Neither side in the Ukraine war wants peace as much as a crushing victory

If the US does not encourage a negotiated settlement, this horrible conflict will go on for years

Ukrainian soldiers fire at Russian positions from a US-supplied M777 howitzer in Ukraine’s Kherson region in January. AP Photo
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In recent weeks, there have been irresponsible calls made by several experts pressing the Biden administration to supply more advanced US weapons to Ukraine, arguing that the only acceptable outcome to the conflict is a “total Russian defeat”. It is perplexing how often these pundits have wrongly sought to justify the expanded use of force in conflict zones.

Both Russia and Ukraine are now escalating their attacks. Russia continues to find sources to replenish its armaments, and the US is either directly supplying or facilitating its allies’ transfers of new advanced weaponry to Ukraine. As a result, any careful assessment of the war must conclude that there is no foreseeable end to the conflict. Not only is there no end in sight, but also nothing good will come of this horrible war that no one will win.

Russia is at fault for launching this war. It has violated international law by invading a sovereign state, attacking its civilian population, and annexing its territory. But because international law is “honoured more in the breach than the observance”, the Ukrainians can’t turn to the UN or the International Court of Justice for action. Both institutions, which were created precisely to deal with these sorts of actions, are paralysed by lack of capacity and/or recognition or support from one or another of the major powers.

As a result, the world has divided into camps, with the US leading a group of mainly western states backing Ukraine, Russia leading a much smaller coterie of supporters, and China, while not overtly in the Russian camp, playing the “non-aligned” game with the rest.

The Pentagon in Washington last month. AFP
The US will need to offer incentives for peacemaking

The Biden administration’s early efforts to isolate and punish Russia through sanctions have had only limited success, with most nations in the Global South opting to remain non-aligned or to pursue what they call “strategic autonomy”.

In some cases, this positioning is due to a lack of trust in the US. Given the hubris and topsy-turvy run of American foreign policy during the past two decades, the US is simply not viewed as a reliable partner. As a result, many countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Arab world are unwilling to put their eggs in the US basket.

At the same time, many nations of the Global South are unwilling to risk the strong trade relations and investment ties with Russia and China that they have developed. And so, they have made the strategic decision not to take sides in this conflict, which they see as a problem for the US, Nato and Russia.

Then there’s the matter of the US’s double standard that weakens its ability to bring other nations to its side. After its invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, its regime change assault on Libya, and its drone attacks in countries across Asia and Africa, it is difficult for other nations to see the US as the beacon of righteousness that must be followed.

When it comes to the Arab world, this matter of the double standard is especially troubling. Other nations will agree that it is completely justified to be outraged by the war in Ukraine and all the atrocities and crimes that have allegedly taken place. But what makes the US’s claim to moral leadership unconvincing or even hypocritical to many Arabs is its silence in the face of Israel’s behaviour vis-a-vis Palestinians.

Finally, there is the argument that countries should band together to oppose Russia’s behaviour because it threatens the “liberal rules-based international order”. This is a uniquely American construct, developed to sidestep mention of international law or conventions, which the US and its ally Israel have repeatedly violated, or the International Criminal Court, which the US has not recognised and to which it pays lip service only when it serves US interests. As a result, the appeal to adhere to a “rules-based international order” is just a thinly veiled effort to mask an ad-hoc American attempt to apply the “rules” it wants to create the “order” it seeks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of G20 foreign ministers' meeting, in New Delhi in March. Reuters

Given this disconnect and growing distrust between the US and so many other nations, it appears that instead of mobilising the world against Russian actions, Washington has ushered in a new Cold War in which some nations are opposed to its leadership while most are ambivalent, with their feet planted in both camps.

The tragic reality that confronts the world is the need to recognise that as one side secures new arms, the other will find ways to do so as well. And as one side escalates, the other will match their escalation. As a result, this war could go on for years, posing untold dangers to the Ukrainian people and the possibility of expanding into a broader regional war.

It’s time, therefore, to put to rest fantasies of a “total humiliating defeat” for one side or the other and to chart a path towards a resolution of this conflict that no one can win. To start, instead of pouring fuel on the fire, the US should put China to the test by inviting Beijing to join it in mobilising a new multinational peace coalition to secure Ukrainian sovereignty and security.

This will require a change of outlook and rhetoric. The US will need to offer incentives for peacemaking. And instead of pressuring others to support what they have come to see as a western war, and forcing them to non-align, Washington should be offering them the alternative to join a campaign for peace and security, and investment and trade, which can benefit all of the nations of Eastern and Central Europe.

This might seem unrealistic, but it is a better path than the fool’s errand of accelerating this conflict for years to come with the unrealistic expectation that total victory can be won.

Published: June 07, 2023, 5:00 AM