THE THIRD EYE: Ukraine-Russia military conflict: Can there be a universally acceptable mediation?

The Ukraine-Russia military confrontation has stretched longer than expected largely because the plan of Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish a protective presence in the eastern provinces of Ukraine for the Russian-speaking population there through a quick military operation went awry because of the determined move of US-NATO combine to pump in war material in the hands of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a big scale.

Russia might not have been deterred by the thought of Western sanctions as it had become familiar with them ever since it had annexed Crimea in 2014 following an armed revolt led by Islamic fundamentalists there who apparently enjoyed the US support.

Presently, the US-led West is keeping up aid and military support to Ukraine in a ‘proxy’ mode, believing that for Russia the war was inflicting costs that might become overbearing, that the world opinion was gravitating in favour of peaceful negotiation between the two warring sides and that certainly an escalation into a nuclear dimension would be totally unacceptable for the international community.

It is not going unnoticed by observers that Zelensky was taking to an aggressive jargon – all on the strength of US support though – setting demands like immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and talking of an ultimate Russian defeat. Coming from a leader in his precarious situation this was understandable. There is little doubt however, that the world favours an honourable peace pact between Russia and Ukraine.

India became the voice of sanity as Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to both Putin and Zelensky – he was the world’s first leader to do that – and called for peace negotiations. His pithy reminder later that ‘this is not a time for war’ has swung international opinion in favour of a cessation of armed hostilities.

India maintained a non-partisan approach to the conflict and abstained from US-sponsored anti-Russia resolutions at the UN. What is noteworthy, however, is that India retained a bilateral friendship with the US and the UK, as well as the leading European powers like France and Germany.

A situation has arisen where any initiative for bringing a halt to the Ukraine-Russia military conflict that has prolonged without creating any definite advantage for either side would receive a global endorsement.

Ukraine is bearing the losses and yet seeking a further upgradation of the US armament support while President Putin might be aware that Russia was running into an image problem as a ‘big power’ that could not score a decisive ‘victory’ over a smaller neighbour.

Putin can not be serious about injecting a ‘nuclear dimension’ in the name of using tactical missiles with that special capability.

India’s balanced approach has already been hailed by the world. It can be surmised that both the US and Russia would welcome any role India could play in bringing about a ceasefire – the US and India would not like Russia to be pushed into the Chinese camp deepening the revival of the Cold War. Any meaningful success of such an intervention would be a feather in India’s cap during the G20 Presidency.

India’s NSA has been in touch with Russia and Ukraine at the highest levels and under his guidance, a track-2 team could quietly get into the act – an official engagement would be vulnerable to fault-finding in case the progress was not perfect. The team comprising a senior diplomat and a strategic expert chosen by NSCS, could possibly start consultations for peace and explore with the help of its counterparts from Russia and Ukraine, the possibility of evolving a framework of guidelines for negotiations.

The fundamental point is that the negotiating team must consider concerns and sensitivities of both sides. When the Cold War ended with the success of the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan- a battle run on the war cry of Jehad- that resulted in the dismemberment of the USSR and literally the demise of International Communism, the cause of global peace for the future, would have been served better if the newly freed East European countries and the Central Asian Republics were encouraged to have peaceful relations with the residual state of Russia.

NATO could be maintaining oversight on these regions but without getting into direct military involvement with the neighbours of Russia.

Former US President Donald Trump struck a certain equation with Vladimir Putin despite the history of the ‘Crimean war’ but the relationship between the US and Russia soured as President Biden renewed emphasis on America’s special bonds with NATO and apparently, looked upon Russia as an adversary at par with China.

The Democrats, it may be mentioned, had returned to power amidst widespread resentment over the alleged interference by Russia in the US Presidential election designed to favour Trump.

The neighbours of Russia left on their own should have concentrated on building themselves as democratic regimes willing to deal with that country on merit – with such help as the international community could possibly extend to them.

Annexation of the adjoining Crimea by Russia in 2014 – following the rise of the anti-Russia revolt led by Islamic militants there – had predictably marked the beginning of a constant decline of West-Russia relations.

In the environment set by that event countries like Ukraine were nearly sucked into the NATO orbit for their self-defence. European Union saw Russia as a source of threat but Trump who welcomed the British on ‘getting their country back’ through Brexit, seemingly treated Russia as another European country and thought it could be handled according to what would be in the best American interests.

Negotiators working for peace in the present would have to start with an acknowledgement that both Russia and Ukraine had security concerns that needed to be kept in view and that the matter was largely about two adjoining countries with different philosophies of governance, respecting each other and striking an arrangement for living in peace as neighbours. It would help if Ukraine declared that it is a democratic country run by a political executive elected on the basis of ‘one man one vote’ without any distinction of race, region or gender.

Russian-speaking people of its eastern region would have an added confidence and feel they were on the same footing as the rest of the population.

It is also – as a good starter – desirable for Ukraine to explicitly indicate that left to itself it would not seek membership of NATO. A ceasefire has to mark the launch of tripartite negotiations between the teams of Ukraine, Russia and the mediators and logically also to a scaling down of the Western supply of arms and ammunition to Ukraine.

It would be necessary to let the two warring countries express their concerns and misgivings in the present and for the future. The more open they are about these the easier it would be for the negotiators to work around them and establish a reasonable level of acceptance and lasting assurance on both sides.

The intervention of the US-led West on the side of Ukraine was justifiable up to a point but not the strategy of running a proxy war through that country in the hope of weakening Russia – particularly when this was happening at the cost of a friendly Ukraine.

The real challenge for the negotiators would be to do the groundwork for facilitating a Peace Pact between Russia and Ukraine that will create certain checks and balances to the satisfaction of the international community, and see to it that an arrangement both sides could trust would be created – embracing Crimea’s status too – and bring in the democratic world as a whole for possible assistance in completing that groundwork. The pact will have to envisage global funding for the reconstruction of Ukraine – with Russia also making a symbolic contribution in keeping with its status as the much bigger power, in the bilateral conflict.

A relevant issue would be to fix a reasonable sizing of Ukraine’s Defence forces required to preserve the sovereignty of a democratic country and provide internal security in the areas where the Russian-speaking population lived. Conditions would have to be created for a gradual withdrawal of the Russian military from Ukraine in pursuance of the Peace Pact as also a matching lifting of ‘sanctions’ imposed by the US-led West on Russia.

The Russia-Ukraine military conflict had been a prolonged one – adversary impacting the entire geopolitics and global economy – and untangling the complex issues that precipitated it in the first instance will have to be done patiently and with an understanding of what was bothering the two sides.

Shared economic growth is a guarantor of peace and the negotiations should give due attention to whatever could provide mutual benefit to the two countries in future. The Ukraine-Russia military conflict had in one sense, a localised dimension involving two neighbours and it cannot be allowed to land the entire world in a crisis.

Peace negotiations have to be free of political tints, have to be guided by what was good for the world and had to be conducted upfront on the strength of the bona fides of the mediators.

(The writer is a former Director of he Intelligence Bureau. Views expressed are personal)

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