No chance for meaningful negotiation plan: How the Ukraine conflict will drag on…

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war of attrition world war I

Elisabeth Hellenbroich

With the large Kakhovka dam breach near Saporischja on June 6th that caused the flooding of a huge area in the south- eastern Ukraine and led to the mass evacuation of inhabitants, the Russian-Ukrainian war has taken a new turn for the worse, which may end up in a real catastrophe – including a nuclear showdown. While both war parties accuse each other for having committed such an atrocious act of war, it looks so far that the US aside some experts in Europe are still carefully evaluating the facts on the ground before making any definitive judgement. While most of the European leaders in a “flight forward mode” blame Russia, it is a fact that nobody so far is able to give a conclusive explanation about what happened and why it happened in an area that is occupied by the Russians since more than a year. Whatever the truth will be, this incident once again underlines that we are entering a new phase of „chaotic“ developments, where nobody will be the winner and where the bloody war will only drag on for a long time. While the US is looking at the conflict from the outside, the losers of the war will be the Ukrainian and European population, leaving behind a totally ruined relation between Russia and Europe.

On the background of these recent events one should take into account the judgement which was given by the known US expert on international relations Prof Dr John Mearsheimer from the Chicago University. On May 22nd he gave a speech about the Ukraine war at the Chicago University.

At the same time, one should look at the recent IISS Shangri -La security conference in Singapore, beginning June, which was gathering defense ministers and security experts as well as secret service leaders from 40 countries, in Singapore. The most spectacular speech was the one given by Chinese Minister of Defense General Li Shangfu, who in rhetoric and content was standing in direct contrast to US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Being known for his militaristic speeches at the US airbase Ramstein in Germany and his famous statement that „Russia should be humiliated  in such a way that it never would dare anymore to invade,“  Austin essentially engaged at the Singapore event in a major „arm-twisting“ , trying to impose the role of the US „hegemon.“ His frantic efforts are similar to the efforts by Anthony Blinken, US foreign state secretary,  who is desperately touring the Mideast to win back allies such as Saudi Arabia. Similar attempts are made in respect to India and in respect to Africa- it’s the attempt to win back from Russian the influence on the Global South.

It is noteworthy that shortly before the annual Asian security summit „Dialogue Shangri- La“ a major incident had occurred in the Taiwan Straits.  According to the Chinese Global Times  “the Chinese People’s Liberation Army handled a provocative transit into Taiwan Straits made by US and Canadian warships on Saturday (June 3rd), with a Chinese destroyer repeatedly forcing the US vessel to alter course by cutting in front of it, showing determination and capability in countering the provocation, as experts said.“ The incident  involved the US Navy Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Chung -Hoon and the Canadian Navy Halifax – class frigate HMCS Montreal – that made a transit through Taiwan Straits on Saturday. “The PLA Eastern theater command organized naval and guided aerial forces, tracked and monitored them through the whole course and handled the situation in accordance with law and regulations,“ as a spokesman of the PLA Eastern Theater Command had stated.  „The US and Canadian Navy were forced to alter course and slow down to avoid a crash, as the two vessels were reportedly within 150 yards (137 meters). This incident almost led to a catastrophic clash between a US carrier and a Canadian ship and the Chinese – not far away from the Chinese coast.” Chinese Defense Minister General Li Shangfu had stated at the conference that „it is undeniable that a serious conflict or confrontation between China and the US would be an unbearable catastrophe for the entire world.“ This incident definitely overshadowed the Singapore security conference. At the conference Chinese General Li Shangfu refused to have an encounter with Lloyd Austin and in his speech Li Shangfu used words along the line that “a cold war mentality was surging” and underlined that for China it is not the law of the jungle which counts, but that China fully adheres to the principle of the UN system of international law as well as the principles of the UN charter in defining international relations. “We practice multilateralism,” he said, “and some try to force their own rules on others in the name of the rules-based order. Nobody says who made these rules.“  “China is to promote peace, world peace with concrete actions.”  He referred to the 1,4 billion people of China who want to promote modernization in a peaceful way, the BRI initiative with 140 partners and the various peace and mediation initiatives that China has become recently involved in: Ukraine, North-Korea, Mideast, in particular talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Mearsheimer: “No chance for meaningful peace-agreement now”

The well-known US political scientist John Mearsheimer during a lecture at Chicago University (22nd of May) about the Ukraine war concentrated on three questions concerning the Ukraine war. The causes of war, the state of war and what is likely to happen. He stated adamantly that at the moment „there is no chance of a meaningful peace agreement.“ There may be a frozen peace agreement, he stated. He identified the three main actors: The US /NATO and the West, Ukraine and Russia.   In terms of the battlefield situation Mearsheimer underlined that Russia considers that it is confronted by an “existential threat” from the West- the entire survival of Russia is at stake and Putin himself often used the word „existential threat“.

Given the prewar situation it was clear, according to Mearsheimer, that the West was involved in major efforts to make the Ukraine a „bulwark on the Russian border“.

After the war had started, Mearsheimer argued, the US pursued the „goal to defeat Russia, wreck it’s economy and knock it out as a major power, i.e. regime change; then put Putin on trial. There is and was talk about breaking up Russia. I.e., there is no question that the Russians face an existential threat.”  What are their goals? Many think that since 2022 Russia was to conquer all of Ukraine and absorb it into Russia. Yet, as Mearsheimer underlined that the „Russians have never territorial interest in that,” but they would want to „capture part of Ukraine and make it a dysfunctional rump state. They have already four oblasts and Crimea, i.e. 23 % of Ukraine territory. And it is probable that they might take four more oblasts (Odessa, Kharkiv and Kherson).”

Looking at the US and the West, Mearsheimer essentially focused on the US. Before 2014,  even if “we were interested to expand NATO, there was no explicit view that Russia was the real threat. We had to blame Russia and it happened all of a sudden. I think since the war we worked solely in the West to see Russia as a threat.“  There is the great fear that if we lose in the Ukraine, it may destroy the alliance.“ Then there is the US / China conflict. The US sees China as a greater threat than Russia. „If we lose in Ukraine, it makes the China thing more difficult.  Finally, there is the widespread perception that Russia is a threat to the liberal order: competition between autocracy and democracy. Hence our goal is: We have to knock the Russians out of their great power status. This requires change and Putin on trial. Important is that we remain committed to bring Ukraine into NATO.”

Looking at the Ukraine Mearsheimer described it in the following way. Ukraine views Russia as an existential threat and they have the same view like the West: they want to see Russia knocked out of the great power status, so that in the words of Lloyd– Austin, they will never invade again.

In terms of the actual battlefield situation Mearsheimer emphasized that we deal with a real  „war of attrition“, not a Blitzkrieg, but a battle resembling the one of World War I. “It is more a battle like World War I reminiscent of Verdun / Somme.” In 2022 the Ukraine had the upper hand, scoring victories in Kherson and Kharkiv. After that the Russians mobilized 300.000 troops „I think the Russians got the upper hand.“ And he stressed that they have it now. They just have taken Bakhmut. The Ukraine thought to fiercely oppose Russia. „The reason they don’t go into the offensive is that they are in trouble. They don’t want to do it, but the West wants to. One could say that the Russians are in a better shape than Ukraine right now.”

In terms of the battlefield, he said „I agree that Russia is to win the war.”  And he identified some factors which count on who “will win the war of attrition: the balance of resolve, population, and the balance in terms of the amount of artillery. The battle is more of an artillery kind of battle.”

In terms of „resolve“ there is no difference between Ukrainians and Russians. In terms of population balance Mearsheimer pointed out that today you have the ratio of 5 Russians against 1 Ukrainian. He also pointed out the “artillery imbalance – ranging from 5 to 1, 7 to 1 and even 10 to 1 with Russia being in favor. This would have massive consequences given that artillery weighs in terms of population casualties. It’s being stated that 7 (!) Russians die for 1 Ukrainian but the reverse is true, 2 Ukrainians die for one Russian. That means the Ukraine loses lots of people and more than the Russians do.”

He referred to the fact that in the Western Media there is constant reference that the Russians do senseless frontal attacks. This is why they say that 7 Russians die for 1 Ukrainian. “Yet the Russians have become much more sophisticated. They use infantry in small packages, then put in artillery. However large numbers of Russians are not dying. You can see what‘s going on in Ukraine. The country is in a total war, the entire population, including old people;  because they are desperate- they drag people off the street. This is not the case with the Russians. The Ukrainians pushed the best troops into Bakhmut- the Russian main line forces have not been fighting there.

Security guarantees?

In respect to the question where we are heading to, he stated that there will be no meaningful peace agreement.  “The situation will be frozen. The reason for this being: The Ukraine insists to get territory back, but this would be like squaring the circle.  Neutrality is the position of the Russians. The Ukraine does not want neutrality. They want security guarantees from someone like the US/NATO the West. This will not happen. There are two other problems: hyper-nationalism and hatred on both sides. In terms of President Putin, he emphasized „that a number of leaders in the West had lied to Putin about their seeming commitment to the Minsk agreement. Putin was deeply committed to this, he didn’t want war. But Merkel and Poroshenko never wanted it to work. There is no trust on the Russian side, i.e. there will not be any meaningful peace, but a frozen conflict. „I believe Putin was deeply committed to finding a solution with the Minsk agreement. He went with great length to explain the West his thinking. What did we do? We refused to go along!”

In terms of Finland and Sweden entering NATO Mearsheimer saw no objective reason for the two to feel threatened by Russia. „They tried to sneak in, it is not good. It gives the Russians an increased sense of being surrounded.“ He also referred to the „Arctic Council“ with NATO countries being in the majority  and Russia. Mearsheimer also was clear on President Biden, who, as he stressed, under Obama handled the “Ukraine portfolio” and when he entered the presidency all started. When he moved into the White House, also Zelenskyy became more active. He reported about Putin’s letter to Biden December 2021in which he asked for more comprehensive security agreements. However, this all was rejected.

According to Mearsheimer it would have been in the US interest to work out with the Russians a security agreement in 1992. „We should have worked out a modus vivendi and the whole NATO expansion was counterproductive.“  Another prediction was that if the West, i.e. particularly the US  would stop sending arms to the Ukraine, the war would end.

A very similar remark was made by former Hamburg Mayor and Foreign Minister Klaus von Dohnanyi (soon 95 years old, son of the resistance fighter Hans von Dohnanyi, who was killed by the Nazis) during a Körber Stiftung Forum in Hamburg May 22nd. Von Dohnanyi essentially blasted the US, stating that “we in Germany or elsewhere in Europe have nothing to say in foreign policy. It is entirely the US that determines the course of events.” He very much complained about the failure of the West (above all the U.S.) to negotiate with Russia about security guarantees which Putin had demanded. And he added that in terms of long-term interests „the US has interest in the Eurasian Continent.  They always said they need a bridgehead for this: France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine. That is what Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his book the „Grand Chess Board“, which focused on the question how to encircle Russia.” Von Dohnanyi ended with a pessimistic note stating that „the Ukraine war may end like the Palestine- Israeli conflict. There will never be an end to terrorism.“ What is most tragic in this, according to him, is that „we managed to push Russia out of Europe. This is the consequence of Putin’s aggression and the failure of the West to negotiate with him.“

(Written on June 8 2023)

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