As the war in Ukraine rages on, an end to the destruction and suffering seems increasingly elusive, as neither side seems prepared to yield — not least because both seem to believe they can “win”. For Russia, its revised strategic objectives appear to include the capture of the rich industrial, manufacturing and agricultural area known as the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, extending its reach southwards to create a land link to Crimea, which it has already held since 2014. Some analysts think Russia intends to go further, capturing the entire southern Ukrainian coast, including the major port of Odessa and linking that territory to the Russian separatist republic of Transnistria in eastern Moldova. As for the Ukrainians, they seem to be prepared for nothing short of expelling the Russians from all of Ukrainian territory, including, in some tellings, even Crimea.
There are no serious peace efforts underway at the moment. The Israelis and Turks seem to have given up their efforts, and the visit of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, helped improve humanitarian relief but did not deal with a military truce. India is well placed to try, enjoying as it does the trust of both sides, but our government seems to be hobbled by a curious reticence to address the issue — perhaps because it is deeply pessimistic about the chances of peace.
‘War against Russia’
But if someone were somehow to persuade both sides to come to the negotiating table, what would a possible peace look like? Between the maximalist positions of both sides, one possible formula was offered, somewhat controversially, by the veteran statesman Henry Kissinger at Davos last month. He suggested that it was impossible for Ukraine and the West to expel the Russians fully, and equally impossible for Russians to achieve what they are attempting to do currently, given the extent of NATO countries’ military and financial support to Kyiv. Instead, 99-year-old Mr. Kissinger argued that a compromise should be to return the dividing line between Russia and Ukraine to the status quo ante bellum — the positions of the two forces before Russia’s invasion began on February 24. For Ukraine and its supporters in the West, that would be a victory, Mr. Kissinger argued, whereas pursuing the war to expel Russians even from the Ukrainian territory they held before February “could turn it into a war not about the freedom of Ukraine but into a war against Russia itself.”
Questioned by The Spectator recently, Mr. Kissinger explained, “If the war ends as I sketched at Davos, I think it will be a substantial achievement for the allies. NATO will have been strengthened by the addition of Finland and Sweden, creating the possibility of defence of the Baltic countries. Ukraine will have the largest conventional ground force in Europe linked to NATO... Russia will have been shown that the fear that has hung over Europe since World War II, of a Russian army descending... can be prevented by the NATO conventional action. For the first time in recent history, Russia would have to face a need for coexistence with Europe as an entity, rather than America being the chief element in defending Europe with its nuclear forces.”
There is one flaw in Mr. Kissinger’s analysis, though — and that is that there is no real reason why Russia should accept such a formula. After its initial failure to capture Kyiv, its severe loss of military personnel (including seven generals) and refocus on narrower targets, Russia has made significant progress, capturing every major town in the Donbas and the key southern port city of Mariupol. Given the hefty price it has paid for its invasion so far, it makes no sense for Russia to agree to a peace that obliges it to surrender every one of these gains. The only way that Russia could be persuaded to do so is if the price of the world’s opprobrium and international sanctions become unbearable, but there is no sign of that being the case, at least not yet.
The pandemic effect
Meanwhile, the collateral damage of the war is being borne by the rest of the world. We are all reeling under the “double whammy” of the economic consequences of COVID-19, especially the associated lockdowns and disruptions of supply chains. Even the massive stimulus packages post the COVID-19 pandemic have, as Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times, “ignited an inflationary fire” across the world. Meanwhile, the punitive Western sanctions on Russia have led to a major increase in energy prices, hurting countries like India that have nothing to do with the conflict. The war has taken two-thirds of the world’s wheat exports off the markets, sending food prices soaring. India used to import 75% of its sunflower seeds and oil from Ukraine; that is now down to zero. Commodity prices are shooting up everywhere, and inflation shows no sign of slowing down.
And then there is the persistence of the pandemic itself, as various forms of the Omicron virus have kept popping up around the world, causing so far only minor alarms but always carrying the potential of a new healthcare crisis. China, with its zero-COVID policy, reacted to the reappearance of COVID (in the form of Omicron) with comprehensive lockdowns, including in the major commercial capital of Shanghai. With China still the world’s principal manufacturing engine, shutting down factories and plants in that country has seriously disrupted the flow of essential supplies, again contributing to global inflation. The crisis next door in Sri Lanka, as the country simply found itself unable to pay its bills, is merely the most extreme manifestation of a problem that, in one form or the other, stares much of the developing world in the face.
Continuing the war is to make a mockery of human suffering. It will destroy world trade, ravage poor countries, and set global economic growth back by years. The World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said, “The war in Ukraine has created immense human suffering, but it has also damaged the global economy at a critical juncture. Its impact will be felt around the world, particularly in low-income countries, where food accounts for a large fraction of household spending... Smaller supplies and higher prices for food mean that the world’s poor could be forced to do without.”
The Russians and Ukrainians may not be interested in peace, but the rest of the world surely is. We cannot afford the indefinite continuation of this war. Western countries may take longer to realise this — no doubt the prospect of a freezing winter without Russian oil and gas might help concentrate European minds on this realisation — but the developing world already knows that the situation is unbearable, and if the war continues, further disaster looms. Someone must take the initiative and call for peace. If no one else is willing, I hope that call will come from the land of Mahatma Gandhi — before it is too late for all of us.
Shashi Tharoor is Member of Parliament (Congress) for Thiruvananthapuram (Lok Sabha)