Ukraine crisis, peace prospects and current political positions of great powers

As in the four previous articles of this series, that of December 15, that of December 8,  that of December 5 and that of November 30, I am sketching some obvious trajectories and main consequences, in the case Russia is winning in the Ukrainian war. In this article I focus on peace prospects and political issues of the crisis in the context of great power relations.

Position of Russia

Russia’s goals are unchanged in Ukraine crisis or in Special Military Operations (SMO) as Russia calls it:

  • The denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine,
  • The cessation of hostilities against Donbass and recognizing the autonomy of Donbass 
  • The long-term neutrality of Ukraine with no possibility to join NATO (de facto or de jure).
  • The indivisibility of security in Europe, the guarantee that US/NATO intermediate range missiles or so-called anti-ballistic missiles will never be stationed in Ukrainian territory
  • The Russian status of Crimea was never negotiable

Subsequent referenda conducted in the four oblasts (Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson), which all voted to join Russia. Hence ensuring the security of these territories in perpetuity is now a priority. It seems likely that the majority population in Russia will also demand the “liberation” of Odessa and Nikolaev regions, which will shrink the remaining territory of Ukraine to an impoverished land-bound “stub” state, if it continues to exist at all.

Putin meets mothers of soldiers

President Vladimir Putin met with mothers of military personnel participating in the special military operation in Ukraine, on November 25, 2022. Putin’s speech and performance in this meeting were quite “unique”. Such meetings are impossible to be choreographed beforehand as pent-up emotions are in play in front of TV cameras. What stands out in such frank exchanges is Putin’s massive political capital, derived out of the great consolidation he has mustered in getting the nation to rally behind him. The overall mood at the meeting was the commitment to Russia’s cause and the confidence in ultimate victory. No doubt, this strengthens Putin’s hands.

In his speech, Putin acknowledged that Moscow allowed itself to be lured into the ceasefire brokered by Germany and France and the Minsk agreements. It took some time in Moscow to realize that Germany and France colluded with then leadership in Kiev and the implementation of Minsk accord was in fact a bluff. Then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko admitted in a series of interviews with western news outlets in recent months, that the 2015 ceasefire was a trickery intended to buy time for Kiev to rebuild its military. 

For the first time, perhaps, an incumbent Kremlin leader admitted making mistakes. Therefore, the above-mentioned public admission of credulousness becomes a touchstone for Putin’s future decisions. The bottom line is that Putin slammed the door shut on another Minsk-like fake accords. To wrap up Russia’s position: SMO continues so long as necessary to achieve all stated goals.

Ukraine’s goals

Basically, the goals of Ukraine might have been those of any state becoming the target of outsider’s attack but this is no more relevant issue, because Ukraine has been neither a sovereign and independent, nor a coherent nation. Its goals, operations and the very existence are now fully managed, decided and conducted by outside powers, mainly the US.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), whose active size, in February 2022, was approx. up to 450.000 servicemen (+reserves up to similar number) has lost more over a half of that original size so far and without the massive foreign aid and support, it would collapse in a couple of weeks. NATO’s military aid, satellite data & intelligence, communication technique, battle guidance and overall operation planning and execution have been absolutely decisive in this war.

Position of the US

The official US line is that they are engaging in a noble struggle to “free” Europe from an “unreliable” energy provider, Russia, and that this is a global confrontation between Western “Democratic” and Eastern “Authoritarian” regimes for the future of the world. In reality, all actions by the US with regard to Russia and Ukraine since 1991 are focused on the vassalage, not the liberation of Europe, and the full containment and militarily encirclement of Russia.

The medium-term US goals were to confiscate more than $300 billion of Russian foreign reserves and to impose economic sanctions, which would turn the “Ruble to rubble” and trigger Russian economic collapse. This would create public unrest in Russia, which would enable a US sponsored colour revolution to depose Putin.  The US long term goal would eventually be to fragment Russia into smaller states. Those smaller post Russian banana republics would each have puppet leaders appointed by the US, who would then foil the “belt and road” initiative of China, the next target of the US neocons.

All of these goals and chain of events have been outlined in many American official and think-tank documents, especially those from the Rand corporation.

Zelensky’s visit to Washington

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a pretentious visit to Washington, just before Christmas, December 20-21.

Ukraine is “alive and kicking” and will never surrender, Zelensky has said, in a defiant address to US lawmakers on his first foreign trip since Russia’s invasion. US military aid to Ukraine was not charity but an investment in security for the future, Zelensky said. His appeal comes amid signs US support is likely to face greater scrutiny by Republican lawmakers in Congress but President Joe Biden vowed to stick by Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.

Republicans – who will take control of the House of Representatives in January – have warned they will not write a “blank cheque” for Ukraine. In fact, Republican support for continued assistance has been eroding but Zelensky, who travelled on a US Air Force jet from the Polish city of Rzeszow to Washington, said that “regardless of changes in the Congress”, he believed there would be bipartisan support for his country.

In the sidelines of President Zelensky’s visit Washington American media headlined “Congress aims to label Russia as Aggressor State” (instead of state sponsor of terrorism). The designation would provide the president new sanctions authorities to target Russian officials.

Casting the issue as “Russia is an aggressor state,” is preparatory for Congress to declare war against Russia as America declared war against Japan on 8 December 1941, with the “Declaration of State of War Against Japan”, which Constitutionally brought America into WW II. What the US Congress is attempting to do here is to force the President to deal with today’s Russia as President Roosevelt dealt with Japan. Somehow, it seems that the US Congress gave a big Congressional boost to goad Zelensky ultimately into requesting them to declare war against Russia.

Position of China

China seen from American perspective

As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently admitted, the US wants to “weaken” Russia so it is unable to project power beyond its borders. Washington seeks unhindered access to Central Asia in order to encircle China with military bases and nuclear missiles. The US intends to control China’s growth while dominating the world’s most populous and prosperous region of the next century, Asia. But firstly, Washington must crush Russia, collapse its economy, isolate it from the global community, demonize it in its media and topple its leaders.

The US determination to defeat and outlast Russia’s Government in the Ukrainian war and to use that as an example in order to consolidate the US alliance with other major maritime nations, so that those nations will join America’s war to take over Taiwan, just as Britain still conducting the Falklands. Ukraine is the US proxy against Russia and Taiwan is the US proxy against China. The way to do that is to flood Taiwan with US-and-allied weapons and training in how to use them, so as to make increasingly difficult for the mainland to enforce a Chinese blockade and take over the island.

The US fears that Russia and China could exchange and develop joint strategies that seek to undermine NATO unity, US permanent representative to the alliance, Julianne Smith, said on December 20. She believes that Moscow and Beijing are “exchanging hybrid tactics”, which creates such factors as risks to energy supplies and cybersecurity problems. The US is increasingly inciting other members of the alliance to toughen their positions toward China, explaining this by Beijing’s military research, threats to critical infrastructure of Western countries and China’s “unlimited partnership” with Russia.

Earlier, the US held consultations with alliance partners on China at the NATO summit in Bucharest in late November. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said then that Washington and its allies act on the assumption that they are currently in competition with China for the opportunity to determine the direction of the world’s further development.

China – Russia cooperation

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Premier of the Chinese State Council Li Keqiang held the 27th regular meeting of the two countries’ heads of government on December 5.

A wide range of issues were on the table like the development of the Russian-Chinese comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation in the investment, energy, industrial, agricultural, transport and humanitarian spheres. Special attention paid to the progress of major joint projects in various fields, as well as the deepening of trade and economic cooperation amid the ongoing geopolitical tensions.

China is a leading trading partner of Russia, trade turnover in 2021 up + 35% to $141 billion. In the January-October 2022 period, the volume of bilateral trade increased + 27% to $143 billion. The strategic goal, set by the leaders of Russia and China, is to achieve the volume of trade up to $200 billion in 2024. Work on several dozen joint investment projects with a total sum of investments up to $160 billion is underway as well as the dynamic development in the energy sector was noticed.

The share of national currencies in bilateral payments for goods and services is on the rise. Cooperation is being developed in the field of banking, insurance and stock exchange organizations, rating agencies and payment systems. As for cross-border infrastructure, in June 2022, road traffic on the bridge that stretches over the Amur River was opened. In November 2022, traffic was launched on the railway bridge. Cooperation in education, media, culture, cinema, health, tourism, archives, youth and sports is expanding.

Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council and Chairman of the United Russia party Dmitry Medvedev met with China’s leader Xi Jinping in Beijing and delivered a message to him from Russian President Vladimir Putin. On behalf of the United Russia Party, Medvedev congratulated Xi Jinping on the successful 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi’s re-election as general secretary and the formation of a new Central Committee.  Medvedev’s visit took place December 20-21.

The parties also discussed international issues, including the Ukrainian crisis. The two sides synchronized their watches on a number of significant international issues, highlighting the fact that Moscow’s and Beijing’s approaches to the most pressing global problems largely coincide and touched on the issue of strategic foreign policy coordination, especially within the UN framework and at other multilateral venues, including the SCO, BRICS and the G20. The situation in the post-Soviet region, including the Ukrainian crisis, was discussed.

China-Russia military cooperation

In recent years, the US has stepped up its military presence in the South China Sea and near Taiwan and some of its European allies have sent ships to the region, including the UK, France, and Germany. The increasing military cooperation between Russia and China is a natural reaction to the similar pressure they are facing from the West.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, late November, that the US and NATO’s move to focus on countering China in the Asia Pacific has led to an increase in military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. “We know how seriously the People’s Republic of China regards these provocations by NATO in the South China Sea, let alone Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait.

“We understand that this playing with fire by NATO in that part of the world carries threats and risks for the Russian Federation,” Lavrov said at a press conference. “It’s as close to our shores and our seas as it is to Chinese territory. So, our military cooperation with the People’s Republic of China is developing. We are holding joint exercises, both counterterrorism exercises and air patrolling exercises,” Lavrov said.

NATO has identified China as a “challenge” to the alliance and has said it should forge stronger relationships with countries in the Asia Pacific, including Australia, South Korea, Japan, and India. Building new alliances in the region is a key aspect of the US strategy against China, as outlined by the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, February 2022.

Lavrov said that the US and NATO are trying to create an “explosive situation” in the Asia Pacific and pointed to the AUKUS military pact between the US, Britain, and Australia. China has previously warned that the Biden administration’s efforts to build alliances in the Asia Pacific could lead to a Ukraine-style “tragedy” in the region. “The United States has tried to create regional tension and provoke confrontation by pushing forward the Indo-Pacific strategy,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said back in April.

Russian and Chinese strategic bombers, on late November, flew a joint patrol over the western Pacific in a show of increasingly close defense ties between the two countries. The Russian Defense Ministry said that the Tu-95 bombers of the Russian air force and the Chinese H-6K bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea during an eight-hour mission.

As part of the drills, the Russian bombers for the first time landed in China and the Chinese bombers flew to an air base in Russia, the ministry said in a statement. The exercise follows a series of joint drills intended to showcase a growing military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing as they both face tensions with the United States.

In September, Beijing sent more than 2,000 troops along with more than 300 military vehicles, 21 combat aircraft and three warships to take part in a joint exercise with Russia. The maneuvers marked the first time that China has sent forces from three branches of its military to take part in a single Russian drill, in what was described as a show of the breadth and depth of China-Russia military cooperation and mutual trust.

Defense cooperation between Moscow and Beijing has grown stronger since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24. China, which has declared a “no limits” friendship with Russia, has pointedly refused to criticize Moscow’s actions, blaming the US and NATO for provoking the Kremlin and has blasted the punishing sanctions imposed on Russia. Russia, in turn, has strongly backed China amid the tensions with the US that followed a visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Washington has warned Beijing against offering Russia direct military or economic assistance, although China’s energy-hungry economy is one of the biggest customers for Russian oil and gas. Its purchases more than doubled compared with a year ago, to $10.2 billion in October, as Chinese importers took advantage of discounts offered by Moscow. In a letter, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Beijing was ready to “forge closer partnership” with Russia in energy, potentially expanding ties.

The meeting of the SCO and CIS defense heads was held in Moscow on Friday, December 9, with the Minister of Defense of the People’s Republic of China, General Wei Fenghe, speaking at the meeting via video conferencing. The heads of defense ministries discussed international and regional security as well as further strengthening of defense and security cooperation during the meeting. A Joint Communiqué was signed following the meeting.

The modern world needs a solidarity, only through cooperation the countries will be able to cope with global challenges, said Colonel General Wei Fenghe. He said also that some countries were provoking bloc confrontation and launching a ‘new cold war,’ but such thinking was not supported by other states. ‘We must jointly counter such reckless behaviour and together maintain peace and stability in the world and the region, thereby upholding international justice,’ the Chinese defense minister stressed.

Peace prospect, end-December

The first few days in early December saw minor hints of possible readiness by various parties to initiate some peace discussions.

Russia says the West’s refusal to recognize “new territories” seized from Ukraine makes peace talks harder, after President Joe Biden indicated he would be ready to meet Putin. The Kremlin said it was open to negotiations but not on the West’s demand to pull out of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained that European countries had offered nothing concrete so far in terms of mediation.

President Biden told reporters that he was ready to meet the Russian leader “if in fact there is an interest in him deciding that he’s looking for a way to end the war”. Standing beside him in the White House, France’s Emmanuel Macron made clear the two men had agreed they would never urge the Ukrainians to make a compromise “that will not be acceptable for them”.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke to President Putin for the first time since September. During the hour-long call, Berlin said the German leader had urged his counterpart to find a diplomatic solution that involved pulling Russian troops out of Ukraine “as soon as possible”.

The Kremlin said the German side had pushed for the call and Putin had urged Berlin to “reconsider its approaches in the context of the Ukrainian events”. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier that Putin remained open to talks aimed “to ensure our interests” but Moscow was certainly not ready to accept US conditions.

December 19, talks on a ceasefire in Ukraine are meaningless in the current situation as long as Russian troops are staying in that country, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said. “We must be clear that any unilateral call for a ceasefire by Russia is completely meaningless in the current context”, he said.

Those tiny hints of possible peace talks and process proved to be premature and did not lead to anything concrete. Recently, Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State and national security adviser, made a first attempt to break this stalemate.

Kissinger’s proposal

Kissinger has said the world could be at a turning point in the conflict in Ukraine and called for talks to achieve peace. He laid out his thoughts in an essay published by the Spectator, a UK weekly, on its website in mid-December. Kissinger wrote that winter is imposing a pause on large-scale military operations in Ukraine.

According to Kissinger, Ukraine has become a major state in Central Europe for the first time in modern history resisting Russian forces and Ukraine’s neutrality is no longer meaningful and a peace process should link Ukraine to NATO. He said also that the conflict’s outcome shouldn’t be a weakened Russia. Kissinger referred to his proposal in May to establish a ceasefire line along the borders of the territory that was controlled by Kiev as of February 24. He said Russia could retreat from the areas that it took during the special military operation, but not from the DPR, LPR and Crimea.

Internationally supervised referendums concerning self-determination could be applied to particularly divisive territories, which have changed hands repeatedly over the centuries, Kissinger continued. The goal of a peace process would be twofold: to confirm the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, especially for Central and Eastern Europe.

At first glance, it appears that Kissinger’s commitment to stop the war in Ukraine, start peace negotiations and preserve the Russian state and Russia’s role in European politics is a reasonable compromise and contrary to the radical views of American officials. He pointed out the importance of a quick peaceful solution to the conflict, warning that the desire to make Russia, as a nuclear power, completely powerless or to even break it into several states could cause chaos of unfathomable proportions in the world.

Although Kissinger claims that he does not want the disintegration of Russia, he does want the defeat of Russia led by Putin. A careful reading shows that Kissinger has written the article in conformation to the National Security Strategy 2022. The peace proposal would mean an invitation for political crisis and the internal destabilization of Russia, especially in a peace process linked to Ukraine’s membership to NATO.

His proposal overlooks the reason why Moscow launched its military operation and would undo all the progress Russia has made so far and inevitably lead to political consequences in Moscow. One of the most important results of the war in Ukraine, is the final turning of Russia towards China and other Asian countries and the affirmation of Eurasianism as the dominant ideology of Russian statecraft. If Kissinger’s supposed balanced peace solutions are anything to go by, there are little prospects that this will change in the near future.

Zelensky-Blinken peace thoughts

During his Washington visit, Zelensky repeated his peace thoughts (borders before February 24 & Crimea). US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he discussed Kyiv’s peace proposal with his Group of Seven (G7) colleagues next day. Blinken called Zelensky’s peace proposals “a good start” but he would not say how long it would take for the US and Ukraine to evaluate the plan together. 

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the two sides agreed to reviewing the plan in the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Zelensky. Blinken said the US and Ukraine agreed on the overall peace effort underway but he did not specify any details. Blinken said Ukraine has told the US that it is currently focused on taking back its eastern and southern territory that has been occupied since February.

Blinken also reiterated that Russia has shown “no meaningful interest” in diplomacy to end the war. For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on December 21, that his administration has always been open to talks and that “it was the Ukrainian leadership that refused itself to conduct negotiations.”

Security interests in peace negotiations

There is an analogy with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that any failure to take into account the major rival power’s security interests could have an apocalyptic outcome. 

Russia’s initiative to negotiate on new security arrangements in Europe, around yearend 2021/2022, was met with extreme arrogance by the top representatives of the EU, the US and the NATO. None of western parties were interested in real negotiations or took seriously any Russian proposals. Even such international organizations like OSCE or the UN gave Russia’s thoughts the cold shoulder. 

In the recent interview, ex-Chancellor Merkel seems to claim that the Minsk agreements between the Ukrainian government and the Donbas region, which she negotiated and co-signed as guarantor, was never meant to be fulfilled. It was only meant to give time to build up the Ukrainian military. If/when things are so, one reason to the current Ukraine crisis has been revealed.

The Ukrainian then president Poroshenko did not have the will and the political backing to fulfill the agreement. Moreover, the US (Victoria Nuland) told him not to follow up on the agreement. When Zelensky, who was elected by a large majority on the promise to fulfill Minsk II, came to power, he even made attempts to do that. But he soon found out that his own life was in serious danger, if he continued to try. There was also US pressure, which did not want Minsk fulfilled.

Russia’s proposals December 2021

Some IR experts are saying that NATO and the US should have listened to Putin in December 2021, instead of waiting until December 2022. They believe to understand the tragic events in the Ukraine crisis and the master plan behind Putin’s strategy.

On December 15, 2021 Russia sent an ultimatum to the US and NATO. Two days later it was published and the Russian Foreign Office invited the West to sign up and to agree to it, or at least begin discussing it. Not only was it not signed, it was not even properly acknowledged. It was blatantly and arrogantly ignored by the Western powers in a short process of talks. I have analyzed those talks here (Jan. 7, 2022) and here (Jan. 19, 2022).

Russia had made clear, what he wanted and it was a reasonable request. NATO and the US should have listened to Russia’s proposals in December 2021 to avoid all the sufferings faced by Ukraine. So, it may be worth to see, what Russia wanted from the US a year ago.

Pay attention to Articles 4, 5 and 6. They are relevant for the case of Ukraine.

Here is the text of the Russian proposal to NATO, starting with Article 4:

Based on these official and transparent texts, it is very clear, what Russia and President Putin wants. Russia insists on formalizing conditions that were agreed upon by President Gorbachev and his Western counterparts in the 80’s and 90’s before and after the Cold War. Really shocking is that all these conditions, reasons and argumentations were stated a year ago and there was a plenty of time to settle. This explains relative lack of Russia’s and Putin’s interest in the territorial annexation of Ukraine, which is only a means to achieve bigger security goals.

Russia does not want to seize the territories or the resources of other countries. What Russia proposed is a quite generous proposal to the West. If the Western leaders won’t accept it, they are purposefully stepping on escalation ladders up to the last stair, close to the unavoidable nuclear annihilation of mankind.

On the other hand, this also explains and confirms all those conclusions made above regarding the goal-setting of the US. Now, this proves openly and clearly that the US wants the war against Russia in order to destroy the current statehood and existence of Russian Federation.

Conflict in Ukraine is doomed to escalate… or not!

The meeting of NATO foreign ministers on November 29-30 was in Bucharest like ten years ago. Former US President George W. Bush persuaded America’s transatlantic partners that Ukraine and Georgia should one day join their military alliance. The current foreign ministers duly “reaffirmed” that decision and left it at that. 

However, their statement on the conflict in Ukraine emphatically stated that the NATO “will never recognize” Russia’s incorporation of four Ukrainian regions and underscored the alliance’s resolve to “continue and further step up political and practical support” to Kiev. 

The NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg warned that despite Ukraine’s bravery and progress on the ground, Russia retains strong military capabilities and a large number of troops, and the alliance will continue to support Kiev for “as long as it takes … we will not back down.” 

Although western media, echoing Ukrainian war propaganda, still vows the big Ukrainian victory over Russia, it seems not be coming.

A fatal development is taking place, because the Ukrainian economy has broken down. GDP has decreased by 33% this year and as attacks on the electrical net continue, it will shrink by another 5 or 10% next year. Inflation is above 20%, unemployment above 30%. The big metal and mining industries had to shut down as they depend on uninterrupted electricity supplies.

It seems possible that the pending bankruptcy of Ukraine may indeed end the war earlier than any military action.

What if?

As in the four previous articles of this series, that of December 15, that of December 8,  that of December 5 and that of November 30, I am sketching some obvious trajectories and main consequences, in the case Russia is winning in the Ukrainian war. In this article I focus on peace prospects and political issues of the crisis in the context of great power relations.

The question is, what will happen to the peace process and parties of conflict in this kind of context?

The peace process will be, in a way, simple. The process will be such that Russia makes an ultimatum “unconditional surrender of Ukraine” and Ukraine has no other option as accept it.

What will happen then at practical, concrete level, requires a new study regarding Russia, Ukraine and some other European countries as well.

As to the other parties (the US, NATO, EU), the answer is partly explained already in previous articles of this series.

As to China, the question is manifold and multidimensional and requires a study of its own.