Getting to peace in Ukraine needs wisdom

Updated on Jan 08, 2023 07:52 PM IST

The Orthodox Christmas ceasefire experiment collapsed, but it was a revealing moment that hinted at exhaustion and showed how bravado does run out of steam in long-winded conflicts. Seizing such moments with wisdom in the future will eventually open the pathway to peace.

Plumes of smoke rise from a Russian strike during a 36-hour ceasefire over Orthodox Christmas declared by Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, from the frontline Donbas city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, January 7, 2023. (REUTERS) PREMIUM
Plumes of smoke rise from a Russian strike during a 36-hour ceasefire over Orthodox Christmas declared by Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, from the frontline Donbas city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, January 7, 2023. (REUTERS)

The offer of a temporary ceasefire by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, announced on the occasion of Orthodox Christmas, failed to bring any respite from the war in Ukraine but may have given a glimpse into how the protracted conflict might wind down. Although Putin made the ceasefire declaration sound like a goodwill gesture for followers of the Orthodox church, which has historically been a common binding factor between the Russians and Ukrainians, hard realities of the battlefield are unavoidable factors in his decision-making.

Russia’s stock of artillery munitions, missiles and men is dwindling and its ability to gain fresh territory or even retain occupied land is depleting. Despite enjoying an overall force ratio advantage of 5:1 over Ukraine, Russia is reckoning with ever-increasing inflows of advanced weaponry from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries to Ukraine.

Contrary to Putin’s calculation that the West will get tired of backing Ukraine and prod Kyiv to settle on Russian terms, fresh commitments by the United States (US) and European allies to deliver advanced air defence systems and mobile armoured vehicles are concrete indicators that Russia has little chance of militarily imposing a victor’s peace over a defeated Ukraine.

The best window for Putin to score a win was early on in the war, when a short and swift campaign with clear and limited goals might have secured a second triumph like his 2014 capture of Crimea. But as the war dragged on and the power balance shifted via the involvement of external alliance systems, it became a hopeless muddle for Russia. Putin is a diehard believer in the dream of Russkiy Mir, a concept for restoring Russia’s influence or empire in former Tsarist and Soviet spaces. But the heavy losses and headwinds his troops are encountering in Ukraine prove that he lacks the means to fulfil that dream.

As to Putin’s other grand strategic motivation for launching this war — pushing NATO back and halting its eastward expansion — he cannot be blind to the facts that Sweden and Finland have decided to join the US-led alliance, and American military presence all along the NATO-Russia frontier has risen over the past year. To argue that Putin’s plans have boomeranged is an understatement.

That said, it would be a mistake to interpret Putin’s weakened hand as an opportunity by NATO to press home its advantage and pursue total victory, which has been defined by top western officials as restoring the sovereignty of Ukraine over all Russian-occupied territories and permanently degrading Russia’s military capabilities.

The West’s stated goal of driving Russia out of all Ukrainian land, including Crimea, and reducing Russia to a humiliating and chastened condition entails a prolonged high-intensity war for years in which tens of thousands more Ukrainian lives and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Ukraine’s infrastructure will be further destroyed.

The heroic narrative of a David-like underdog Ukraine downing a Goliath-like bully Russia must contend with a basic reality check — at the end of the day, despite all the horrors and crimes of this war, Russia and Ukraine are neighbours and they have to coexist for centuries to come. An endgame that will rub Russia’s nose in the dust is not a settlement but an open wound that will revive the war sometime or the other. Also, despite his battleground blunders, Putin remains entrenched in Russia. Regime change in Moscow, which might help reboot relations with Ukraine and the West, does not seem imminent.

Turkey and France — which have tried to mediate ceasefires and facilitate other smaller deals between Russia and Ukraine — are not incorrect when they insist that one must be practical and not overly idealistic in the context of war. Being pragmatic is not the same as appeasement of Russia. It is to preserve human life and property and to restore stability in the regional order of eastern Europe. India too has offered to support diplomatic processes which bring about a pragmatic closure because all wars have to ultimately end through de-escalation and negotiation. The Orthodox Christmas ceasefire experiment collapsed, but it was a revealing moment that hinted at exhaustion and showed how bravado does run out of steam in long-winded conflicts. Seizing such moments with wisdom in the future will eventually open the pathway to peace.

Sreeram Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International AffairsThe views expressed are personal.

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