Strategic Competition vs. Ending the War in Ukraine

May 22, 2023

Soon after the Russian onslaught against Ukraine, most observers agreed that the conflict would gradually become a protracted war. In other words, the fighting would lose intensity, and perhaps ceasefires would be declared, only to be followed by allegations of their violation. As NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said, it is absolutely possible that this war will drag on for months and years.

And just over a year ago, “Time is not on Ukraine’s side,” General Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said in closed-door comments to the group of reporters traveling with him. “The next two, three, four weeks will shape the overall outcome of this fight,” he added. At the time I thought that his comments must reflect an assessment of the military situation as well as the pressure building on President Putin to declare a “successful end to the special military operation”. None of that has happened so far. Neither has the spring offensive of Ukraine begun.

The US now says it will allow its Western allies to supply Ukraine with advanced fighter jets, including American-made F-16s. Linked to this development, the G7 Leaders’ Statement on Ukraine once again said that Russia’s irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, undermining of arms control regimes, and stated intent to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus are dangerous and unacceptable.

In an interview with Tagesspiegel on January 29, Chancellor Scholz had reacted to the Ukrainian demand for fighter aircraft. He had said his focus was on the delivery of German-made Leopard 2 tanks. And this was what the BBC reported about the interview at the time:

“The fact we’ve only just made a decision [on sending tanks] and the next debate is firing up in Germany, that just seems frivolous”, he said.

Last Saturday a Washington Post article on the supply of F-16s to Ukraine was, “Bowing to pressure, Biden relents on F-16s to Ukraine”. [i] Pressure from Kyiv?

At present, with Russia somewhat on the diplomatic sidelines, strategic competition between China and the US appears to have overtaken endeavors to bring at least a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine and Kyiv’s Western allies as well, since the conflict can longer be defined simply as the “Russia-Ukraine war”.

Since the Russian invasion, US diplomacy has been engaged in an intensive diplomatic combined effort to isolate Russia and also draw attention to the dangers of China’s growing economic and military power and its “assertiveness”.

Thus, on February 28, Secretary Blinken and the Ministers of Foreign Affairs from the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Republic of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the Republic of Uzbekistan met in Astana, Kazakhstan under the auspices of the C5+1 regional diplomatic platform. As the US State Department website says, “Since its inception in 2015, the C5+1 platform has increased U.S.-Central Asia dialogue and cooperation through engagement at the Ministerial level, through experts’ meetings, and through thematic working groups.”

On political and security issues, all the Joint Statement on the C5+1 Ministerial said was: “U.S. Secretary of State Blinken emphasized the United States’ solidarity with the peoples and governments of Central Asia.  The Governments acknowledged that a peaceful and prosperous Central Asia requires a sustained commitment to the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries through upholding the UN Charter and its principles.There were also some references to diplomatic engagement, counterterrorism, the importance of maintaining peace and security, as well as resolving disputes through diplomatic means and economic cooperation.

With the invasion of Ukraine still continuing with no end in sight, Central Asian states cannot risk their relationship with Russia. And they know that if someday Moscow were to threaten them, the West would go no further than condemning it. Because Central Asia is not Europe. Radio Free Europe said this was Mr. Blinken’s first visit to “a region that is roiled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but still loyal to Moscow.” I believe nothing could be further away from the truth than the word “loyal” in defining the relations between Russia and the Central Asian countries.

At their meeting on May 19, 2023, in Hiroshima, the Leaders of the G7, reaffirmed their commitment to stand together against Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. Whether their bombast would attract world attention and make a difference is another matter. Australia, Brazil, Comoros, Cook Islands, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Vietnam were also invited to Hiroshima. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stressed the importance of reaching out to developing countries in the Global South and US allies and partners. It is worth remembering that speaking at the Globsec 2022 forum in Slovakia, India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, responding to a question on India’s official position on the Ukraine conflict, said, “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.” This perception is indeed the second most important obstacle, the first being the West’s colonial/imperialistic past, to the countries of the Global South rallying behind the West against Russia and China.

To complement the US efforts to win over the Global South, President Zelensky attended the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia last Friday. He criticized some in the region for “turning a blind eye” to Russia’s war, but also thanked Saudi Arabia and others for their support. He must know who the boss was at that meeting.

The Ukrainian President then joined the G7 leaders in Hiroshima where he met not only with Western leaders but the guests from the Global South. The 40-page long G7 Hiroshima Leaders’ Communiqué addresses many global issues but looking at their different approaches to dealing with some top international issues, to what extent the G7 countries themselves are united on everything said in the Communiqué remains a question.[ii] And it is no secret that the guest countries invited to the summit hold different views on a range of issues including the path to peace in Ukraine.

As if in response to the C5+1 meeting in Astana, and the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, President Xi Jinping invited the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to the central Chinese city of Xi’an for a summit that began last Thursday.

On May 19, the official website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a document titled “President Xi Jinping and the Presidents of the Five Central Asian Countries Jointly Meet the Press”.[iii]  It said:

“Xi stressed that facing profound changes unseen in a century and bearing in mind the fundamental interests and bright future of our peoples, the six countries are determined to work together to rise up to challenges, foster a closer China-Central Asia community with a shared future, and contribute to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”

It also referred to the six countries’ core interests such as sovereignty, independence, security, and territorial integrity, resolutely combating all forms of terrorism, separatism, and extremism, continuing help to the Afghan people, and working together to build a Central Asia that features no conflict and enduring peace.

They also said, “The six countries will abide by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, firmly uphold multilateralism and the universally recognized international law and norms governing international relations, safeguard international fairness and justice, and make the international order and global governance system fairer and more equitable…”

And much was said about economic cooperation and cultural exchanges. In brief, a lot more was declared in the “Joint Meeting with the Press” than in the G5+1 Joint Statement. Because the Central Asian countries need a counterbalance against Russia and that power is China, not the West. But both sides underlined their attachment to fundamental principles of international relations.

In a speech, at the Arab League summit last Friday, President Assad insisted that Syria would always belong to the Arab world. But other countries should not interfere with what happens inside its borders.

“It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage them,” he said.

The 7,644-kilometer Kazakhstan–Russia border is the second longest international border in the world after the Canada–US border. Except for Kazakhstan, none of the other four Central Asian countries share land borders with Russia. But Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan share land borders with China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

China, like Russia, is an authoritarian state. But it does not have a colonial past. It fought two opium wars against the British and the French. It suffered what it calls a “century of humiliation”.

The Second World War was the single most wrenching event in modern Chinese history. The conflict is often termed the Second Sino-Japanese War and is known in China as the War of Resistance to Japan. There are arguments that the conflict began with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, but between 1937 and 1945, China and Japan were at total war. When Japan was finally defeated in 1945, China was on the winning side, but lay devastated, having suffered some 15 million deaths, massive destruction of industrial infrastructure and agricultural production, and the shattering of the tentative modernization begun by the Nationalist government. [iv] Those accusing China of “coercion” need to remember the past.

Interestingly, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called China the “biggest challenge of our age” at the G7 meeting. He also said China’s behavior is increasingly “authoritarian” at home and “assertive” abroad. His words underline the reality the UK exited the EU and is once again on the way to becoming Washington’s principal Western partner.

After World War II, the Russian and the Chinese peoples suffered the cruelties of Stalin and Mao Zedong, until Khrushchev and Deng Xiaoping took the helm in Moscow and Beijing.

During the past two decades, the US fought its longest war in Afghanistan, invaded Iraq, encouraged Georgia to challenge Russia, and took part in Arab Spring interventions. All proved failures. The Taliban are back. Iraq is unstable if not in turmoil. Parts of Georgia are gone. In the meantime, China focused on its economic development. It built economic bridgeheads across the world, becoming the world’s top trading nation. It avoided getting involved in international disputes, and Arab Spring adventures. US officials have continuously referred to its aggressive policies, but Peking has not allowed regional questions to turn into crises. It has not resorted to force. Moreover, Beijing advocates multilateralism and seems to grasp the international appeal of peace-making. Provoking China on Taiwan is a dangerous game. Because if the worse were to happen, the world would not see it from the same perspective as Ukraine.

As Ambassador Chas Freeman has noted, “Unlike the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China has neither attempted nor threatened to conquer its neighbors. China’s political-economic influence is beginning to eclipse our own. We have dressed this up as a military problem.” [v]

I wrote in a recent post, the West has so far shown unity against Russia, but whether it would display the same solidarity in a standoff or confrontation with China, declared a “strategic competitor” by NATO, begs the question. In such a case, I added, the Global South is more than likely to sit on the fence and once again call for peace, but probably would identify more with Beijing than the West. Because China does not have a colonial past and has not engaged in regime change projects.

Perhaps, the phrase “the West versus the Rest” is a deliberate overstatement to underline a certain message, since “the Rest” does not approve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but wants to see this increasingly cruel war end sooner than later.

All in all, the Astana, Xi’an, and the Hiroshima communiqués referred to the same principles of international law, the UN Charter, and “shared” standards of international behavior, but as usual, words and deeds do not match.

In the meantime, Türkiye cut off from the world is getting ready for the runoff presidential election to determine its future. Perhaps some in Türkiye could also be looking at the promise of F-16s to Ukraine and thinking of what is to happen with the supply of software it has long sought to upgrade its F-16 fighter jets.








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