Pessimists and optimists

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 28 Feb 2023

Abdel-Moneim Said with more on the anniversary of the Ukraine war


A year has passed and here we are again on 24 February: the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Ukrainian war. Everyone knows that, whatever it is called, the war has engulfed the entire world, at least in terms of its impact. On the surface, it is a war between Russia and Ukraine over security, ethnic and economic concerns. In reality, it has revived the climate of the Cold War between Russia and the West, when China stood on the sidelines wondering what place it would occupy in the bipolar order whose two main protagonists had won superpower status by dint of their victories in World War II and their possession of nuclear arms.

As the war turned one year old, the battle on the ground continued to play out in eastern Ukraine, around the border areas of the Donbas with a particular focus on Bakhmut, where Russia has been trying to score a strategic victory over the Ukrainian garrison in the city. Only around 5,000 civilians remain in Bakhmut out of a prewar population of around 70,000. Both sides are currently in the process of preparing for a “spring offensive” when the weather is more favourable for large-scale military manoeuvres.

Neither side has achieved its declared aims. Russia has not succeeded in ousting the regime in Kyiv, demilitarising Ukraine or securing Kyiv’s agreement not to join NATO. Kyiv has failed to liberate the 20 per cent of its territory that is occupied, besides the Donbas and Crimea. Meanwhile, the fighting has exacted a horrific toll: an estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers dead, another 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands of wounded, and 16 million Ukrainians internally displaced or refugees. This is not to mention the massive destruction of infrastructure across the country.

The central question at this juncture is how will the war play out this year? Will we be asking the same question on 24 February 2024?

Pessimists think we will. They say that this war is going to last a long time – for another year, at the very least. They point to US President Joe Biden’s defiant speech in Kyiv, in which he vowed that the US and its allies would never let Putin win. Towards this end they will provide more military assistance, including F-16 assault jets. This is not the time to speak with Moscow, Biden insists. It is the time to stand up against Russian expansionist ambitions which extend beyond Ukraine to other European countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech from Moscow, on the same day, was equally defiant. Russia would never accept defeat or allow NATO weapons to encroach on its borders through Ukraine. He also stressed how Russia had withstood Western economic sanctions. Russian GDP only shrank by 2 per cent as opposed to the 20 per cent or more that economists had predicted, and the ruble is now a global currency. Moreover, the war has strengthened the Russian patriotic spirit. More than ever, Russians have rallied behind Putin who not only pressed his demands for reform of the global order but also suspended Russia’s participation in the New Start nuclear arms control treaty.

Optimists, on the other hand, see a window for diplomatic efforts aimed at a ceasefire and launching a peace process between Russia and Ukraine. As we know, diplomatic interventions undertaken last year by France, Turkey and the UN failed except for some successes in opening safe corridors for refugees and displaced persons, and arranging POW swaps. However, the optimists argue, the situation is different this time, primarily because China has announced that it would propose a comprehensive peace initiative as the war enters its second year.

The initiative, according to what has been revealed so far, hinges on two main issues: firstly, the inadmissibility of territorial occupation of a sovereign state (Ukraine); and, secondly, the need to address Russian security concerns (the threat of NATO enlargement). These principles are consistent with those realist and pro-peace outlooks in the West that call for a halt to an extremely costly war that is sapping Western capacities. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger was one of the more prominent exponents of this outlook in the early months of the war.

The optimists have a different take on Biden’s recent trip to Kyiv. They believe that it was not just to pressure Putin but perhaps also to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who has shifted to a more maximalist stance. Zelensky now demands not just Russia’s return to the pre-24 February 2022 lines but its withdrawal from all Ukrainian territories including Crimea as a precondition for negotiation. Ukraine can afford to be more flexible now that it is reassured of its ability to survive as a sovereign independent state, the optimists argue. Furthermore, they point out that, although Putin took a hard line in his speech, he underscored his willingness to negotiate. As regards the New START, Putin made a point of stressing that Russia was not withdrawing from the agreement but suspending its participation in it.

China is in a unique position to balance the two sides’ concerns in the interest of promoting peace in a world that can withstand no more war. It has considerable influence with both sides and capacities that neither side would like to see fully invested in its adversary. The optimists are further encouraged by the fact that the Chinese initiative comes at a time when the whole world hopes to stop a war that has harmed so many countries, not least the important middle-tier countries in the global hierarchy such as India, Brazil and Japan. Those, together with a large chorus of countries, complain that mounting international tensions and ongoing war are severely hampering efforts to address major issues of concern to the whole of humanity, such as pandemic disease, global warming and other urgent problems borne of technological progress. Worse yet, they say, the dynamics of the conflict itself could spiral out of control and lead to a nuclear conflagration, especially if Russia feels that it is about to lose the war as the result of foreign military, technological and intelligence interventions.

As suitable a mediator as Beijing may be, the problem is that the West sees it as a party in the conflict. Indeed, the new key factor in the current global polarisation is that the “competition” between China and the US has become the main driver of international interplay. In the end, neither optimism or pessimism have much say in major international affairs. These are governed by  the military, economic and technological balance of power, in its diverse hard, soft and smart forms. The war will bring all those balance sheets more clearly into relief, by which time mankind may be facing another test as the Russia-Ukraine war continues through its second year and heads into its third.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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