Russia-Ukraine war: One year on, no clear path to peace

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters one year on February 24, it is clear from all indications that the conflict will not end soon. This does not augur well considering the enormous loss of lives, destruction of property and infrastructure on both sides, displacement of Ukrainians majorly across Europe, and of course, the disruption and heavy toll in which the war has caused and will still cause the rest of the world.

As the war enters another year, it offers a fresh look. High cost of energy, food and disruptions to supply chains are a few examples. Besides contributing to high cost of food and fertilizers here in Nigeria, our students studying in Ukraine have had their education interrupted and forced to continue or restart their studies elsewhere in Nigeria and Ukraine’s neighbouring countries. What was initially thought to be a quick war that would end in few hours, even as President Vladimir Putin, the initiator of the conflict, had planned has dragged on to a year and will still continue. The unflinching support of the NATO led by the United States and the unusual display of courage and determination will not allow the war be concluded in the short term.

Military, diplomatic, media and think tanks experts are buttressing the inevitability of a prolong conflict. For instance, Major General (rtd) James ‘Spider’ Marks of the US Army alluded to this position while speaking on the CNNon Monday February 20. 2023. Also, according to Peter Zeihan on Geopolitics(Feb 9 2023), “The war is just getting started… perhaps the scariest takeaway from the Ukraine War is that it’s just beginning.”President Putin had in some few weeks back indicated on the long prospect of the war before a local audience.

Diplomatic efforts under the auspices of Turkey, India, China and the United Nations (UN) at the early stage of the crisis did not yield peaceful result. Instead, the parties to the conflict are fueling it. Unfortunately, both sides are no more showing any signs to dialogue and negotiate. The events happening as the war clocks a year are turning us to the beginning of another phase of the war, and these are worth examining.

One, to re-strategise for a long conflict, Russia has recruited and mobilized several hundreds of thousands of young men, including the prisoners its mercenary units, the Wagner Group and the Chechnya leader (Ramzan Kadyrov) have deployed to the battlefields. Iran, North Korea, and Belarus are alleged to be supporting Russia with arms and logistics.

Two, the defiant and more combative speeches made by President Putin and President Joe Biden this week of the anniversary indicate an unrelenting conflict. Both are divergent in views and substances. Putin who controls the Russian military, politics, media and economy while speaking at an annual national day suspended the nuclear arms race treaty it has with the US. While firing up the Russian psyche in the speech, he accused the west of a plan to “strategically defeat” Russia. The west quickly dismissed the remark. This means that no more cooperation on preventing the use of nuclear weapons and therefore, Russia is deploying the nuclear arsenal in its war with Ukraine in an apparent display of defiance in the face of Biden’s support and surprise visit to Ukraine and Poland this week.

The third reason is the surprise visit by President Biden to Kyiv on Monday February 20, four days to the anniversary, in which many seen as a symbolism of support and a clear message to Moscow. During the visit, Biden was quoted on CNN as saying, “We now know that the first phase of the war has ended really with a Russian defeat.” Also while in Warsaw, Poland, Biden was quoted as saying “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia”.

Four, the magnitude of defence, security, intelligence and humanitarian support Ukraine is receiving from allies shows no endgame in sight. US, NATO, UK, EU, Australia, South Korea, and other western allies are supporting Ukraine to prosecute the war. Biden disclosed in Kyiv that fifty countries are providing economic and military support to Ukraine. Besides, its initial $600m commitment, Japan is pledging $5.5bn in aid to Ukraine to mark the anniversary. Israeli Knesset members have also arrived in Kyiv to reinstate support. The backing will drive the war as consultations and dialogues these allies ought to be engaging to resolve the largest war in Europe since the World War II are discarded.

Five, the show of unlimited support the NATO and western powers made to Ukraine, and what the war has revolutionized would not make it to end soon. According to Biden, the US would stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes” and praised their “heroic” fighting. The US wants to finish the war with Ukrainian victory, as it cannot be a frozen conflict but a victory for Ukraine. He announced another $500m in aid to Kyiv. The morale such gesture would give to Ukrainian troops will prolong the war as no mediator might be willing to commit to the conflict’s quick resolution. The German defence policy, the boosted EU unity, solidified NATO powers, revived United States commitment to the transatlantic alliance are some of the reasons why the conflict will persists. The question that seems to be in the western mind now is, when will we defeat Putin and not when will the war end.

Six, what transpired at the just concluded World Leaders and Security Conference at Munich in Germany shows that peace plan is beyond the horizon of the superpowers. Today, only China is known to be initiating a peace plan through its head of delegation, Wang Yi. Though the same China is being feared by the US Foreign Secretary, Antony Blinken, to be considering “lethal support” for Russia. A claim denied by China. As Biden was visiting Kyiv, China officials are also visiting Moscow in what some see as an interesting coincidence. Last week, South Africa is hosting Russia and China for a 10-day naval drills in the Indian Ocean. In the geopolitical spread of the conflict, the effort of Russia to establish a multipolar world with China which is being displayed in Africa, particularly as the French are being forced to leave Mali and Burkina Faso under the public support for Russia to fight the intractable terrorism means that the war in Ukraine will elongate.

At Munich, the US Vice President Kamala Harris said Russia has committed “crimes against humanity”. The mantra “As long as it takes” by Ukraine’s supporters such as the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron are not connoting any end to the crisis. As far as they are concerned, the outcome of the war will determine west’s authority. Willingness to prosecute Russia for its atrocities in Ukraine sends a menacing message to Russia that the end has not come.

Lastly, the morale Ukraine is getting in arms, and now sophisticated armed tanks, long-range missiles, and if lucky, jet fighters like F16 and their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will further strengthen its resistance and defence against Russia. The interest Ukraine showed at negotiation at the beginning of the war is no longer there for apparent reasons. As far as Ukraine is concerned, its goal is to regain all the lost territories including Crimea. The skills and resilience it has demonstrated indicate such possibility, but will be a long haul for that to be achieved in the battle.

Taking the above into account, it is easy to understand the war is far from over. The next phase seems more dangerous. If care is not taken, the conflict will transform into World War III since it is an existential war between the west and Russia; between democracy and autocracy as being posited by some schools of thought. The plausibility of this is that, if Russia wins, it will further invade other European countries like Poland and Romania given the Georgia’s experience in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. Then on Russian side, its existence, history and culture are under serious threat, and therefore, will defend with whatever that is necessary and as long as it takes. From its war with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812 (French invasion), Russia will stay the course, even more so that the west-imposed sanctions are not as biting as expected. India and others are buying cheaper oil. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, UAE and Iran have formally indicated interests to join BRICS in a bid for a multipolar world.

But while everyone should prepare for a long conflict, there is still the possibility to resolve the conflict. As a willing mediator today, China seems to have the ace. Though it has neither endorsed nor condemned Russia for the invasion, China has publicised its neutrality and posited itself more as a responsible power by indicating to help resolve the conflict through “promoting peace talks and …constructive role.” At Munich, China said it would propose a peaceful resolution of the conflict, which will stress that a “nuclear war must never be fought and can never be won.” China has urged the US to rethink its role in the war and help to deescalate the tension. If this proposal is accepted given the leverage and the “no-limits” friendship with Kremlin and its humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, the world can hope for a better outcome from the war. Of great importance is the need for the west to shied the sword, stop forging new weapons and stop fueling the conflict for the sake of humanity. All powers should cease from imperial overreach. They should encourage Ukraine to jettison a protracted war and come to the negotiation table.

As China visits Russia this week of the war anniversary and the intending President Xi Jinping’s visit to Putin this month, one would only hope that China would encourage Putin to embrace peace and withdraw his forces from Ukraine. But its possibility is distant considering its own diplomatic confrontations and exchanges with US over the balloon saga and Taiwan. Turkey whose diplomatic moves were promising last year seems to be wearied, and currently being engaged with the large-scale post- earthquakes recovery. Unfortunately, this is why there is no clear path to peace as the war of attrition reaches its one-year mark.

Babatunde, PhD, fellow and peacebuilding strategist at the Nigeria’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Abuja; writes via [email protected]

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