After more than a month of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, the war is moving into an uncertain direction with no respite to the former’s onslaught on the latter causing unimaginable death, destruction and dislocation of innocent people. About 3.8 million people have already left for neighbouring European countries with Poland bearing the largest burden of hosting them.
As the Russians make further advances into more Ukrainian cities, including in the western part of the country which remained unaffected till some time back, more people are likely to move out putting enormous pressure on bordering countries. While the Ukrainians are putting up a heroic resistance to the Russian attack, the military balance in terms of tanks, rockets, missiles and airpower are so much tilted in favour of the Russians that it is a question of time when Kiev, Mariupol and Kharkiv will also fall to the Russians.
Russians and Ukrainian negotiators are conducting their sixth round of talks in Istanbul in Turkey with no important breakthrough as of writing this article. The only positive result from these negotiations is the creation of a few humanitarian corridors allowing people to flee to safer places. Even that is plagued by mutual recriminations by each party accusing the other of sabotaging smooth movement. Better not to mention the humanitarian catastrophe the war has imposed on the ordinary citizens, including women and children.
Russia has announced it will “drastically reduce” military combat operations in two key areas of Ukraine “to boost mutual trust” in peace talks. The decision to scale back operations around the capital, Kiev, and the northern city of Chernihiv is the first sign of tangible progress from talks. But it is unclear how extensive any reduction in military activity might be, while Ukraine remains sceptical. The US and UK also said the pledge should be treated with caution.
On Tuesday, Russia’s deputy defence minister, Alexander Fomin, said while talking about reducing military activity that there had been progress on “the neutrality and non-nuclear status” of Ukraine, which are two key concerns for Moscow. Ukrainian negotiators had proposed to Russia that Ukraine would adopt a neutral status in exchange for security guarantees – an international mechanism where guarantor countries would act to protect Ukraine in future. In return Kiev would not join NATO, a key Russian demand.
This was not a new pledge, but it was spelt out in the clearest detail. Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said talks had been “meaningful” and Ukraine’s proposals on neutrality would be put to President Vladimir Putin. However, he made clear that before a presidential summit could happen, a treaty would have to be drafted and approved by negotiators, and then signed by foreign ministers. “This is not a ceasefire but this is our aspiration, gradually to reach a de-escalation of the conflict at least on these fronts,” Medinsky told Russian state news agency Tass.
Many are sceptical about what Russia’s announcement about reducing military operations actually means; whether it’s a pledge to pull back or merely an acceptance that it has already failed in those areas and will instead turn its full force further east. Ukraine has the backing of the West in its information warfare against the Russians. It is but natural then the Russian statements would be received with scepticism. On Wednesday, Russia declared a ceasefire in Mariupol. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are preparing for new Russian attacks in the east of the country as Moscow builds up its troops there after suffering setbacks near the capital Kiev, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday.
Russian demands and conditions for a ceasefire are also quite far-fetched with no reliable guarantees of Ukraine’s sovereignty and security in return for Zelensky agreeing to give up his ambition to become a part of NATO. High on rhetoric, each of the parties involved in the conflict are grandstanding in a manner that makes compromises, essential in negotiations, difficult. Other than Kyiv not joining NATO, Moscow also wants Ukraine to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and the separate status of two independent Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region. Mariupol is the main obstacle preventing Russia from connecting Crimea through a land bridge to the self-proclaimed “people’s republic” in the eastern Donbass region. Russia has focussed its efforts on taking Donbass since President Putin announced a “new phase” in the war.
British military intelligence said on Monday last that Russian forces had gained ground in the vicinity of Mariupol. Thursday’s declaration of ceasefire in Maruipol, however, proves that Russia may not have succeeded in getting full control of the city. Other than the neutral status of Ukraine, President Zelensky seems to be open to discussion also on the status of the two self-declared Republics.
Whatever happens in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, it will not eventually bring an end to the war, as the war is no longer a bilateral affair between the two countries. It is basically a war between Russia on the one hand and the NATO and the West on the other. Ukraine only happens to be a proxy. Minus the boots on the ground in Ukraine and the declaration of a ‘no fly zone’, NATO is fully involved in the war in terms of providing arms, ammunitions and advanced weapons systems to the Ukrainians, without which it would have been near impossible to put up the kind of resistance that they are doing against the Russians.
Imposition of crippling sanctions like freezing of Russian assets in western banks, freeze on oil imports by the United States even while all European and NATO members have not agreed to the ban on imports, are all practical signs of declarations of war. Massive economic assistance is flowing from the Western and NATO countries into Ukraine boosting the resolve to put up a brave fight against the Russians. After the Brussels summit of NATO, Poland is emerging more like a frontline state in the West’s attempt to see that Russia does not succeed in its game plan in Ukraine.
While the West has been talking about dialogue and negotiation to bring the war to an end, its actions like slapping more and more sanctions against Moscow does not create enabling environment for the same. The past history of sanctions show very clearly its futility in cessation of hostilities. Undoubtedly, Moscow is feeling the pinch of sanctions on its economy and on its ability to carry on the war. There are reports that it is appealing to China for economic and military assistance. So long it can export oil and gas, Moscow can somehow sustain the war till the time Ukraine is pulverised. Sanctions don’t affect the Russians alone, these affect the West to a large extent, if not equally.
Ever since the imposition of sanctions, the prices of oil have gone up astronomically. So is the price of food as both Russia and Ukraine are major producers of wheat. The rising transportation costs are leading to inflationary trends in the Western countries.
The moot point is that the war is not helping anyone, therefore, the need is to end it. So long the West is not involved in the negotiations and dialogue, the war will not end. Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine will bring only temporary respite and patchy compromises but no lasting solutions unless Zelensky capitulates and surrenders completely to the Russians. Humiliation of any one parties would not be good for lasting peace.
A tripartite dialogue and negotiation for Ukraine’s eventual neutrality guaranteed by both Moscow and the West is the crying need of the hour for peace and stability in the region. The West must rise up to the occasion, show statesmanship and give a call for such a meeting, possibly another UN General Assembly emergency meeting to initiate such a dialogue.