Ukraine war and its long road to the finish line

The nuclear risk is likely to continue, albeit with less frequent rhetoric and less manoeuvre involving anything remotely nuclear. Diplomacy must play a major role.

Published: 13th December 2022 12:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th December 2022 12:29 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration | Sourav Roy

Admittedly, those of us who were hopeful that we had seen the first signs of conflict termination in the Ukraine war a few weeks ago have had to eat crow. In the last few weeks, the Russian response to recent Ukrainian success has been towards Ukraine’s infrastructure, and the focus on its destruction reveals that Putin is still convinced that he can achieve victory by subjecting the populace to the pressure of discomfort. He has bought a lot of drones from Iran, which seems to be producing these en masse, and employed ‘swarming’ to target the power and energy grid in particular. The aim is to turn the Ukrainian economy into shambles and make the public so uncomfortable in the miserable East European winter that pressure is built upon the governments of NATO to pursue peace rather than continue looking for ways to win the war.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, on average, the most comfortable population of the world has been the population of Europe. The idea of bleak cold winters creates a fair amount of consternation among them; it’s such a winter that awaits them if the war continues, and that too with such intensity of targeting of built-up areas and population centres.

The information we are receiving is filtered through Western news agencies and other well-known organs of liberal freedoms, all of whom have virtually subjected themselves to the information warfare machinery and described in fair detail the war on the infrastructure that is underway.

There is a fair amount of truth about destroying civilian infrastructure to render human survival impossible in built-up areas; it is unethical.  In conventional wars, a temporary ceasefire is often resorted to, allowing corridors for civil logistics for survival and basic comforts of the public, which should be subject to none of the vagaries of war.

The problem arises when soldiers mingle with the public, and each urban structure becomes a pill box. Ethics are often thrown to the wind, and the sufferers are the non-combatants and the innocent; none of this seems to have happened here, and there are very few irregulars fighting unconventionally. Putin is hoping that the misery of the populace will lead to such pressure on Zelensky that his Man of the Year award by Time will be seriously questioned by his own population.

A few questions arise. Putin recently mentioned a ‘potential settlement’ to end the war. We have gotten used to these half statements, which he uses to test the waters and gauge response. What will it take to get him to seriously consider a ceasefire (who offers it first is immaterial because it must happen in the back channel)? NATO will not accept anything without clear terms of reference and a semblance of balance in the operational environment.

Ideally, he would want assurances about Donbass being under Russian control with the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces, no further expansion of NATO with Ukraine refraining from seeking NATO membership, and full access for all Russian naval and commercial shipping through the Black Sea ports.

None of these conditions is likely to be met as part of the ceasefire agreement because they form the very reasons for this war; all will come under negotiation. Ceasefires are negotiated in back channels to ease tensions, prevent unnecessary loss of life, and facilitate an environment of greater positivity to arrive at a settlement or solution. Clearly, the parties to the conflict will have to seek ways of achieving this. Victory and defeat form no part of this, and military egos must be shed. Bottom lines will need to be sought and identified. An ‘as is where is’ line of deployment may not be acceptable to Ukraine since most of the areas still occupied by Russia would form part of Ukrainian territory. Under status quo ante, Donbass and Luhansk were yet under Ukrainian control, with a proxy hybrid war continuing since 2014.

In the interim, Russia has conducted a referendum with the populace being majority ethnic Russian and officially annexed the region along with Luhansk. Battle lines are, therefore, hazy and unlikely to be neat enough to establish a fail-safe ceasefire. Yet the first step towards a return to peace is a ceasefire and freezing of all operational activity. In the existing trust deficit environment, such an arrangement seems almost impossible.

Can the United Nations use its good offices to negotiate a ceasefire and ensure its implementation? It has institutional experience in handling big-ticket events such as the Gulf War, but this situation is way more challenging due to the complexities of interests and alignments, as well as the involvement of big powers.

From all angles of analysis, persistence of the war is on the cards. The international community makes efforts towards limiting the war to areas not occupied by civilians. What needs to be understood here is that the war is almost entirely being fought on Ukrainian territory with almost zero feasibility of quid pro quo targeting of Russian infrastructure and civilian population.

Short of destroying Russian artillery, missile and drone resources, and rendering that capability below optimum for effect against Ukraine’s assets and infrastructure, it is challenging to get Putin to perceive that his battlefield progress will not fetch him success. For that, strong airpower capability is required, which is something the Ukrainian air force may not be able to deliver. Ground offensives are essentially ripostes and not counter-offensives that will lead to grand territorial gains.

The nuclear risk is likely to continue, albeit with less frequent rhetoric and less manoeuvre involving anything remotely nuclear. Diplomacy must start to play a major role. Otherwise, the contingencies will get more serious, and responses may be wanting. A way towards some dilution of tensions could be measures such as the agreement on the movement of grain, or management of nuclear safety risks at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya power plant. Restrictions on armour movement into built-up areas, prisoner exchanges and flag meetings are all helpful in reducing tensions. More administrative ways can be found to dilute the antipathy even as the war rages on. A ceasefire seems almost impossible, but a slow build-up to it remains a possibility.

My prediction remains that a sudden seizure of operations will come about in early summer—it’s more conjecture; what can it otherwise be in this war, where information seems to be the biggest resource and weapon.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University



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