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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 27 , July 1, 2023

Russia Ukraine War, No End in Sight | Manoj Kumar Mishra

Saturday 1 July 2023


(this article has waited for long in the pipeline and is being published now as it remains relevant)

by Manoj Kumar Mishra *

Both Russian and Ukrainian governments have good reasons to protract the war ongoing over Ukrainian territory. While Ukraine pins hope on continued Western assistance in order to reclaim the Russian-occupied territories, Russia tends to believe that the Ukrainian battlefield successes indicate the peak of Western support which will be leveled off and then flag keeping in view the wavering Western commitments to war efforts in Afghanistan.
Russian military campaign in Ukraine has already borne unbearable costs in terms of loss of human and military resources and after losing battles in Kherson and Kharkiv that they seem to have learned to fortify their defence and to narrow down and focus on specific targets by hewing the large units.

Russia is not Incentivized to end War and seek Peace

Russia has mobilized 3, 00,000 more people into its Ukrainian war efforts not just to replenish the existing military units but also to maintain large force in reserve. It firmly believes that the Western support for Ukraine could wear down anytime and then Russia would fulfill its war objectives. Second, there are hardly any commitments from the Western powers that they would lift specific sanctions if Russia negotiates for peace. Russia suspects that the sanctions may remain in place even after relative peace is ensured. The sanctions themselves do not signal what Russia must do to seek relief from them. Third, if Russia negotiates for peace then it would be difficult for President Vladimir Putin to justify to his people as to why Russia invaded Ukraine in the first place and after so many significant losses to its military and economy; it is making peace with the country. It would be perceived and construed as a defeat for the great power. Fourth, the Ukrainian and Western efforts to tighten screws on Russia in a bid to bring its leaders to special international tribunal holding them responsible for the brutal aggression in the first place apart from ICC’s investigation into the atrocities committed by it subsequently would complicate the diplomatic efforts to bring the two sides to negotiation table. Fifth, the implication of President Putin and his close confidant in war crimes and the ongoing Ukrainan and Western efforts to institute a special tribunal to bring the Russian leaders to trial for aggression which is unlikely or for that matter trial in absentia will also be resisted by Putin. However, anything short of victory or once they come to terms of peace with Ukraine, the Russian leaders are likely to believe that such pressures from international community would mount. Only if the leaders are granted immunity en masse, this could open a pathway for peace which is unlikely given the brutality of aggression which Zelenskyy has brought to the international forums time and again and pressures from international civil society and media.

Then, Russia is allegedly engaged in a systematic disinformation campaign to smear Ukraine and hold it responsible for prompting it to attack in self-defense. Russian campaign implicates Ukraine and its Western-backers who were not only engaged in surreptitious military activities on the Ukrainian soil, they were also planning to bring the NATO to Russian doorstep by including Ukraine as a member. Moscow also provided narratives how Russian nationals were being threatened on the Ukrainian land particularly in Luhansk and Donetsk. On the other side, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy led a successful information campaign that tarnished the Russian image for its unprovoked war of aggression and for committing reckless atrocities which made him far more popular than the pre-war period. This information and disinformation campaigns are hard to be neutralized before both parties arrive at the negotiation table. Besides, the spiral of violence already unleashed by both sides would make it difficult for each to reconcile with the other as misperceptions and avenging psychology also gets spiraled.

Russia is militarily ensconced in Ukraine after a few early losses in the battlefield, any unexpected escalation of the conflict by Ukraine with the assistance of advanced weaponry from the Western forces would invite use of strategic/tactical nuclear weapons by Russia or it would take the conflict to the level of Russia and NATO confrontation. So long as Russia retains the options of using tactical nuclear weapons which it has already threatened to use, it retains the requisite maneuvering capacity to influence the war outcomes and it may not be inclined sign a peace deal as of now to end the conflict.

Benefits From Peace Seem to Be Lesser than Protracting the War

From the Ukrainan side also there will be lesser incentives to go for peace initiatives. Ukraine has been recipient of updated Western military equipment, logistics and economic support to launch counter-offensives against Russia and it has successfully beaten the Russian army on the battlefield as Kherson and Kharkiv instances point to. Ukraine hopes to restore its territory back from Russian occupation with such support as the US President Joe Biden has himself described the Western mission would be to restore the Ukrainian territory back to its pre-2022 status. Once Ukraine goes for a ceasefire or armistice agreement, it is likely to remain unsure of the level support it would receive following Russian future violation of the agreement. Second, Ukraine must be running of the trust deficit just like Russia over time as the war continues to wreak havoc with targets on its critical infrastructure as well as attacks on civilians as soft-targets. Third, Ukraine has been pressing for instituting special tribunal for bringing the leaders involved in the brutal aggression and war criminals to justice for committing genocide and atrocities on Ukrainan soil. Thus in this context, Ukraine will remain unwilling to a peace deal that prevaricates the principles of criminal justice system. Fourth, Ukraine unsure of the commitment of robust Western security support in the post-war period would remain hesitant to press for peace despite battlefield losses. While Ukraine would need robust Western security assistance for deterring the existential threat it perceives from Russia, such provisions of resilient security assistance from the West would be an anathema to Russia as well. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapon in 1994 whereas Russia has the World’s largest nuclear arsenal. Russia would seek guarantees of a non-aligned and neutral Ukraine bereft of nuclear power to remain without membership in NATO as a precondition for any peace negotiation. However, following the war as the war progressed Ukrainian desire for NATO membership became more vociferous and gained traction at the international level.

It is not merely the geographic proximity to Western Europe, its cultural affinity with its White population with striking similarities with the Europeans also work in favour of Ukraine to build support in its favour. While the US stands out as the highest donor to the Ukrainian war effort including the humanitarian assistance, the European countries have been assisting the Ukrainians with arms and ammunitions that the US has been hesitant such as the MIG 29 fighter jets, they are providing bullets useful to the existing Ukrainian artillery whereas the US provides bullets that suits its own ammunitions. The European countries are also providing specialised training to the Ukrainian military units at the unit level unlike the US tool of en masse training.

Meanwhile, the US is also serving its own long-term interests in continuing the war efforts by decoupling the European economy from that of Russia by making the former less dependent on the latter in meeting its energy needs. The European member-states of NATO and EU countries have also enhanced their defence budgets in anticipation of Russian direct threat and also to assist Ukraine which falls squarely with American interests. It is no secret that the US had long desired the European countries to enhance their budgetary contribution to NATO.

China is positioning itself for playing a diplomatic role over the Ukrainian war without criticizing its strategic partner Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Although it has uttered phrases such as ‘Respect for Sovereignty’ and ‘Territorial Integrity’ on the Ukrainian conflict, it has tried to underplay its own statements by conjoining the opinions that the causes of the war are rooted in history. This implicitly questions the sovereignty of the Post-Soviet states including Ukraine. While Beijing seeks to offer its good offices as a mediator as it does not want its interests to be seen as completely aligned with those of Russia which would also cast it more in anti-European terms. It has been blaming the US for its role in accentuating the Ukrainian war but it does not want to alienate the European countries, hence it is trying to serve its interests by striking a balance between the warring parties which is less likely to be helpful in the evolving scenario. Beijing seems to be seeking to serve its diplomatic interests being seen as a high-profile peace broker.

Ways to End the War are riddled with Problems

Any war including the continuing Ukrainian war can end broadly by three ways i.e. political settlement, armistice and temporary ceasefire. Political settlement is the way to resolve the underlying political issues which led to the war in the first place and therefore it could be a pathway to long-term peace. However, the diametrically opposite political objectives that Russia and Ukraine tie to the ongoing war make political settlement highly unlikely. While Russia started with the objective of a full-scale invasion of Ukrainian territory, Ukraine wants all its territory back from the Russian occupation. Even the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 remains an unresolved political issue ever since then. While many scholars, Western observers and policymakers see in the Russian move a neo-imperialist design to cultivate the Ukrainian territory in its entirety since it was historically a part of greater Russia still the Russian objectives remain unclear as President Putin has cast his move in terms of self-defense - at times in defence of his territory and at times in defence of his nationals. Sometimes, he ascribed the source of the threat to the Western designs in Ukraine and sometimes he blamed the Ukrainian regime dubbing them as Neo-Nazis for posing threat to Russian nationals.

On the other hand, Armistice and ceasefire agreements can be defined more as technical arrangements in the absence of avenues to resolve key political issues driving the conflict. Demobilization of forces along the border, carving out a demilitarized zone, communication on security issues and undertaking confidence-building measures can be instrumental in checking the military moves of the parties to the war. However, these ways to ensuring peace could be temporary and it could provide pathways for buying time for the warring parties to strengthen their respective armies by providing better training, arms and equipment. Then under any pretext, the arrangements can be broken leading to war as the key political drivers of the conflict remain intact. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing reconciliation between the parties to the war under the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements could not prevent Moscow from launching another war in February 2022.
Russia might have been convinced by now that the deteriorations of conditions as the war continues in Ukraine must have pushed it further into the arms of Western powers which are irreversible. Thus by making peace with Ukraine, it cannot stop the process but the regime would be more pro-West than before. Relative peace could be just a way to buy more time to sabotage Russian interests with Western assistance. In a similar vein, Ukraine must have realized with the progress of the war that being non-nuclear power, it cannot even slightly trust Moscow to sacrifice Western security assistance or NATO membership to sign a peace deal with Russia. The external powers seek to either serve their own interests in this larger theatre of war or they are partly swayed by sympathies for Ukrainians on account of cultural commonalities.

(Author: Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Jagatsinghpur, Odisha, India)

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