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Diplostack #3: Ukraine “We do have agency in all of this”
The situation is dire, nuclear escalation risk is real, but if there is political will to reduce tensions, there is a way.
On Mon 19 Sep in Wellington, Diplosphere hosted a discussion: Ukraine, Six Months On, Prospects in Wellington. The timing was impeccable as events on the ground in Ukraine demanded media attention, disrupting ten days of blanket coverage of the death of NZ’s head of state - Queen Elizabeth II - who died on Sep 9th (NZST). In less than ten days since the discussion, Russia announced a partial mobilisation, the spectre of nuclear weapons use reared its deadly head, and referenda were held in Russian occupied provinces in eastern Ukraine. The speed and unpredictability of events is marked. Expect the unexpected.
In the Diplosphere discussion, we heard how though prospects are dark in Ukraine, there are small embers of hope, one being the success of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Since the first ship left Ukraine on 1 August, 155 ships carrying more than 3.5 million tons of grain left Ukrainian ports (as of 17 September). Turkey’s nuanced position and careful engagement was instrumental in brokering the Istanbul Agreement on export of Ukrainian grain. We heard too that statesmanship, that seemingly lost art, is needed more than ever: it is too early to throw up our hands and say nothing can be done - we do have agency in all of this.
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The panel included George Beebe, Director of Grand Strategy, Quincy Institute, for the first time on a NZ platform), Her Excellency Ömür Ünsay, Turkish Ambassador to NZ, Richard Jackson, Professor of Peace Studies at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Otago University, Hon Tim Groser, formerly Trade Minister and NZ Ambassador to Washington.
Some salient points brought up during the discussion:
1/ Everyone involved in this war are learning it is far easier to get into a war than get out successfully, Russia most of all.
2/ Prospects are dark: for Ukraine and Ukrainians most of all who are suffering the consequences of this illegal Russian invasion. The risk of more devastation in Ukraine and even great power confrontation are real - a bloody stalemate and/or escalation are likely path forward, with very little appetite for diplomatic settlement by all parties - Russia, Ukraine and its principal backer (and unofficial co-belligerent the USA). If trends continue, prospects are for a war of attrition that goes on for a long time, and Ukraine in process is essentially destroyed. But there is also a real danger of escalation - as parties attempt to break out of stalemate. The big red flag: direct military confrontation between two major nuclear powers - Russia and the United States.
3/ The narrative that dominates the “anglosphere” is somewhat simplistic - the narrative goes that with enough arms and willpower to Ukraine will give it enough to defend itself. However, a more likely outcome, based on recent history in the Middle East and elsewhere, is that the conflict will drag on without a clear victor until a “hurting stalemate” is reached — where enough pain is experienced by both sides to make negotiations more palatable. What does the slogan “victory for Ukraine” mean? Does it mean defeat of Russia?
4/ The conflict has thrown up surprises to everyone involved in war - Russia most of all with the resistance it has faced, but also the US with the lukewarm reception to its attempt to force Russia to concessions via a united economic sanction front. India, China, and others have not followed suit. From military perspective, through the fog of war, and after an initial lunge at Khiev, Russia has adapted strategy to artillery and rocketry pounding Ukraine positions and building a land bridge to Crimea. Whilst Ukraine Armed Forces have seen battlefield success using US military technology and intelligence to overcome a Russian numerical advantaged. And has seen recent tactical success around Karkhiv region - though yet to be seen if can be converted to a strategic win - holding the region is a different matter.
5/ Europe is a follower to a US-directed approach to the conflict, even though the the consequences of the conflict (energy prices, conflict escalation) will be felt more keenly in Europe than the US. There are many shared objectives between the US and Europe, deterring Russian aggression chief amongst them, but the question begs - are the US and Europe fully aligned on the situation? Geography matters in this regard. Ukraine and Russia (to the Ural mountains) are part of Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the panel pointed out the fact that no durable rapprochement or understanding of Russia’s role in Europe has been established. The post-WW2 European Coal and Steel Community (1951), the Napoleonic-era Congress of Vienna (1814), and the European project itself - the EU - were held up as examples of rapprochement in a continent with a history of fighting. In the immediate future, will electorates in Europe feel the pinch if a harsh winter and restricted energy supplies push up prices significantly?
6/ The contours of a multipolar world are apparent. From a US “grand strategy” perspective, China is a big winner as the Western economic isolation forces Russia to turn East for an economic lifeline. African countries, and India too has taken an independent stance. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, in July said that Europe should grow out of the mindset that its problems are the world’s problems. All is not lost for diplomacy - Some countries such as the US and China have considerable economic and military leverage on the two fighting parties, and in a message of hope panellists noted that even though prospects are dark, that people have agency, and are not simply victim of events. We also heard about how a current Washington school of thought of defeating enemies carries risk when applied to great powers like Russia or China. This is contrasted to the concept of managed competition an approach adopted at the height of Cold War to reduce tensions and the risk of events spiralling out of control (more here).
7/ Finally there is a write up in Newsroom last week of the panel, see here. The views expressed by this event panellists do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance. And Save the date: next Diplosphere event is on 31st Oct evening! (Wellington)
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