Ending Russo-Ukrainian War
Peace strategizing to end the Russo-Ukrainian War
By Ali Ahmed
Through this century, it’s taken on the status of a truism that getting into a war is easy, getting out of one is the tricky part. The example of the United States (US) is stark. In the midst of the unipolar moment, the US stepped into Afghanistan post 9/11 with the ease of a hyper power to displace the Taliban and scatter the Al Qaeda. Handing over Afghanistan to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) International Security Assistance Force, it made off Iraq to displace Sadam and find his weapons of mass destruction. Though President George Bush Jr soon thereafter declared victory from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the war went on and 10 years on morphed into one against the Islamic State. The US was finally able to leave Afghanistan only last year, an exit facilitated by the Taliban guarding the Kabul airport as the Marines boarded the last airplane out.
This recent history appears lost on President Putin as he headed into a war of his own by invading Ukraine. Even if we are to take a purported war aim - denazification - as rhetoric, the ostensible reason – to keep Ukraine out of the NATO – appears to have been conceded by his opposite number, Ukrainian President Zelensky. And, yet the two sides are embroiled a war that could well have ended. This only goes to reinforce the observation on war.
One of the problems of getting out of a war is that strategizing is taken as the remit of war colleges and there is not enough theory out there to help guide how to end wars. War termination in strategic theory is about prevailing over the other side or leaving in such a strait as to make continuing the war worse than ending it. This is easier said than done since the opposite side receives enough succor from external partners to avoid losing a war, thereby keeping a war going. In this case, Ukraine, the weaker side is being kept afloat by the US, with the US hoping that its showing in the war will help weaken Russia in the long term. A longer war will help the unprecedented sanctions in place bite.
Thus, we see Ukraine not only soldiering on for retrieving lost ground for the hard bargaining on the negotiations table when a peace process kicks in, but also to milk its predicament to the hilt in terms of assistance it can hope to receive in the reconstruction to follow. The US has already pledged USD 10 billion. This is at a price in terms of temporary inconvenience to its population facing displacement and refugee status. As for destruction, most of it – though not all such as in Kiev - is in contested areas that Russia might retain control of such as Donbass and the Black Sea coast. Thus, the post war problem of rebuilding will be heightened for Russia.
As for Russia, it has not been able to make the headway it might have wished at the outset. It had hoped for a quick victory from the line of march, but its columns headed for Kiev and President Putin’s call for a military coup to displace President Zelensky did not materialize the hoped for dividend. The Russian military has settled for methodically taking over territory of its interest: Donbass that it might not return; along the Black Sea coast that it would like to retain control of; and along Ukraine’s eastern border that it will likely wish to maintain as a demilitarized buffer zone. It continues to bedevil Kiev and intimidate through bombings elsewhere, including by hypersonic weapons, in order to break Ukrainian will to continue in the fight.
Even as these military moves play out, the diplomatic field has been busy. The two sides have had three rounds of talks, but only touched upon humanitarian consequences. The last round was at foreign minister level in Turkey, but did not make headway on substantive issues as ceasefire and a subsequent peace process. Intermediaries such as Israeli President Naftali have lent a hand in conveying each others’ bottom-line between the two sides. Others, as Turkey, Greece and France, have helped assist the two sides with managing the humanitarian consequences. The United Nations has served as venue for global power equations to play out in both the Security Council and General Assembly serving as site for passage of resolutions on the politics of the conflict and its humanitarian fallout. Missing has been shuttle diplomacy by the United Nations (UN) or any regional organization, such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that had been overseeing the earlier truce in the Donbass area. The former may owe to UN limitations since a Permanent Five member, Russia, is implicated, while the OSCE got its fingers burnt in the outbreak of the war.
Thus, avoidably, the war continues because there is little imagination on how to end it and even less political heft to do so. To think about how to end it, recourse must be taken to insights from peace studies, a subject not taught in war colleges and with far fewer faculties engaged with it than are defence studies departments. Even within the peace studies community, the emphasis post Cold War has been on internal wars and how peacekeeping and peacebuilding can be deployed to help manage and end these. What needs doing is to fish out traditional peacekeeping by venturing back to the Sixties for insight.
The two sides are messaging their concerns and portents are for the war to draw to a close. Even the military moves, such as reports of Ukrainian forces staging a counter at places, are indicators of peace at hand. That it drags on owes to the two sides awaiting a credible word on the other side on what each could concede to incentivize the other side to broach a ceasefire. Apparently, Turkey and Israel are facilitating a channel between the two, though the degree of collaboration between the two is not known. Turkey, having provided a venue for the foreign ministers’ meeting, leads the way on ceasefire negotiation prospects. The UN has been self-effacing for most part and attracted some adverse attention on that count, such as from UN veteran, Shashi Tharoor, who wants the Secretary General to get on a plane and shuttle. There is no shortage of eminences that the UN could deploy, not least of whom is recently retired Angela Merkel, who carries formidable political weight.
While Russian demands include a declaration of Ukrainian neutrality and Ukraine’s letting go of Crimea and perhaps Donbass. NATO membership ruled out, Ukraine has indicated that any concessions it makes will be subject to a referendum. Secretary General Gueterres believes this should suffice to get the two sides to the table to come up with a preliminary agreement on a ceasefire. He himself has not stepped up perhaps to avoid ‘forum shopping’ temptations for the two sides and to avoid complicating off-the-radar-screen peace initiatives unfolding.
An assisted preliminary agreement will buy the two sides time to get on with substantive talks over their major differences, even as humanitarian needs are met in areas that suffered conflict while normality returns to areas less affected by violence. Ensuing peace talks may well be long drawn out. The two sides, having just fought a war, would require assistance in keeping respective forces apart. Displaced people require to be ushered back and humanitarian actors need protection in order to service them. The ceasefire agreement may require Russia to withdraw from Ukrainian territory other than in certain areas where it might be seeking the fruits of its invasion, such as Donbass, Crimea and perhaps along the Black Sea coast. Their withdrawal would require verification and those that stay would require monitoring. A demilitarized buffer zone in the space Russians vacate may emerge from the ceasefire talks and would need monitoring by a force comprising both monitors in blue berets, protected by blue helmets. Lately, a draw down in Russian war aims restricting its interest to retaining Donbass may make for a more wieldy peace operation.
The UN is rather deliberate if not downright slow, in its procedures to deploy troops. The circumstance may warrant speedier inter-positioning of peacekeepers. Two countries figure in meeting the needs of both neutrality and strategic reach: China and India. Both have preserved relations with Ukraine while not burning their bridges with Russia. Other countries with similar out of area capabilities being ruled out on grounds of acceptability to Russia, the two can collaborate on a joint and early deployment of peacekeepers once the ceasefire agreement invites such a force under UN auspices. India being in the Security Council as a non-permanent member helps with this. Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to Delhi is an indicator that cooperation on such a mission can be pulled off, though the two have been at odds with each other for two years over what India sees as Chinese intrusion into its territory in Ladakh. The opportunity of working together in returning stability in Ukraine might help the two overcome their differences in the Himalayas.
Peacekeeper presence will allow for the two sides to commit to a comprehensive peace agreement covering areas of major divergences. Implementation may require to be overseen too, for which the UN presence could be enhanced by other neutral Troop Contributing Countries. An integrated peacekeeping operation with a traditional interpositioning role alongside a humanitarian assistance mandate is not foreseen since the two sides are resilient enough to deploy their own resources and network with respective UN Country Teams on reconstruction, returns and humanitarian assistance.
India has been an active player, not only in the Security Council where it has been consequential in its messaging, but on ground in evacuating some 20000 of its students studying in Ukraine. It can however enhance its role by leveraging its peacekeeping forte. Peacekeeping can be foreseen, though with a return to the early period of peacekeeping for a model – a period when India used to punch above its weight in international affairs. India has a brigade worth committed to stand by arrangements. It has the air capability for out of area deployment of this brigade but also of Special Forces. If it is collaborating with the Chinese on a joint deployment, then the premium on its forces to be available for responding to a Chinese threat in the high Himalayas is reduced, enabling them to be used temporarily elsewhere.
Wars acquire a dynamic of their own. Peace strategies are to intercept wars in their escalatory trajectory, contain and bottle up the violence. These also help belligerents a face saver to get off slippery slopes. They require as much finesse in execution and sense of urgency and timing as war strategies. Unfortunately, there is much less attention paid to war termination in war colleges and strategizing peace in diplomatic schools. International Relations as a field can at best explain war, rather than help resolve it. Its prominent subfield, strategic studies too is left floundering when war, its instrument of choice, is revealed as ineffectual. Conflict Resolution as a field must leverage the opportunity of a European war looking for a suitable external intervention to end it to mainstream. India, for its part, could also use the opportunity to play to its weight on the global stage. Imaginative pointers here can be put to good use.