Published in the Hindu on July 8, 2022
The war in Ukraine has been underway for over four months. What began as a European conflict has had global repercussions. Of course, Ukraine and its people have borne the maximum brunt. More than five million Ukrainians have left the country and over eight million are internally displaced. Rising casualties and large-scale destruction have set back the country by decades. Recent estimates for rebuilding the destroyed cities and infrastructure are as high as $750 billion.
During 2020-21, most economies that could afford to, provided generous financial support to its citizens in the form of direct payments and subsidised food to tide over the economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chains suffered disruptions, aggravated by politics. Economic recovery has generated demand creating inflationary pressures. Today, inflation rates are rising across the world and in the largest economies have reached levels not seen since the early 1980s. As these countries tighten money supply, fears of recession loom large. The war in Ukraine has aggravated the situation for the poorer countries by creating food and fertiliser shortages. The sharp surge in energy prices threatens the prospects of economic recovery. Prospects of collective global action to deal with these challenges appear remote, given growing tensions among major powers.
And so, the war grinds on, with no end in sight.
The inevitable conflict
It is a fact that Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 in gross violation of the United Nations Charter and international law; it is equally true that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is not an innocent bystander. In 2022, Russia is the guilty one but NATO’s folly was to forget that the cost of its expansion goes up as it gets closer to the Russian border. Its strategic error was in concluding that Russia was in terminal decline and adopting an ‘open door’ policy.
By 2005, 11 former East European and Baltic states had joined NATO. Addressing the Munich Security Conference in 2007, President Vladimir Putin described NATO’s decision of moving eastwards and deploying forces closer to Russian borders, “a serious provocation”. The warning was ignored. At the NATO summit in early 2008, the U.S. pushed for opening membership for Ukraine and Georgia. France and Germany, sensitive to Russian concerns, successfully blocked a time-frame for implementation. As a compromise, it was the worst of both worlds. It convinced Russia of NATO’s hostility and dangled prospects for Georgia and Ukraine that NATO couldn’t fulfil.
Later that year, Russia intervened in Georgia on the grounds of protecting the Russian minorities, taking over the neighbouring provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, following the Euromaidan protests in Kiev against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russia separatists, assisted by Russian mercenaries, created autonomous regions in eastern Ukraine. The fuse, lit in 2008, was now smouldering.
Post-2014, NATO continued to strengthen its relationship with Ukraine by providing it training and equipment, formalising it in 2020 by making Ukraine a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner. British and U.S. warships’ presence in the Black Sea began to increase. In 2019, U.K. entered into a cooperation agreement with Ukraine to develop two new naval ports, Ochakiv on the Black Sea and Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, a move that Russia saw as potentially threatening. The die was cast.
Liberalism trumps realism
Neither side wanted war. NATO members insist that Ukraine would not be joining NATO but remains unable to walk back from its 2008 statement. This would be seen as ‘appeasement’. In diplomacy, appeasement had long been accepted as an honourable route to ensuring peace, practiced by the British since the mid-nineteenth century in its dealings with European powers and especially the U.S. as it sought to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Neville Chamberlain too used appeasement to negotiate “peace in our times” in 1938 but Winston Churchill employed it to pillory him and the term never regained respectability thereafter.
An equivalent term surfaced – sensitivity for each other’s core interests -practised during the Cold War to prevent the U.S. and USSR from getting into conflict. With the end of the Cold War, this became history. The liberal school, having vanquished the Marxist school of thought, was now convinced of the righteousness of its cause. If only the rest of the world could be made to see reason, democracy would flourish, free markets ensure prosperity and a Western led rule-based order prevail. The triumph of liberalism led the neo-con believers towards interventionism (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Colour Revolutions, Syria); others, attracted by the prospects of Chinese and Russian markets, deluded themselves that economic growth would lead to political openings.
The realist school of thought cautioned against military interventions backed by a one-size-fits-all democratic prescription and the risks of excessive economic dependence on China but these voices were dismissed. Many U.S. scholars and strategic thinkers cautioned against NATO enlargement, warning that Russia may be weak but it would be reckless to ignore its security interests; they were charged with ‘appeasement’. Liberalism was upholding ‘moral values’; amoral realism was easy to reject as immoral.
French President Emmanuel Macron talked in February of the Finlandisation model as an option for Ukraine. Austrian neutrality imposed by US, USSR, UK and France in 1955, enshrined in its constitution was mentioned. But these solutions had found acceptance in a war weary Europe when politics was frozen by the Cold War. Finland had accepted limited sovereignty and just two presidents guided it – Urho Kekkonen (1956-82) and Mauno Koivisto (1982-94) and both also served as prime-ministers before assuming the presidency. In 2022, such stability is impossible with power politics in flux, rivalries sharpening and populism on the upswing.
In early March, in an interview to Russian media, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that Ukraine was not pressing for NATO membership but wanted neutrality to be guaranteed; he even talked of autonomy for Donbas as a compromise and a period of ten years for talks on Crimea. But that interview was soon forgotten.
How wars end
Wars often develop their own momentum and the Ukraine war is no exception. Russia possibly anticipated a short, sharp conflict, a collapse of the Kiev regime (perhaps similar to what happened in Kabul last August), and lack of NATO cohesion. It has had to readjust its aims as it has settled down to a long and brutal war. The G-7, European Union (EU) and NATO have displayed unusual cohesion and Ukrainians have shown exemplary grit and motivation. Russia is in a bind. Even its limited war aims of controlling Donbas and the Black Sea coast have been a slog. Finland and Sweden joining NATO will squeeze it further in the Baltic Sea. Ukraine’s ability to fight depends on how long western funds and military hardware keep flowing.
In a moral world, there is a right and wrong and Russia should be held to account. But in the real world, other factors come into play. A blame game or establishing the root cause will not help end the crisis. Eventually, talks will need to take place, between Ukraine and Russia and with NATO and U.S. playing an outsize role behind the scenes. This means acknowledging Russia’s security interests in its neighbourhood.
The problem is that the war is now being cast in binaries – a battle between freedom and tyranny, between democracy and autocracy, a choice between rule-based order and brute force. This makes compromise difficult. And Russia cannot be defeated unless NATO wants to engage in a full-scale war.
The longer the war continues, the greater the suffering for the Ukrainians. The more territory Ukraine loses, the weaker will be its bargaining position at the table. And the longer the war continues, the greater the risk of an inadvertent escalation. History tells us that when faced with choices, major powers have a propensity to double down. The nuclear taboo has held since 1945; sane voices need to ensure that it is not breached. The sooner the war ceases, the better for Ukrainians, Russians and the world. It is an imperfect world but we don’t have another.