Ukraine soldier Ukraine soldier. Photo: Noah Brooks / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked below article

Megaphone diplomacy is not enough, we need to push for peace, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

After Russian troops withdrew from the strategic southern city of Kherson on Friday 11 November, the pace of fighting in Ukraine has slowed. The Ukrainian army had regained just over half of all the territory it had lost in the war, following a counter-offensive started in late summer with major Western support. But, temporarily, at least, a sense of stalemate on the battlefield has returned, as the long-predicted late autumn rains made the fighting terrain much more difficult for offensive movement.

Both Russia and Ukraine appeared exhausted. According to the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, both sides had lost 100,000 dead or wounded. Simultaneously, it was becoming obvious that both Russia and the West were encountering significant problems in continuing their proxy war against each other in Ukraine.

Russia stalls

From the beginning of its invasion, Moscow has faced significant logistical challenges supplying its troops and maintaining morale. As the war proceeded, reports emerged of Russia being increasingly unable to re-equip its army fast enough, and turning to Iran and North Korea for weaponry. This was only going to get worse as the Russian military was forced to bring 300,000 new conscripts into the theatre of war, after its initial invasion force of 170-200,000 was severely depleted.

There have been accounts of soldiers complaining that they did not have basic equipment, like body armour, while stories also swirled on the internet of families being shocked at the high casualty levels as conscripts arrived on the battlefield. It would be unsurprising if Western intelligence reports of the Russian army fortifying defensive positions deep behind the current front lines were untrue in these circumstances. Ever since late summer, the overall momentum has been on the Ukrainian side.

Nevertheless, the Ukrainian counter-offensive has been held up, and differences have emerged in military strategy between Kyiv and Washington. The Ukrainian military high command believes that letting up over the winter would allow the Russian army to re-supply and re-group.

The West stalls too

However, sources from the US suggest that Washington is counselling the resumption of Ukrainian military offensive operations only in the spring. The Western press has become replete with news that Nato weapons arsenals too are greatly depleted, raising the prospect of problems re-supplying the Ukrainian army. Back in the summer, the Ukrainian army was rumoured to be nearly out of ammunition, before Nato stepped in to fuel Ukraine’s subsequent counter-offensive.

Furthermore, over the last month, Russia has relentlessly bombed Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. In part, Moscow is doing so to make it difficult for Kyiv to make military decisions without weighing the costs for the civilian population. The war on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is not just a problem for Kyiv. It also makes the West’s aid to Ukraine more expensive.

With winter setting in, the Western European states confront their own problems on top of subsidising Ukraine. In that sense, the costs of the economic war against Russia have been high for the EU states in a number of ways. Besides the heightened military expenditure, there are costs in terms of maintaining production as well as heating the population.

The cost to European industry could be very high. There has been much speculation over both the immediate impact on, and the future competitiveness of, German industry, as it has to wean itself off cheap Russian energy. According to the IMF First Deputy Managing Director, Gita Gopinath, the ‘winter will be difficult, but the winter of 2023 could be even worse’, as prices of gas are predicted to remain high whatever happens in the Ukraine war.

The cost of subsidies to consumers, too, has been increasingly expensive. France has adopted a price cap on energy prices and other support measures, which are predicted to cost it more than €71 billion or almost 3% of GDP.

Friction between the US and the EU

On top of this, divisions between the US and EU have resurfaced following months of a show of unity over Russia. Anonymous EU officials have begun accusing the US of profiting from the war at the EU’s expense, as the US is able to sell its own, more expensive, gas to needy European countries. Moreover, the recent passing of the $430 billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the US – the so-called ‘climate bill’ – is also causing anger in the EU. French president Emmanuel Macron was probably speaking on behalf of other EU states when he stated that the IRA could economically and politically fracture the West.

The IRA has protectionist features that would effectively exclude a variety of important EU products, like cars, from the US market or even encourage European companies to translocate production to the US to take advantage of various measures under the legislation, such as subsidies or tax breaks. Although the passing of the IRA cannot be reduced to a wartime measure against Russia, it has an obvious impact on pre-existing differences between the US and key EU states like Germany over how to approach Moscow.

The US has traditionally taken a harder line on Russia, so its greater preparedness over the last month to treat with Russian President Vladimir Putin may be a concession to its hard-hit European allies. With important circles in the US wishing to concentrate on competition with a rising China, rather than a declining Russia, concessions to the EU appear to be a wise strategic choice. Nevertheless, the longer the Ukraine war continues, the greater the chances it will deepen US-EU frictions. That in itself is suggestive of the fact that the West’s proxy war with Russia has come with significant costs to the West as well as to Russia.

Megaphone diplomacy

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the sense of momentary military stalemate, as well as the mounting costs of the conflict, outlined above, raised the prospect of a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine war. Just as the Ukrainian army recaptured Kherson, ending Russian hopes in the near-term of being able to mount offensive operations in the south and cut Ukraine off from the sea, news was emerging of a variety of behind-the-scenes talks between US and Russian officials.

So we learned that the CIA chief had met his Russian counterpart in Turkey, to convey a message about the consequences of Russian use of nuclear weapons. The US denied any negotiations on ending the war were in play, but since then we have also witnessed the return of a kind of megaphone diplomacy.

In reality, important signs emerged in the period from late September to early December that the US wanted peace talks. Several top-ranking US officials made a series of leaked or public announcements in which they signalled to Kyiv that it had to look more like it wanted to negotiate. Significantly, the aforementioned US General Milley called for a lesson from the First World War to be learned, since the refusal to negotiate over the winter in 1914 had led to millions more deaths in subsequent years. The US president Joe Biden even said he was prepared to directly negotiate with Putin, if the latter showed signs he was ready to end the war. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu even said in early December that he expected a ‘clear picture’ on a ceasefire by spring.

However, public pronouncements from Moscow and Kyiv have suggested that the two sides are still reluctant to negotiate. While Moscow has set out terms, in which it has said it will talk if the West is prepared to recognise the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories, Kyiv has re-stated its refusal to speak until all Ukrainian territories seized by Russia are liberated. It has also clamped down on the Russian Orthodox Church.

In recent days, both Russia and the West have made clear that we are not yet nearing the endgame. We have seen the intensification of Western sanctions against Russia, with the G7 and Australia recently agreeing to cap the price of Russian oil at $60 per barrel. Similarly, Russian officials have said they see no prospect of imminent peace and have refused to deny there will be further mobilisation.

The need for an anti-war movement

In the last analysis, even though there may have been a lull in the fighting, the continued failure to find a diplomatic solution will only re-start a new cycle of violence in Ukraine. That in turn will worsen the prospects for the world economy.

This is why it is urgently necessary to re-build anti-war movements in both Russia and the West, before the fighting escalates and the costs of the war become even worse for ordinary people across the world. There are some signs of war-weariness in populations both in Russia and the West. According to recent polls conducted by Levada, public support for Russia’s invasion continues to be high, but it is declining and there is also increasing support for peace negotiations. Local opposition groups are raising their voices against the continued mobilisation drive in Russia, opening up prospects of political costs to the Putin regime.

There are increasing problems for the Western ruling classes. One recent example is Italy, where a poll last month showed that 49% oppose sending weapons to Ukraine while only 38% favour it, and 100,000 took to the streets to demand a diplomatic solution to the war. After Italy’s new far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, signed a decree allowing her government to send arms to Ukraine until the end of 2023, further mass protests led by the trade unions and the left took place in early December.

As winter bites, there will be increased popular dissatisfaction everywhere. There will also be a major battle of ideas, as a variety of political forces will try to shape strikes and protests. If the left has played an important role in Italy, the right has so far taken the initiative elsewhere, like in the Czech Republic.

This makes it critically important for the left in all countries to link calls for peace with demands for ordinary people not to pay for the cost-of-living crisis. Otherwise, the ruling class will be able more easily to demand sacrifices in the name of the war effort, and right-wing forces hostile to the labour movement will be able to capitalise on popular discontent.

A recent example in Britain should be a warning to all. The GMB’s effective backing for the country’s re-armament, with a motion to TUC congress in October, did not prevent the Tory chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, from saying that the union’s strikes in the NHS will help Putin.

That’s why we have an interest in linking our struggles against the cost-of-living crisis with calls for a diplomatic end to this war, for Russia out of Ukraine, for an end to Nato’s proxy war with Russia, and for an independent and neutral Ukraine.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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