Between Speeches and a Stalemate

In its second month now, the Russia-Ukraine war shows no signs of abating. In fact, it looks like it could drag on for months, if not years. It is already taking a huge toll on Ukrainian’s lives, their country, Europe and the global economy.

I am not sure if the Western countries’ economic sanctions on Russia are helping Ukraine win the war, even if the media keeps saying that Ukraine must win. Economic sanctions help only to a certain extent; and this is not North Korea, Iran, or Myanmar, where the effects of the sanctions can be contained within a few individuals, companies, or just the country concerned. These sanctions affect the whole world, for the simple reason that Russia’s trade footprint covers the entire world. And according to The Economist, the sanctions are not having much of an effect on the Russian economy, anyway. They are having even less of an effect on Russia’s intent to destroy and take over Ukraine.

Economists like Raghuram Rajan and Kaushik Basu have written warning of the limits of weaponization of currencies, besides calling for a rules-based system even for economic sanctions. There is also concern that excessive use of the dollar as a weapon might actually undermine the currency and reduce confidence in it and one has to agree that it is a legitimate concern, given that the dollar is the basis for most international trade. It would apply equally to the Euro as well as the British pound. That is not something the global financial system or the global economy would want right now. And while that is a subject for a separate discussion, it bolsters the argument that economic sanctions have their limits.

More important than sanctions or trying Russia and Putin for war crimes, is trying to end the war first. With Putin’s attack getting deadlier by the day and with him emboldened by inaction on the Western allies’ front, we can be sure Ukraine is not going to win this war. And even if one agrees with the basic premise that Ukraine must win this for the sake of the country’s sovereignty, freedom and justice, the various parties concerned seem to be talking at cross-purposes. Let me explain.

There is not a day when Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky isn’t addressing some western nation’s parliament, or a regional summit or even the UN. And from what little one hears of his speeches on the news or even the gist of what he seems to be saying, he is not mincing words. Nor is he going out with a begging bowl, pleading for assistance. He has, as many have observed, framed this war as one between fascist autocracy and liberal western democracy. And he is requesting for assistance in fighting on the right side of this war.

He has been hailed by the West as a great president, a true leader of his country’s people. His speeches get standing ovations. But is anyone really listening?

Most of his important requests have fallen on deaf ears or have been ignored or dismissed: for NATO to join the war, for NATO to declare a no-fly zone over his country so Russia doesn’t rain bombs on them, for more military troops and equipment, for NATO to admit Ukraine, for wanting to join the EU, etc.

Western allies’ response has been to throw money at the problem and to send more defence equipment. Their and NATO’s fear in responding militarily is that it will escalate the conflict into a full-scale Third World War and that Putin might even exercise the nuclear option, as he has indeed, warned. I think that is being too cautious on the side of erring, if you like.

Not doing anything is not going to stop the war. Standing on the sidelines and cheering Zelensky’s speeches or his leadership is not going to stop Russian bombing. In fact, I think it is having the opposite effect. The more western powers cheer Zelensky or send him defence equipment, the more Putin takes it out on the poor Ukrainians. There isn’t much progress on the diplomatic effort and even though the two countries have had a few talks, the big one between Zelensky and Putin is yet to take place, with no certainty that it will.

Many neighbouring countries of Ukraine such as Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary have all taken in millions of refugees pouring out from Ukraine’s western borders. That is the least they can do to help Ukraine, but if it is a long, protracted war they will not be able to help much longer, not least because of huge economic strains and the effect of sanctions against Russia. Britain and America can certainly do more in accepting refugees from Ukraine.

As I said on social media just four days into the war, this is the first war being fought in the age of social media and it is being used to the hilt. Since Ukraine’s media and communication networks were hit by Russian attacks early on in the war, Zelensky himself has been livestreaming his views to his own countrymen and to the rest of the world about the war, about their determination to stay put and resist and fight to the very end. There is a war of opposing narratives in this conflict and with Putin’s attack and muzzling of Russian media, there is very little news from within that country. Some people are even talking of an information war, especially on social media, as in this article from The Atlantic.

By all counts, this is an asymmetric war. Ukraine’s military troops and ordinary Ukrainians who have taken up arms are no match for Russia’s military might. Remember, Ukraine is only defending its territory, it has not attacked Russia in retaliation. Even in defence, it is struggling to take back control of its cities, or force the Russians into retreat, or force them to the negotiating table.

What are the options available to Ukraine and its western allies in trying to end this war? While sanctions are imposed and diplomatic efforts are on (if they are, in earnest), I think it is time Ukraine and its western allies also considered military options. Military strikes that will force Putin to negotiate a settlement and end the bloody conflict. If he thinks of exercising the nuclear option, he must know that he and his country will be obliterated.

With every passing day, this war reminds me more and more of the Balkan conflict in the mid-1990s, most of all for the delayed response and military intervention by US-led NATO forces. Then too, too many people had died before the West thought it was time to step in. The news reporting of the conflict was infinitely better, though.

This time, I can’t even be sure of that, even though so much of it is being fought in the glare of the media. I remember the first such war to hit our TV screens was Operation Desert Storm, when US forces fought Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait way back in the late 1980s. It was brought to us in India by CNN and was dubbed the first “live war”. I am not for a moment suggesting that TV networks telecast the war live, I am merely saying that between the media’s reporting of it and the actual reality on the ground, there is a huge gulf that needs to be bridged.

Perhaps, media itself needs to acknowledge that its primary task is to report the real war, not the information war. Where the different sides of this conflict meet, if at all, and what is the progress. What new sanctions and what effect are they having on the war. What progress on the diplomatic efforts and the possibility of talks. And finally, the extent of bombardment, loss of lives and infrastructure, refugees fleeing, etc.

Perhaps we need to give Zelensky a break. And focus on the real issues that impact this war. World leaders too need to stop the speeches and PR photo-ops, and concentrate their minds on ending the conflict with more decisive and effective action . 

The animated owl gif that forms the featured image and title of the Owleye column is by and I am thankful to them.  

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