A year has passed since the beginning of the Russian war on Ukraine, which has become the main conflict not only on the European but also on the global level. The war has caused multifaceted crises and degrees of vulnerability from problems in food and energy supplies to migration, inflation, and economic recession.
The outbreak of the crisis and its transformation into a war dates back to March 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea owing to its strategic importance to Moscow. Russia considered that in doing so it was taking back a region that was mainly Russian and that former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had transferred to Ukraine in 1954 when it was part of the former Soviet Union.
The Western-Russian crisis over Ukraine dates back to the last decade and was due to Russia’s return to playing an active international role and the fall of the US “unilateral moment” that had seen the incorporation of many countries that were part of the former Soviet Union or had been part of its sphere of influence into NATO. This had brought Western influence to the Russian border, and this was no longer acceptable to Moscow.
The military escalation between Russia and the West has now contributed to a strong revival of NATO, as evidenced by the military, security, and political mobilisation and coordination among its members due to the renewed existence of a common enemy after the absence of the Soviet Union. Russia has now returned to play this role. The military escalation has also contributed to Russia’s own mobilisation of its traditional allies including Belarus and some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The Western-Russian polarisation has not extended to the rest of the world, however, and the main powers in what is known as the Global South, despite their relations with the West, have not completely aligned with the Western position. Instead, each of them has maintained what it considers to be a balance in its position regarding the superpowers.
China, despite the escalation of its confrontation with the US and the strengthening of its relations and cooperation with Russia, has also maintained a balanced position, even as it has affirmed its respect for the territorial integrity of states, meaning its opposition to the Russian policy of annexation. China has also recently announced the launch of an initiative for a political settlement to the worsening conflict. France, along with Germany, are still affirming the need for a political solution to the crisis, despite their active position within the framework of NATO in the ongoing war.
In the midst of the ongoing military escalation, the mobilisation of both sides of the conflict, and the absence of any horizon in the short term to settle the crisis, it must be recalled that the military escalation itself is a kind of negotiation on the ground in order to improve the position of each of the parties later when they sit down at the negotiating table, whenever the two main parties in the conflict feel the need to do so.
Meanwhile, the war has revealed several unexpected facts, including the existence of solid Ukrainian resistance in the face of the Russian invasion. Ukraine remains democratic and resilient, despite its several thousand military and civilian casualties and the displacement of millions of its citizens. The war has also revealed the weakness of the Russian military, evident in the number of Russian dead or wounded that has now reached nearly 80,000.
There has been a clear change in the Western geopolitical landscape, as the crisis has brought back US attention to Europe, and the war has also affected the larger international system. Had it proceeded as Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped, the international scene would have been somewhat clearer.
There are now a number of scenarios regarding the future unfolding of the war, including the following.
First, there could be the reaching of what is known as a “Cyprus scenario” or the de facto partitioning of the country even if this is not recognised by the international community. The Donbas region of Ukraine, consisting of four provinces that have now been annexed by Russia, is like Turkish Cyprus, which was born from the crisis of 1974. However, there is a difference in the strategic importance of the two cases due to the nature and weight of the conflicting parties and the location of each of them. As a result, it is difficult to see this scenario playing out, even if it could come to pass with time and perhaps for a short period in a tense and unsustainable truce scenario.
Second, there could be the entering into of a long-term or protracted conflict that would witness escalation and de-escalation according to the factors governing its course. It could become a conflict that rumbles along and is liable to explode at any moment.
Third, there could be a settling of the crisis through a formula that fulfills the strategic goals of the two parties after they have reached a dead end and seen the draining of their capabilities and energies. The most important conditions for a settlement of this kind are the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Ukraine’s non-accession to NATO and its transformation into a kind of political neutrality that nevertheless does not prevent its subsequent accession to the EU with the establishment of an international framework among the parties concerned.
However, it is certain that the unfolding of this scenario will not take place in the short term, although the longer the war continues, and the cost of it increases for all concerned, this scenario will become the only realistic solution.
The writer is a human rights officer at the Supreme Standing Committee for Human Rights.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly