructing his analysis in those terms and focused instead on a discussion of the conditions that may broker a just peace.

I hope Mrs F is doing well.

Michael Furtado | 01 December 2021  

‘Accepted wisdom….’

No such thing. Not in a postmodern world. In a Christological word, yes, because ‘accepted wisdom’ is a taboo, like taking the Lord’s name in vain, or sex between men, or any former cultural proscription that secular philosophy is trying to undo, a cultural understanding based on the preeminence of an assumed higher and still mysterious rationality which will take time, in something called continual revelation, to work out.

In a way, Jesuits are in no position to argue ‘accepted wisdom’ or taboo in nuclear armament theory when, in the next moment, they will be arguing against the existence of any concept of accepted wisdom or taboo somewhere else on the grounds that knowledge is always evolving for the better.

As it turns out, going by the linked article, if a low-nuke is the only way to take out an aircraft carrier, then low-nuking is, rationally, the deterrent way to go for conventional wars. Low-nuking might increase the threshold for conventional war.

Take Taiwan. It’s supposed to be a flashpoint for war between the US and China. Only because it doesn’t have a nest of nuclear missiles pointed at those areas of China which generate its wealth. China can afford to chase (or make chase-noises about) Taiwan because Taiwan is defenceless. Everybody knows that. The problem is not chasing. Anyone can chase. It’s what you do when you catch up. And, as the Kyle Rittenhouse case shows, three people should have thought about that.

roy chen yee | 02 December 2021  
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Come on, Roy Chen Yee, is that what you really believe in our heart when you meet your creator and saviour in honest prayer? Or are you simply stoking the fires of the current culture warfare where every evil in the work can be traced backed to LGBTI people? As a faithful gay Catholic man myself, I often call out the hypocrisy and and blatant mistruths of our woke culture of the left, but you seem to being exactly the same things from the opposite end of the spectrum. And it makes all your other posts seem disingenuous as well. It shows your posts are not motivated by a discerning Christian heart, but simply the same tribal politics that is festering in most of our social discussions on these issues. The soc-called "accepted wisdom" of nuclear war cannot just be used in the same breath as "accepted wisdom" on man to man sex. There is also an exxapted wisdom that OT texts referred to an ancient abusive custom of non-consexual homosexual abuse that has nothing to to with today's concept of informed consent. And it wasn;t just homosexual, but heteroexual as well. Prostiution isn't calledthe oldest profession in the book for nothing. So before you start engaging in your cultural warefare, perhaps engage in a bit of critical hsistorical theology. (ie reality theory instead of cultural warfare)

AURELIUS | 16 January 2022  

Where every evil in the world can be traced back to LGBTI people?

I don’t think even Fred Nile thinks this. But thanks for the question which raises another question. If there can be an accepted wisdom that every SARS CoV2 virus starring in our pandemic can be traced back to one transmitter at Ground Zero in Wuhan, why is Michael Furtado (or the other scoffers of the Fall) refusing to believe that all sin can be traced back to Ground Zero in the Garden of Eden?

Anyway, it’s LGBTIQ* because we can’t rule out other carriages being attached to the locomotive.

roy chen yee | 19 January 2022  

Thank you for this very important article, Julian. Since this article was first posted, the thawing of the frozen conflict has increased.

According to the claims being made by the leaders of the US and its allies, the leadership of the People's Republic of China should have invaded Taiwan by now and Putin is about to invade the Ukraine.

While we may be suspicious of the leaders of the PRC and Russia, we also need to be aware of the game the US is playing and how it uses leaders of its allies for its own ends. 

Super powers have their centres of power. That goes with the name of the game. Obviously, Russia's power base are the nations that fwere Soviets of the Soviet Union and other powers in the Warsaw Pact. China's sphere of influence is Western and Southern Asia.

Yet the US would have us believe that its sphere of influence can include Ukraine and Taiwan. US leaders must know that this is unacceptable.

We know what happened in Cuba  between 1961 and 1962. The failed US attack on Cuba's Bay of Pigs in April 1961 was followed by Operation Mongoose in November of the same year which was an attempt to stimulate an uprising against Fidel Castro's government. US intelligence then discovered that the USSR had put missile on Cuban soil to help its ally to ptotect itself.  John Kennedy - the US president at the time John Kennedy played e very confrontational response by placing a naval quarantine blockade around Cuba.  Fortunately, USSR premier at the time ordered Soviet ships not to challenge the US ships thus averting a catastrophe.

Putin is watching the US meddle in the Ukraine close to Russia's border despite the fact that former US secretary of state Baker made a promise that that the US would not try to recruit nations in Eastern Europe to join NATO. Not only has this happened, the US in 2014 helped to bring about the overthrow of the democratic Ukraine government led by the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and install a series of extreme right wing governments that were pro NATO and hostile towards Russia. During this time the neo-Nazi Azov Brigade was made part of the Ukraine national Guard.

It is interesting that very few of these facts are presented by the western corporate news outlets. 

Let us hope that we have some cooler heads amongst our politicians after the next federal election. We need reprenentatives who are very suspicious about calling for war every time that US leaders starting beating their war drums.

As you point out Julian, when nuclear powers elect to go to war with each other, it is very likely that nuclear armaments will be involved it the leaders of those nations cannot win by the use of non-nuclear weapons. This was the fear of the Cold War that followed WW2 and we don't want to go thought that period again nor do we need a hot war that will cause huge loss of life, many health problems, waves of refugees and further pollution to our planet.

Andrew(Andy) Alcock | 05 February 2022  

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