By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro*
Recent days have witnessed yet another shift in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The images on TV of the stiff Russian generals agreeing to withdraw from Kherson in southern Ukraine — because their troops, we were told, had to redeploy tactically to the western side of the Dnipro river — could not mask the deep trouble Russia’s military and political leadership has been in. In other words, their position in Kherson was no longer tenable under the constant counterattacks by better-armed and trained Ukrainian forces.
A few days after those pictures were broadcast came the images of Ukrainian soldiers being hugged and flags being waved in the streets as the people of Kherson savored their freedom after more than eight months of living under occupation.
These two events, which indicate the possibility of a Russian defeat in the way they are being interpreted by many zealous Ukrainians and their allies, could amount to giving them false belief. On the other hand, to see the withdrawal as a strategic ploy by Moscow to redeploy and regroup its troops and freeze the conflict for the winter cannot wash away a strong feeling among many that the tide is maybe turning against the Kremlin’s misadventure.
Regardless of what the real intentions of Moscow are, or what Kyiv is likely to do after Kherson’s liberation, these events should be capitalized on to drive home the need for a road map for peace, or at least the formation of an international contact group to break the diplomatic stalemate between Ukraine and Russia.
Redeployment in military terms is a way of not admitting defeat. And yes, after Russia’s mobilization of more than 300,000 soldiers for the sake of this illegitimate war, one can still see other territories exchanging hands in the coming months. But one thing has surely been lacking and that is the pressing need to orchestrate a peace process to bring an end to a futile conflict and return to Ukraine what it has lost since February. This process should also prepare the ground to put on the table Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the future and the future of its relations with its neighboring big brother. All this while trying to find a suitable formula for Russia, since the war has clearly demonstrated its military limitations.
The UN General Assembly meetings in September failed to present an opportunity for the international community to prepare the ground to press for peace and accommodation.
This week’s G20 Summit also could have created an opportunity to try and find that magic peace formula. If the fallen civilians and soldiers used as cannon fodder in an absurd conflict were not enough, the G20 leaders also have a moral imperative to work for peace, as they well know that ending the conflict is the best remedy for the world economy, which has hardly managed to rebalance itself since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bringing an end to the war should rank higher in importance than dealing with the high fuel and food prices that have been exacerbated by the conflict. China, India and South Africa, which until now have refrained from condemning Russia’s actions, have a big role to play in building a diplomatic process that persuades Moscow it has a critical interest in ending the war.
Vladimir Putin’s absence from the G20 Summit is understandable and is similar to what happened during the summit in Brisbane, Australia, soon after he seized Crimea in 2014, when he left that summit early. This year, the 70-year-old Russian leader chose to skip the summit in Bali altogether. His absence had the immediate effect of showing Russia to be further isolated on the world stage.
Russia, and the world too for that matter, are in dire straits. Moscow has nothing to propose that could satisfy the Ukrainians, while the Ukrainians remain wary of what the Kremlin has in store for their country.
I am not sure where Russia can go from here, other than to apply its strategic patience and wait for the already high energy prices to increase further this winter in the hope that Western nations will budge or forget Ukraine — something we have not seen so far — or maybe for some Western nations to drift toward a leadership that is Moscow-friendly and that will break the consensus against Russia. For example, the new coalition leading Italy includes some Putin apologists.
The Kremlin keeps deluding itself that deepening its ties with countries that have had good relations with Moscow historically, or others that are traditionally apprehensive about US and Western dominance of global affairs, might make Russia look less isolated. Russia’s hopes of grooming old and new allies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East might pay it more dividends than the relationship post-communist Russia enjoyed with the West after the end of the Cold War. But many believe that this demarche would not yield the strong and effective anti-Western coalition that Putin has been hoping for. It seems that even those so-called friendly states that have long been in Moscow’s orbit — such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — have been scrambling for alliances and assurances far from Moscow since the February invasion of Ukraine
Despite its unjustifiable war, however, the world should renew its efforts to bring Moscow back from the brink. That would be good for the Russian people and the sanity of the world order, allowing it the respite needed to deal with its many existential challenges, both economic and environmental.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.