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The world can’t afford a war over Ukraine. Both sides must return to negotiating table

The costs of a prolonged conflict are just too dire, first and foremost in terms of the loss of life and suffering that is already underway in Ukraine. Second, the world is still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, which hurt the poorest countries and people the most.

While there is no justification for the attack, it is important to understand why Vladimir Putin’s Russia is willing to brave severe economic sanctions as well as a military conflict over Ukraine.

The Russian attack on Ukraine is, unarguably, an assault on the latter’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In a 24-hour period, Moscow recognised the “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in East Ukraine and deployed aerial forces into the country. The attacks, reportedly, are taking place on multiple fronts, including airports and military targets. The conflict is now the largest attack by one state on another in Europe since the Second World War and the first since the Balkan conflict in the 1990s. While Beijing has expressed its full-throated support for Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has condemned the invasion, warned of dire “economic and political consequences”, as well as placed aerial and naval assets on high alert. In essence, Ukraine is now on the verge of becoming a theatre of conflict in a new Cold War. But the world has changed in the last 30-odd years, and both sides — the West and Russia — must defuse the situation as soon as possible.

While there is no justification for the attack, it is important to understand why Vladimir Putin’s Russia is willing to brave severe economic sanctions as well as a military conflict over Ukraine. In the years since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia’s position has been somewhat comparable to that of Germany post World War I. Much as with the Treaty of Versailles and Germany, Russia stood diminished without the USSR. Its economy was in shambles, national assets sold and national pride dented. The West, for its part, oversaw the eastward expansion of NATO, and by the mid-2000s Russia under Vladimir Putin began to assert itself once again in its neighbourhood with hostile actions in Georgia, Estonia and Ukraine. NATO’s decision to include Ukraine and Georgia on the shortlist for membership only added to Russia’s insecurities and anxieties — which Putin has often played up for domestic political reasons. The 2014 annexation of Crimea had thus far been Moscow’s boldest act — that crisis, like the current one, was justified by Putin on the grounds of security interests and the rights of ethnic Russians in former Soviet Republics. Now, with the invasion of Ukraine, agreements like the Minsk Protocols of 2014, and the Russia-NATO Act of 1997 stand all but voided.

Unlike during the Cold War, though, the global economy is now deeply integrated. The costs of a prolonged conflict are just too dire, first and foremost in terms of the loss of life and suffering that is already underway in Ukraine. Second, the world is still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, which hurt the poorest countries and people the most. It can ill-afford a conflict-induced slowdown. It is incumbent on Russia to implement a ceasefire and, subsequently, for both sides to return to the negotiating table. Escalation is not an option.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on February 25, 2022 under the title ‘De-escalate’.

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First published on: 25-02-2022 at 03:43:01 am
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