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The Ukraine War – Will it Ever End?

ROME, Jul 10 2023 (IPS) - There seems to be no end in sight to the war in Ukraine. On the contrary it continues to escalate. The latest ratchet up has been the decision by the USA to supply the Ukrainian army with cluster bombs. These are nasty weapons which scatter and explode over a wide area. They are specifically designed to kill people rather that destroy infrastructure, military installations or communication hubs. They also have a sting in the tail – some of the bomblets remain unexploded, effectively becoming anti-personnel mines. These can turn wide swathes of territory into virtual no-go areas.

Daud Khan

In recognition of the awful nature of these bombs, their use, transfer, production, and stockpiling has been prohibited under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty signed in 2008 by 108 countries. However, several major military powers, including the China, Russia and the USA have not signed the Convention, as did not Ukraine.

Cluster bombs have been used by both sides in the current war. This has not only caused high human casualties but already turned many areas into a minefield that will take decades to clear up. But reportedly stocks of such bombs in the Ukraine are running low and the decision of the USA would effectively help them continue a flagging counter-offensive. In particular, it is expected that they would help dislodge Russian forces that are dug in inside Ukrainian territory.

The latest move once again raises awkward questions – what is this war about, how long will it last and will anyone come out a winner.

As in all wars, there are many short-term proximate causes. Depending on the lens which one uses, the war is about protecting the rights of Russian speaking people in the Donbas; or about the rights of all Ukrainians – Russian or Ukrainian speaking – to follow their desire to be part of a liberal democratic Europe. But there are also long-term interests at play. Depending on one’s political views this war is about an irredentist and power hungry Putin. An alternative view is that the war is about Russian resistance to the continued eastern expansion of NATO and the creation of a well-armed, albeit denuclearized, Ukraine – a thorn in the side of Russia.

Whatever view one wishes to take on various causes, this is undoubtedly an existential war for the Russian state, for the Ukraine state, and the unipolar, US dominated world in their current form. If the Ukrainians win, it would be the end the Putin regime. It would also signal the end to his aspirations for a Greater Russia, to his dreams of making Russia once again a global power, and to his hopes of using Russian energy and other mineral resources to build domestic prosperity.

If on the other hand, should the Russians win it would be the end of Ukraine’s aspirations to be a part of a liberal democratic Europe, of the EU and a member of NATO. Russian victory would also mean a serious blow to the USA, its allies and to the existing world order.

The very high stakes implies that none of the major protagonists can afford to walk away without a clear cut victory. This is in contrast to other recent wars such as the Afghan wars that Russia and the USA fought. Strategic interests were at stake even in these wars – Russia wanting access to a warm water port on the Indian Ocean and the USA wanting a friendly regime in Kabul to contain Islamic terrorism. Walking away from those wars certainly involved giving up these strategic objectives as well as a major loss of prestige. But the stakes were nowhere as high as in the current Ukraine Russia war.

And so it is unlikely we will be seeing any serious attempt towards a ceasefire, even less a convening of parties around a negotiating table. Unfortunately the most likely scenario is that the war will continue. Not only that, it is likely to escalate as it has over the last year from an initial dispatch of “defensive weapons”, to supply of long range missiles, modern tanks, and now cluster bombs. The next step will most likely be the dispatch of modern airplanes such as the F-16 on which Ukrainian pilots are already being trained. And then? Maybe use of some sort of battlefield nuclear weapons.

And while the war in Europe drags on and escalates, there is an elephant in the room – China, the archenemy of the USA. How will they behave as the USA and its allies supply increasingly sophisticated weapons to Ukraine? Will they try and bolster Russia with who they have a “friendship with no limits”? Or would they be tempted to make a grab for Taiwan while the USA is tied up in Ukraine.

There are dangerous and uncertain times ahead.

Daud Khan works as consultant and advisor for various Governments and international agencies. He has degrees in Economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan.

IPS UN Bureau


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