Monday, May 20, 2024

A Year of War: Where is it Headed?

On February 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine. It was planned as a lightning strike which would subsume the smaller neighbour in two weeks. That did not happen and a year on, what lies ahead? More bloodshed, a peace deal or a ceasefire?

By Dilip Bobb

Ukraine marked the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion in a sombre ceremony, appropriately enough, in a basement in Kyiv. Ukraine’s charismatic, courageous President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke against a backdrop with the words: “Year of Invincibility”. Brave words for a brave people who have withstood the might of the Russian armed forces, but at a huge cost. The conflict—the biggest in Europe since World War II—has become a grinding war of attrition. It has been a David vs Goliath battle, dictatorship versus democracy—Russia has deployed over 90% of its armed forces to Ukraine since the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022, against a vastly smaller country with limited and outdated weapon systems. The result has been bloodshed, misery and mass dislocations, not seen since the World War II (over eight million Ukrainians have become refugees, scattered across Europe). That Ukraine has been able to hold out for a year is largely thanks to the valour and sacrifices of its armed forces along with the help of the European Union (EU) and NATO allies in terms of financial, diplomatic and military support. The fate of Ukraine has become intertwined with the credibility and authority of the West in the world order.

Russian President Vladimir Putin badly miscalculated, but his bombast and sabre rattling against the western allies and NATO has not just raised the spectre of another world war but, after his recent suspension of the new START Treaty, the last remaining major military agreement with the US, the ultimate threat—nuclear weapons. Putin said the fact that the US wants to inspect Russia’s military facilities—a requirement under the Treaty—adding that its goal is Russia’s strategic defeat, was the “theatre of the absurd”.

That phrase could easily be applied to his Orwellian vision of bringing back the glory days of the Soviet Union, by force. He sees himself as a latter-day Peter the Great seeking to re-establish the czarist empire. As Ukrainian cities are hit repeatedly by missiles, resulting in civilian mass casualties and refugees fleeing across the border to Poland, the hashtag #PutinHitler has been trending on social media. What the Russian strongman failed to factor in was that his war in Ukraine has galvanised European unity, a fragile construct before the war began. It has also increased support for Ukraine’s EU membership. The US, during President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Kyiv, declared that its military and financial support to Ukraine would last as long as needed. That is the key question—how long can this war drag on? And more crucially, is there a way it can end?

Gideon Rose, in his book, How Wars End, had laid out three stages—the opening attack, the battle for advantage and the endgame. The war is currently in the second phase, but is there an endgame where the battle turns decisively into one side’s favour—like the Allied Forces in 1918 and 1945—or a peace deal that both sides can accept? In his recent visit to Moscow, China’s foreign minister unveiled a 12-point peace proposal. They include:

1. Respecting the sovereignty of all countries: Universally recognised international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, to be strictly observed. The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld.

2. Abandoning the Cold War mentality: All parties should, bearing in mind the long-term peace and stability of the world, help forge a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture. All parties should oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security, prevent bloc confrontation and work together for peace and stability on the Eurasian Continent.

3. Ceasing hostilities: All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.

4. Resuming peace talks: Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis. (a point that India has been making). 

5. Resolving the humanitarian crisis: Humanitarian operations should follow the principles of neutrality and impartiality, and humanitarian issues should not be politicised…humanitarian corridors should be set up for the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones.

6. Protecting civilians and prisoners of war: Parties to the conflict should strictly abide by international humanitarian law, avoid attacking civilians or civilian facilities, protect women, children and other victims of the conflict, and respect basic rights

7. Keeping nuclear plants safe: Support the International Atomic Energy Agency in playing a constructive role in promoting the safety and security of peaceful nuclear facilities.

8. Reducing strategic risks: Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed.

9. Facilitating grain exports: All parties need to implement the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed by Russia, Türkey, Ukraine and the UN fully and effectively.

10. Stopping unilateral sanctions: Relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” against other countries, so as to do their share in de-escalating the Ukraine crisis and create conditions for developing countries to grow their economies and better the lives of their people.

11. Keeping industrial and supply chains stable: All parties should oppose using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes, to prevent it from disrupting international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade and transportation and undermining the global economic recovery.

12. Post-conflict reconstruction: The international community needs to take measures to support post-conflict reconstruction in conflict zones.

Beijing’s initiative has met with mixed reactions. Zelenskyy has cautiously welcomed China’s plan, but said it would be acceptable only if it led to Putin pulling his troops out from all occupied Ukrainian territory. He even added that he would travel to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping. The US and EU have expressed scepticism, arguing that Beijing does not have the international credibility to act as a mediator. 

China has been Russia’s most dependable ally, with Beijing reaffirming a relationship with “no limits”. Ukraine has its own 10-point peace formula. It demands the withdrawal of Russian troops, reparations and prosecutions for Russia’s war crimes. Putin’s latest speech made it clear that he is preparing for a war that could last a generation, and gambling on a new American president in 2024 being less committed to supporting Ukraine than the Biden administration is. The endgame is nowhere in sight and the prospect of Zelenskyy and Putin agreeing on a negotiated and lasting peace still faces many hurdles, most notably the fact that the former would never agree to a deal that would leave Russia in control of some 17% of its territory. The best-case scenario is a ceasefire, as was the case between North and South Korea in 1953.

The biggest hope is the growing urge in European capitals for a negotiated settlement and an end to what has been such a distraction, politically, militarily and economically. The funds going to Ukraine and increased defence spending are also badly needed to allow countries to spend more on domestic issues and combat the rising cost of living and the energy crisis that the war has brought about. The pandemic upended the global economic system that was running smoothly before the start of 2020. Russia’s war has only added to the disruption and dislocation, and diversion of financial resources to Ukraine. Many argue that the money spent on weapons could instead be used to finance development at home. It’s a tempting thought, but the ultimate goal has to be an end to Putin’s reckless, egocentric aggression. Ukraine is enduring an existential trauma, but the countries backing Kyiv now occupy the moral high ground, inspired by the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian forces and its leader. To abandon that would be abandoning democracy. A recent piece by the Reckoning Project, an NGO working in Ukraine, said: “Though a thousand buildings fell, the people crowded into bomb shelters. Babies were born. Children did schoolwork. And in the summer, teenagers held raves in Kyiv. Young couples fell in love, seasons turned. Ukraine did not die.”

That is an echo of Ukraine’s national anthem which starts with these lines:

“The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished

Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians.

Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine,

and we, too, brothers, we’ll live happily in our land.

We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom.”  

—The writer is Senior Managing Editor, India Legal


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