Two years of war. Stop the killing

Two years of war. Stop the killing

Two Years of War. Stop the Killing

Grigory Yavlinsky

The intense warfare between Russia and Ukraine has continued relentlessly now for two years — people are dying every day. Continuation of the military actions in any form — offensive or positional warfare — will not deliver any positive outcome for Russia, Ukraine or Western countries. Any continuation implies endless and irreparable tragedy. “Ending the conflict “on the battlefield,” as some dream, will not work”, — I penned these words in my article in The Nation Magazine Stop the Killing, published a year ago in February 2023. In the article I called for the immediate conclusion of a ceasefire agreement between Russia and Ukraine. This text, which is now a year old, could simply be reprinted. All I would need to do is replace the assumptions and warnings with assertions and a statement of the facts.

Fragments of a building in Yubileiny District in Adviivka destroyed during the fighting // Photograph of Stanislav Krasilnikov (RIA NOVOSTI) 22 February 2024

Over the past year virtually nothing has changed on the front line. To return to the borders of 1991, Ukraine would have to regain control of more than 120,000 square kilometres of land.  In one year the Ukrainian army recovered 0.3% of these territories. During this time, however, according to some data, it lost over 740 square kilometres. In November 2023 Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who was at the time Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, declared that the war had reached a stalemate — in other words, he admitted what had been obvious to military experts a year earlier. To gain an understanding of the scale of the destruction, whose inevitability was already clear a year ago, you just need to look at images from Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Ugledar. We are not talking here about the destruction of infrastructure: we are talking about cities which have simply been obliterated.

All the global press constantly writes that the Ukrainian army is in dire need of shells and ammunition owing to the failure of the West to provide the aid that it had promised and that NATO countries will now have to ramp up not only production at their defence industries, but also invest in the development and scaling of ultramodern technologies capable of countering new powerful rockets and drones. Nobody knows how long this will take and what it will actually achieve.

After two years of bloody battles, people in Ukraine are increasingly tired and irritated: the current and planned mobilisation processes are accentuating the problems. 

Over the past few months the most divergent views are being articulated more and more frequently and loudly in the West, advocating a review of the volumes of military and economic assistance to Ukraine. Western politicians are taking heed of their voters who are not ready to sacrifice their own living standards at a time of a deteriorating economic situation in their own countries for the sake of restoring justice  in some local war somewhere in Eastern Europe. And this is precisely how the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is being perceived from a geopolitical perspective after the horrific act of terrorism perpetrated against Israel in October last year and the subsequent exacerbation of the situation throughout the Middle East. The US Congress has been unable to approve an aid package for Ukraine for over two months. The European Union is also being torn asunder by internal differences over the issue of financial support for Ukraine. On 1 February after a summit of the 27 national leaders of the European Union, they finally approved a EUR 50 billion package of support for Ukraine (EUR 33 billion in loans – EUR 17 billion – grants for the period to 2027). In other words, most of this aid is debt. 

The Economist notes: “Amid the self-congratulation and soaring press-conference guff about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with an embattled neighbour, it will be considered impolite to note the package is to be spread out over four years and amounts to around 0.08% of the GDP of the union in that period.” Meanwhile, Ukraine as an agrarian country has triggered the dissatisfaction of European farmers in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and even in France and Germany owing to the cheapness of the products that it has been exporting. This is a serious development, presaging new obstacles and difficulties for the country’s accession to the European Union.

Given that the issue of Ukraine’s accession to NATO is not even being considered seriously at present, the prospects of membership of the European Union is mission critical for Ukraine. However, even these prospects are slipping away. This is the direct result of political myopia — the key moment for a ceasefire was missed a year ago. 

The current situation does not bode well going forward for the parties to the confrontation. In 2024 the processes of destruction and degradation will proceed far more rapidly and on a far bigger scale than in the past, outstripping any attempts to restore anything. The negative trends will intensify both in Russia (however, this is a separate topic) and Ukraine. Furthermore the Ukrainian economy is already suffering a critical shortage of virtually everything — the budget has contracted, revenues have declined abruptly, while the domestic tax base is shrinking. Moreover, the risks of environmental and manmade disasters have risen acutely against the backdrop of the hostilities. Many people have already forgotten the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. Moreover, to date nobody has sought to assess the scale of the consequences of this disaster. Vast territories in the Kherson, Zaporizhhia, Mykolaiv and Kirovohrad Regions are at risk. Against the backdrop of climate change and an anticipated drought, these vast areas will be transformed into semi-desert. Thousands of inhabitants living in irrigation-based settlements and cities will end up literally without water. In two-three years these territories could in actual fact become inhabitable. The issue here does not only concern demining and irrigation: we are talking about the sustainability of these districts in principle.  Meanwhile the number of districts adversely affected by environmental and man-made disasters will only increase, the longer the war continues.

It is obvious that significant territories in Ukraine will become uninhabitable. In addition millions of Ukrainians have left and continue to leave the country, while millions who remain in the country are waiting for the termination of the military hostilities. However, Ukraine’s leadership insists that 2024 should be a year of continuing war, with an intensification of the warfare – both on land and in the air. This is the reason why the Ukrainian authorities made changes to their military command. Now they only talk about supplies of weapons, drones and implacable mobilisation. Consequently, the armed bloodletting confrontation between Ukraine and Russia will continue for many more years to come and will be transformed into a war of attrition. 

At the same time, it looks as if nobody in the West is ready for such a development scenario. Such unpreparedness is clearly demonstrated by the lack of any practical results at the Munich Security Conference held last week. A sombre atmosphere predominated at the largest international political forum, a mood of profound pessimism prevailed over prospects going forward. The majority of people present were sceptical about Ukraine’s chances in its confrontation with Russia. The “security guarantees” that Zelensky received on those days in France and Germany do not imply anything new: to all intents and purposes, the bilateral security agreements merely confirm that Ukraine’s accession to the EU is being delayed materially: Germany and France have promised remote aid (without any direct involvement) if the military conflict with Russia continues or is resumed over ten years.   

And this is all makes sense: 2024 is a year of elections globally, which not only portend the re-election of Donald Trump in the USA, but are also fraught with the invigoration of the right-wing forces in Europe: elections to the next European Parliament could lead Europe to lurch to the right. It is anticipated that Eurosceptics and right-wing parties will win the elections in nine EU countries,  while they will rank in the top three parties in another nine countries. So it looks as if the West in the best-case scenario will have enough on its plate without the “regional conflict” in Ukraine. 

In February 2023 I felt compelled to publish my call for a ceasefire owing to a keen understanding that the window of opportunity would soon close. In the end, this is how things have turned out. This opportunity was squandered. However, in politics, an ability to seize the day is always important. Here the key issue is not only that it will be far harder to achieve a ceasefire now than was the case a year ago. The key issue here is also the price paid for one more year of continuing military hostilities: the dead, wounded and the wrecked families. Moreover, the future of Ukraine as a European sovereign modern country is becoming more and more precarious, if not lost entirely.

All those people who opposed a ceasefire back in February 2023 have led Ukraine to the brink of disaster in February 2024. 

And what happens now? Now it is important that Putin is talking about his readiness for negotiations — it is irrelevant that a disgraced American journalist was invited to the Kremlin for this purpose. Such is Russian diplomacy today. There is nothing else. And if neither Ukraine nor the West can discern the opportunity for dialogue of some kind, then we face even more problems going forward. It is true that nobody can guarantee that it will prove possible to organise dialogue or that it will lead to a positive outcome. However, this is where work must be done, this is where diplomacy comes to the fore and where the price to be paid if we refuse to engage in such efforts is too high.

However, as soon as there is any mention of negotiations and a minimal chance of ceasefire appears — as was the case in November-December last year — in response we immediately witness an intensification of the shelling and major assaults, including attacks on the civilian population, in other words, everything is done to rule out even the thought that negotiations might be possible. At the same time, ceasefire negotiations are first and foremost in Ukraine’s national interests. Continuation of the hostilities is a path to degradation, destruction, unmitigable and irreparable losses.

All the talks about some “peace conference” where “the great of this earth” will gather to issue an ultimatum to Russia to surrender and sign a peace treaty against the backdrop of Ukraine’s military success — this is not even an illusion — this is tantamount to fraud.  Nothing of the like will happen or could happen.  

One cannot rule out the possibility that there is some secret plan to drag out the hostilities in 2024 in order to prepare the ground for the involvement of some third party in the war (this might be the USA or NATO). However, this would lead us on the trajectory to nuclear escalation, up to and including direct confrontation between nuclear powers: as NATO’s army enjoys an advantage in virtually all parameters other than nuclear weapons, Russia’s leadership does not even dissemble Russia’s intention to deploy nuclear weapons in the event of a direct military confrontation with NATO countries.

Strategic state goals and military potential should not diverge categorically. A policy based on calculations and hopes for a continuation of the war, with reliance on some limitless aid “as much as is required”) is utterly unrealistic. It is highly likely that such a policy would result in the loss of Ukraine’s statehood, independence and any kind of future. 

A ceasefire agreement is the key objective and the number one priority. This would be followed by a transitional period. This initiative must be supported at the highest level — at the UN Security Council with the consent of all five permanent members. As well as Russia and Ukraine, the USA and the European Union could sign the ceasefire agreement. It would be possible to discuss guarantees from Russia in exchange for an end to NATO expansion for the next 25 years. 

Ultimately, today’s global political crisis is attributable to the underlying role played by pragmatism in politics today, rather than value-based principles. Global politics blinded by populism online and steeped in demagoguery and an outright rejection of fundamental values, will simply stumble on from one dead end to another, repeating all the same mistakes. A political strategy in the 21st century must be based solely on universal values – the  preservation of human life and dignity in the broadest sense of the word and the retention of a historical perspective.

*  *  *

In February 2024 all the risks described in the article Stop the Killing that I penned a year ago remain. Some of them have already materialised. However, it is still not too late to stop. As was the case a year ago, the same words can be repeated today:

«The continuation of hostilities in any form—offensive or “positional”—does not bode well for Russia, Ukraine, or Western countries. To continue means an endless and irreparable tragedy. Ending the conflict “on the battlefield,” as some dream, will not work. Putin’s state will stop at nothing. Russia will not become powerless as a result of this war. It will remain one of the two largest nuclear powers in the world.

But there is a possibility of depriving Ukraine, considered by many experts to have become a major state in Central Europe, of its prospects by questioning its ability to restore its economy after the hostilities. It must not come to this.

It is perfectly clear that all this has to stop. Everyone. And only after that should we try to talk. The main thing is that during this time people won’t be killed… 

This is the only way to discuss territorial issues, borders, and movement of troops. Then diplomacy will also be needed—tough, difficult, with failures and limitations. We are in a situation where we are left with either bad options or even worse ones. The good options are gone now.”

Stop the killing! Just stop!