Lessons from previous conflicts for the Russian invasion of Ukraine with Daisaku Higashi

March 14, 2022

Daisaku Higashi, Sophia University, discusses Lessons from previous conflicts for the Russian invasion of Ukraine on International Horizons.

Daisaku Higashi, wearing a dark suit and light blue tie, appears to the left over faded images of UN peacekeepers and a map showing conflict Zones in Ukraine

How might efforts to end previous conflicts inform the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine?  Why was the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan a failure? What role can the UN play in conflict mediation?  What is China’s stance on the Russian invasion?

This week, Professor Daisaku Higashi of Tokyo’s Sophia University talks to Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about his book Inclusivity in Mediation and Peacebuilding: The UN, Neighboring States and Global Powers and his extensive research on conflict to draw lessons for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:15

Peacebuilding and mediation in international relations and conflict areas need to involve a variety of parties in order to be successful: nearby states; global powers; the United Nations. How do we get those parties to the table? And of course, we now have a major international crisis that we have to deal with that also involves mediation, peacebuilding; all of these processes are going to be necessary to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.

John Torpey  00:45

Welcome to International Horizons. a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I’m Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We’re fortunate to have with us today Daisaku Higashi, Professor of International Relations in the Center for Global Education, Sophia Institute of International Relations at Sophia University in Tokyo. He’s the author of Challenges of Constructing Legitimacy in Peacebuilding: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and more recently, a book called Inclusivity in Mediation and Peacebuilding: the UN, Neighboring States and Global Powers. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today, Daisaku Higashi

Daisaku Higashi  01:48

Thank you very much for having me. Yeah, thank you very much.

John Torpey  01:50

Great, great to have you. I know it’s late in Tokyo. So we’ll try not to keep you too long. So maybe we could start with the new book Inclusivity in Mediation and Peacebuilding. Perhaps you could just lay out the main argument of the book and explain what problem you’re trying to address.

Daisaku Higashi  02:10

Yeah, thank you very much for giving me these opportunities. I basically have a two argument in this latest book Inclusivity Mediation and Peacebuilding. One is about question of inclusivity in mediation during armed conflict, and in the post-conflict peacebuilding. Based on my extensive field research on South Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, EMA, Iraq and East Timor, I argue that the nature of the inclusivity in mediation during the armed conflict and the nature of the inclusivity in the post-conflict peacebuilding are fundamentally different.

Daisaku Higashi  02:59

With regard to the inclusivity in the post-conflict peacebuildings, I argue that there’s kind of a consensus by both practitioners and also academics or researchers that it’s very critical to have an inclusive political process, avoiding kind of political exclusions against some certain group of the societies. For example, in the case of Iraq, there is a political exclusion against Sunni political factions. After United States started military intervention to Iraq in 2003, it created a defeated conflict in Iraq. In the case of Afghanistan. the peacebuilders excluded the Taliban from the beginning of the nation building process starting from 2002. And at the end of the day, after 20 years, the Taliban destroyed their power in Afghanistan.

Daisaku Higashi  04:00

So I think the importance of the inclusivity the post-conflict peacebuilding, or avoiding political exclusion, I guess, of some certain political group, became kind of a consensus, both by practitioners and also academics in practice or academic track in researches.

Daisaku Higashi  04:20

But in terms of the inclusivity in mediation during armed conflict when the people keep still fighting, the mediator might need to take very flexible approach in terms of the inclusion of the many political groups because in some cases, it might become just impossible for conflicting parties to have any type of the peace agreement, if there are too many representations, or different groups, in the negotiation table.

Daisaku Higashi  04:58

For example, South Sudan is one of the typical cases, but when they had a devitalized peace process starting from the end of 2017, there are too many political groups which were allowed to participate in the peace negotiations. I mean, about 25 groups actually participated. But it is so difficult for them to make any inter-peace agreement. So in the end of the day, there is a bilateral negotiation by the President Kiir and the Vice President Machar, which kept fighting, and their most influential parties. And after they’ve made agreement, it became possible for them to extend that agreement to other political factions, and that they had some comprehensive agreement in 2018. And this agreement is still maintained in the South Sudan.

Daisaku Higashi  05:50

So those kinds of cases actually showed that we need to have some flexible approach in terms of making peace agreement in the process of the mediation during the armed conflict. Of course, it’s better or it’s good if we can make a peace agreement by having a lot of political groups in the negotiation, but sometimes it might be difficult to make an agreement. So in this case, we need to accept somebody in our fixed approach to make this agreement feasible for us. So, I think this is just some kind of different nature of the inclusivity in the mediation during armed conflict and the post-conflict peacebuilding.

Daisaku Higashi  06:34

The second argument is about the role of the different groups in the different phases of the mediation and peacebuilding. In the post-conflict peacebuilding, I argue that still United Nations should play a central role, because the United Nations can be seen as a threesome impartial parties, compared with kind of a global power, a very powerful state. Because if a powerful state become a very central part of the nation building, they might be seen as kinds of neocolonialism. So it’s better for the United Nations, I think, to present alone in the post conflict peacebuilding after they sign some kind of peace agreement. But in terms of the mediation during armed conflict, I argue that what the United Nations can do is quite limited if there’s a big difference by the global powers and the neighboring state on how to end the war. So it is a responsibility of the neighboring state and also global power, which needs to persuade conflicting parties to make cessation or to make ceasefires, and to have some kind of, you know, peace agreement. So I think there’s a kind of different role of the different actor in the different phases of peacebuilding and also mediations during armed conflict. So those are two big serious argument that I tried to present in this book.

John Torpey  08:06

Interesting. So, the UN, you present in the book, as kind of playing two different roles, I mean, largely defined by the phase of the conflict that we’re talking about, on the one hand, it can be and kind of as long, I guess, been thought to be a kind of honest broker that both sides can trust, and that can be a guiding hand and mediation or negotiations. But then you also describe a kind of way in which the UN can be abused, used, I guess, by parties that don’t really have any interest in negotiation succeeding.

John Torpey  08:47

And, of course, this inevitably, I’m afraid, brings me to the current situation in Ukraine, where there have been talks going on there were and I guess, maybe still are talks between the Russians and the Ukrainians in Turkey. But they don’t seem really to be very serious. I mean, outside observers all seem to sort of dismiss them as not real, you know, the Russians not being really being interested in achieving any negotiated solution. So, you know, how does that work? I mean, if you have parties who really aren’t interested, what can the UN do? And maybe this is really what you mean by this kind of being abused sort of notion. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Daisaku Higashi  09:32

Yeah. Yeah, thank you for that question, because this is one central part of my book. So again, it might be useful to have some distinction between the phase of the post-conflict peacebuilding after they have some peace agreement and mediation during armed conflict when they keep fighting. In terms of the nation building or post-conflict peacebuilding after the conflicting parties had to have a peace agreement. I think it’s still better for the United Nations to play a central role because UN still seems to have some comparative advantage for that impartiality and the credibility compared with some global powers, including like the United States, or even Russia in Afghanistan in 1970s or 80s.

Daisaku Higashi  10:29

I did a lot of opinion survey both in Afghanistan and also East Timor, and also there is a lot of academic research about how people perceive the United Nations or UN peacekeeping operations and the global powers who might be present in that state. And there’s a kind of unanimous finding that people still see United Nations as a more impartial compared with one unilateral state when they have phase of the nation building processes. Of course, the United Nations is not perfect, but the post conflict state need to have some credibly impartial party, or credible third party, which can ensure that process is fair.

Daisaku Higashi  11:23

For example, if they have to conduct elections, they need to have some credible third party, which can ensure that the process is fair, and counting is also fair, because there is no trust among the internal parties yet, because they just kept fighting until they had a peace agreement. So, and in terms of the credibility, in terms of credible third parties, United Nations is not perfect, but still seems to be still better compared with some global power or one unilateral state because if those states could be seen as kind of neocolonialist actors.

Daisaku Higashi  12:06

In terms of the post conflict peacebuilding phases, United Nations can play some good activities or role. And there is also academic study that at least United Nations seems to have some kind of 50-75% of the successful rate in the post-conflict nationbuilding or peacebuilding. United Nations, despite some peacekeepers, and they tried to create some sustainable peace by making some democratic state. They did not succeed all the time, but the success rate is not so bad, like 50% or 75%.

Daisaku Higashi  12:46

But in terms of the mediation during armed conflict, United Nations did not have so much good record especially last 20 years. They might dispatch a lot of UN special envoys and they might be very perfect and a great person. But on the in the mediation in Syria or Yemen, the record is not so great, because one of the reasons I argue is that global powers, and also neighboring states, are very divided. And in terms of, you know, for example, like a Syria, as the government has been supported by Russia and Iran, and opposition have been supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, you know, UAE, EU and also the United States. And for many, many years, those global powers and their neighboring states did not have so much real intention to stop the war in Syria. So they might support ostensibly, the role of the UN special envoy, but on the ground, they kept supporting the protege or the faction they like by military method and also the financial assistance.

Daisaku Higashi  14:10

So in this case, UN Special Envoy can be used, or even abused by the global power or a neighboring state to pretend that they are interested in making a peace. But actually, they just keep making assistance, military assistance, financial assistance, to make, you know, their protege win the war. So in this case, it’s very difficult to stop the war. So I think a global power and neighboring state have primary responsibility to become united about how to end the war and to persuade conflict party to stop the war.

Daisaku Higashi  14:54

So that was I think an implication also, when the neighboring state and global power are completely divided, what the United Nations can do is very limited, especially in terms of the mediation during armed conflict. And I think it has a direct implication to the role of United Nations if one of the P5 states started such a barely expressed military aggressions or invasion against some near, some sovereign state. So when this Russian regime continued, the role that the United Nations can play is quite damaged. So what we cannot have so much good expectation about what the United Nations can do in terms of the mediation in those kinds of armed conflict. If one of the P5 is a country which invade another country, yeah.

John Torpey  15:51

Right. So, I mean, this all leads into, you know, the question I want to ask about the current situation in Ukraine. I mean, the book is basically about essentially internal civil wars, however internationalized they may be. But I want to ask you if you can draw lessons from what you’ve learned about these internal war cases for the current situation in Ukraine. Are there things to say, or are these situations simply completely different? I mean, how, what lessons would you draw from your work to try to help us resolve the crisis in Ukraine?

Daisaku Higashi  16:35

Thank you very much. Yeah, I think there are three implications on my book, or finding on my book on this current Ukraine conflict. The first is that it’s very difficult for global powers to create some kind of puppet government, or the government, which is very favorable to the state which have military invasion or military intervention to the first place. For example, it was so difficult for the United States to create a country which is quite favorable to the United States in Afghanistan for 20 years. It’s also true that for Soviet Union, it was impossible for Soviet Union to create the country which is favorable to them in Afghanistan after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Daisaku Higashi  17:31

You know, they had fighting for 10 years, and they withdrew from Afghanistan and it’s not the same but the United States also had a military intervention after September 11, because Al-Qaeda conducted the September 11 attack and Taliban created some harbor for Al-Qaeda. But after 20 years’ engagement, it was very difficult for the United States to establish the sustainable government in Afghanistan, so the Taliban returned to the power. It was same for the Iraq; it was so difficult for the United States to create the government or a new government in Iraq after they had the military interventions. In the last 20 years, there’s a continuous civil war in Iraq, and almost 500,000 people are dead or killed by the US in Iraq. Still the situation is very fragile, and the Iraqi Government become very close to the Iranian regime, because they basically become a Shia government.

Daisaku Higashi  18:36

So those cases, like Iraq and Afghanistan, give us quite clear indication that it’s so difficult for the Russians to create a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. This is one of the very important lessons, I think from our study in the last 20 years. This is the first one, so it should be very difficult for Russia to have like a puppet regime or even the include the Ukraine to the Russia when in Ukraine people are so united to fight against those kind of aggression by Russia. So this is a first, you know, implication of my study.

Daisaku Higashi  19:14

The second one is that still the President Putin might get some wrong lessons from Russian engagement in Syria. As I wrote in my book, Syrian war started in 2011. And in 2015, Assad regime controlled only one-third of the territories; and another one-third of territories was occupied by oppositions; and another one-third was occupied by ISIS in Syria. So Russia decided to make very huge military intervention to Syria in September 2015. And in just two years, Assad regime restored almost 70% of the territories, and opposition was squeezed to the only four strongholds in the Syria.

Daisaku Higashi  20:11

And they created some kind of a ceasefire agreement in our standards. But after they created humanitarian corridors, the Russian and the Iranian and also Assad regime continued to make a military attack against those stronghold of the oppositions and now we have only Idlib in the northern part of the Syria, in which opposition actually keep. And another stronghold of the opposition already occupied by the Assad regime.

Daisaku Higashi  20:42

So, Assad regime actually restored most of the territory, 80 to 85% of the territory I think, until at this moment. So President Putin might think that this could be the case, even for the issue of Ukraine that, in the end of the day, he can occupy most of the territories of Ukraine, and he might want to put Ukraine to the state of Russia, I don’t know, or they might want to create some puppet government. But there’s a huge difference between Syria and Ukraine.

Daisaku Higashi  21:17

In the Syria, no matter how brutal Assad government was, at least he got about 1/3 of the support by the population, especially by the Alawi people, who are minority in Syria. And the Alawi people are very afraid that they might get a lot of reprisals if the opposition actually won the war. But in Ukraine, the people are very united, and they thought that it’s a total aggression by Russia. So I cannot see any possibility that Russia can create the puppet government or they can occupy Ukraine for many years, or they can make Ukraine as a kind of territory of the Russia. But I’m afraid that the experience of Syria might give some wrong lesson to the President Putin. This is a second implication.

Daisaku Higashi  22:16

The third implication is that, when I studied the South Sudan peace process, in the end of the day, it was Uganda, which supported President Kiir, and also in the Sudan, which supported Vice President Machar, which persuaded both conflict parties to make a peace agreement in 2018. Because President of Uganda, Museveni, supported President Kiir for many years, and President Bashir of Sudan supported Vice President Machar for many years. So only when Sudan and Uganda became united to persuade both President Kiir and Vice President Machar to make a peace agreement, it became possible.

Daisaku Higashi  23:07

So, basically it is state officials who can persuade conflict party to make some kind of recommendations or stop the war. So in this case, I think the country which might have biggest leverage against Russia might be China, because China might keep buying the gas and oil from Russia. So it’s very important to motivate China to persuade the President Putin to withdraw the forces from Ukraine. I think this is the only way. It’s very difficult for Ukraine to have some kind of political concession to the Russia because he did nothing wrong against Russia. So in order to persuade the Russian Government to pull or withdraw the forces, China might play a very important role.

Daisaku Higashi  24:09

And another country with big liability is the United States, because the United States can trigger a lot of economic, huge economic sanctions against Russia. So I think in the end of the day, it may be necessary for the United States and China to have some kind of a temporary alliance to push Russia to stop this aggression because otherwise, it might expand to the entire wide world and which is not of good interest for the international community, including Chinese people and the American people and also, of course, Japanese people as well.

John Torpey  24:51

No, I mean, clearly, things seem to be heading in a rather difficult direction. And I mean, at some level, it seems that the difference between Syria and Ukraine is simply that Syria was internal war with international involvement. And this is an interstate war, in effect. And so you’ve got a party that’s aggressing, a party that’s been aggressed against, and they, in some ways, historically have gotten along just fine. But, right now they’re certainly not best friends. So, you know, it doesn’t sound like you see a very promising near term future for this situation, simply because of the obvious reason that these two parties are at odds with each other. And there’s little obvious ground for some sort of accommodation.

John Torpey  25:59

But I mean, what do you think the, insofar as there are at all serious negotiations or discussions going on between the Ukrainians and the Russians, I mean, what might they be talking about? I mean, I think at some level, these discussions, from what I’ve seen, are just not regarded as very serious by the outside observers, that the Russians really only regard the United States as a relevant, you know, negotiating partner. But I mean, could you say what you think about that situation? I mean, is there anything that the Russians and the Ukrainians can negotiate amongst themselves? Or does it really have to be between the Russians and the United States?

Daisaku Higashi  26:44

Yeah, in the end, I think we need to count on the state which have a very big leverage against Russia to stop this aggressions, I mean, and it basically means that Russia to withdraw the Russian forces from Ukraine. Yeah, of course, United State has a huge leverage, because the United States has a big power on making economic sanctions. And now financial sanctions can be very effective right now. So, but at the same time, if China keeps buying the oil and gas from Russia, the impact of the sanctions might be quite reduced, right. So Russia might need to listen to what China actually said.

Daisaku Higashi  27:32

I think it’s a little bit harsh for us to request the Ukranian leadership or Ukrainian people to make some concession because Ukraine did nothing wrong. And also, Fareed Zakaria mentioned in the CNN program that it’s relatively easier for President Putin to withdraw the forces by saying that he finished or accomplished his military purpose. Because we are not quite sure what is his military purpose yet. It should be very difficult for democratic state to make this kind of interventions and to withdraw the forces without having any particular achievement. But for Mr. Putin, it may be relatively easy, according to Fareed Zakaria, because he’s very dictator in the Russian state.

Daisaku Higashi  28:21

So if he calculate that he will get nothing from this aggression, and also he might be forced to have a very difficult situation because even China might not be able to keep getting or buying the oil and gas from Russia. He might make some decisions and this is something that we need to navigate the cooperation of the international community to push the Russia in that direction. I think it might be better not to frame this war as a competition between the democratic states and non-democratic states, because we have many, many non-democratic states. Almost half of the nations are still not democratic states. But they still do not have this kind of aggression or invasions to foreign countries. At least many member states respect basic rule of respecting sovereignty.

Daisaku Higashi  29:33

So, this is very important for member states of the United Nations to respect this fundamental value of respecting sovereignties. And Russia broke that sovereignty, right? So this is why it has such a big stake. So I think it’s very important for us to navigate this war as a competition between the state which has to at least respect fundamental good of the international system, including respecting sovereignty, and the country which might not break that kind of rule. And if we can succeed in making that kind of framing, yeah, many member states, even in the Middle East, or Africa, which might not be democratic, might come to the side of us that it’s very dangerous to admit Russia to have that kind of aggression or invasion to another country.

Daisaku Higashi  30:37

So in this kind of framework, I think, we hope that we can push China to make some kind of political persuasion to Russia to withdraw the forces from Ukraine, because this in the end of the day is the most important, I think, condition to finish this war. Once Russia withdraws their forces, and Ukraine restore full sovereignty, then we might need to think about how to rebuild, or how to rebuild Ukraine, how to make sure the safety or security of Ukraine as a state. Before withdrawal of the forces by the Russians in Ukraine, I think it’s very difficult to make any kind of political concessions or negotiation. So I think the international community as a whole needs to create some kind of common strategy to make it happen and persuade Putin to make this kind of result.

Daisaku Higashi  31:36

Of course, some people might hope that these economic sanctions can make the Putin regime collapse. And of course, it might be good, if it happened. It might be good, but it may not happen, right? And we cannot allow the entire world to start the war or to have military confrontations between Russia and other state or Western states. So yeah, I think we need to think about how to pressure or persuade the current Russian regime to withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

John Torpey  32:17

Right, the problem seems to be that not withstanding heroic resistance by the Ukrainian people and its President, there’s still lots of military hardware that the Russians who can and presumably will bring to bear on their attempt to subdue Ukraine. And I guess the question is what will persuade Mr. Putin that this is a bad way to go? I mean, in these kinds of discussions, and one of the things that one hears a lot is that Putin is no longer as rational as he once was, he’s been isolated during COVID, the pandemic, because he wants to stay safe, or he just has been isolated, and therefore is out of touch with what’s going on in the world. I sort of generally feel as though this notion of whether he’s rational or not is not particularly useful. But the question is, it does assist him in the sense that it makes people think that if he’s not rational, he’s unpredictable, and therefore dangerous. And that we don’t know what he’s going to do.

John Torpey  33:35

And I wonder from your extensive research in these kind of conflict negotiations and mediations, I mean, is there a similar kind of experience that you could point to that, where people play the crazy person who is going to be unpredictable and gets his or maybe her way in these in these circumstances? Is it a useful thing to even wonder about whether he’s rational or not?

Daisaku Higashi  34:07

That’s a really good question. But, of course, because South Sudan repeated their internal conflict, many, many times. I mean they stopped the civil war in the end of 2013, they had a peace agreement into 2015, but only one year later, they started to war again, a civil war again in July 2016. So yeah, there are many people, especially from Western countries, like European and the United States, that those Presidents and the Vice Presidents are almost crazy; they just keep fighting.

Daisaku Higashi  34:38

But in the end of the day, African states convinced them to make some kind of concessions and a ceasefire and stop fighting and then make a peace agreement. And at least in the last four years, they’ve maintained that kind of peace agreement, no matter how the implementation is very slow. So I agree with you that it’s not so useful to think that those leaders are rational or irrational. It’s more important to think how we can persuade or how can we actually some time pressure, sometimes persuade, sometimes cause them to stop the fighting and then to make some kind of peace deal.

Daisaku Higashi  35:28

We are not naive that we can always persuade those people or leaders to stop fighting  only by the logics, but it’s a big combination. In the case of South Sudan, they have some economic sanctions, which started triggering against the leadership of South Sudan, which had some impact, I think, on their calculations. But also it was very critical that the country which supported those factions, like Uganda and Sudan, became very united, because they really thought that it’s very bad for them to keep having refugees from South Sudan. And also for Sudan, it was very important for South Sudan to restore production of the oil because it was the only way for Sudan to get some kind of a license or oil pipeline coming from South Sudan to the Sudan in the foreign country. So in case of the Russians, I’m not expert about psychology of Mr. Putin, so I don’t know whether or not he’s rational or not.

Daisaku Higashi  36:32

But yeah, before he started invasion here, they admitted two states, right? Donbas was occupied by Russian faction as independent states. And then he asked, and he navigated those -it’s not independent state, but the state that Mr. Putin called as independent -to request Russia to help, or to assist, or to make a military intervention to Ukraine. He created some procedure or steps. So if he’s just irrational, we are not quite sure he can make that kind of very detailed steps to make his intervention appear to follow some kind of international procedure to invite foreign countries to get some help or make some intervention. So because when he intervened in Syria in 2015, it was a Assad regime officially requested Russia to make the intervention.

Daisaku Higashi  37:49

So yeah, I agree with you that it may be too early to predict that he’s just lost rationality. But more important thing is that what is our logic or method or approach to persuade Mr. Putin, the president of Russia, to stop, to withdraw its forces as soon as possible from Ukraine because it’s only way to stop, to save the many many lives in Ukraine, but also to save many Russian soldiers who are forced to go to Ukraine by this order. So yeah, of course, I’m not so naive. I’m not so optimistic, but at least we should try. We should do our best to be honest, because the alternative is very catastrophic, especially if it starts having escalations.

John Torpey  38:48

Well, unfortunately, of course, I agree with you that the situation is potentially catastrophic, and we have to do everything we can to try to avoid that kind of outcome. So hopefully, people will be able to use your research in thinking through some of these problems. It’s great to have a chance to talk about it.

John Torpey  39:08

That’s it for today’s episode, I want to thank Daisaku Higashi for discussing his book Inclusivity Mediation and Peacebuilding. Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing the song International Horizons as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.