The Ukraine tragedy: Time to grasp at diplomatic straws?

With extremely disturbing rhetoric about nuclear weapons emerging from the Ukraine conflict, it is more important than ever to pursue a diplomatic resolution.  Unfortunately, experts said yesterday morning that diplomacy is losing steam.”  Yet a few straws of hope exist, and they ought to be grasped.  Let’s take a look at them, and also think about how a diplomatic mediation might be led.

Recent events

Yesterday it was announced that the U.S. and Russia agreed to an exchange of persons who had been imprisoned in the respective countries on criminal changes.  For sure, the U.S. State Department emphasized there was no connection with the Ukraine crisis.  A senior Administration official said:

And I want to be very clear:  This is a discrete issue on which we were able to make an arrangement with the Russians.  It represents no change, zero, to our approach to the appalling violence in Ukraine.  Let me just emphasize this again because it’s so important:  The discussions with the Russians that led to this exchange were strictly limited to these topics, not a broader diplomatic conversation or even the start of one.

Still, it does indicate that it is remains possible to make diplomatic deals with the Russians.  As the Washington Post put it, the exchange was a show of continued bilateral engagement despite acute tensions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.”

There is also another very slight hint that diplomacy is possible.  The UN reported yesterday that:

Russia has agreed “in principle” to UN involvement in the evacuation of citizens from the last remaining holdout in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, following a meeting between Secretary-General António Guterres and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.

Although some previous evacuation protection efforts felt far short, I put this latest attempt in the better-than-nothing category; it’s another diplomatic “straw.”

Who could mediate?

It seems clear, however, that a third-party mediator is needed for serious diplomatic progress.  Turkey has tried to play that role, and there is continuing utility to that effort, but it looks like a nation with more leverage over Russia especially is needed.

China could be well positioned to be a mediator, and has offered to do so.  Writing in the Washington Post, on April 8th, Graham Allison and Fred Hu make an energetic argument for China to assume the role pf peace “broker.”  They point out that China has strong economic incentives to end the war, and that brokering a peace could: “improve China’s global standing.”

However, there are serious impediments to China taking the mediator role.  Asia Times reports:

“China’s role in conflict is never an honest broker, because being a broker means it has to have a position on the substance of the compromise.  China does not take a position on that because it inevitably involves angering one or both parties,” said Yun Sun, China program director at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank. 

“China’s role in conflict mediation is facilitator rather than mediatory. It is the convener, facilitator and sometimes, the host and endorser of the agreement,” she added. “But that is categorically different from being a mediator.”

In fact, the South China Morning Post says analysts believe “China will not let itself get dragged into the Russian war on Ukraine by aiding Moscow or playing a big mediating role.”  Still, there are reasons China should want to be involved as a facilitator of some sort, and even that smaller role could help.

What about India?

India might be in a unique position to mediate this conflict.  Sure, India’s ‘neutrality’ regarding the Ukraine conflict has drawn criticism but, as CNN says, India’s complicated relationship with the superpowers makes it possible that India can buy Russian oil, and still be friends with the US.”

Notably, both the Ukraine and Russia appear open to the prospect.  On March 28th the press reported this:

Ukraine on Wednesday exhorted India again to use her influence with Russia to stop the war that is in its second month and cost thousands of lives. Asked if he sees Prime Minister Narendra Modi being the mediator between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelinsky and President Putin, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told NDTV yesterday evening, “If Prime Minister Modi is willing to play that role, we will welcome his efforts”.

Russia seems amenable as well. On April 2nd there was this media report:

Underlining that India has an “independent foreign policy” and is “not under the influence of US”, visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that if India was to play the role of a mediator on the issue of Ukraine, then it can support such a process and no one will be against it.

A longshot?  Yes.  Will everyone be happy with India given its continued purchase of Russian oil?  No.  But in a circumstance where no perfect solution exists, the world’s largest democracy might be the best option.

Concluding thoughts 

There is every reason to be pessimistic about a diplomatic solution any time soon.  In fact, some are saying that Russia is planning for a long war of attrition.  Meanwhile, military and civilian casualties mount on both sides, and more than 11 million Ukrainians have fled their homes

As of this writing (28 April) the UN reports that 2,829 civilians have been killed in the Ukraine, and adds that it “believes that the actual figures are considerably higher, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration.”

Warfighting resources of both sides are being exhausted.  Russia is widely reported as being short of troops, not to mention running out of missiles, jets and tanks.”  David Ignatius wrote this on Tuesday:

The Russian army has been mauled, so far.  The most precise damage assessment I’ve seen comes from Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary.  He said in a speech Monday that 15,000 Russians have been killed, 2,000 armored vehicles destroyed, and 60 helicopters and jet fighters downed. Russia’s massive invasion army of 120 battalions has suffered a 25 percent loss in combat strength, Wallace said.  That’s a body blow.

David Axe said in Forbes recently that “Russia went to war with an army that was too small and under-supplied,” and now the situation is even worse.  Also, sanctions are beginning to impact the Russian economy.  Ignatius closed his essay saying (hopefully?) that the “exit ramp surely must look more attractive to Putin now than it did several months ago.”

Ukraine also has challenges.  Among other things, some experts say it is not clear the U.S. and other NATO members can sustain even the current level of weapons deliveries to Ukraine.  In an article entitled, the Ukraine War Is Depleting America’s Arsenal of Democracy, Professor Hal Brands said:

Pentagon officials say that Kyiv is blowing through a week’s worth of deliveries of antitank munitions every day. It is also running short of usable aircraft as Russian airstrikes and combat losses take their toll. Ammunition has become scarce in Mariupol and other areas.

This is presenting Western countries with a stark choice between pouring more supplies into Ukraine or husbanding finite capabilities they may need for their own defense.

It is not just a shortage of military supplies that is a concern.  Last week Reuters reported Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as insisting “Ukraine needs $7 billion per month to make up for economic losses caused by Russia’s invasion of his country.”

Obviously, strong incentives exist on both sides supporting a move to diplomacy.  Nevertheless, no one should underestimate the difficulty of silencing the guns, but the effort needs to be made, irrespective of the long odds.  We are now in the shadow of a potential nuclear catastrophe. 

In a very much worth reading essay in today’s National Interest, Steve Cimbala and Larry Korb outline how a diplomatic solution could play out.  They don’t take the challenge lightly:

It may appear that diplomacy is a hard sell with respect to the settlement of the war in Ukraine. But the alternative—continued fighting with the possibility of geographical expansion and/or increased lethality—is worse.

Isn’t military history filled with examples of against-the-odds victories?  Let’s acknowledge that grasping at straws can sometimes actually work, and pray it works here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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