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Conflict in Ukraine heading towards ceasefire or “eternal war”?

The war in Ukraine exceeds one hundred days and its outcome will depend more on the decisions taken in the White House and Kremlin than on the expertise of the military on the Ukrainian battlefield. At stake are the course of the world economy and the expansion (predatory, for some) of the ideals of Western liberalism amidst the strengthening of nationalisms (aggressive, in the opinion of others).

According to UN data , 4.183 civilians have been killed so far in the conflict and 5.014 have been wounded. But these numbers are only the confirmed cases – the statistic could be much higher.

Ukrainian military casualty figures are generally not released and estimates on Russian casualties cannot be independently verified. – but tens of thousands are estimated on both sides.

In addition, the war produced at least 6 million refugees, who headed in most cases to European countries, and about 1, 5 million internally displaced.

According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia controls % of Ukrainian territory and the front line it stretches over a thousand kilometers between the east and south of the country.

In Russia, all independent media outlets have either left the country or been closed. Hundreds of Western businesses, shops and cafes also closed their doors and countless jobs were lost.

The Russian economy has not collapsed as the West predicted with its sanctions, but the country has found it very difficult to import items technology, especially semiconductors.

Washington’s options

In the White House, there are two distinct streams of thought. One of them wants to press for a quick ceasefire, which should include the cession of territories to Russia by Ukraine.

This would prevent more deaths in the short term, bring relief to the world economy, which experiencing an inflationary wave, and would reduce the risk of a direct and large-scale war between Russia and NATO (Western Military Alliance). The biggest fear, without a doubt, is that of breaking the nuclear taboo.

The other wing maintains that the United States and its European allies must increase economic, political and armaments support to Ukraine (without send troops) until the complete expulsion of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.

The idea of ​​this current is to weaken Russia in a more permanent way, so that Moscow cannot launch other military operations like the one in Ukraine . For them, a ceasefire now would only give Russia more time to better prepare to take Ukraine.

Others go further, defending the very destabilization of the Russian regime.

So, from the American point of view, regardless of whether Russia obtains a partial victory, annexing the territories already conquered, or is completely expelled from these areas, the important thing is to prevent Ukraine from becoming a failed state.

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This idea is reflected, in part, in a recent essay by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, published in the journal Foreign Affairs. He says: “If Putin undermines Ukrainian independence and democracy, the world will return to an era of aggressive and intolerant nationalism, reminiscent of the early 20th century.” An eventual economic and military fiasco in Russia – which is governed in an authoritarian way, according to Fukuyama – would strengthen the ideals of a free and democratic world.

It is necessary to note that Fukuyama was the author , in 1989, from the essay “The end of history?”, which was turned into a book and stated that Western liberal democracy would be the definitive form of government in the future. This is not exactly what is happening so far.

It must also be said that the Joe Biden administration has not made it clear which path it will take: press for peace or support Ukraine to victory.

Ideology aside, the economic question is also far from being resolved. On the one hand, by supplying Ukraine with weapons, Washington has invested in its defense industrial base, injecting money into the economy and generating resources for the development of new war technologies. The US should also open up a market in Europe for the export of shale gas, as the Europeans try to replace Russian natural gas imports.

But the sanctions on Russia also have negative aspects. for the US, such as inflation (which cannot be attributed only to the war, as there was a pandemic, but is aggravated by it). Another problem for the US is the insecurity in the market caused by the freezing of the reserve of more than US$ 600 billion that Russia had in dollars. In the long term, other nations may be reluctant to invest in this type of reserve, which could weaken the US currency.

The country also tries to prevent closer ties between countries such as Russia, China and India, which could reduce American economic influence in the Indo-Pacific and even globally.

Moscow’s options

Russia, in turn, is making explicit for years their discontent with NATO’s eastward expansion – with the inclusion in the alliance of countries that had already been dominated by the former Soviet Union. Enjoying a stronger military and political position in recent years, Russia decided to use military means to assert its point of view and invaded Ukraine in February 24.

After the Maidan Revolution, which overthrew a pro-Russian government in Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin has been seeking the “demilitarization” of Ukraine. In other words, in its concept of national defense, it needs to have a neutral territory between its borders and the NATO countries.

President Vladimir Putin still has many resources to escalate the war in Ukraine, but not have done it. His government calls the conflict a “special military operation”, not to give the idea that it is a Russian survival war, but an important operation, but limited to a specific strategic region.

This status quo corresponds to a tacit agreement that was in force in Russia since the beginning of the Putin government, in the years 2000. In a very general way: the government is committed to providing conditions for the Russian population to have stability, relative prosperity, individual freedoms and possibilities for enrichment. On the other hand, the population should not contest the government’s political decisions, according to an article by Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman in Foreign Affairs.

To maintain political stability in the country, Putin has two options. One of them is, after conquering Donbas, declaring a unilateral ceasefire and claiming victory by annexing to Russia (or creating puppet governments) industrialized regions, rich in mineral resources and provided with important “warm ports”, whose waters do not freeze in winter.

He also has the option of continuing the military campaign slowly – as he has been doing – without mobilizing more troops and resources, but gradually conquering strategic Ukrainian regions, taking advantage of the artillery russian. The risk of this option is that the weapons of attack promised by the West arrive in large numbers on the battlefield and allow the Ukrainians to carry out a de facto counteroffensive.

But Putin can also declare national mobilization and thus increase on a large scale the number of conscripted soldiers sent to war, as well as the quantity of armaments. With that, he could, for example, not only nullify the Ukrainian counter-offensive, but conquer cities like Odesa (ending Ukraine’s departure to the sea) or even the capital Kyiv. In practice, this would turn Ukraine into a failed state.

But this option could cause an internal political imbalance in Russia. The mass conscription of men would cause the Russians to see the war in Ukraine not as a distant conflict but as a direct threat. This would completely change civilian life in the country and would need a stronger justification than the current lie of “denazifying” Ukraine, which is seen as a kind of extension of Russia. The speech would have to change to something like “a war of the Russian people against the West”, which is a very risky option.

There is still the option of Moscow making use of tactical nuclear weapons, or that is, lower potential nuclear bombs (with a tenth or half the power of the Hiroshima bomb). The West’s response would possibly be with a nuclear test or a conventional strike against Russia. But Putin has been very cautious about engaging in a direct military confrontation with NATO and this seems less likely.

Ukraine’s options

Ukraine has the option of exchanging occupied territories for peace, but that is not what the government has been signaling. Zelensky said this Friday (3) that the victory will go to Ukraine and that the country has done what was considered “impossible” to stop Russia.

Thus, he has signaled that he is betting on aid economic and military force of the West to expel the invading army from its territory.

Adopting an impassioned speech of victory since the beginning of the war, Zelensky would hardly be able to convince the population that it is necessary to cede territory at the moment . His military would also have to be convinced. They even consider concessions, such as a commitment not to join NATO, but demilitarizing or ceding territory is a much more complicated option.

For all that, a ceasefire does not seem viable in the short term. term, but may gain strength with increasing pressure from the international community – terrified by rising energy costs, consequent inflation and a possible global food crisis.

Another plausible option is relative consolidation from the front lines and the transformation of the conflict into a war of attrition (which generates a lot of violence for small conquests of territory), which can last for months or years – but without a significant change from the current intensity. This would equate the Ukrainian war to what have been called the “eternal wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, for example.

It is not possible to rule out the victory of one side either, which could mean the maintenance of American hegemony or a step towards multilateralism (or nationalism) propagated by the Russians. But what seems certain is that we are heading towards a more unstable and dangerous world.

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