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[Research Reports] Preventing Global War: How to End the Ukraine War without Escalation

Daisaku Higashi (Professor, Center for Global Education, Sophia University (and the Sophia Institute of International Relations))
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Research Group on 'Global Issues' FY2022-# 1

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

1. Introduction

The Ukraine War has created a serious threat of a "World War III" possibly involving the use of nuclear weapons. Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and Ukraine has been fighting back, obtaining massive military assistance from Western countries. At the same time, the West has been increasing economic sanctions against Russia, including a coal and oil embargo to be put in place by the end of 2022, and even targeting Russian gas in the long run.1

As Ukrainian forces resolutely fight back and its government rejects the surrender of any of its land to Russia, Russian president Vladimir Putin is trying to claim some level of victory by occupying certain Ukrainian territories, including the Donbas region in the east. As there is no indication that either country will achieve its fundamental objectives, many experts predict that this war will be prolonged, even for "several years."2 At the same time, if Russia decides to attack one of the NATO states to stop military assistance or to break the economic sanctions, or resorts to the use of nuclear weapons for military gains in Ukraine, there is a serious possibility that NATO will start a military intervention and enter all-out war with Russia, as Richard Betts warns in Foreign Affairs in July 2022.3

This is the first time that humans have faced the risk of global war when a nuclear power is fighting so fiercely while warning about the use of nuclear weapons. In the last decade, I have conducted field research on mediation and peacebuilding in countries that faced military intervention by powerful states, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Reflecting on these experiences, I would like to present possible scenarios for this dangerous conflict and strategies for the entire world to end the Ukraine war before it escalates into a global war. First, I will discuss five scenarios on how this war might evolve. Second, I will use historical lessons to show that it has been difficult for global powers to create puppet governments by military invasion, especially since the end of World War II. Third, I will explain the key features of the economic sanctions that the US has been frequently using in the 21st century and a crucial condition for making the sanctions effective. Last, I suggest that it is not wise for the US and other Western countries to frame this war as a battle between democracies and autocracies; rather, it is critical to frame the war as "countries that comply with the fundamental rules of the international system versus the countries that do not." By enhancing this framing, the international community including China, which will have the greatest leverage with President Putin, could promote forming a united front more easily to persuade Russia to withdraw its forces behind the lines in place before February 24, 2022. I argue that it is vital for the international community to focus on the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine as the most crucial goal to end this dangerous war.

2. Five Scenarios for the Ukraine War

Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, published an op-ed entitled "I See Three Scenarios for How This War Ends" on March 1, 2022.4 In this article, he suggested (1) an escalation into a global war, (2) a "dirty compromise" between Russia and Ukraine, and (3) a collapse of the Putin regime as the three possible scenarios. Regarding the "dirty compromise," Friedman surmised that Ukraine would compromise with Russia by handing over two provinces in the Donbas region (Luhansk and Donetsk) to Russia; in return, Russia would stop its military operation and the Western countries would lift their economic sanctions. However, Friedman argued that it is very unlikely that this scenario would be accepted by Ukraine's leadership and people. If such a compromise proves too difficult, the second scenario would turn into "a prolonged war," mainly in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine; Russian forces would continue to occupy some parts of Ukrainian territory as evidence demonstrating their military success to the Russian people, and Ukrainian forces would keep fighting against the occupation.5 The economic sanctions would be continued or enhanced in this scenario.

In addition to these three paths, I would suggest that there are two more scenarios. The fourth would be a separation between the Western countries on the one hand and Russia and China on the other if China continues covering military expenditures for Russian military aggression by regularly buying oil and gas from Russia as normal trades. If the United States were to impose secondary sanctions against China due to its support for the Russian economy, this scenario would become much more likely.6 The final scenario would be that most UN member states, except perhaps Syria, North Korea and Belarus, create a united front against Russia's military invasion and attempt to persuade President Putin to withdraw his forces behind the lines of February 24, 2022, an outcome that President Zelenskyy of Ukraine identified as a military victory in June 2022.7 In this case, most of the economic sanctions against Russia would be removed or eased when the Russian forces are withdrawn. At the same time, a security framework that could include both Ukraine and Russia together with the P5 countries needs to be seriously discussed and established to prevent another military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.8

It is vital for the entire international community to do its best to avoid the first scenario, which is the escalation of the Ukraine war into a global war with the potential use of nuclear weapons, as there will be no winner if humanity itself is extinct. At the same time, there is no precedent for an authoritarian regime being toppled by economic sanctions alone, as discussed in detail later. Thus, while monitoring the possibility of regime change in Russia carefully, the international community needs to do its best to prevent all-out global war, hopefully seeking the fifth scenario (the withdrawal of Russian forces and the removal of economic sanctions); if that scenario is too difficult, it is still better to avoid global war by choosing the fourth scenario (separation of the global economies) or the second scenario (the prolonged war in Ukraine, or political compromise if Ukraine's leadership accepts it).

3. It is impossible to create a puppet government, but...

The fundamental assumption of the five scenarios is that it has become almost impossible for globally powerful states to create puppet governments by military intervention since the end of World War II. For instance, in the Vietnam War, the United States undertook a huge military intervention in South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 to maintain the anti-communist government there; after the US lost 68,000 soldiers and about three million Vietnamese people were reportedly killed due to the intense fighting and bombardments, the US decided to withdraw all its forces from Vietnam in 1973.9 In 1975, North Vietnam and South Vietnam were unified and the war finally ended (ironically, Vietnam introduced a market economy in 1986, achieved amazing economic development with huge investment from US companies, and currently is an important military partner with the US to counter-balance China).

The Soviet Union (USSR) also militarily intervened in Afghanistan in 1979 to maintain a pro-communist government but, after ten years of devastation and quagmire as the Afghan people and soldiers fought back against Russian intervention, the USSR withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. Likewise, the US militarily intervened to topple the Taliban regime in 2001 and to establish a pro-US government in Afghanistan; after 20 years of war against the Taliban, the US withdrew all of its forces in August 2021 after making a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 on withdrawal.10 The United States also invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, but Iraq subsequently fell into civil war twice due to sectarian conflicts (around 2006) and the war with ISIS (around 2014); it has been reported that Iraq has lost almost 500,000 people in the last 20 years due to the violence.11 Moreover, the Iraqi government has become very close to the Iranian government due to the Shia political parties that have controlled the Iraqi government since the 2005 national elections, in spite of the fact that the Iranian government has been identified as an enemy of the US for decades.12

These historical lessons clearly suggest that it is almost impossible for global powers to create puppet governments by military intervention in the current world, as anti-colonialism sentiments have become very strong in the world for decades. However, President Putin might have been misled by the Russian experience in Syria. After the civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the Assad regime lost two-thirds of its territory; President Putin then decided to engage in a massive military intervention to prop up the Assad regime, which has been an ally of Russia.13 Due to massive Russian ground attacks and air strikes, together with assistance from Iranian forces, the Assad regime is reported to control more than 70% of Syrian territory as of early 2022.14 This historical experience might offer President Putin the wrong lesson, but the all-out military invasion of a sovereign state such as Ukraine is totally different from the intervention in Syria as the Syrian government at least maintained one-third of its territory and it requested Russia's military support.15

4. To Make Economic Sanctions Workable

The US, the UK, the EU member states and other Western countries as well as their allies Japan and South Korea have stepped up their economic sanctions against Russia since the invasion. The West imposed numerous targeted sanctions against Russian individuals who are leading or cooperating in the Ukraine war, as well as removing almost all major Russian banks from SWIFT to make financial transactions difficult. On May 8, 2022, President Biden and leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) nations even vowed to stop the import of Russian oil, in addition to the coal that they have already placed under embargo, by the end of 2022.16 The ban on the import of Russian oil is very crucial, as the Russian government obtains US$1.1 billion per day from oil and gas taxes, which make up almost 40% of the Russian government's revenues.17

While Russia is currently receiving increased revenues from exporting oil and gas as the prices of these commodities have jumped since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these economic sanctions are expected in the long run to weaken Russia's capacity to maintain military operations in Ukraine.18 The question is: what are the final goals of these sanctions? In other words, under what conditions are the Western countries prepared to remove these sanctions?

There is an ambiguity in this critical question. Some experts in the US have argued that the sanctions should be removed only after Putin's regime has collapsed. Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, insisted that the sanctions against Russia be permanent "as long as Putin is in power."19 If regime change in Russia is the condition for removal, however, the outlook is not so promising, judging from past experiences of harsh economic sanctions against states. Many researchers who study the US-led sanctions of past decades assert that "regime changes have never come about by economic sanctions alone."20 This is mainly because the states that have been targeted by the US-led economic sanctions are autocratic states; they harshly suppress internal opposition to maintain their regimes. These autocratic states also monopolize financial resources in the face of economic difficulties, as is most clearly the case in North Korea.21

In terms of changing the "policies of targeted states," there were some successful outcomes of economic sanctions, including the Iranian nuclear agreement in 2015. On the other hand, there are numerous unsuccessful cases in which economic sanctions did not change the behaviors or policies of the targeted states, even if the sanctions had devastating impacts on their economies. Daniel Drezner, one of the leading experts on this issue, contended in Foreign Affairs in 2021 that "The United States has imposed decades-long sanctions on Belarus, Cuba, Russia, Syria, and Zimbabwe with little to show in the way of tangible results. The Trump administration ratcheted up US economic pressure against Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.... In every case, the target suffered severe economic costs yet made no concessions."22 Drezner emphasizes that the most crucial approach to making economic sanctions effective is to define under what conditions the US and the West will remove the sanctions so as to motivate the targeted states to change their behaviors. He claims, "The difficulty of removing sanctions from some countries complicates the United States' efforts to bargain with all countries. If the targets do not believe that Washington can lift its coercive measures, they have no incentive to bother with negotiations."23 Thus, Drezner concludes that "Economic coercion works best when the state imposing the sanctions is unambiguous about the conditions under which they will be threatened, enacted, and lifted."24

Many think-tanks and experts on the issues also seem to have come to a consensus that "the most important thing for the economic sanctions to be effective is to clarify what behaviors the targeted nations should adopt to remove the sanctions."25 In the course of concluding the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, the P5 and Germany made it clear that the economic sanctions would be lifted if it was verified that Iran halted the nuclear weapon-related activities specified in the agreement with technical minutiae. Clear conditions for removing the sanctions are vital in making economic sanctions effective.

On this critical issue of the conditions for lifting the sanctions on Russia, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss contended in the media on March 26 that "Britain could lift sanctions crippling Russia if Vladimir Putin withdraws from Ukraine and commits to no further aggression."26 I argue that this suggestion should be one of the critical directives for Western countries in terms of the conditions for removing at least most of the economic sanctions against Russia. There are many experts who claim that the economic sanctions against Russia cannot be lifted until the Putin regime has collapsed and Russian war criminals have been punished, even before the war is ended. Nevertheless, we need to recognize that if those become the conditions for removing the sanctions, it is almost certain that these economic sanctions would not give Russian leadership any incentive to stop its military aggression and withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

5. Framing of "states complying and not complying with fundamental rules"

In order to stop the Ukraine war before it escalates into a global war, it is much wiser not to frame this conflict as "a global fight between democracies and autocracies," as the Biden administration often does.27 The fact is that more than 55% of countries worldwide are categorized as "non-democratic states," according to the Democracy Index published in 2021 by Economist Intelligence.28 However, even among non-democratic states, there are very few states that have been aggressive enough to invade foreign sovereign states since the end of World War II; that is one of the critical factors that has enabled some level of peace and stability to be maintained. Thus, framing this Russia-Ukraine war as "fighting between democracies and autocracies" will frustrate and irritate many states, especially non-democratic states, and make it more difficult for them to cooperate with the Western-led sanctions.

That was the reason I responded in a podcast interview by the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York, posted on March 18, that it is crucial to frame this war as one between states that comply with the fundamental rules of the international system, such as respecting sovereignty, and states that do not.29 I asserted the same approach in my Japanese article published on April 8.30 Using this framework, it would become much easier for the Western states to convince other non-democratic states to engage with Russia and convince it to withdraw its forces from Ukraine as soon as possible, as well as to motivate these states to join the sanctions against Russia.

This framing may also make it easier for the West to persuade China to engage in dialogue--even in secret--with President Putin to convince him to withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine. Regardless of the evaluation of Chinese behavior in the international system, there is no doubt that China has one of the biggest leverages against President Putin because it continues to import oil and gas from Russia. It is in that context that William Cohen, former US secretary of defense, repeatedly contends that it is vital for the United States to push China to convince President Putin to end the military invasion and stop the war.31

Regarding the framing of this war, the votes at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on the Ukraine war have also revealed some important implications. In the first vote on March 3, 2022 on a UNGA resolution demanding Russia withdraw all its military forces from Ukraine, 141 member states voted in support of the resolution.32 Among these 141 states, I identified 68 states categorized as democratic states and 45 states categorized as "non-democratic states" when I matched the results with the categorizations in the Democracy Index (the 2021 Democracy Index did not identify the characters of 29 states as they are very small, and it is not clear if 28 of the 141 states that voted for the resolution are democratic or not). Contrarily, in the vote on the UNGA resolution to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, only 93 states voted in support of the resolution.33 Among them, 56 states are categorized as democratic states, and a mere 19 "non-democratic states" voted for the resolution (the categorizations of 18 states are not clear). On the other hand, 24 states voted against the resolution, 58 states abstained, and 18 states did not vote. In total, 100 states did not vote to support the resolution. Among these 100 states, 17 states are democratic states, 72 states are non-democratic states, and 11 states are not clear. These voting trends at the UNGA clearly suggest that the Western countries need to be wise strategically in unifying the entire international community to oppose Russia's invasion, as demonstrated by the first UNGA resolution on March 3.

There are some experts who share the same view. For example, David Miliband, former British foreign secretary and the president of the International Rescue Committee, argued on CNN on April 21 that the war should not be framed as democracies versus autocracies.34 Following this comment, Fareed Zakaria, the CNN program host, also emphasized that "the war in Ukraine would seem to confirm President Biden's oft-expressed view that the world today is marked by a contest between democracies and autocracies ... that framework turns out to be neither accurate nor helpful as a guide for US foreign policy."35 It is crucial for the West to have a proper and adequate framing of this war so that the entire international community (including those Russians who are against the war) will be on the same page in opposing the Russian invasion, which violates the fundamental rules of international order.

If Russia decides to withdraw all its forces from Ukraine, as demanded by the UNGA resolution, the P5, Ukraine and Russia will need to discuss a security framework to ensure the safety of Ukraine as well as to address the security concerns of Russia, which could become a face-saving move for the Russian government. It is crucial to recognize that, at the end of the day, military invasions by powerful states have ended by the withdrawal of forces from the invaded country. The international community--not only the West, but also non-democratic states including China--should be united in achieving this goal to stop the war in Ukraine before it escalates into a global war. This may sound difficult, especially after tensions between the United States and China intensified with the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022.36 However, Japan and the rest of the international community need to persevere in making their best efforts to create a global front to stop the carnage of the Ukrainian people and to avoid a global war that could potentially involve the use of nuclear weapons.

Daisaku Higashi is Professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, specializing in mediation and peacebuilding in ongoing international conflicts.

1 Jeff Mason and Steve Holland, "G7 to Phase out Russian Oil, U.S. Sanctions Gazprombank Execs over Ukraine War," Reuters, May 8, 2022.

2 For instance, General Mark Milley, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in early April 2022, "I do think this is a very protracted conflict, and I think it's measured in years." See Eleanor Watson, "Top U.S. Military Officer Expects Ukraine Conflict to Be 'Measured in Years,'" CBS News, April 5, 2022,

3 Richard Betts, "Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine: What Happens if Putin Goes Nuclear?", Foreign Affairs, July 4, 2022.

4 Thomas Friedman, "I See Three Scenarios for How This War Ends," New York Times, March 1, 2022.

5 Liz Sly, Karoun Demirjian, Timothy Bella, and Ellen Francis, "Ukraine Lays Out Peace-Talk Demands as the West Braces for Escalation," Washington Post, May 7, 2022.

6 Michael Martina, "US says China could face sanctions if it supports Russia's war in Ukraine," Reuters, April 6, 2022.

7 Financial Times, "Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy says stalemate with Russia 'not an

option'", 7 June 2022.

8 The Financial Times reported in the middle of March 2022 that the delegations of Ukraine and Russia discussed drafts of a 15-point peace deal that would involve Ukraine's renouncing NATO membership in return for security guarantees. See Max Seddon, Roman Olearchyk, Arash Massoudi, and Neri Zilber, "Ukraine and Russia Explore Neutrality Plan in Peace Talks," Financial Times, March 16, 2022,

9 Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War (Touchstone, 2002).

10 Daisaku Higashi, Inclusivity in Mediation and Peacebuilding: UN, Neighboring States, and Global Powers (London: Edward Elgar, 2022), Chapter 4.

11 Agence France Presse, "Iraq Death Toll Reaches 500,000 Since Start of U.S.-Led Invasion, New Study Says," December 6, 2017.

12 Daisaku Higashi, Inclusivity in Mediation and Peacebuilding, Chapter 7.

13 Emil A. Souleimanov and Namig Abbasov, "Why Russia Has Not (Yet) Won Over Syria And Libya," Middle East Policy 27, no. 2 (2020): 82.

14 BBC News, "Why Has the Syrian War Lasted 11 Years?" March 15, 2022,

15 Daisaku Higashi, Inclusivity in Mediation and Peacebuilding, Chapter 5.

16 Washington Post, "G-7 Leaders Vow to Phase out Russian Oil; Jill Biden Visits Ukraine," May 8, 2022.

17 Yasuo Takeuchi, "G-7 Resists Going after $1Bn-a-Day Russian Energy Revenue," Nikkei Asia, April 8, 2022

18 Bloomberg News, "How the World Is Paying for Putin's War in Ukraine," June 1, 2022.

19 Ian Bremer, "Global Agenda" (NHK TV Program) aired on 16 April 2022. The transcript can be seen here:

20 Hiroki Sugita, US Sanction Foreign Policy (Tokyo: Iwanami Shinsho, 2020), 192. Sugita's book is a comprehensive study of US sanctions in the last five decades.

21 Ibid.

22 Daniel Drezner, "The United States of Sanctions: The Use and Abuse of Economic Coercion," Foreign Affairs 100, no. 5 (September/October 2021): 146.

23 Ibid, 148.

24 Ibid, 152.

25 Sugita, "US Sanction Foreign Policy", 205.

26 Edward Malnick, "Crippling Sanctions Could Be Lifted if Russia Withdraws from Ukraine, Says Liz Truss," The Telegraph, March 26, 2022.

27 For instance, President Biden emphasized in his speech in Poland on March 25 that American military deployments to Europe are "part of a struggle for democracy against autocracy."("World Freedoms at Stake, President Biden Tells US Troops," BBC News, March 25, 2022.)

28 Economist Intelligence, "Democracy Index 2021," accessed May 10, 2022,

29 Podcast by Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York, "Lessons from Previous Conflicts for the Russian Invasion of Ukraine with Daisaku Higashi," posted March 16, 2022,

30 Daisaku Higashi, "How Can We Prevent World War III? (Sekai Taisenwo Do Fusegeruka?), Sekai, no. 956, published on April 8, 2022.

31 For instance, William Cohen, former US Secretary of Defense, contended in a CNN program aired on March 11, 2022 that the US needs to convince China to send a message to President Putin to stop the aggression against Ukraine.

32 UN News, "General Assembly Resolution Demands End to Russian Offensive in Ukraine," March 2, 2022.

33 UN News, "UN General Assembly Votes to Suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council," April 7, 2022.

34 It was a comment by David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary, in the CNN program "Fareed Zakaria GPS" that aired April 21, 2022.

35 Fareed Zakaria, "Why Are So Many Democracies Unwilling to Condemn Russia?" Washington Post, April 28, 2022. Zakaria published an "Opinion" in the Washington Post featuring the same content as his presentation on a CNN program that aired April 28, 2022.

36 The New York Times, "Pelosi Leaves Taiwan, but Tensions Rise in Her Wake," August 2, 2022.