Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf  |  01 March, 2023


Image: ambrozinio/Shutterstock

In the Ukraine war, both sides are escalating verbally and militarily. To achieve what? To de-escalate, win or freeze the war, create a strong position for negotiations? When is the time ripe for negotiations and are there proven conflict resolution patterns that are relevant for an end to the war?

The Ukraine war continues unabated. There is no end in sight. The Russian attack and Ukrainian defence have now turned into a war of attrition. Only extremely small territories in eastern Ukraine are currently being conquered or regained. In the Western European media, a picture is usually painted in black and white: anyone who is not in favour of arms deliveries to Ukraine and calls for negotiations is quickly labelled as Putin sympathiser. However, reality is much more complex and, despite the need to repeatedly point out who is the perpetrator (Russia) and who is the victim (Ukraine), it takes more than relying exclusively on a military decision in one's own favour.

The current strategy on both sides can be described as an escalation with the hope of a military victory, or as escalating to perhaps de-escalate at some point. Russia's leadership escalated repeatedly with reference to the possible use of nuclear weapons. Ukraine's supporters are responding with more pledges to deliver more effective weapons and tighten sanctions. The intention is to signal to the enemy the willingness not to give up the goal of a military victory under any circumstances. In this confrontation, it is significant that Russia and the West are fighting not only for victory in Ukraine, but also for the future of international relations on a global scale. Another motivation for a negotiated resolution ought to be the realization that both Russia and NATO have suffered reputational setbacks the longer the conflict has dragged on, as argued by the distinguished Singaporean diplomat-scholar Kishore Mahbubani.

This escalation mechanism is based – implicitly – on the concept of retaining control over the further course of events at every stage of escalation, as formulated by escalation theorists in the 1950s. An extremely problematic assumption.

Russia's threat with nuclear weapons recalls Thomas Schelling's game theory, published in 1960. To illustrate the deterrence scenarios with nuclear weapons at the time, he described the dangerous habit of young American men speeding with their cars from opposite direction, each at high speed to test who will be the first to chicken out to avoid the crash. Schelling concluded that the driver who most credibly drove his deadly race, threw his steering wheel out of the window to signal to his counterpart that he now has no more control of his car.

What is the alternative to this race on the brink? Negotiations now? At present, neither side is prepared to engage in serious negotiations. If there was a basis for serious negotiations, the Russian aggression would not have occurred in the first place. Günther Baechler, a former Swiss diplomat who has worked as a mediator in many conflicts (Nepal, Sudan, Cameroon and for the OSCE in the South Caucasus), rightly points out the time factor. Similarly, to William Zartman, who speaks of the "ripeness" of a conflict as a prerequisite for the success of negotiations. Baechler writes: "… as long as the fighting does not lead to an endless war of attrition that undermines the power of the leadership and fragments their own political-military system, credible negotiations will have little chance.”  The depressing conclusion is that this situation does not exist today either in Russia or Ukraine.

To assess how this war may continue and when it can possibly be ended, it is worth looking at previous conflicts. Of course, every conflict is different, and the respective conditions also vary. Nonetheless, conflict patterns do exist and also patterns of conflict resolution that could give clues to the future of Ukraine. Sergey Radchenko, a historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in the USA, recently pointed out parallels to the Korean War in a guest essay in the New York Times. This war never ended. Almost exactly 70 years ago, in July 1953, a cease-fire agreement and the establishment of a demilitarized zone led to the freezing of this war and the division of Korea into two separate states.

Of course, Korea in the early 1950s is not the same as today's situation in Ukraine. But the parallels between the Korean and Ukrainian wars do not bode well for today's conflict. It is interesting to note that some of the actors at that time are still major players in Ukraine today: the Soviet Union and China on the side of the communist North and the USA and allies, mandated by the UN, on the side of the South. The Korean War swung back and forth from 1950 to 1953. As is now the case in Ukraine, neither the North nor the South, nor their respective supporters, were prepared to end the war quickly because of hopes of a military victory. Initially, the North occupied large parts of the South, including the capital Seoul. Due to the intervention of US troops, the North was pushed back, and the US troops occupied parts of the North. The use of Chinese “People`s volunteer units" and support from Stalin's Soviet Union threw these troops of the South and the USA back to the 38th parallel.

From mid-1951 onwards, neither side was able to achieve significant military gains. The war was deadlocked. Nevertheless, fierce fighting took place. The USA bombed the infrastructure in the North, supply lines were destroyed, heavy artillery duels left behind serious damage and by the end of the war it was estimated that between 3 and 4.5 million had died, civilians and soldiers. It was a costly trench warfare.

Although it was clear after the first year that a military victory was not possible for either side, negotiations lasted two years until a cease-fire. After Stalin's death in March 1953, the new Soviet leadership concluded that a military victory was not possible. The cease-fire agreement of 27 July 1953 established the status quo ante, with the division of the country at the 38th parallel. Korea remains a frozen conflict to this day. A peace treaty was never concluded and the so-called demilitarized zone at the border of the two states is one of the most heavily armed borders in the world.

The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission for the cease-fire in Korea, which was set up at that time, consisted of soldiers from so-called neutral states (countries that had not participated in the war with soldiers): for the North these were Poland and Czechoslovakia and for the South Sweden and Switzerland. During these 70 years since the cease-fire agreement and despite the existence of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, there have been numerous military skirmishes on the border. The North Korean nuclear weapons program is a threat, just as the North describes the South Korean military with its ally the USA as a threat. Precisely for this reason, it is remarkable that this agreement has prevented a costly new war for seven decades.

Neutral states could also play an important role in ending the Ukraine war: India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, for example. Sergey Radchenko draws an interesting and at the same time depressing conclusion for the Ukraine war from the experience in Korea: "Yet if neither side makes significant gains in the coming months, the conflict could well be heading for a cease-fire. The Ukrainians, though perhaps not fully recovering their territories, will have fended off an aggressive foe. The Russians, for their part, can disguise their strategic defeat as a tactical victory. The conflict will be frozen, a far-from-ideal result." Although a frozen conflict is better than a hot war, the history of frozen conflicts, for example in the Caucasus, shows that they can turn into hot wars again at any time.

Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.