Attention is first invited to previous articles on the subject published in The Statesman New Delhi:
24 June 2022 It is time for a Russian Reset.
9 October 2023 Ukraine must pause, reset priorities.
Before coming to the situation on the ground
it is necessary to recall the state of the fighting leading up to the present situation.
Brief excerpts from print and electronic media:
- War has entered it's second year with neither side able to claim victory;
- very heavy casualties and equipment losses for both sides with heavier personnel casualties on Russian side;
- Although exhaustion has set in and populations in both countries are dwindling after very heavy casualties neither side seems willing to stop;
- In a move that is potentially a significant tightening of economic pressure the US and some of Ukraine's key allies are considering moving closer to an outright ban on most exports to Russia;
- the US and allies had hoped that sanctions would bring Russia to its knees economically. It was famously stated in Washington that 'the rouble will be rubble'. It did not come about.
To the contrary prices are rising, interests rates and inflation are high and European industry is moving out becoming increasingly uncompetitive due to the far higher fuel prices being paid. Over the years it could be three to four times higher than what was being paid for natural gas from Russia.
As a result of the war world military spending reached new heights in 2022 climbing to 2.2 trillion dollars due to the war in Russia at one end and the rising threat of China making nations invest in defence on the other. During this period the US remained the leading spender at 877 billion, being 39 percent of total global military spending. China came next with an estimated 292 billion. As for the belligerents Russia's military spending grew to 86.4 billion dollars whereas with a 640 percent increase Ukraine's spending grew to 44 billion dollars.
Beginning May 2023 the situation on the ground was that after ten months of heavy offensives Russia has not been able to take Bskhmut against Ukrainian tenacity. In the process it has suffered heavy casualties. The Wagner Group that was at the forefront of their Russian offensive has threatened to pull out unless it is resupplied with munitions. If the Russian military has been unwilling or unable to do so it could mean that they are reinforcing along the entire front in anticipation for a spring offensive. Russia may still be able to send untrained even unwilling replacements to the front. Such is not the case with their opponent.
Ukraine has an accute paucity of manpower. Reports indicate that it has been bolstered in a big way for its projected counter offensive. Figures given out for major assault armaments include 230 tanks and over 1500 armoured combat infantry vehicles.
Indications are that up to nine battle groups have been trained and refurbished for its offensive.
Presently there is a general lull in the battlefield although sporadic fighting continues. Aerially the missile attacks against each other's territories are in full swing.
The next few weeks of likely pause brought about due to exhaustion and dwindling combat resources, especially in manpower, present another opportunity for reset.
In June 2022 Russia held all the cards with hardly any with Ukraine. In October 2022 Ukraine could have paused to reset priorities.
The time now before the start of full scale hostilities represents a chance to pause on the ground and restart negotiations for a temporary truce. The lead players to bring it about have to be the UN Secretary General and countries that have remained neutral and not supplied war materiel to either side. India acting in concert with the UN Secretary General has a major role in this regard.
Impediments to conflict Resolution
For Russia leaving Crimea is non-negotiable. Historically Crimea was always a part of Russia. Stalin deported several minorities out of it thus ensuring that it remained Russian demographically as well. On 19 February 1954 Communist Part First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine by way of local or administrative readjustment in the belief that USSR was there to stay. The transfer was effected based on a decree of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union transferring the Crimean Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. With the break up of the Soviet Union the situation changed dramatically. After the disastrous Yeltsin years Putin after dealing with dissensions in Chechnya realised that without Crimea Russia would become vulnerable in the Black Sea were a country inimical to it move into or start using Sevastopol for its naval craft. For Russia it would be nothing short of a geostrategic nightmare. Hence the non-negotiability of Crimea has to be the starting point for any negotiations with Russia.
On the Ukrainian side President Zelensky and his European backers should be realistic enough to appreciate that while Ukraine has a temporary upper hand before the planned offensive there would be nothing left by way of reserves or manpower thereafter regardless of the outcome and the Russian reaction thereto. Therefore Ukraine must negotiate from a position of relative strength, albeit temporary. Moscow in turn has to understand that neither President Zelensky nor his backers can accept that Russia can hold on to all the gains made to date. As a precondition Mr. Putin will have to accept that Russia cannot hold on to all its gain.
Russian forces would need to pull out from Ukraine excluding the two enclaves captured in Donbas. Ukraine will have to formally cede these to Russia. Russia will have to be allowed unhindered use of the land route from Crimea to the enclaves and further north. For this Mariopul could become an open city under the UN. Meanwhile NATO would make a declaration that Ukraine's membership of the organization was permanently off the table.
The write up above could serve as a start point for entering into meaningful negotiations. The UN and the neutral nations in a position to do so have to act swiftly to move ahead towards a lasting solution to the conflict in Ukraine. As for its backers President Biden is single-mindedly pursuing his own interests in Ukraine in his bid for the 2024 election. American public in general is no longer supportive of the war. Europe is in decline from the Atlantic to the Urals. It too must take the initiative to get Moscow to the negotiating table for an early end to the conflict in Ukraine. Failing which they will all be as big losers as the devastated Ukraine.