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Fighting a losing battle

No matter which way the war goes, Russia will not taste victory as we know it

Fighting a losing battle

FUTILE: Russia should have drawn lessons from similar misadventures of the US. AP

Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

RUSSIA’S Ukraine misadventure is another demonstration of the shrinking utility of the use of coercive power by a state. Russia has already lost the war whatever its military outcome. Even if victory is achieved in a military sense with the defeat of the Ukrainian military, a hostile insurgency is likely to continue tying down a large occupation force for a long time to come. A ravaged Ukraine with its infrastructure destroyed, its economy severely damaged and its population angry and resentful, cannot count as much of a prize. If Russia has to engage in Ukraine’s reconstruction and revive its economy, the costs would be astronomical. This would be the case even if the Chinese throw in their full support. If economic sanctions on Russia continue, sources of finance and materials required for reconstruction would also be a challenge. If confronted with these dire eventualities, Russia decides to declare victory and withdraw its forces, there will be nothing to show for the immense political and economic costs it has incurred. Reducing Ukraine to rubble as punishment cannot be hailed as victory if, at the same time, Russia claims a historic, cultural and almost umbilical connect with its neighbour.

The nature of modern warfare is such that it leaves behind a non-viable defeated state that adds to the burdens of the victor rather than its wealth and usable resources.

Russia should have drawn lessons from similar misadventures of the US, even when the latter was enjoying its unipolar privilege after the end of the Cold War. During the Vietnam War, it could blame the then USSR and China for standing in the way of its pacification campaigns and for its ultimate withdrawal in considerable disgrace. Not after the Cold War was over when neither the Russians nor the Chinese could pose any credible threat. And yet, after what looked like overwhelming military victories, in neither Iraq nor in Afghanistan, could spectacular initial successes be sustained. Withdrawal became the only rational choice to stanch the haemorrhaging of men, material and treasure. Under no metric of realpolitik — even if the moral argument is rejected — could these wars be regarded as serving any credible objective. The same is true today of the Taliban ‘victory’ in Afghanistan. It is a prize that looks increasingly like a colossal failure. In fact, the targets of intervention have become seething cockpits of rage and resentment, exacerbating local conflicts and endemic violence, which, in our globalised and inter-connected world, threaten peace and security everywhere. The world has been seeded with multiple vortices of violence, instability and acute human and environmental distress, which could feed into one another to cause the perfect global maelstrom. The Ukraine war is just the latest of these dangerous whirlpools.

In a geopolitical landscape made up of competing states, it is inevitable that there will be jostling for power and advantage. Diplomacy has a critical role to play in preventing such contestation from descending into a destructive clash of arms, which, as we have seen, cannot lead to victory, as conventionally understood, for any party. The nature of modern warfare ensures that it leaves behind a non-viable, non-functional defeated state that adds to the burdens of the victor rather than its wealth and usable resources. If that is the compelling reality, there is every reason to avoid a dangerous clash of arms. Contestation is best conducted through diplomacy which allows for incremental outcomes, for or against, reflective of power equations but not determined by them. These may be modest expectations but the only realistic ones in our world today. We have discovered in the case of the Ukraine war that the imposition of sanctions against another state inflicts a price on the perpetrator, too, and, in our globalised world, across national frontiers. A large segment of people in Africa may starve because supplies of wheat from Russia are disrupted and prices have risen steeply. Russia may have the wheat but cannot transport it to African ports. Having been unplugged from the SWIFT international payments system, it may not be able to receive payments for its exports through normal channels.

What we are witnessing is the failure of the world to manage the politics of globalisation even while enjoying the fruits of its capacity to generate wealth and foster technological innovation. Precisely at a time when we need strong institutions of global governance and reliance on multilateral processes to deal with challenges spawned by globalisation, we are moving in the reverse direction. Just when we need a much stronger reliance on diplomacy to reach mutually acceptable outcomes, we see more frequent resort to military instruments and much less to dialogue and diplomacy. The swagger of the military has won over the sobriety of the statesman. To project oneself as a strong leader, the default recourse is for the elected or unelected leader to don a military uniform, brandish a lethal-looking gun and threaten the enemy with dire consequences. That wins votes and public acclaim. Talk of peace and brotherhood is considered appeasement.

It is said that globalisation is in retreat and that countries big and small are all reorienting themselves in a more self-reliant direction. Reliability is being prized over efficiency and this appears the rational thing to do, confronted as we are with the consequences of disrupted supply chains, the rising threat of violence and a fluid geopolitical landscape. However, there are certain challenges, global in nature, which no degree of self-reliance could deal with. These are global pandemics of the kind we are still grappling with, or the threat of irreversible climate change whose consequences could be catastrophic for our planet. Our inability to secure a safe and dependable cyber space and prevent the militarisation of our common heritage, outer space, will make the future of our succeeding generations a veritable nightmare. These global challenges can only be tackled through international collaboration in a spirit of international solidarity. You cannot fight climate change by deploying well-armed divisions. Pandemics cannot be vanquished by hurling powerful missiles against the virus. The tiny micro-organisms mock the impotence of coercive power. So should we as humanity.

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