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Hindered: a frozen conflict in Ukraine

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By Prof. Dr. Masahiro Matsumura

The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on June 6 has evoked strong moral loathing against Russia, the alleged perpetrator according to major Western international media, and considerably diminished momentum toward a frozen conflict in Ukraine. The incident has spoiled the common understanding in the making across major Western countries that, given the prospect for further conflict protraction, a cessation of hostilities there is prerequisite to an eventual political settlement or at least a formal cease-fire.

1. The Attribution Problem

a) Speculating the motive at operational and tactical levels

Yet, who perpetrated the destruction and which country is answerable for it remain undetermined and will be so without adequate hard evidence solely available at the scene, which is obtainable only after the warfare ends. Until then, it is merely feasible to speculate the perpetrator by conjecturing who and/or which country benefits most on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Certainly, Russia is a highly plausible perpetrator, given the strong confirmation bias against the country that committed unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and the deduction therefrom with operational and tactical circumstances, particularly because Ukraine was about to launch a major counteroffensive against Russian invasion forces. But Ukraine is also a possible perpetrator in terms of a similar reasoning but with different calculations. In addition, either country of the two could have miscalculated or underestimated possible outcomes and impacts of the destruction.

The incident is similar to the Bucha massacre in light of the level and magnitude of psychological shock, as indicated by the fact that both cases were promptly put onto deliberation at the U.N. Security Council. Notably, the massacre also suffers similar confirmation bias amid intensive reports by Western international media, having led to the widely accepted allegation that Russia perpetrated it[3]. The U.N. Security Council had failed to timely dispatch a fact-finding commission under its aegis to the scene for collecting forensic[4] and other hard evidence, despite Russia’s and other countries’ proposals and suggestions[5]. This has precluded an objective and reliable identification of the perpetrator.

Apparently, as seen in the Bucha and Kakhovka cases, there is a pattern of the formation of an established allegation as the consequence of the interplay between allegation, media reports, and attribution.

2. Speculating the motive at the strategic level

At the strategic level, Ukraine could have benefited more from a self-inflicting dam destruction, if international public opinion would converge on the alleged attribution of it to Russia. This would surely render major Western media to portray the country as uncompromisable evil to be defeated in the south Ukraine theater of operations by completely evicting Russian invasion forces from the occupied territories, potentially including the Crimea. Such evolutionary developments would prolong the armed conflict, rather than put an end to it.

Ceteris paribus, however, Ukraine’s armed conflict with Russia is hardly winnable due to their marked unfavorable imbalance of total military power. Thus, conflict protraction will bring Ukraine to bay through attrition of manpower, munition, and logistics. This strategic equation can be reversed only if with sufficient arms transfer and other military assistance from the U.S.-led West. In fact, such Western support is a prime lifeline of Ukraine’s war policy.

However, the lifeline is now in jeopardy because the West’s arms production capacity[6] and willingness[7] for support has considerably declined since the outbreak in February 2022 of the warfare in Ukraine, with strong prospect of further decline thereof. The West’s extensive economic sanctions against Russia have backfired by causing prices for fossil fuels and other commodities to surge, aggravating inflation and public economic hardship and causing labor unrest and undermining democratic legitimacy in the West. As a result, intensifying domestic political and economic pressures interacts with public fatigue toward Ukraine aid[8]. Notably, it has become increasingly difficult even for the Joe Biden administration to continue its strong Ukraine-aid policy, as the approaching presidential election campaign requires it to shift policy priority from foreign to domestic affairs. This is compounded by the intensifying political strife with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that shares power of the purse with the Senate, with the right to deliberate the budget first.

Most importantly, it seems that the U.S. military circles have become aware of the significant need to put an end to the protracted conflict, which is in sharp discord with the Ukraine policy line of the core Biden administration. The discord is well shown by a RAND Corporation report concluding that “the consequence of a long war - ranging from persistent elevated escalation risks to economic damage - far outweigh the possible benefits”[9]. It also recommends that, “since avoiding a long war is the highest priority after minimizing escalation risks, the United States should take steps that make an end to the conflict over the medium term more likely”[10]

Evidently, there is the intensified pulling and hauling between the two camps of conflict continuation vs. discontinuation, or a longer vs. a frozen conflict. It is natural that Ukrainian jingoists and overseas warmongering interventionists, in pursuit of their creedal, ideological and/or material interests, will take advantage of the dam destruction to tip the balance against their prudential realist opponents by making a propaganda drive to turn strong moral loathing into reinforcement of the current policy line having resulted in conflict protraction. This understanding does not assume any conspiracy that the former is behind the dam destruction, while recognizing that the perpetrator cannot be identified at this stage. In addition, records in contemporary international relations show that the abrupt occurrence of a mass atrocity or a destruction incident in protracted armed conflict arose strong mutual abhorrence and nationalist/ethnic feelings and often closed a valuable window of opportunity to put an early end to hostilities through negotiation, as found in recent ethnic conflicts, such as the Foča ethnic cleansing (April 1992-August 1994) and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 during the former Yugoslav wars and, most recently, the Bucha massacre.

Hence, it is critically important to grasp some ideational spadework under way toward a frozen conflict in Ukraine, prior to the dam destruction.

3. Exploring an alternative approach to Ukraine policy

Evidently, U.S.-led Ukraine war policy has vainly pursued unidimensional military solution and fallen into an intractable impasse in which the West as a whole has suffered dire boomerang effects of its various and extensive economic sanctions against Russia. The state of affairs has unexpectedly accelerated U.S. hegemonic decline while reinforcing the emerging dynamics toward multipolar world order, which may eventually end up at hegemonic debilitation[11].In the meeting in April this year with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, French President Emmanuel Macron mentioned the need for a European foreign policy independent of the United States and the importance of a political settlement to the armed conflict in Ukraine in coordination with China, and openly expressed strong scepticism against the Biden administration’s roadmap toward resolving the conflict[12]. While Macron’s move is noticeable, such scepticism runs wider and deeper across major Western democracies, as indicated even by the aforementioned RAND report.

In his most recent speech of May 31 at the GLOBSEC regional security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia, President Macron called for a diplomatic approach to put a temporary remedy to the armed conflict in Ukraine, with implicit criticism on the current U.S. – led Ukraine policy aiming at exclusive military solution, while committed to provide Ukraine with “all means to carry out an effective counter-offensive against Russian forces”. He expects that Ukraine’s counter-offensive against Russia invasion forces may bring limited operational and tactical achievements and then open a window of opportunity for a “lasting peace” through negotiation[13].

In fact, having reflected discussion among U.S. and NATO leaders[14], President Macron suggested to offer Ukraine “tangible and credible security guarantee” until the country formally joins NATO as a full member state according to the organization’s founding treaty.  NATO cannot give Ukraine membership because the country is now a party to the armed conflict, the accession of which will automatically lead the organization to extend collective defense action to the country. This will inevitably drag NATO into a war, at worst a thermonuclear one with Russia.

More specifically, the French president referred to “something between the security provided to Israel and full-fledged membership”[15]. The United States has had special relationship with Israel as sole de facto security guarantor, but the relationship is not treaty-bound but only based on a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on security[16] and an MoU on military assistance thereunder to be renewed every ten years[17]. The former provides specific arrangements for “a comprehensive framework for continued consultation and cooperation” in security, particularly on security and economic assistance, while the latter guarantees specific and sizable military aids to Israel. Evidently, there are no mutual security obligations between the two countries but merely a state-to-state administrative compact that involves U.S. ambiguous but seemingly substantial commitment to the security of Israel.

However, details of the discussion on such a compact remain unknown[18], at least in terms of open-source information, while it is sure that the security guarantee to Ukraine under consideration would be more than that to Israel and less than that to a full-fledged NATO member.

4.Concluding remarks

The above exploration of an alternative approach to Ukraine policy constituted the low-profile run-up to the NATO summit to be held in Lithuanian capital Vilnius on July 11-12. Yet, it remains to be seen if a security compact with Ukraine will be put on formal agenda, if it will be an effective instrument for or a springboard toward a frozen conflict there, as devils are in detail, and if it will simply guarantee more arms transfer and military training to the country that will end up a longer conflict there.

There is now growing uncertainty what will and will not happen in the coming NATO summit because major NATO allies are ambivalent about giving Ukraine their “security guarantee” or “security assurance” and vague about their commitments[19]. To make the matter worse, the prospect is now further complicated by the dam destruction that has arisen strong moral loathing in the West against Russia as the alleged perpetrator and made it far more convincing than ever to conduct a longer war with the country until Ukraine evicts Russian invasion forces from the occupied territories, potentially including Crimea.

The world is entering a crossroads if it will have a frozen or a longer conflict in Ukraine, involving grave implications to the dynamics of the already weakened world order.

Prof. Dr. Masahiro Matsumura is Professor of International Politics and National Security, Faculty of Law, St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku). He is Member of IFIMES Council.

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