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Artillery Row

Development hell

The war in Ukraine has ground to a stalemate

You could wonder at the choreography that accompanied the first anniversary of the war over Ukraine. What a screenplay for the ages. The President of the United States appeared in the capital of a country under siege — an historic first, the White House suggested. The leader of the invader, Russia, spoke to his disciples at the same time, blaming the Americans et al for the war and promising triumph come what may. 

The messages from the two events were surely symptomatic of the hidden crisis at both ends — reflecting what neither side in this conflict wants to admit. The battle for Ukraine has become a murderous stalemate. The West under Joe Biden can only throw so much money and military hardware Ukraine’s way. Vladimir Putin can conduct this war unchallenged, mobilising tens of thousands of conscripts more, even seeking China’s help, for an indefinite time.

The bottom line, emerging from these frenetic days of high-profile photocalls and public messaging, is that neither side has a strategy for victory. Neither boasts the kind of unchallenged muscle to conquer the enemy. Neither side can win — at least in the foreseeable future. Far from inspiring, Biden and Putin looked like old cold warriors slugging it out, the East vs. West nightmare the world once dreaded, now a live screenplay enacted by both.

Whilst Joe Biden enjoyed Hollywood-style settings and the applause of all he met, his clinching argument spoke not of Ukraine’s ultimate triumph, rather Russia’s failure. “Ukraine cannot be a victory for Russia,” the President repeated at every stop. In that punch-line, you could diagnose the dilemma of a White House speechwriter — and, more importantly, the deep doubts of the military establishment back in Washington DC.

China is playing peace-maker whilst covertly backing Russia

Listen closely, and you hear a divided Washington Beltway — that nexus of power and influence that makes and implements policy, with two opposing camps. The foreign policy crowd sees the window to reduce Russia’s global hand to its right size, “somewhere between South Korea and Australia”. Some champion the idea of a war lasting four to five years minimum — “Russia’s slow bleed to semi-irrelevance” — allowing America to focus on the China threat. 

On the other side, the US military, specifically the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns of Putin’s capacity to escalate the war dramatically and disastrously for all. In the view of the Chairman, General Mark Milley, who has broken silence again in recent days, the sober reality is that Russia doesn’t have the command and control to overrun Ukraine. “It’s not going to happen,” he concludes. “But Ukraine can’t kick the Russians out of every inch of territory either.” Volubly, he sees negotiation as the only way out.

Enter centre-stage, a new script in hand, Xi Jinping’s China. Not by chance did China mark the anniversary by producing a 12-point plan for peace in Ukraine, just as the Biden team hinted darkly that Beijing is preparing to help Putin with arms and ammunition. As I have argued in these pages, China sees such an opportunity in the Cold War standoff between Moscow, Washington and Europe, now playing its hand as peace-maker whilst covertly backing Russia.

There’s little substance in the Chinese peace formula — no mention for example of Russian withdrawal. Instead, there is condemnation of the use of sanctions, along with a supremely bland call for a cessation of hostilities and respect for national sovereignty. No matter. Ukraine’s President Zelensky, whatever his debt to the West, felt compelled to seek a meeting with China’s Xi within a day of seeing the China initiative. 

This raises the serious thought: why is the West not calling China’s bluff? Perhaps it would be wise to put Putin in a corner too, by choosing a venue, inviting them both to the table and making the most of the fall-out, whatever the response from Moscow and Kiev. Start the conversation with foreign policy experts from all sides, to explore peace possibilities, and learn who stands where. 

Bear in mind that, in the early days of this war last year, there were serious talks and a framework for peace: Russia retreating to territory occupied before the conflict and Ukraine saying “no” to NATO membership. Then last July came the deal between the two allowing the export of Ukraine’s valuable grain to the world market, via the port of Odess — a truce negotiated by Turkey and the UN, facilitating a ceasefire of sorts and the search for the common good, namely food to the wider world. In such compromises, surely, lie the starting-points of any negotiation.

Yes, Ukraine has the right to insist on full withdrawal of Russian forces, trials for war crimes and reparations that will break all past records. Equally, we can expect Russia to start out insisting on control of a major slice of Eastern Ukraine. Yet I seem to remember Jimmy Carter, the US President who negotiated the first Arab-Israel peace, telling us that getting folks to the table, with their opening hands declared, “is progress in itself, because round one is known to all beforehand, and triggers round two from the start”. 

The lead actors, Putin and Biden, are locked in a Cold War time-warp

Sadly, General Milley has told his subordinates once again on any negotiating track: “I just don’t see it happening.” 

More’s the pity, and more’s the tragedy for the people of Ukraine. The screenplay, currently being written in Washington and Moscow, sees the Russians launch an offensive first, seeking to consolidate the four provinces in Eastern Ukraine they have already declared unilaterally annexed, draw a clear defensive line, reinforce with new recruits and even call for a ceasefire to give its army a respite.

Then, so the thinking goes, the Ukrainians will respond in late spring, early summer — using those Western tanks, the Leopard 1 and 2, to smash through Russian defensive lines and sever the link between Russia proper and occupied Crimea, with what President Zelensky is calling a D-Day offensive. Never knowingly undersold, Zelensky entered the war’s second year insisting “victory will be ours before the year is out”. A fine screenplay! Is it any more than that?

I fear the lead actors in this murderous plot, Putin and Biden, are locked in a Cold War time-warp, looking increasingly like Kruschev and Kennedy circa 1962, or Brezhnev and Reagan circa 1981. In Biden now you can also hear George W. Bush after 9/11 — even Putin the other day — with the mantra “for us or against us”. 

Just ponder the New York Times on the first anniversary of Ukraine’s war, as the President of the United States squared off against the leader of Russia, live on our screens: “it is increasingly a contest between two ageing Cold Warriors, one 70 years old and another who just turned 80, who have been circling each other for years, and are now engaged in everything short of direct battle.” 

It is less a screenplay for the ages, more a recipe for war without end — born of a time long since passed.

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