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Is there a way out of the Ukraine quagmire?

The trust deficit between Kyiv, Moscow & the West, China’s 12-point plan offers the only viable solution to the crisis

By Zahid Ul Hassan/Zubaida Abbasi |
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PUBLISHED May 14, 2023

Early morning on February 24 last year, Russia launched air and ground attacks on Ukraine from multiple directions. In a state TV broadcast the same day, President Vladimir Putin termed them “Special Military Operations, aimed at demilitarisation and denazification and liberating people of Donbas from Kyiv’s genocide”.

Russia has no plans to occupy Ukraine,” the Russian president announced. “We do not plan to impose ourselves on anyone but those who may be tempted to intervene on Ukraine’s behalf”.

World leaders, from the US and EU in particular, slammed the move immediately as they hit back with a slew of comprehensive economic sanctions and warned Russia of consequences even more catastrophic. NATO nations vouched to do everything possible to support Ukraine in its fight against the invasion and the Ukrainian envoy to the UNSC requested world leaders to move immediately to stop the invasion. The Ukrainian President reiterated his resolve to resist and fight. However, after the lapse of more than one year, Ukraine appears to have developed into a quagmire for the belligerents, which, no one seems to know how to steer out of it?

Genesis of the crisis

USSR’s disintegration was a watershed event. On one hand, it raised the Iron Curtain, indicating an apparent end to the Cold War, and transformed the bipolar world into a unipolar one with implicit meaning that NATO now faced no rival from the Warsaw Pact. At the same time, it reshaped the world’s political map, giving birth to Central Asian Republics (CARs) and the emergence of new states in Eastern Europe.

NATO latched on to the opportunity to exploit and take advantage of the changing geo-political realities with a desire to admit erstwhile USSR states into the alliance to extend its “area of influence” eastwards. Despite then Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s concerns, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary became full NATO members in 1998, and another eleven ex-Soviet states were admitted by March 2020. Out of 17 erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries, Russia could dissuade only Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine from joining NATO.

Ever since, despite Russian leadership’s vivid opposition, NATO leaders have repeatedly expressed their desire to admit Ukraine and Georgia (immediate neighboring states of Russia) as full members. Russians viewed this desire not only as an infringement of their security and sovereignty but also against their ‘geo-economic and geo-political interests’. Russia has also expressed her concerns about the presence of US Missile Defense Systems in Eastern Europe, which it views as a direct threat to its strategic deterrence.

The bone of contention

For reasons geopolitical, geoeconomic, sociocultural and historical, Ukraine has been the real bone of contention between NATO and Russia. The West encouraged and supported the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine to see pro-West Viktor Yushchenko win presidential re-elections over pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. In April 2008, NATO’s efforts to extend Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine were thwarted by strong opposition from Putin. In February 2014, Russia viewed Ukraine’s protests against Yanukovych, who had to flee to Russia following anti-government riots, as provocation and blatant Western intervention, and responded by annexing Crimea.

Nevertheless, in April 2019, the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as President of Ukraine gave new impetus to the West to renew their efforts to bring Kyiv under the NATO umbrella. In Russia, Zelenskyy was viewed as a Western puppet trying to raise the topic of joining NATO, which the Russian and US presidents had seemingly settled in 2008.

Zelenskyy, under the influence of the West, ordered a crackdown against pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine and visited numerous Western capitals to campaign for NATO membership. At the June 2021 Brussels summit, NATO leaders reiterated extending MAP to Ukraine and joint Naval Exercises with Ukraine were launched the same month. In January 2022, Putin issued specific demands to NATO and the US not to admit Ukraine to the alliance, which were rejected by the Biden administration.

All of these successive events were sufficient reasons to provoke the Russian president to order deployment of troops along the Ukrainian border.

Appraising Russian objectives

In view of the foregoing events, following politico-military objectives may be envisioned for the Russians:

(a) To establish a politico-military buffer zone between the mainland Russia and the pro-Western Ukraine or NATO states.

(b) To dissuade Ukrainian leadership from pursuing ambitions to join NATO.

(c) To give a clear message to the West that, Russia would jealously guard against NATO’s further expansion and would use all possible means including the use of military means, to not allow US led NATO to expand eastwards.

(d) To leverage her energy resources against the energy-scarce world, especially the Western Europe.

(e) To negotiate from the position of strength, as and when such situation arises, to pursue and successfully achieve Moscow’s politico-military objectives.

A prudent look at the events so far reveals Russian authorities have been able to establish a ‘buffer zone’ by occupying over an area over 150km-wide along eastern Ukraine, running along her Western borders, by granting recognition and installing pro-Russian regimes in breakaway territories of Lugansk and Donetsk. Russians intend to extend this buffer zone further westwards which could be used to enter into negotiations, as and when it happens, from a position of strength.

Besides dissuading the Zelenskyy from pursuing NATO membership, Russia has so far mitigated the effects of economic sanctions and appears to have successfully leveraged her energy resources to her advantage. It has also exhibited resolve to jealously guard its sovereignty and use all possible means to challenge NATO’s expansion.

By exploiting political clout within eastern Ukraine coupled with the capacity to leverage energy resources, Russia appears to have moved closer to achieving pre-war objectives and denying the same to adversaries. By virtue of operating from their soil, Russians are better placed to control the conflict proceedings and escalation, and (financially and militarily) sustain the conflict. It would be increasingly difficult for the US and NATO (due to geo-political compulsions of not directly committing their military means against Russia) to continue supporting Ukraine (financially and militarily) with same intensity in the longer run.

Appraising Western objectives

To Western critics, Russia has ever been reluctant to accept the disbanding agreement of December 1991 (Belovezha Accords) in letter and spirit. Professor Paul D’Anieri, Vice Chancellor, University of California, while delivering a talk on 15 March 2022, remarked that, “Russia, ever since signing of disbanding agreement, never fully accepted Ukraine’s independence, and has spent the time since 1991, trying to reverse or limit it in various ways.”

Nevertheless, following the Russian invasion, the West encouraged Zelensky to stay resolute. The West’s promise of extending all-out support to Ukraine for waging defensive war may be perceived to have the following objectives:

  1. To politically and diplomatically isolate Russia by accusing her of oppression and invasion against a sovereign state.
  2. To extend NATO’s perimeter of influence within the immediate neighborhood of Russia.
  3. To embroil Russia into a protracted war and bleed the Russian war machine through continuous provision of requisite military hardware and economic support to Ukraine.
  4. To leverage trade and economic sanctions against Russia to inject an unbearable economic burden.
  5. To reassure existing and aspirant NATO members about their assured defense against external aggression.

Comparative analysis of the events so far indicates that, although political and diplomatic isolation of Russia, to some extent was achieved initially, it could not be sustained. On 24 February 2023, one year since the start of the Ukrainian crisis, 39 countries either opposed or abstained from the UNGA resolution calling for Russia to end hostilities and withdraw its forces.

Despite extending overwhelming support to Ukraine in terms of financial assistance, military hardware, intelligence and training, NATO and US could not convince Zelenskyy to press on with NATO membership. The Ukrainian President’s frequent visits to Western Capitals to ask for more, especially 4/5th generation fighter jets and long-range missiles, has not met any success so far. Provision of other military hardware (tanks, artillery, ammunition and UAVs, etc) is not likely to achieve desired objectives in the face of huge military differential in favour of Russia.

In the same context, imposing economic sanctions has also not borne desired results. According to a August 2022 Reuters report, Russia initially estimated a 12% shrinking of GDP especially in automobile, IT and finance sectors due to sanctions. But due to increased oil and gas prices and almost non-existent implementation of sanctions, Russian energy exports to different countries soared 38%, up to $338.5 billion in 2022 as compared to $244.2 billion in 2021. The unprecedented increase considerably reduced the shrinking of GDP to 4.2% and would further reduce to 2.8% by the end of this year.

According to Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Western spending in Ukraine has reached up to $55 billion. This is apart from the $52 billion the US has spent already and another $45 billion package awaiting Congressional approval. Most of the funds have been utilised in providing military hardware and training to Ukrainian forces to enhance their capacity to inflict maximum losses to Russian forces.

Appraising Ukrainian objectives

Ukraine is the most important yet least discussed entity in the crisis. Presently, it has become a playground and proxy for two superpowers to win against the other. While war is being fought on Ukrainian soil, over 21,000 Ukrainians (13,000 soldiers and over 8,000 civilians) have been killed. Over eight million Ukrainians are refugees in other countries while six million have been internally displaced.

Ukraine’s GDP has dropped by over 30% while agriculture and industry have suffered serious blows. The Kyiv School of Economics estimates infrastructure including schools, hospitals, bridges, markets, railways, airports and private properties worth over $137.8 billion have been destroyed so far. The life of a common Ukrainian has come to a standstill.

Presently, the objective of the Ukrainian people would be none other than materialising an immediate cessation of hostilities, peace prevailing and their socio-economic life resuming a normal course.

Ironically, as the conflict escalates, the people of Ukraine also stand vulnerable to nuclear brinkmanship. In the backdrop of enhanced political, diplomatic, financial and military engagements by Western capitals within Ukraine, Putin’s suspension of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with US and announcement of resumption of nuclear tests (if the US does) pose far more serious regional and global consequences.

On October 24, 2022, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, while talking to his counterparts in the US, UK, France and Germany, expressed serious concerns about reports of Ukraine’s ‘provocation’ and preparation for a radioactive device (dirty bomb) and likely use of uranium tipped ammunition by Ukrainian land forces with their help. The Ukrainian President and all four countries denied such reports and counter-blamed Russia for carving out a pretext for escalation.

Similarly, on 25 March 2023, Putin announced the positioning of Tactical Nuclear Weapons along with their delivery system and establishing their repository in Belarus. Under the shadows of nuclear brinkmanship, rising tensions have made the region vulnerable to the dangers of nuclear disaster.

Possible way forward

World leaders at large, have shown cognizance to the seriousness of the Ukrainian crisis, and its underlying potential to provoke the nuclear domain. Ironically, UN, so far, has not been able to initiate some concrete steps towards resolution, even as countries like France, Germany, Turkiye, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, India and China have offered to broker peace between the belligerents.

Owing to her ever-growing clout, China stands with the best chance to do the favours.

During the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting held at New Delhi on March 21, 2023, China unveiled a 12-point peace plan for the Ukraine crisis. The plan calls for all parties to avoid "fanning the flames and aggravating tensions" in the hope of preventing the crisis from "deteriorating further or spiraling out of control". While Putin remarked that “China's plan could end the war, but Ukraine and the West are not ready for peace”, it was cautiously welcomed by the Ukrainian President and criticised by the US and Western Officials. In view of the Chinese brokered peace deal between arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier that month, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on 20 March, is being seen as a vital step in the right direction.

To conclude, all parties suffer from a serious trust deficit with each other, which can be traced back to the Cold War. While Russia accuses the US and NATO for being expansionists and breaching security and sovereignty perimeters by adding erstwhile USSR states to the alliance’s ambit, the West counters that it is providing necessary security safeguards to smaller states against Moscow’s threat.

Irrespective of the ultimate outcome, it is neither NATO nor Russians, but the people of Ukraine who would be the actual sufferers. So far, China’s 12-point plane seems to offer the most viable and sustainable solution to the Ukrainian crisis.

Zahid Ul Hassan is a retired Air Commodore from Pakistan Air Force and an expert in matters related to regional and global strategy, and security. He can be reached at xahid31@gmail.com

Zubaida Abbasi is a research analyst who frequently writes about international political security and peaceful utilisation of nuclear and space technology.

All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writers