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Conflict does nobody, except US, any good

By Zhao Huirong | China Daily | Updated: 2023-02-20 07:41
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A local resident walks on an empty street in the front line city of Bakhmut, Ukraine February 19, 2023. [Phogo/Agencies]

With the Russia-Ukraine conflict about to enter its second year, it's time to take a fresh look at geopolitics in the Eurasian region. When Russia commenced its "special military operation", it underestimated Ukraine's determination and capability to fight, as well as the degree of Western involvement in the conflict.

The failure of the Russian troops to achieve their goals forced them to withdraw from northern Ukraine and shift their focus on key targets. Amid all this, the two sides held five rounds of negotiations.

The two sides have been engaged in a tug-of-war and positional warfare in eastern and southeastern Ukraine. Ukraine has carried out counterattacks against Russian troops as Western countries have increased support for the country.

The two sides are unable to negotiate due to mutual distrust and hatred, yet both are confident of eventually achieving victory, and are making plans to continue the conflict.

The conflict has been dragging on because it is not only a confrontation between Ukraine and Russia over some territory, but also a showdown between Russia, which is seeking regional dominance, and the United States, which is pursuing global hegemony. Basically, the conflict is a zero-sum game.

After 2014, Ukraine integrated two issues: joining the Western camp and "gaining true independence from Moscow". On its part, Russia considers Ukraine's choice as a threat to its security and a challenge to its dominance in the Eurasia region. That's why Russia chose to conduct the special military operation in Ukraine to stop NATO's eastward expansion and deter other Eurasian countries from following Ukraine's example.

Although Kyiv's decision is influenced by Washington and its army relies on Western support, the West refuses to get directly involved in the conflict. Instead, the Western countries have been providing "slow but steady" material and strategic support for Ukraine in the shape of advanced arms, ammunition and military equipment to fight Russia, because they believe this is the best way to weaken Russia.

The US believes that only sustained strangulation (military confrontation, economic sanctions and political isolation) can reduce Russia's national strength, allowing it to lay its hand on the country's abundant resources. And since Putin's administration is still stable, the US has been doing everything it can to prolong the conflict in order to weaken Russia.

US President Joe Biden signed the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022, indicating Washington's intention of providing long-term military aid for Kyiv, while the European Union's preference for protecting its security and political interests has prompted it to follow the US' strategy.

The conflict is likely to intensify in the short term with the Western countries providing more and more advanced weapons to Ukraine and imposing more sanctions on Russia and Belarus, which is supporting Russia politically and strategically. And with NATO's involvement in the conflict likely to deepen, Eastern European will become increasingly militarized.

In the medium term, Russia and Ukraine will be engaged in a battle of attrition, because negotiations will not yield concrete results as long as the two parties don't change their rigid stances.

And in the long term, the conflict will end only when one side suffers massive losses, runs out of combat power or there is a political upheaval in Russia. And although a cease-fire agreement may be reached at that time, it cannot resolve the territorial issues.

The spillover effects of the conflict have intensified bloc confrontation, worsened the international security situation, exacerbated the arms race, and triggered price hikes and inflation, slowing down global economic growth and causing food and energy crises in many parts of the world. The conflict has reshaped the Western political landscape, too.

The US wants to prolong the conflict, because that will allow it to consolidate its hold over the EU and strengthen the NATO alliance, while reaping huge profits from energy and arms sales.

The US considers China the most important geopolitical challenge and Russia a direct and constant threat to European security, and aims to counter both countries and create a chasm between China and the EU by linking issues associated with China and Russia with the conflict. But the US' hegemonic actions will face growing opposition from its allies and partners in the long run.

The conflict has led to unprecedented political cohesion among European countries which, following US-like policies, have accelerated the trend of militarization. For example, Germany changed its pacifist foreign policy and greatly increased its defense budget, while Sweden and Finland have applied to join NATO, which Russia sees as another provocative move.

The EU is facing high inflation and a severe energy crisis by banning imports of Russian oil and natural gas. Despite that, the EU prefers to follow in the US' footsteps rather than taking steps to meet the energy and food shortages, which EU citizens want.

Besides, Russia's weakening influence in Eurasia has reshaped the regional landscape. For example, while the Russia-Belarus alliance has strengthened, Ukraine and Moldova have been listed as EU candidate countries, and Georgia as a potential candidate country. And with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan promoting unity among Central Asian countries, the geopolitical game in Eurasia is becoming more complicated.

The future of Eurasia will largely depend on the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But the fact that the Russian economy shrank by less than 3 percent in 2022, much less than initially forecast, means it is more resilient than expected and Moscow can afford to intensify the conflict in the short term.

However, Russia's development environment will continue to deteriorate in the long run, and the structural transformation of its economy will be delayed, with its weakened economy leading to increasing uncertainties.

On the other hand, the conflict has consolidated Zelensky's political position and accelerated the accession of Ukraine into the EU, although the country lost some of its territory and its GDP shrunk by one-third in 2022, while more than 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country, making its reconstruction very difficult in the short term.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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