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Monday Morning Meeting on The Road to War Termination: Navigating Strategies and Conflict Resolution Efforts in the Russia-Ukraine War

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  • August 07, 2023
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Col. (Dr.) Rajneesh Singh (Retd.), Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), spoke on “The Road to War Termination: Navigating Strategies and Conflict Resolution Efforts in the Russia-Ukraine War” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 07 August 2023. The session was moderated by Dr. Jason Wahlang, Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar IDSA. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, the Director General of MP-IDSA and scholars of the Institute were in attendance.

    Executive Summary

    The Russo-Ukrainian war has defied expectations of a swift resolution, characterised by continued attrition from both sides. Despite increasing violence, international peace proposals from various countries have failed to gain traction due to a lack of willingness from both sides. The complexity of the conflict was highlighted through differing interpretations of agreements, NATO discussions, and Putin’s miscalculations as key factors leading to the outbreak of the war. Efforts for peace before and during the war illustrated the difficulty in resolving the conflict amidst varying stances and tensions. The war’s conclusion might entail victory, armistice, or political settlement, with negotiation likely playing a pivotal role.

    Detailed Report

    In his opening remarks, Dr. Jason Wahlang briefly highlighted how the unfolding of the Russo-Ukrainian war has broken the commonly understood expectation that Russia’s special operation in Ukraine would be short and swift. However, with the strong nuclear posturing and continued attrition from both sides, there is no end in sight. Amidst the escalating levels of violence and destruction on both sides there have been several peace proposals internationally that have attempted to bring to close this prolonged conflict. Israeli Prime Minister’s and Turkey’s early interventions for the peace and grain deal and China and Ukraine's peace proposals are some of the more significant ones. However, the world is yet to see any strong will from both sides to agree upon a solution.

    Col. (Dr.) Rajneesh Singh initiated his presentation by discussing the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War which started on 24 February 2022, has entered its 17th month and is nowhere nearing culmination. The ‘special military operation’ was initiated to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and preventing NATO from exerting influence over its territory. The objectives of the war have evolved, and both sides have faced challenges in achieving their goals. Additionally, the conflict has also led to the formation of several new alliances and realignments globally and regionally.

    Col. Singh explained that Ukraine has launched a three-pronged counter-offensive in June 2023, with the main thrust towards the south while focusing on Zaporozhe. The Ukrainian offensive aimed to breach gaps in Russian defences to threaten the land bridge connecting Ukraine's occupied territories to Crimea. However, as the Russian defences are in layers covered with anti-tanks and anti-personnel devices, this offensive has been cost-intensive in terms of human and material damages. Historically it has been witnessed that defensive formations are difficult to breach by an offensive formation unless there is an asymmetry in tactical and strategic capabilities. Some examples of this are the Gulf War I and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 2010.

    Col. Singh, stated that the circumstances of victory and war termination maybe be conditional to certain objective criteria for each party, however, the ultimate analysis of victory in war is an assessment of the political conditions for war termination. He also stressed on the distinction to be made between victory and war termination as both are two distinct and antagonistic ideas. However, victory is subjective and doesn’t always lead to a preferred outcome; conflicts can end without a clear winner. It is with this understanding the war objectives of all the stakeholders have to be assessed to understand the future trajectory of the war and the shape of the end situation.

    Col. Singh delved into the reasons for the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War and attributed it mostly to three important reasons. Firstly, in 2015, the second Minsk Agreement, facilitated by France and Germany, aimed to address the conflict arising from Russian-backed separatists seizing territory in Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014. The agreement was interpreted differently by Russia and Ukraine and remained partially unimplemented. Russia denied involvement, while Ukraine sees it as a path to reclaim rebel-held regions, each with distinct objectives concerning the status of Donbas. In 2021, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin expressed concern and hinted at a strategic approach regarding the future of Ukraine. Russia was concerned regarding the prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership, which was discussed during the 2008 NATO summit. Secondly, President Yanukovych’s removal in 2014 was assessed as a step forward in the West’s attempt at the eastward expansion of NATO. This led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Donbas. In 2021, a US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership supporting NATO membership drew Putin’s opposition. In December 2021 Russia proposed treaties opposing NATO expansion and military presence in Ukraine, but these demands were rejected. Thirdly, Putin’s underestimation of Western resilience to support Ukraine led him to initiate his ‘special military operations.’ 

    The speaker then highlighted the war objectives of the multiple parties interested in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict who happen to have their distinct national interests, resulting in diverse war objectives. Russia’s objectives have changed with the progress of war and presently consist of preventing Ukraine’s NATO membership, recognizing Donetsk and Lugansk sovereignty, demilitarisation, and decommunization. Ukraine’s objectives have also evolved. Initially Ukraine was amenable to the idea of abandoning NATO membership in return for Russian withdrawal from occupied areas. President Volodymyr Zelensky sought Western security guarantees. However, as Ukrainian forces gained ground against Russia, goals shifted to the cease of hostilities, withdrawal of Russian troops, and restoration of territorial integrity. The US, which is a key Western actor, leads in providing military and economic aid to Ukraine.  The US aims to ‘win and weaken’ Russia and the present war is considered incredibly cost-effective, however, defining victory is challenging. President Biden and members of his administration have asserted their support to bolster Ukraine’s negotiating position and strengthen Ukraine militarily and diplomatically. The war’s complexity stems from the varying interests of Russia, Ukraine, and Western nations, leading to shifting goals and an evolving conflict landscape.

    Col. Singh then spoke on how the Ukrainian conflict in Donbas has now taken an unpredictable path, making it difficult to predict the outcome. A successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in August 2022 forced Russian forces to withdraw from occupied areas like Kherson and Kharkiv. However, this success has created a paradox: the stronger Ukraine performs on the battlefield, the harder it becomes to negotiate a settlement, despite Ukraine’s advantage in negotiating from a position of strength. Ukrainian interests don’t perfectly align with those of Western allies. Kyiv can take risks in continuing the war, while the Western alliance faces economic costs and the direct threat of escalation or nuclear exchange.

    Despite Ukraine’s battlefield victories, the US Department of Defense (DoD) isn’t very optimistic about Ukraine’s chances of ending the war favourably. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes neither Ukraine nor Russia can achieve a military victory. The DoD believes that Ukraine will struggle to fully expel Russian forces from all occupied areas, which is Kyiv’s stated goal. The US recommends that Ukraine should take any opportunity for a negotiated settlement. This perspective aligns with leaked US documents (“Discord Leaks”), which express deep concerns about the war’s direction and Ukraine’s ability to successfully combat Russian forces. This pessimistic assessment is also reflected in the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s suggestion that Ukraine should reconsider its objectives, including the aspiration to regain Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.

    Col. Singh talked about the fact that the delay in providing military aid to Ukraine enabled Russia to strengthen its position and provides an insight regarding Western interests and Ukrainian military capabilities. Additionally, there are concerns about the long-term commitment of the West to fund the war. Despite public statements by Western leaders pledging ongoing aid to Ukraine, recent developments suggest a shift. Attachments of caveats to aid packages from Congress and allied nations indicate that these aid packages are seen as Kyiv’s best opportunity to significantly alter the war’s course. This situation raises doubts about the sustained willingness of the West to financially support the war effort.

    Col. Singh then spoke about the war termination efforts which were put forth in the pre-war period before 24 February 2022. Before the conflict escalated, the US made efforts to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine and diplomatic talks continued between Presidents Biden and Putin from June 2021 till the outbreak of the conflict. Post 24 February 2022 Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attempted a mediation in March 2022, leading to concessions from both Zelensky and Putin. The list of other peace plans which were discussed included - Turkish President Erdogan’s mediation in March 2022, G-7’s Just Peace Plan on 11 October 2022, the Ukrainian President Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan on 15 November 2022, China’s 12-point peace proposal in February 2023 that called for a ceasefire and lifting of certain sanctions, and the Indonesian Defence Minister’s proposed peace plan of 3 June 2023. In June 2023, an African delegation visited Moscow to talk about the African Peace Mission. Despite a number of peace initiatives, achieving a resolution has proven challenging due to shifting positions and differing national interests of stakeholders.

    Despite the uncertainties associated with wars and battles, in all probability, the Russia-Ukraine War is likely to conclude through a negotiated settlement which may take the form of either, armistice or political settlement. Over last seven weeks, Ukrainian forces have engaged in a counteroffensive, focusing on Zaporizhzhia and attempting to breach Russian defences. However, they have faced challenges like Russian minefields. Russia’s objectives, including regime change and demilitarization, have not been met, and their control over seized territories is under threat. Ukraine’s counteroffensive might result in a frozen frontline, which may then lead to war termination through negotiations. Negotiating an end to the war is likely, encompassing discussion on issues such as NATO and EU membership for Ukraine and security guarantees. Russia may insist on removal of sanctions imposed by the West.

    Questions and Comments

    After the presentation, Dr. Wahlang opened the floor for comments and questions. The Director General, Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy reflected on the Russia-Ukraine War and its implications for war termination and peace. He emphasised that ending war doesn’t guarantee true peace, and drew comparisons to Crimea's situation and historical conflicts, suggesting potential unresolved issues. Ambassador Chinoy highlighted the various peace resolutions that various countries India, China, and South Africa, are attempting to negotiate for the Ukraine conflict. He addressed the concept of investigating war crimes, highlighting the intricacies, the UN Security Council’s role, and the limitations of the International Criminal Court (ICC) due to the actions of countries like the US, China, and Russia. The complexities of demanding trials and the reluctance of superpowers to partake in such processes was discussed.

    Acknowledging President Zelensky’s demands, Ambassador Chinoy underscored that these are often initial negotiation positions and might not all be fully realized. Overall, he highlighted war termination challenges, the intricacies of war crime investigations, the influence of powerful nations on international justice, and the evolving nature of negotiation demands.

    Dr. Rajorshi Roy enquired whether communication channels should be established between Russia and the West, as well as between Russia, Ukraine, and other nations. He questioned how recent geopolitical developments, like the US considering Ukraine’s NATO membership, are examined in terms of their influence on Russia's interests and actions in the conflict.

    Col. Vivek Chadda (Retd.) asked about the role of domestic constituencies in Russia and Ukraine in shaping ongoing war efforts and their potential influence on international relations. He commented on the significance of external support from countries like China for both Russia and Ukraine, considering how this support could potentially impact the outcome of the conflict. Dr. Rajiv Nayan enquired about how the objectives of war for domestic constituents are framed how does one ensure they are aligned with political objectives.

    Dr. Vishal Chandra asked the speaker to comment on the evolution of NATO’s unity and strength over the last year. He also emphasised on how economic factors shape the dynamics of the conflict and its potential long-term implications.

    Col. (Dr.) Rajneesh Singh then responded to the comments and questions.

    The report has been prepared by Ms. Shayesta Nishat Ahmed, Research Analyst, Defence Economics and Industry Centre, MP-IDSA.