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The Russo-Ukrainian War Enters Its Third Year

An Etiological Investigation

Written By:

Two years have passed since Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine, yet we are still debating why Russia invaded, what its ultimate goals might be, and how to end the conflict. This confusion, I submit, has much to do with our unwillingness to grasp the war’s true complexity, and can only be overcome if we recognize that it is a conflict with multiple levels.

The first level, familiar to many U.S. observers, is the strategic competition between Russia and the United States and the enduring conflict rooted in the question of to whose sphere of influence Ukraine belongs. Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder confirmed that much in 2016, arguing that the heart of the problem is “nothing has happened to suggest that the Russians are any more willing to give us control of Ukraine than they were before.” (Curiously, this wording went unchallenged for six years but was changed to “give up control of Ukraine” in March 2022, after the original quote went viral).

At a second level, however, the war represents a conflict between Russian and Ukrainian elites over whether they are one people or two and whether their relations should be fundamentally friendly or antagonistic. In Russia, antagonism is bolstered by the fear that far-right nationalism in Ukraine, which has grown steadily in influence since 2014, is transforming Ukraine into “anti-Russia”. In Ukraine, antagonism is fueled by the nationalist fear that friendly relations with Russia will prevent the emergence of a Ukrainian national identity. As former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko put it, “If Russians and Ukrainians are one people, then the Ukrainian people do not exist.”

Neither of these elites is monolithic, and each is threatened by extremist factions who reinforce their fears—creating a dialectic of insecurity between Russia and Ukraine that overshadows the long history these two countries share and prevents any meaningful dialogue.

Neither of these elites is monolithic, and each is threatened by extremist factions who reinforce their fears—creating a dialectic of insecurity between Russia and Ukraine that overshadows the long history these two countries share and prevents any meaningful dialogue.

Since the main source of these fears is the Ukrainian Far Right, we should try to define this term.

In Ukraine, the Far Right encompasses a broad spectrum of organizations that seek to reshape public awareness in a nationalistic, even totalistic, direction. In Ukraine, such groups often  have civic as well as paramilitary branches that were created to defend Ukraine against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The Far Right regularly applies the “domestic enemy” label to Ukrainian citizens who do not share the goal of establishing what the nationalist partisans deem a truly Ukrainian Ukraine.

In their mind, a truly Ukrainian Ukraine is a monolith in which Ukrainian is the sole language of public discourse, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (and now the recently formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine) are preferred by the state, and all state institutions are committed to creating a society in which “Ukrainian values” dominate the political, social, and cultural landscape. In the words of Ukraine’s first language ombudsman, Tatyana Monakhova, the “dream” is to create “a powerful, homogeneous Ukrainian monolith—a society of the like-minded, who speak the state language, having no disagreements on major issues of state.”

Historically, the Far Right has gotten few votes outside of three far-western regions of Ukraine. Still, because it played such a crucial role in organizing paramilitary opposition to the Ukrainian government during the 2014 Maidan, it can now set de facto limits on the policies that elected officials can pursue.

These limits were clearly signaled to both President Poroshenko and President Zelensky. In August 2015, President Poroshenko was forced to scuttle the regional autonomy provisions of the Minsk-2 Accords, after a grenade killed three national guardsmen in front of the Ukrainian parliament. And, despite winning more than 70% of the vote for promising peace, Zelensky, as president, was forced to make an about-face after Far Right activists openly opposed his 2019 peace plan, attacked the Presidential office building, and threatened to hang him if he continued to negotiate with Russia.

The internal conflict in Ukraine over who gets to define what it means to be Ukrainian... language usage and cultural identity have long been instrumentalized by politicians to rally local political support.

This leads us to the third level of this conflict—the internal conflict in Ukraine over who gets to define what it means to be Ukrainian. Since the country is largely Ukrainian-speaking in the West, and Russian-speaking in the East and South, language usage and cultural identity have long been instrumentalized by politicians to rally local political support. Unfortunately, this politicization of identity simultaneously stirred up tensions between the regions and polarized the country.

Over the past 150 years, these tensions have led to major military hostilities four times: during the First and Second World Wars, after the 2014 Maidan, and now again from February 2022. It is worth noting that each time, violence within Ukraine has been stoked by external powers, who sought to exploit Ukraine’s status as a cleft country to tip the geopolitical scales of this faultline state in their favor.

Let us now reconsider the origins and causes of this war in light of the tri-level holistic analysis provided above.

Russo-Ukrainian War Re-examined

At the global geopolitical level, Russia believed that the U.S.-led West had broken its treaty obligation to accept the interlocking nature of the security concerns of all European nations, including Russia. According to Moscow, at the 1999 Istanbul Summit and reiterated at the Astana OSCE Summit in 2010, Western powers committed themselves to the creation of a “common and indivisible Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security community stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” In this context, Russia especially emphasizes Articles 8 and 9 of the Istanbul Document, which obliges participating states to “not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States.”

From Russia’s perspective, once Ukraine amended its constitution in February 2019 to make NATO membership mandatory, it effectively became a military ally to NATO even without formal NATO membership. For example, Kiev was already receiving NATO equipment and training and had signed a security agreement with the UK to build and supply two new naval bases in the Black Sea. Thus, under U.S. leadership, the West had violated its pledge toward a “common and indivisible Euro-Atlantic security” by intentionally excluding Russia while encroaching onto what was historically the Russian security sphere.

On the bilateral Russia-Ukraine level, meanwhile, by 2022 the eight-year conflict in Donbas had become a war of attrition against the country’s Russophile population. The Minsk-II Process, which Russia promoted for seven years, envisioned that the rebel region of Donbas would return to Ukraine in exchange for limited regional, cultural, and administrative autonomy. These accords, however, were explicitly rejected by senior Ukrainian government officials in 2021. Earlier that year, the country’s leading opposition politician, Viktor Medvedchuk, was arrested for treason, and all dissident (read: Russophile) television and media outlets were shut down. In essence, opposition to the agenda of the Far Right was now equated with being anti-Ukrainian and criminalized by the state.

Having lost all faith in the willingness of the West to act as an honest broker in the conflict, and in Ukraine’s willingness to reach a mutually acceptable compromise with its own rebel population, the Russian government thus concluded that it had no choice but to reset the agenda. It chose to do so through a brute force invasion of Ukraine, aimed at reversing the outcome of the 2014 Maidan.

Through regime change in Kiev—which it sometimes labeled “de-Nazification”—Moscow has sought to impose neutrality and federalism on Ukraine, and thereby reverse its disadvantages on all three levels of conflict simultaneously: 1) At the geopolitical level, to force the United States to heed Russia’s “red lines” and make Washington understand that ignoring them meant war. 2) At the bilateral level, to impose neutrality on Ukraine and effectively end NATO’s military plans for the country. And, 3) At the internal political level, to safeguard the well-being of the Russian-speaking populations by forcing an end to the ongoing war of attrition in Eastern Ukraine.

Failure to achieve a negotiated settlement early in the war now appears to have led to a more ambitious Russian agenda for Eastern Ukraine.

Initially, some in the Kremlin seem to have hoped that Russian military intervention might help to restore the balance of interests between Eastern and Western Ukraine to what they were before 2014, but failure to achieve a negotiated settlement early in the war now appears to have led to a more ambitious Russian agenda for Eastern Ukraine.

What Comes Next?

Two years into this war, many observers are convinced that Putin miscalculated—his strategic, bilateral, and internal political objectives for Ukraine now seem more distant than ever.

There can be no doubt that Russia is engaged in a much more costly conflict than it ever anticipated. Moreover, Western political leaders have been clear since the beginning that their ultimate objective is to extract such a high toll from Russia for its incursion that would make Moscow a defeated power, whose interests will be clearly circumscribed by the United States and China.

It will take many decades to see if this scenario plays out the way that Western leaders anticipate. For now, however, Russia appears to have regained the upper hand, halting the Ukrainian counteroffensive, outperforming all G7 economies in 2023 despite economic sanctions, and rapidly re-supplying its military—while Ukrainian and NATO forces are struggling to do the same. Most Western analysts now believe that the military situation will continue to worsen for Ukraine throughout 2024.

While it is true that battlefield results will determine what sort of peace settlement is eventually reached between Ukraine and Russia, given the multi-tiered nature of the conflict, this can only be the first step toward resolving it. What happens next will depend on how we address both the strategic problems and Ukraine’s domestic crisis, which will still linger even after the fighting ends.

Just as the strategic conflict between Russia and the West is certainly not going away, neither is the mutual fear between Russians and Ukrainians. The best hope of managing it lies in holding a pan-European security conference, aimed at reaching a broad accord on the principles of a new, stable post-war order.

Just as the strategic conflict between Russia and the West is certainly not going away, neither is the mutual fear between Russians and Ukrainians. The best hope of managing it lies in holding a pan-European security conference, aimed at reaching a broad accord on the principles of a new, stable post-war order. In addition to NATO countries, such a conference will have to include Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia (and perhaps other former Soviet states as well).

While some might envision a new set of Helsinki Accords, modeled on the 1975 agreement, we should be thinking instead of an agreement commensurate with the expectations of a new, post-unipolar global order in which the BRICS+ powers are rapidly replacing the G7 as the primary locus of power. It would be very much in Europe’s long-term interest to conclude such a new, global “Treaty of Westphalia,” while it still has some geopolitical influence.

Meanwhile, the ethno-political conflict within Ukraine will almost certainly also persist. This is likely to be true regardless of where Ukraine’s borders are drawn, although it would be greatly intensified if Ukraine winds up regaining the territories that are currently under Russian control. It will only be defused when Ukrainians on all sides reach out to each other in compassion, and establish a new inclusive social compact in which there is a place for every Ukrainian, regardless of religion, ethnicity, creed, or language.

Resolving this internal political conflict in Ukraine is critical to bringing peace to it. Reaching an internal accord among Ukrainians that replaces an exclusionary ethno-religious nationalism with an inclusive civic loyalty to pluralistic institutions and practices is the only way to remove the main cause of domestic tension that foreign actors have used to stoke conflict throughout the region. But this cannot happen without dialogue, empathy, and mutual reconciliation among Ukrainians themselves.

Reaching an internal accord among Ukrainians that replaces an exclusionary ethno-religious nationalism with an inclusive civic loyalty to pluralistic institutions and practices is the only way to remove the main cause of domestic tension that foreign actors have used to stoke conflict throughout the region.

In my book, The Tragedy of Ukraine, I suggest that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission could help start the process of social healing. And there is no universal formula for doing so. Among the four dozen such commissions that have been set up since the first one in Uganda in 1974, some were established after the end of hostilities, some during the peace negotiations, and still others as part of a power-sharing agreement.

In sum, there is a wealth of experience to which the Ukrainian government can turn, once it decides to prioritize healing the country’s social trauma and repairing its social fabric. Indeed, before his untimely death, Zelensky’s close friend and political confidante, Sergei Sivokho, was actively exploring these options.

The same, by the way, holds true for Russians. They too will need to find compassion and understanding in their hearts for those Ukrainians who do not see themselves as part of the “Russian World.” As long as such empathy continues to elude both Ukrainians and Russians, they will be easy prey for politicians, both foreign and domestic, who feed on their fears to fuel the tragic cycle of mutual recrimination.

Ultimately, as social critic Raymond Williams reminds us, there is only one way to break this tragic cycle. It is to embrace a “quite different peacemaking that would attempt to resolve rather than to cover the determining tragic disorder. Any such resolution would mean changing ourselves, in fundamental ways.”

Written By:
Nicolai N. Petro
Nicolai N. Petro is a Senior Washington Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, and the author of The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us About Conflict Resolution (De Gruyter, 2023).
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor