Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Ukraine to get peace only if both sides can claim a ‘win’

The Asian Age.  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

A permanent European military presence in Ukraine would rubbish Moscow’s claim of defending Russia against Nato by invading Ukraine

File photo of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky walking along tranches with border guard officers as he inspects the state border with Russian Federation in Sumy region. (Ukrainian Presidential Press/AFP)

The world cannot afford to ignore the profound symbolism of Hiroshima being chosen as the site of last week’s Group of Seven summit. Since the Ukraine war dominated the discussion, the meeting’s primary message was to Russia. But the overall warning from the city that American nuclear forces savaged during World War II was to all warmongers and the peril of war itself.

“Today’s Ukraine could be tomorrow’s East Asia” Japan PM Fumio Kishida said presciently. Given the nature of war in the contemporary world, East Asia cannot be treated as a self-contained region. The soaring price of energy worldwide was a grim reminder of the global fallout of the Ukraine war. Food prices everywhere skyrocketed as the last ship left the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk in the Black Sea last Wednesday under a deal permitting the export of Ukrainian grain. The cargo of 30,000 tons of corn was for Turkey where the return to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP could pose problems for Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy: As an early member of Nato, Turkey has a central role in the supply of sophisticated weapons to Kyiv, thereby shaping the war’s outcome.

Public indifference in India to the war recalls Taya Zinkin’s comment after Hungary and Czechoslovakia that Indians could not understand colonialism except in terms of colour. As an ICS memsahib in colonial India before becoming the Manchester Guardian’s India correspondent, Ms Zinkin understood the importance of race in Indian thinking. But today’s India cannot overlook the threat such hostilities present to stability and therefore to peace.

That applies to all contests and contestants, including China, Pakistan and also of course India. In none of these cases can there be an end to belligerence until both parties feel secure. Nor would it be right or rewarding to appropriate all the virtue for one side of the dispute and lay all the blame entirely on the other. On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is especially important to get the two sides at least talking to each other. That may be difficult without some acknowledgement of the complexities of a situation in which Vladimir Putin may feel he has good reason to feel aggrieved.

To understand today’s imbroglio, we must go back to George F. Kennan, the astute career diplomat who was the father of Washington’s “containment” policy. He is famous for predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, opposing Nato’s creation on the grounds that it would freeze the Cold War into permanency, and saying in 1948 that given their past history, Russia would never accept an independent Ukraine. Returning to the question of Nato half a century later, Kennan warned against its eastward expansion on the grounds that it would sound the death knell of democracy for Russians and ignite another Cold War.

Even Kennan, the hard-headed realist, couldn’t have foreseen the chain of tumultuous events involving street demonstrations, neo-Nazis, bitter allegations of corruption and massive state bloodshed that led to Viktor Yanukovych becoming PM during 2002-05 and 2006-07, and President in 2010. As President in April 2010, he promptly showed his pro-Russian leanings by striking a deal with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, to extend Russia’s lease of Sevastopol port, base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, until 2042. In exchange, Ukraine would get a reduction in the price of Russian natural gas. Anti-Yanukovych protests broke out again in 2013, ostensibly over his neglect of a trade deal with the EU in favour of one offered by Russia, as well as corruption allegations.

With Ukraine’s President and Parliament at loggerheads, the debate over the agreement devolved into a melee, Opposition members throwing eggs and lighting smoke bombs. The measure narrowly passed but Mr Yanukovych didn’t survive politically. His enemies weren’t done yet. In January 2019, they found him guilty of high treason and sentenced him to 13 years in prison.

The former President’s attorneys appealed the decision, although his continued exile in Russia meant that it was extremely unlikely that the Ukrainian authorities would have the opportunity to carry out the sentence.

When Mr Yanukovych was overthrown in February 2014, intercepted phone calls and other evidence suggested that high-ranking American functionaries, US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and assistant secretary of state for European affairs Victoria Nuland, may have had a finger in the ousting pie. They are believed to have been aided by local “extreme nationalists” — a euphemism for Nazis left over from the war when seven million Ukrainian civilians, including 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, were killed. At first, the Western media reported the character of the victorious group, but Russia’s undisguised hostility to Kyiv, and the West’s championship of the new regime, swung the balance. Ukraine became an innocent European victim of Russian bullying.

The victim, however, needs peace to recover from a war it cannot win. So does Russia for the same reason. Both sides say they are ready for negotiations but have yet to sit down to discuss peace. One glimmer of hope may lie in the fact that Russia and Ukraine are both signatories to the Charter for European Security adopted at a summit in Istanbul in 1999. The saving clause could be Article II, which upholds each signatory’s right to establish its own security through alliances treaties, also stipulating the need for mutual respect for such arrangements. But Ukraine’s bargaining position needs buttressing. This is where the United States comes in. Its clout is still without a parallel but too much direct intervention might be seen as provocative. But the Americans can back a security guarantee for Ukraine by the EU, which is far more directly involved in the conflict and can live up to Kyiv’s expectations by reviving the plan for a European Defence Community that the Benelux countries, France, Italy, and West Germany, mooted in 1952 to meet the then perceived Soviet theat. It petered out when the French Parliament didn’t ratify it but Emmanuel Macron is more than eager to help Mr Zelenskyy.

A permanent European military presence in Ukraine would rubbish Moscow’s claim of defending Russia against Nato by invading Ukraine. It would also underwrite Kyiv’s sovereignty. As for Russia’s nuclear threat, there is always Nato’s Article 5 which sanctions collective defence. There is also Mr Macron’s suggestion of France participating in Europe’s collective security through its nuclear arsenal.

Mr Putin will, of course, resist talks until he can present his domestic constituency with what passes for a clear victory. This may sound daunting but Russia has been there before. Mr Putin has a chance of claiming to stand with Mikhail Gorbachev who authorised and organised the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Afghanistan in 1989.