Spare the Ukrainian people more pain

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Now at least is the time for Ukraine to sign an armistice with Russia that would end the deaths and agony of many millions more Ukrainians, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat

Habits are hard to break, and amongst the most difficult has been the hangover caused by Cold War I between the West and the Soviet Union in the US and the UK. As a consequence, even after the fall of the Soviet Union by the close of 1991, the successor state has been viewed through much the same prism as the USSR was in the past.

Those who were “experts” on the USSR in the past, as well as others in the West who lived through the Cold War 1.0 days, have overwhelmingly been unwilling to adjust their thinking where the Russian Federation of is concerned. That country continues to be regarded as the principal adversary of the West, when that distinction has belonged since the 2010s to a country much bigger in economic size than Russia, which is China.

From the 1970s, and continuing even after Cold War I ended in 1991, China continued to be seen as a friend, indeed an ally. As late as 2024, several experts on the USSR who were transformed into authorities on the Russian Federation in 1992 continued to claim that Xi could be persuaded to “make Putin see sense”. By “seeing sense” is meant a surrender to Ukraine by the Kremlin, with the Russian army withdrawing from the eastern parts and southern parts of Ukraine.

These regions are overwhelmingly pro-Russia, and such a troop withdrawal would allow those regions to be overrun and occupied by Russophobes from the west of Ukraine. Given their experience at the hands of such individuals since 2014, it ought to have occasioned no surprise that over 90% of the populations of these regions voted in favour of being incorporated in Russia in 2022 rather than continue to remain part of Ukraine. The Russia-friendly citizens still present in other parts of Ukraine have learnt to keep such views to themselves, in order to avoid being jailed as “Russian agents”.

In effect, it is a crime to have feelings other than hatred for Russia in post-2014 Ukraine. That was when a pro-Russian President elected by the Ukrainian people, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted through mass mobilisation of Russophobic Ukrainians and consequent street violence. Not that such feelings were absent in the past. During World War II, tens of thousands of Ukrainians assisted the Nazis in rounding up partisans fighting the invaders, a legacy of affinity to the tenets of Nazism that persists to this day.

It was ironic that Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected President of Ukraine in 2019 with electoral backing from Russian-speaking Ukrainians, the very group that proclaimed their autonomy in 2014. The reason why they did so was because soon after his victory, Zelenskyy ignored the peace and harmony plank on which the former comedian won the right to be the occupant of the Mariinsky Palace in Kiev. Instead, he pivoted to Russophobic groups, perhaps because these had become much closer to western countries than Russian-speaking Ukrainians were.

Not that there is much difference between the Russian and Ukrainian languages. Or that in the past there was no difference in matters of ritual between the Ukrainian and the Russian Orthodox churches. The schism between the two developed after the 2014 ouster of Yanukovych. Among the claims made by the Soviet (sorry, Russia) experts in the US in particular is that once the country “takes over the whole of Ukraine, Russia would march into the rest of Europe”.

In fact, from the start of the war he ignited in 2022, what Putin sought was to retain control from repeated NATO-assisted attempts at takeover by the Ukrainian military of the two Russian-speaking, Russia-friendly provinces and the Crimea. He has since secured a land bridge to Crimea, formally annexed Donetsk and Lugansk and is closing in on control up to the western peripheries of Donetsk and Lugansk. The defeat of the Ukrainian side is sought to be explained as a victory by NATO “because Putin wanted to first get control of Kiev within three days of starting the war, and thereafter ensure that his armies take over all of Ukraine”. It is as though President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 was presented not as a surrender to the Taliban but as a military triumph because it “ensured that the Taliban was not able to roll across the border and take over the Pashtun-speaking territories of Pakistan as it had wanted”.

Such a plan of action would have come as news to the Taliban as its militia retook control of Afghanistan in 2021. There is no doubt that several Taliban cadres want to unify the Pashtun lands in both Pakistan and Afghanistan under themselves. Rather than block or even discourage such an initiative, the US withdrawal only boosted the confidence of several in that militia that “when we the Taliban could defeat US forces, we can defeat the Pakistan army as well”.

Similarly, the risk of an expansion of the war into other parts of Ukraine is rising and not falling, the more the war between Ukraine and Russia gets prolonged. When defeat gets passed off as a victory through ascribing imaginary objectives to the enemy, the motive is to build a narrative that is far from accurate.

As a consequence of such a false narrative, the expectation among the political parties in control of countries within NATO is probably that their populations would not express dismay at the vast amounts of money that have been expended by their governments in Ukraine since 2022. It may be added that it was not merely undiplomatic but in bad taste for the Ukrainian side to complain that only Vice-President Harris and not President Biden came for the Geneva “peace conference” held in what is no longer a neutral country, Switzerland. In the warrant of protocol, Harris is the second most important official in the US, not just some lowly functionary.

Ukrainian youngsters barely out of their teens are being cursorily armed and sent to the frontline to battle Russian soldiers. Most go under coercion, and this gets reflected in their battlefield performance. Now at least is the time for Ukraine to sign an armistice with Russia that would end the deaths and agony of many millions more Ukrainians. For their sakes, President Zelenskyy needs to end the war and declare elections.

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