World War III?

Published May 29, 2024
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

THE president of Ukraine has lately devoted a great deal of his energy to soliciting international attendance at a supposed peace conference scheduled to be held in Switzerland in mid-June. He is particularly keen on the participation of Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. Vladimir Putin has not been invited.

Kyiv’s idea is to persuade the Global South to ditch its purported neutrality and help persuade Moscow to end the war it launched more than two years ago. Convincing China to reassess its alignment with Russia would be the biggest prize, but that is almost certainly out of reach for now — the same could probably be said about the bulk of nations economically (or politically) reliant on China or Russia.

Thanks largely to China and India, among others, as well as a stepped-up military industry, the Russian economy has not tanked because of Western sanctions: earlier this year, the IMF predicted a 3.2 per cent growth rate, higher than what lies in store for Britain, France and Germany. What’s more, many of the Western imports coveted by the Russian elite that helps to sustain Putin flow in via Dubai and other such entrepôts. It is unlikely that recent Western initiatives to deploy frozen Russian assets in the aid of Ukraine will make much difference.

Nor can a peace conference that excludes Russia produce a meaningful result. Putin would not anyhow have accepted an invitation without an embarrassing Swiss assurance of immunity for the duration of the conference, given the International Criminal Court’s warrant against him from last year for the war crime of transferring Ukrainian children to Russia. It could even be argued that he has committed far worse crimes both within Russia and on its periphery. What stands out, however, is the Western hypocrisy in hailing Putin’s indictment while placing Benjamin Netanyahu — whose regime has slaughtered children, rather than transporting them to Israel — on a pedestal of impunity, and hence immunity in the face of an ICC warrant.

Ukraine remains the key global tinderbox.

It would appear that the Western-designed ‘rule of law’ applies chiefly to Russia and China. The US and its close allies are exempt from this much-ballyhooed standard of civilisation. A vengeful killing spree by Israel apparently does not violate those norms. An International Court of Justice injunction against deadly operations in Rafah cannot be supported, even though it echoes similar suggestions by the US and many of its allies — perhaps because they had factored in the unlikelihood of the Netanyahu administration heeding their pleas.

Were the West so inclined, switching off military supplies to Israel would help to stem the hostilities in Gaza and the West Bank. Ukraine is a far trickier proposition. For all its foibles, Kyiv isn’t the aggressor. Russia’s historical paranoia about influence, infiltration or aggression from the West, even when combined with EU and US efforts to woo Kyiv, cannot even begin to justify its military assault and the subsequent war of attrition.

Fortuitously, the attempted invasion initially went badly for Russia, but lately the tide appears to have turned — to the extent that the US and Nato are considering openly deploying ‘military trainers’ within Ukraine, and Washington is debating whether to allow US-supplied weapons to target Russian territory. That seems like a potent recipe for facilitating a third world war, regardless of who lobs the first missile.

Putin has lately purged his defence hierarchy, ostensibly on grounds of corruption (and incompetence). Volodymyr Zelensky has done the same now and then, recently purg­ing his personal bodyguard amid suspicions of a plot to assassinate him as a gift to Putin on the eve of the latter’s umpteenth inauguration as president. Such indications serve as a reminder that both countries have much in common, beyond the historical connections absurdly exaggerated by Putin and crudely under-emphasised by Kyiv’s rulers.

There have been indications that some territorial concessions — Crimea and the Donbas region, for instance — would quench Putin’s thirst for expansion. Back when the Soviet Union was intact, which region belonged to which constituent republic did not matter much. Potential geographical disputes ought to have been settled before the USSR split up in 1991, but the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian architects of its demise were in too much of a hurry to worry about such niceties.

Among others, Xi Jinping and Pope Francis both reckon that reasonable territorial concessions would be an acceptable price to pay for peace. Reports suggest that Donald Trump — once and, appallingly, possibly the future US president — does not disagree. Zelensky and most other Ukrainians would understandably question the idea of rewarding aggression. But is there a feasible alternative for ensuring more Ukrainians don’t perish?

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2024

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