Stalemate in Ukraine Crisis, with America the Only Winner.

As the Ukraine-Russia conflict drags into the second year, any chance of a quick end to the war recedes further away from us into the distance. If anything, 2023 began with a ratcheting up of the call for more arms from Ukraine and the west scrambling to make more military equipment available. Zelensky has been on his usual rounds of making speeches at parliaments in western countries, asking them to step up supply of military assistance, and more importantly speed up its delivery. The issue of Germany dragging its feet on approving the sending of Leopard II tanks unnecessarily hogged the news for days on end.

Those on the side of Ukraine are mainly western, developed economies that continue to argue for Ukraine’s right to defend itself against Russian attacks that have been relentless. Nobody disputes Ukraine’s right to defend itself and its sovereign territory despite what Putin might say about Ukraine and Russia being one people. Or about Ukraine’s right to exist as a separate, sovereign country which, of course, it ought to continue to enjoy. But there has to be a resolution to this conflict in terms of putting pressure on Russia to end the war.

So far, the west’s response to the war has only been to issue targeted economic sanctions against Russia, especially its oil and gas industry and its financial system. And to supply Ukraine with the latest military technology and training assistance it needs to keep defending itself. This kind of west + Ukraine against Russia approach might seem right from a moral grandstanding and self-righteous point of view, but it has limited scope for finding any resolution to the conflict. And, mind you, the conflict affects not just the two countries involved, or just the western nations, but everyone across the world, for reasons that I have written about before on my blog.

The sanctions themselves have had only very limited effect so far, and that’s partly because Europe itself has taken a year and more to find alternative sources of energy supplies, buying Russian gas all the while. Large parts of the rest of the world, including my country, India, and China are buying vast amounts of Russian oil at deep discounts and are likely to continue to do so. I am not for a moment defending India’s stand on the Ukraine issue, because I don’t think there is a clearly articulated policy on it except to urge both countries to have a dialogue. We have been abstaining from voting on most UN resolutions regarding Ukraine, and that doesn’t amount to having a coherent and constructive view on the matter.

With both sides digging their heels in, and the western countries assisting this behaviour, we have reached an impasse, a stalemate. The critical issue at the core of the conflict – which is the eastward expansion of NATO – has been conveniently forgotten and deliberately obfuscated, in order to help Ukraine on an urgent basis. It is indeed remarkable how several neighbouring countries in Europe opened their borders to refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, most of them women and children, while the men stayed behind to fight. Many of them are still helping Ukrainian refugees settle and start a new life, away from their home country.

However, while we focus on the immediate requirements in a war situation such as the one in Ukraine, there is also a need to step back and see how best to diffuse the conflict. Help to refugees, sanctioning Russia and supplying Ukraine with weapons all ought to be high on the priority list. But what about the conflict itself and what it’s all about?

Where is NATO in this conflict, except expanding its influence even further? How does it help allowing Sweden and Finland in as new members of NATO, right at the time of a heightened conflict with a nuclear power? I can imagine the threat these two countries must feel with Russia at their doorstep, and Finland even has a long history of once being part of Russia. But from a diplomatic and political standpoint, does it not antagonize Russia even further, to the extent of perhaps ruling out any discussion whatsoever? It is another matter that their applications to join NATO have been held up by two dissenting members, Hungary and Turkey. Not exactly examples of great democracies, but their objections range from anti-islamist groups’ form of protests in Sweden, to delays using leverage with EU over cutting funds, according to media reports. However, the latest seems to be that Turkey was likely to agree to Finland’s membership of NATO, as the leaders of the two countries met just a few days ago.  

Ukraine itself has also applied to join NATO, along with its application for EU membership, which is being fast-tracked. The war is taking its toll on Ukrainian cities, as it tries to defend each one against Russian attacks mostly from the east, in order to protect the populations in other towns and cities nearby. Nobody knows the exact number of casualties on either side, though media reports always highlight the fact that Russians are losing heavily in the conflict. Perhaps that forced Putin to mobilise additional forces around the end of last year, and also to seek the help of his old partner, Lukashenko, in Belarus. I don’t know how much truth there is in America’s suspicions that China too might start providing military equipment and technology, as Blinken is reported to have said at the Munich Security Conference held recently.

One thing is certain. The economic costs of this conflict already outweigh all the military assistance provided to Ukraine since the conflict began which is somewhere in the region of US $60 billion. The costs are high, not merely in Ukraine, which contracted -35% last year, according to IMF, and is in an IMF-assisted program, but right across Europe and around the world. Russia’s economy also shrank, but by -2.3%. You have to wonder how much economic sanctions will help end the conflict, unless the world is prepared for a long war of attrition. Which brings us to the issue of how long countries, especially those in Europe, will be willing to wait it out and endure all the costs and pain of a long war. Surely it will start to affect their economies and people’s lives much more, with time.

Pundits and think-tanks seem to think that the economic sanctions against Russia are taking their time to have effect, but that they will prove to be effective over the medium to long term. Their argument for how these sanctions will work is that over time these will prevent Russia from acquiring the most advanced technology, components and equipment across a broad swathe of industries. The most immediate impact of this will be felt in Russia’s defence industry. The country will be starved of any modern technology or products and services over the medium term, though the effect this will have on ordinary Russians and their standard of living might be irreparable for decades.

Suddenly, America’s and Blinken’s suspicions start to matter. Russia is already selling huge amounts of oil and gas to China under a multi-year agreement. To procure the latest technology and to have access to modern warfare and other equipment, Russia has China to replace many products it currently imports from European countries. They don’t necessarily need the west.

In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say quite emphatically that the path that the west has chosen to adopt is actually forcing Russia and China even closer together. As this post is published, Xi Jinping is visiting Moscow on a state visit. One doesn’t know if besides bilateral issues, they will discuss Ukraine, but one certainly hopes they will, in an attempt to de-escalate tensions and wind down the war. Russia and China are likely to strengthen ties, not just with a lack of strategy on Ukraine, but also on America’s other eco-tech war with China. Europe might not play an active part in that war just yet, but there’s no denying that Trump’s trade war with China had a large influence on global trade more generally. And under Biden, America’s trade war with China is morphing into a cold war, as I have written before.

Coming back to the Ukraine crisis, a long war of attrition is helping nobody. It is strange, indeed, to hear some world leaders talk rather prematurely of using Russia’s frozen overseas assets and reserves to help rebuild Ukraine’s economy. The war must stop first, and nobody has a plan for how that might happen. Europe must manage its energy security independent of Russia, not just for the next winter and the next, but for the foreseeable future. Already Russia’s loss is America’s gain. Europe having embargoed Russian oil and gas finally is now importing vast amounts of American gas. Great for American oil companies and for fossil fuels; what happened to windfall profit taxes on fossil fuel companies? Years ago, Trump took umbrage at Angela Merkel for signing up Nord Stream 2, dangling the carrot of American shale oil and gas. Now it is reality.

Besides sending plenty of military equipment and assistance to Ukraine, America has not suffered nearly as much from the Ukraine conflict as Europe has. Not with refugees, not with the energy and cost of living crises, not with persistent inflation. That is Europe’s cross to bear. Strange to hear in the news Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis say that the Ukraine war does not serve America’s interest.

Oh, the irony. If anyone is already winning this unwinnable war, it is America.

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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