The first anniversary of a nightmare has passed, and it probably won’t be the last. The body-bags are multiplying day by day. Russian military losses are staggering, well over 100,000 killed or wounded. Ukraine has suffered over 20,000 casualties, many more have died from malnutrition and sickness, and more than 20% of the population, eight-million refugees, have fled the country. As Russia despairs over lost hopes, and its declining international prestige, Ukraine is mired in rubble. Its infrastructure has been smashed, its environment incalculably devasted, and its citizenry is living in fear. Centralization of power is taking place in both Russia and Ukraine. Dissenters are driven underground, minorities are fearful, human rights are compromised, corruption is widespread, and public life is decaying. Increasingly, the gap is widening between the interests of two sovereigns, which they equate with those of their nations, and their subjects who must bear the burden of their choices.
Terminating assistance for Ukraine remains unthinkable, but tying aid to conditions attendant upon its pursuit of peace is not. The United States has already sent $113 billion, twice the amount it wasted in Afghanistan, and 2023 has been greeted with the promise of another $6.5 billion. Left-wing critics are grumbling about funding a proxy war, and the profits being accrued by the military industrial complex, while influential extremists in the Republican Party are embracing isolationism and intent on cutting off aid entirely. Moreover, polls indicate that Ukraine is a very low priority in the minds of American voters. Is Europe willing to shoulder more of the burden? Maybe is not an answer.
A new Russian offensive is underway and a second front may open through Belarus. Will the United States and NATO send troops if current forms of military and financial prove inadequate? Of course, Russian forces might be thrown back, and regime change could occur. Will regional implosion follow? The resulting repercussions are impossible to predict, and Western leaders should be careful what they wish for. Russia has withdrawn from its treaty with the United States, calling for reduction of nuclear weapons, and President Vladimir Putin’s disclaimers concerning tactical nuclear strikes should not be taken at face value. That is especially the case if he feels himself backed into a corner without an exit option.
Two global blocs are forming that feature the United States, NATO, Great Britain, and Ukraine on one side and China, North Korea, Iran, South Africa, possibly India, and the “stans” of Central Asia on the other. China is the wild-card. A major trading partner with the West, China views Russia as a crucial ally in challenging American hegemony. China is engaged in a computer “chip war” with the United States and there is fierce competition between them over semi-conductors. President Joseph Biden has been outspoken in defense of Taiwan against Chinese threats and, most likely, aid packages for Indonesia and the Philippines are already being prepared. President Xi Peng’s call for a “cease-fire” does not turn him into a saint, only a very canny politician. Cease-fire or stalemate, which can easily devolve into trench warfare, will make Russia even more dependent on Chinese support and, simultaneously, drain Western resources. “Neither peace nor war,” using Trotsky’s phrase, is not the same as disarmament or a peace treaty.
President Putin has re-stated his readiness to participate in an international peace conference. His conditions for beginning discussions remain unchanged: Ukraine must first demilitarize, recognize Russian annexations, especially Crimea and territories around Kherson, and guarantee Russian security.Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, is no less disingenuous when it comes to negotiations: Russia must first meet ten conditions including withdrawal of its forces from all Ukrainian territories including Crimea. Treaties between friends are easy to conclude. Between enemies it is another matter, however, especially when they both insist on having their respective goals met before any talks take place.
When Russia launched its invasion one year ago, Western fears of “appeasement” were understandable. New imperialist undertakings are unlikely, however, given its losses and miscalculations. Nevertheless, sanctions have not brought Russia to its knees: its trade has “bounced back” to pre-war levels, according to the New York Times (2/2/2023), and its GDP has unexpectedly risen 3% over the past year. Given Putin’s institutional “unification” (Gleichschaltung) of Russia, which marks all totalitarian regimes, domestic dissent is also likely under control. Shifting gears, Ukraine asserted its right of national self-determination in resisting Russia’s invasion, which is in accord with international law. However, whether by design or not, it is now completely reliant on foreign assistance and the nation’s sovereignty will remain compromised so long as the war continues.
Western “liberal” mass media have mostly turned into irresponsible cheerleaders for Ukraine just as was initially the case when the United States became involved in Vietnam and Iraq. Responsible critics are dismissed, alternative policies are ignored, while complexities and risks remain unexamined. The parameters for peace are clear and, given that geo-political realities will not magically disappear, they are unlikely to change.* In this morally just war is it really moral to keep demanding useless sacrifices? That seems a legitimate question as the second year of the nightmare begins.
*This article is based on a speech given for a conference marking the first anniversary of the invasion, social democratic perspectives on war and reconstruction, hosted by the European Foundation for Progressive Studies (FEPS) on February 23,2023.
**These were previously enumerated in my article, “Negotiate Now,” which appeared in AlterNet:(https://www.alternet.org/negotiate-now-call-diplomacy-ukraine/) and the joint “Declaration on Peace” (www.icdd.info) that was presented at the OSCE Meetings of September 2022 in Warsaw.
**Dr. Stephen Eric Bronner is Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue and Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University.