Bringing peace to Ukraine: a necessary search for common ground
Updated 20:26, 10-Mar-2022
Jonathan Arnott
Two girls paint the foggy glass of one of the carriages at the Lviv train station, Ukraine, March 2, 2022. /CFP

Two girls paint the foggy glass of one of the carriages at the Lviv train station, Ukraine, March 2, 2022. /CFP

Editor's note: Jonathan Arnott is a former member of the European Parliament. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

There's a picture doing the rounds on social media in the United Kingdom. It's an image of a bear walking around a city center, together with the caption "The authorities shouldn't catch and tranquilize the bear; it's our own fault for poking it."

The image references a popular trope, "poking the Russian bear," which refers to actions taken by NATO and the European Union (EU) which have antagonized Russia over the last couple of decades. The EU, in particular, has over many years shown a lack of strategic understanding. In its quest for expansion to the east, it has neglected the broader geopolitical picture. It is unsurprising that Russia has perceived this as being a threat: one by one, Eastern European nations – formerly part of the Soviet Union – have joined the EU, with various others pledging to do so by way of an Accession Agreement. Even Turkey was expected to join the EU at one stage.

In reality, of course, the EU was simply stuck in its own insular mindset. Up to 2014, it saw expansion at any cost as an article of faith. What, they reasoned, could possibly be wrong with "more Europe?" They suffered a rude awakening: the United Kingdom left (and I saw first-hand their anger at that decision); Turkey failed to meet the criteria for joining, and Euroskeptic blocs grew dramatically in size. It has, to an extent, woken up to the world which exists outside its own borders – but, in the words attributed to Julius Caesar when his army crossed the Rubicon River, "the die is cast." Decisions taken a decade ago still have political ramifications today. The EU may not have intended to threaten Russia, but through sheer naivety, they blundered into doing so.

Western leaders might have expected an incursion into the Donbass region, but they did not expect this fully-fledged attack. For all Russian President Vladimir Putin's description of a "special military operation," the terms offered by Russia to Ukraine are in my opinion essentially those of wartime surrender. As things stand, for Russia to back down, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy must recognize the current status of Crimea, and accept the "independence" of Donetsk and Luhansk, according to the conditions raised by the Russian side in the previous bilateral negotiations.

The virtual trilateral meeting between China, France and Germany on March 8 is therefore pivotal. France has been the conduit for European discussions with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a number of occasions during this conflict. Germany is pivotal because the Russian economy, especially given the current sanctions against Russia, will be largely dependent upon the export of gas. Germany, more than any other large industrial nation, is reliant on that gas.

Then, there is China. Russia is becoming ever more reliant upon China in the wake of recent Western economic sanctions. In that context, Russia will be particularly sensitive to China's actions.

A young boy plays with a phone as he lies on a mattress among many others in a temporary shelter hosting Ukrainian refugees located in a former shopping center near the city of Przemysl in Poland, March 8, 2022. /CFP

A young boy plays with a phone as he lies on a mattress among many others in a temporary shelter hosting Ukrainian refugees located in a former shopping center near the city of Przemysl in Poland, March 8, 2022. /CFP

It is far from clear that Russia can be happy with the way things are going so far. Ukraine is a sizeable country, and supply chain and logistics issues are starting to bite the Russian army. The level of resistance from Ukraine has clearly been higher than anticipated, and with Western weapons flooding into Ukraine, there is little chance of Russia achieving full air superiority any time soon. It is messy: Every image of a civilian area ravaged by war is an image which strengthens the West's resolve against Russia.

China recognizes what it describes as the "legitimate" interests of both sides. Russia would consider any eastward NATO or EU expansion as a threat to its territorial integrity.

To achieve his political objectives, Putin required a decisive military victory. Zelenskyy has clearly mounted a reasonably strong territorial defense within the biggest cities, and can expect some reinforcements both in terms of modern equipment, possibly even fighter planes, and through his "international" legion.

Although 16,000 have volunteered according to Zelenskyy, it is unclear how many are yet in Ukraine. Every extra piece of land taken by Russia is land which it must be able to defend, and will continue to lengthen Russia's already struggling supply lines. That is not to say that Russia could not eventually win militarily, but it would be a much harder struggle than it was prepared for.

If that prolonged conflict occurs, it will be a humanitarian disaster. With Western nations now negotiating with Venezuela over oil, I wonder whether Beijing might find that its long-term policy objectives are best advanced by making a diplomatic intervention to peacefully resolve the Ukraine crisis.

The meeting on March 8 appears to have been a cautious start: Chinese President Xi Jinping opposed Western sanctions, while also pledging that he is prepared to play "an active role" in ending the current crisis in order to ensure lasting stability and security in Europe. Zelenskyy might listen to an array of Western leaders, but Putin may take China's stance into consideration.

NATO and the EU will, in order to secure any ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian forces, need to be prepared at a minimum to guarantee that they will not allow Ukraine to join. That might not be enough for Russia, but peace certainly cannot happen without it.

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