Friday 26 May 2023

Is Ukraine destined to become a frozen conflict?

 If I were a Ukrainian, I would be reading everything I could find on the history of frozen conflicts. 

Korea. Cyprus. China-Taiwan. Israel-Palestine. Western Sahara. Wars which ended without ending, which remain frozen in time. Conflicts unresolved, deaths unavenged, borders undrawn. 

Fifteen months after President Putin unleashed an invasion that was meant to last no more than a few days, it is not unreasonable to start asking how – and when – this brutal war will end. Which is where frozen conflicts come in, because not all wars end in victory or defeat.

North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The North had clear military superiority and was confident of an easy victory. Three years later, and after the deaths of an estimated three million people, an armistice was signed. It had taken two years to negotiate and did not include a peace treaty. In theory, seventy years later, the two Koreas are still at war.

Turkey invaded Cyprus on 20 July 1974, claiming that it had to act in order to protect Turkish Cypriots and prevent the absorption of Cyprus by Greece. Nearly fifty years later, it still occupies about one-third of the island.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the end of the Second World War. More than seven decades later, it still insists that it retains the right to use force to reunify the two Chinas.

Israel declared its establishment as a Jewish state in 1948. Its Arab neighbours declared war, and 75 years later, only two of them, Egypt and Jordan, have signed peace treaties. Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria remain closed, and the legal status of Jerusalem and the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights remains unresolved.

Western Sahara has been largely occupied by Morocco since Spain relinquished control in 1975. A ceasefire between Moroccan forces and the pro-independence Polisario movement has been in place since 1991, monitored by a UN peacekeeping force. No peace agreement has been signed, and the US is the only country that recognises Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.

So is this how the war in Ukraine will end? With neither side having won or lost, with Russian forces still occupying swathes of the east of the country as well as Crimea? Not just for the next few months or years, but for decades?

No one can confidently predict that this is what the future holds for Ukraine. But nor can anyone deny that it is a possibility, perhaps even a strong possibility. After all, Russia knows better than most how to exploit smouldering conflicts that serve its purposes.

Conflicts like those in Transnistria, the pro-Moscow breakaway province of Moldova, or South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two Moscow-controlled territories in Georgia.

Would Putin be prepared to accept a frozen conflict in Ukraine? It might serve his purposes well. He would not have to give up his claim that Ukraine is historically part of Greater Russia, and he would retain his all-important access to the Black Sea.

But most important of all, he would hugely complicate Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO and the EU, because neither group is keen to accept as new members countries that are partly under military occupation. (In 2004, the EU made an exception for Cyprus, but it’s an exception that is unlikely to be repeated.) 

For the Ukrainians, of course, the arguments are very different. But one day, perhaps sooner than we think, Kyiv’s Western allies will start asking with greater insistence: how do you see this ending? For how much longer will we have to spend billions of dollars on military assistance to ensure that you are not defeated?

With a US presidential election campaign already looming on the horizon, it’s a question that is bound to be asked ever more insistently. And the Ukrainians know that without US assistance, they will soon be in serious trouble.

So will they, one day, decide that an armistice is the least worst option? Not a negotiated peace, but a negotiated end to military conflict. In all the conflicts I have mentioned, there have been periodic spluttering attempts to move away from no-war to something more permanent. None has worked out.

For now, the view of Ukraine’s Western allies is that it is in our interests as well as Ukraine’s that the reckless Russian military adventure is seen to fail. But that cost-benefit analysis is not immutable.

I’m sure the Ukrainians know that as well as anyone. And I’m equally sure that they have already started reading up on frozen conflicts.