Ukrainian soldiers blinded in combat re-learn how to navigate society. Source: PBS. - Photo: 2024

The Ukraine War Could Come to An Unexpected End

By Michael von der Schulenburg*

BERLIN | 14 February 2024 (IDN) — Even if there is still fighting at the front, recent developments in Ukraine would suggest that the war could end in a way that is entirely unexpected in the West – with a Ukrainian-Russian agreement. It all concerns the fact that the war may now be decided in Kyiv rather than on the front line. Central to this is the political survival of President Zelensky—who, once a war hero, may increasingly be seen as an illusionary advocate for a military solution that could risk the future of Ukraine.

This is because Zelensky is pursuing the seemingly unreasonable goal of wanting to defeat Russia with another major offensive this year. To this end, he prepared a law that would allow him to recruit an additional 500,000 Ukrainians into the armed forces forcibly. But he has neither the financial resources nor the heavy weapons needed for such a major offensive. More importantly, as such an offensive would have to be launched within the next four months, he did not have the time to turn new recruits into trained soldiers. After hundreds of thousands of fallen, maimed and mentally wounded people during the last offensive, he would risk the lives of those recruits without any chance of success.

Such an offensive could hence turn into a collective suicide. He may, hence, face serious resistance to his plans among Ukraine’s exhausted, poverty-stricken and war-battered population. Ukrainians may no longer be prepared to accept another year of death and destruction and they may refuse to let their sons and fathers be sacrificed for yet another ill-conceived attempt to beat Russia.

A crisis of confidence in the army?

By dismissing his popular army commander-in-chief, Zaluzhnyi, Zelensky may, in addition, have triggered a crisis of confidence in the army—an army that has already paid an enormous price in blood in the last failed major offensive and that has fewer and fewer soldiers and ammunition for defending territory, let alone mounting military attacks. It is no longer inconceivable that he will face increasing resistance within the Ukrainian army to his war plans; soon, we may even see first signs of disintegration in military discipline – if that has not already begun.

Zelensky has lost much support in the West and, with it, lost a major pillar of his political power inside Ukraine. The time he was received as a hero and collected huge financial and military support for his country appears to be over. Most importantly, he lost the support of the US, once the primary support of the fight against Russia. After two recent trips to Washington, he returned empty-handed, and it is increasingly unlikely that the US will resume its financial and military support. There are no longer any of the massive NATO arms and ammunition deliveries of a year ago, and NATO is, at best, sceptical about his plans for a further offensive.

NATO manoeuvre

Zelensky was also unable to convince Germany to provide modern Taurus rocket systems, and it may not be lost on the Ukrainians that the recently started NATO manoeuvre in territories along the NATO-Russian border, Steadfast Defense, may, assume Ukraine’s military collapse. All of this has made Zelensky an increasingly weak and isolated president, and it may only be a matter of time until he is forced out of office.

The Ukrainians must have realized by now that “we will support you for as long as it takes” was never meant seriously, that a rump Ukraine will never become a member of NATO and that von der Leyen’s promises to fast-track Ukraine’s EU membership were just empty promises. The Ukrainians will also know that they may no longer expect much support from President Biden, who is politically paralysed, with questions about his mental health hanging over him.

They will also have realized that for the US, Israel, the Gaza war, and the wider stability in the Middle East are far more important to than the fate of Ukraine. And the Ukrainians will be aware that it is increasingly likely that the next president of the USA could be Donald Trump who may reach a political settlement with Russia while ignoring Ukraine. And in all of this, the EU’s repeated declarations of solidarity amount to very little, apart from big words.

Ukrainians may be tempted…

Rather than seeing their country collapse under another military offensive, Ukrainians may be tempted to seek other venues to safeguard their country—and they may turn to Russia. They will remember the Ukrainian-Russian peace negotiations from March- April 2022 and that Russia had then agreed to surprisingly favorable peace terms for them. A post-Zelensky government could try to reach out to Russia again. Likely, talks are already taking place in secret. Even if the West doesn’t want to talk to Putin, there are regular contacts between the Russian and Ukrainian militaries—otherwise, the many prisoner exchanges and the astonishingly low number of civilians killed would be inconceivable.

Putin may react generously to a Ukrainian willingness to talk. Most likely, he will not demand that the government be replaced (after all, he has never had a government-in-exile set up). He is also unlikely to want to invade Kyiv and will certainly not try to conquer the whole of Ukraine. His prime goals will be to prevent Ukraine from joining a Western alliance such as NATO, to ensure Russia’s access to the Black Sea to protect the pro-Russian population in Ukraine and, through this, to ensure that Russian influence in Ukraine remains strong.

To achieve this, he would need the cooperation of large sections of the Ukrainian population. Putin may, therefore, have to make concessions. How this would play out over the Ukrainian territories that Russia had annexed earlier, we do not know.

Stop the killings and the destruction

But one thing is already clear. In such a scenario, the West—and the USA—would play no part. NATO’s eastward expansion would be halted, and Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and the Black Sea would fall back into the Russian zone of influence. The withdrawal of the USA from these areas, as well as from many other areas around the world, would, to the applause of the Global South, herald a new era that the West would no longer dominate.

All of this may stop the killings and the destruction, but it will not bring peace to Europe. And it would leave Ukraine in a deplorable state. We need, therefore, a peace settlement in Europe to reconstruct trust, trade and, above all, Ukraine. The fight for a lasting peace solution that involves all of Europe would only have to begin.

In a time when the US is sorting out internal problems, the EU and its member states would need this peace more than Russia. And yet, there has not been the slightest attempt within the EU or among EU member states to consider what a pan-European peace should look like and how it could be achieved. Such considerations need to be initiated now as a matter of urgency—otherwise, the EU could break apart over this issue. [IDN-InDepthNews]

*Former UN Assistant Secretary-General, escaped East Germany in 1969, studied in Berlin, London and Paris and worked for over 34 years for the United Nations, and shortly the OSCE, in many countries in war or internal armed conflicts often involving fragile governments and armed non-state actors. These included long-term assignments in Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sierra Leone and shorter assignments in Syria, the Balkan, Somalia, the Balkan, the Sahel, and Central Asia. In 2017, he published the book ‘On Building Peace – rescuing the Nation-State and saving the United Nations,’ AUP.

Photo: Ukrainian soldiers blinded in combat re-learn how to navigate society. Source: PBS.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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