[Column] Cynicism rears its head in the war in Ukraine

Posted on : 2022-06-27 17:14 KST Modified on : 2022-06-27 17:14 KST
In the space of just over four months, the Ukraine war has turned into an exhausting global conflict that has already left the West feeling increasingly fatigued
A mortar explodes near a road in Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine on May 23. (AFP/Yonhap News)
A mortar explodes near a road in Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine on May 23. (AFP/Yonhap News)
Moon Chung-in
Moon Chung-in

By Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute

“You can count on the brotherhood of Europe.”

This was the remark shared by French President Emmanuel Macron during a recent visit to Ukraine. It echoes other remarks from Western leaders scrambling to promise Ukraine full-scale support.

It’s a clear illustration of how much hostility the international community feels toward Russia’s invasion of the country, and how widespread the support is for Ukraine as it faces this tragedy.

At the same time, there has also been growing cynicism toward this proactive support from the West.

On June 13, I attended a two-day senior-level dialogue in Prague between the EU and Indo-Pacific countries. It was intended as a setting for exploring collaboration between the EU and the Indo-Pacific region in response to issues such as China’s rise and instability in the global economic system — but the focus of the issues was clearly on the war in Ukraine.

Some especially meaningful questions were asked by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who turned 40 this year.

First, he asked whether the West has the means and will to end the war in Ukraine and fully isolate Russia for the sake of peace in Europe. Second, he questioned whether the West could continue providing support for the victory that Ukraine is seeking. Third, he asked whether any effective means exist to prevent the current conventional war from escalating into a nuclear conflict. Fourth, he asked whether it would be possible to prevent “war fatigue” from setting in among Western democracies as the war drags on.

These questions encapsulate the inherent dilemma of the situation in Ukraine. They also show a cynical attitude toward the West’s response.

Since the outbreak of the war, major Western countries have sought to fully isolate Russia, applying an intensive barrage of sanctions and defining the situation in terms of a dichotomy between “democracy” and “authoritarianism.” At the same time, they have faced serious practical constraints.

To begin with, certain major European countries, including Germany and France, are skeptical about fully isolating Russia. Other countries that have long had close relationships with Russia — including Hungary, Serbia, Turkey and Israel — have not agreed with the approach either.

Meanwhile, democratic countries that are geographically distant, such as India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa, have remained more or less neutral. This helps to explain why it has been so difficult to establish a comprehensive anti-Russian front.

Another stumbling block has to do with the ironic effects of weaponizing interdependence. The sanctions have had unintended consequences in the form of inflationary pressures stemming from steep rises in energy and grain prices, along with supply chain strains owing to restrictions on exports of rare inert gases.

Meanwhile, Russia’s currency value and stock indexes have shown signs of recovery, contrary to predictions early on in the war. This boomerang effect from intensive sanctions proves how difficult it is to completely isolate Russia.

Finding common ground on the war’s final outcome is an even taller order. Amid growing popular support for the view that the goal should be “victory” rather than merely a peace agreement, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has declared his intent to reclaim not only the Donbas region but also the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014.

The reality paints a starker picture. The US and other major Western powers have even begun signaling their readiness to accept a swift end to the war with terms that are appropriate to prevent the situation from dragging out.

This is represented by recent remarks from US President Joe Biden, who said the US would provide support up to the point where Ukraine holds an advantage in peace negotiations with Russia, while sounding a negative note on anything more aggressive than that. This suggests that the war is unlikely to play out the way that Kyiv hopes.

The specter of nuclear escalation in particular is a key factor preventing direct military involvement by the US and European countries. The West’s strategic aims can be characterized as ensuring Ukraine’s survival, preserving its territory, and punishing Russia for its act of aggression, while at the same time preventing any nuclear escalation and steering the war to a swift conclusion.

Among these goals, the top priority is preventing nuclear escalation. In other words, sacrificing New York, Paris, London, or Berlin for the sake of Kyiv is not an option. This is a crucial constraint on military activities by the West.

Allowing the war to continue into the long term is not an acceptable option either. In the space of just over four months, the Ukraine war has turned into an exhausting global conflict that has already left the West feeling increasingly fatigued.

In various countries, the public is losing interest at a rapid rate amid inflation and other negative economic impacts. European opinion polls show support for a “peaceful conclusion” to war far outweighing support for keeping the war going in order to punish Russia.

The growing feelings of cynicism and skepticism hint at the limits of the sort of solidarity that the international community has proclaimed with regard to the war in Ukraine. They also translate into a growing likelihood that different countries will make the decision to act according to their own objective cost-benefit calculations.

In the end, all of the players involved will need to return to realism and prioritize a peaceful resolution. History teaches us that wars only truly end through diplomatic compromise.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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