The interplay of political objectives and strategic realities dogs the course of every war. It is likely that the current course of the war in Ukraine is also being driven by it. Russia’s stated political objectives are now confronting military realities and shaping its decisions on the force it should use, in what manner, and for how long.
What must be obvious to Russia’s decision-makers is that they have underestimated the potential strength of resistance that the Ukrainians are capable of or overestimated their own military capacity. Possibly, it is a combination of both. In addition, politically, they seem to have underestimated the ability of the United States and its allies to cohere with and take action in terms of arms supply and economic sanctions. Russia’s miscalculations and the realisation that there are limits to what force can achieve will drive the course of the war from here on.
Russia’s demands on Ukraine are on the table and have been reiterated at different times. The main demands include the change of its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledgment of Crimea as a Russian territory, recognition of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states, and cessation of military action by Ukraine. However, it is Russia that controls the cessation of military action and is connected to the territorial gains that can be later used for bargaining on the diplomatic table.
Militarily, the extent of the territorial gains achieved by Russia thus far cannot force Ukraine to capitulate to all the Kremlin demands. Russia calling halt to its invasion is also related to the time required to withstand the pressures wrought on its economic well-being, the ability to cope with the burden of internal forces in the form of popular unrest, and the support it can harness from powers like China and India.
China extended its support to Russia’s allegations on US-aided biological labs and weapons with Ukraine and called for the Kremlin’s concerns to be addressed adequately. India, too, took a not so dissimilar stance and stated that any matters relating to obligations under the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWTC) should be addressed as per its provisions. The United States denied the allegations and stated that “there are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by it – not near Russia’s border or anywhere.”
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The ‘central problem’
US President Joe Biden interacted with China’s Xi Jinping through a video conference on 18 March 2022. The US readout emphasised the focus on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and notably stated that Biden described “the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians”. According to China’s statement, “the top priority now is to continue dialogue and negotiation, avoid civilian casualties, prevent humanitarian crises, and stop the fighting at an early date. The long-term solution lies in mutual respect among major powers, abandoning the Cold War mentality, not engaging in camp confrontation, and gradually building a balanced, effective and sustainable global and regional security architecture”.
China’s pointing out the need to dump activities that relate to ‘not engaging in camp confrontation’ is, in reality, the highest level political problem that needs to be addressed in the context of Ukraine. It is a problem that is produced by the structural confrontation between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Russia. The resolution of the issue in essence relates to the neutrality of Ukraine but one that is paired with a broader matter of sovereignty and independence of decision-making it is supposed to have under the international system. It has the autonomy to determine for itself the type of relationship it wishes to maintain with Russia, NATO, or the European Union (EU).
In 2008, Ukraine applied for membership in NATO when Viktor Yanukovych was the president and he had pursued a pro-western foreign policy. However, following the presidential election in 2010, the newly-elected Yanukovych, having canvassed for not joining NATO, passed a Bill in parliament in order to cement Ukraine’s status as a militarily-neutral country. The Bill allowed for cooperation with NATO and the government maintained that joining the EU remained a priority. However, following civic unrest that Moscow continues to describe as an “illegal coup in Kyiv in February 2014 with the connivance of Germany, France, and Poland and with the support of the United States”, Yanukovych fled to Russia and was replaced by Petro Poroshenko.
In February-March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and took de facto control of Russian-speaking areas of Donbas. This was followed by economic sanctions and deepened friction between Russia and the West. Ukraine’s relationship with Russia went downhill. In February 2019, Ukraine, with Volodymyr Zelenskyy as its president, enshrined its membership in NATO and EU by amending the constitution. A Russian invasion has now followed, three years later.
What is discernible from the events of the past, is that the central political problem is the issue of Ukraine’s neutrality. There can be no argument that Ukraine has the sovereign right to decide its political alignments. Ukraine joining NATO, a military bloc, was the primary bone of contention. But after Zelenskyy’s request to NATO for a No-Fly-Zone was turned down, Ukraine has indicated that it may not wish to pursue its plans to seek membership in NATO. Not being part of any military bloc is the anchor of neutrality. Therefore, if Ukraine has jettisoned its quest for NATO membership, it should open the door to address the central problem. Only when the central problem is resolved, can problems at other levels be tackled.
Understandably, with Russia’s invasion and the loss of life, property, and humanitarian disaster that has followed, the idea of neutrality could be unacceptable to the people of Ukraine. But hedged in, as it is by geography, envisioning Ukraine as a bridge between Russia and the West and remaining neutral in their competition and confrontation holds a greater promise for peace and progress. Ukraine’s recent indication of abandoning its NATO ambitions perhaps provides the greatest opening for the war to be replaced by diplomacy.
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India and China’s role
The opening requires the exploitation of opportunities for peace to prevail. There is an obvious solution ahead of us. Calls for the neutrality of Ukraine could be formally made jointly by India and China. It should not be surprising that both nations may agree that the neutrality of Ukraine is at the heart of the problem. Both India and China can ask Ukraine to declare its neutrality in exchange for Russia withdrawing from its borders. Territorial issues of Crimea and Donbas will have to be negotiated and will have a greater surface area for a give and take once the central problem has been fixed. Considering the overall strategic situation, both Russia and Ukraine might take the bait and see it as a way to cut their individual losses and gain more in the long run.
The Ministry of External Affairs has been non-committal to press reports that China’s foreign minister would be visiting India at the end of March. Whether he comes or not, the issue of Ukraine’s neutrality can be discussed at the political level within closed doors. Maybe it is time that Europe could do with a dose of wisdom from two ancient civilisations.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)