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Ukraine’s Road to Peace

Jul 03, 2023
  • Xiao Bin

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

Pessimism once dominated in the early days of the Russia-Ukraine war, with most believing Kyiv would soon succumb to Russia and few believing Ukraine had the strength to resist in the face of the overwhelming Russian war machine.

One month into the war, however, both the Russian military’s poor performance and the Ukraine armed forces' tenacious resistance surprised almost everyone. Meanwhile, the conspicuous unity of the United States and its Western allies also sank Russia in a tremendous cost quagmire. For instance, the Russian forces suffered enormous losses in Bakhmut and other places in recent months without achieving their preset goals.

At the same time, the Ukrainian military has continuously launched counteroffensives and taken back Russian-occupied territories — even challenged elite Russian troops. Of course those challenges have not been smooth sailing, but they might be a landmark in the ongoing war, indicating that Ukraine’s armed forces, fighting for their homes and families, have turned from regional counteroffensives to more proactive offensives. Although they have advanced steadily to safeguard their homes, families, sovereignty and independence, it remains a tremendous challenge to achieve all-around military success. The road to peace will not be smooth. 

Protracted conflict 

Since the war began, Ukraine — with the aid of the United States and its Western allies — has demonstrated to the international community its resolve and capability for preserving its territorial integrity. But reality is merciless. International moral support and the Ukrainians’ tenacious and courageous fighting don’t necessarily mean Russia will lose. The fight between Ukrainian troops and elite Russian forces in the Zaporozhye area proved that the Russian military remains strong. It is still capable of continuously pouring resources into the war and has shown no sign of decline.

At the same time, the West has done more than it did during the Cold War to sanction and isolate Russia. Russia came under all-around sanctions by the West after the outbreak of the Russia-Afghanistan war. Yet many people, such as French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, believed it would be a serious political mistake to isolate Russia diplomatically. The French ambassador to Russia even attended the traditional military parade at Moscow’s Red Square on May 1, 1980, sending shock waves worldwide. There were no Western diplomats at the Russian military parade this year to mark the 78th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Only the presidents of Belarus and five Central Asian countries, along with the prime minister of Armenia, were present. 

War is a test of military courage and tactics, and the side that is most brave, flexible and efficient has a better chance to win. The Russian military has found its weaknesses in the war and has been adapting. While its various shortcomings have been exposed, including problems in chain of command, disorderly logistics, poor training and problematic equipment, it would be short-sighted to dismiss its resilience and combat effectiveness. The Russian military has continuously adjusted its tactics — even learned from its Ukrainian counterpart — and pressed the latter into a war of resource exhaustion.

Meanwhile, the Russians have also shown the West the importance of armored vehicles, long-range precision firepower and air defense for a large-scale conventional war. Improving combat effectiveness, reorganizing the military chain of command, and enhancing troop mobility are likely Russian main military goals in the next stage of the war. Moreover, Russia has transformed its national economy into a wartime economy, revealing a resolve to confront the West in the long term. 

Winning vs. not losing 

The purpose of war is not just military success but the accomplishment of various preset goals. After the Kakhovka Dam in Kherson Oblast was blown up on June 6, Robert Wood, the U.S. alternate representative for special political affairs in the UN General Assembly, clarified that America will continue to support Ukraine’s self-defense. He said Russia must withdraw from internationally acknowledged territories of Ukraine.

Judging from the present state of the war, however, the most direct tactic for the U.S. and its allies to accomplish such goals is to defeat Russia’s armed forces by devising a combination battle strategy, hence imposing their preset peace aims upon a disarmed Russia — similar to what happened with the U.S. and Japan during the Pacific War of the 20th century. But, even if the West aspires to disarm Russia, this will not be possible. Russia must disarm itself on its own initiative. Even if the Ukrainian military reclaims the territories occupied by Russia before February 2022, there is no guarantee Russia will forsake war and seek peace. 

China waits for opportunity

The Chinese government’s special envoy, Li Hui, visited five nations in May, including Russia, Ukraine and Poland, carrying out diplomatic maneuvers aimed at ending the Russia-Ukraine war. The core of the Chinese solution to the war is a political resolution. The international community has universally welcomed China’s diplomatic efforts, but different opinions have also been expressed.

Western nations think the Chinese solution is proceeding from the position of the Global South countries — and at the expense of Ukraine. The peace program of the African delegation, as a representative of the Global South, was rejected by Ukraine. But China has declared in explicit terms that it supports the international community in offering peaceful solutions acceptable to all parties, to which China would make active contributions.

Therefore, China’s focus should be to more accurately frame its own interests, take flexible and pragmatic steps and let Europeans play a bigger role in the peaceful resolution of the crisis. China must listen broadly to perfect its own solution, which will not only reduce unnecessary burdens on itself but also avoid unnecessary risks. 

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