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A Look at the Russia-Ukraine War

Nov 22, 2022
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

After Russian troops withdrew from Kherson, Ukrainian troops took control of most territory west of the Dnieper River. No matter how the Russian military justifies its withdrawal, its troops’ morale will inevitably be dampened by the setback.

But this won’t make more Russians reflect on why this war of no future was launched at all. Of course, a revolution like the one in 1905 won’t occur now because, according to many Russians’ narrative of history, Ukraine is not a sovereign country.

Meanwhile, anti-war forces in Russia are not strong enough politically to press for a policy reversal. The  majority of Russians who are firmly against the war have chosen to flee their country. According to Georgia, Russia’s neighbor, more than 700,000 Russians have entered the country since the outbreak of the war. Of those, more than 600,000 have continued on to Armenia, Turkey and other European countries.

A highly unified decision-making circle has gradually formed among Russian political elites. Perceptions of the current decision-making on the war has finally been consolidated, while increasing numbers of Russian families have inevitably been dragged into the conflict, some even sacrificing their lives. 

After Sergey Surovikin became commander of all Russian forces in the so-called “special operation,” he has indeed managed to more or less stabilize the battlefield situation. In order to cope with logistical difficulties that have arisen with the onset of winter weather, Russian forces withdrew from Kherson on their own initiative and built new fortifications on the east bank of the Dnieper.

The Russian Black Sea fleet stationed at Sevastopol has also reduced activities at sea. The Russians’ purpose is to weaken the Ukrainian forces’ offensives and expect its “energy weapons” to play a role in winter against Europe, forcing external forces supporting Ukraine vto compromise. Therefore many analysts assume there will not be large-scale battles over the next six months. To Ukraine, however, winter may be an important opportunity to reclaim lost territory from Russian hands.

Although war arises from the state of society and state-to-state relations, it is politics that determines its course. The politics of war are subject to two mutually complementary key factors: national interests and the underlying nature of war. 

Both Russia and Ukraine are fighting for national security. The biggest difference between the two parties lies in the nature of the war. In December 1974, UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 defined aggression as the invasion or attack, bombardment, blockade or armed action on the territory of another state. It includes states using their own territory to commit aggressive offenses or sending, by or on behalf of a state, armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries that carry out acts of armed force against another state. Although the definition isn’t legally binding in international law, it still has some authority.

Since the war began, the UN General Assembly has voted multiple times. The votes have shown that the majority of member countries don’t accept Russia’s rationale for launching the war. As the ancient Chinese thinker Mencius said, “A just cause wins much support, an unjust one finds little.”

Against this backdrop, the more one party in Ukraine hopes to prolong the war over the winter, the more the other may be able to find or create opportunities for a decisive battle. In order to weaken the Ukrainian troops’ high morale, Russia has begun to seek peace talks; Ukraine has also shown a willingness to end the war. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated openly that if the negotiation with Russia focuses on preserving Ukrainian territorial integrity, compensating Kiev for its losses and punishing war criminals, he would be open to it.

The international community is universally in favor of peace talks, but Russia has yet to come up with active moves conducive to negotiations. Obviously it is difficult for Russian decision-makers to accept Ukraine’s conditions for negotiations and make serious preparations for peace talks. So the war in Ukraine will continue in an unpredictable form. Ukraine needs to win more decisive battles to make peace talks possible.

In the future, the Russian side may carry out larger-scale attacks on the infrastructure of Ukrainian cities, bringing more trouble to the everyday lives of Ukrainian civilians and press the country to accept negotiations. However, indiscriminate attacks may backfire. They will not subjugate Ukraine, nor will it be possible for Western countries to urge Ukraine to enter peace talks with Russia under such circumstances.

To show the legitimacy of its attack, Russia has repeatedly claimed that NATO has forgotten the principle of not enhancing security by sacrificing others’ security. Yet, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has a responsibility to safeguard world peace, not resort to war to preserve its own security.

Ukraine has paid dearly for what it has achieved in the war, but increasing numbers of courageous Ukrainians have chosen to sacrifice. Because they know they are fighting to save their country, the power balance on the battlefield will ultimately tilt in favor of justice. 

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