Peacekeepers in southeastern Ukraine are suddenly back on the global policy agenda, and Asia now has its first major opportunity of this century to rescue Europe from itself – and, by extension, to save the world entire.
The recent announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS summit in Xiamen to the effect that Russia was in principle open to a peacekeeping force in the Donbass comes over two years after the Ukrainian government first announced its own interest in a peacekeeping force. The Asian setting for the Russian announcement should not be lost on observers.
If the Russian peacekeeping proposal, driven probably by the economic urgency of removing Western sanctions and the political need to “solve” the Ukrainian crisis before the 2018 World Cup and presidential election, comes some two years too late, it remains as true today as it was in 2014 that the continuing bloodshed in the Donbass cannot be staunched without an interposition force to separate the warring sides. Whether one calls this war, in which well over 10,000 people have died and which still holds hostage the future of the European continent, a civil war or a proxy war (or both), the fighting continues because the Minsk ceasefire regime has not been able to overcome the basic “security dilemma” driving the belligerents. This “security dilemma” means that, in the absence of trust between the warring sides (and there is no trust at all), every withdrawal by one side is perceived by the other as an opportunity to advance. In “game theory”, if the game (the war) is viewed as indefinite, then a ceasefire can be seen by all sides only as a window to regroup and rearm before the next round of fighting.
A United Nations peacekeeping force – professional, legitimate, with the right composition and mandate – is the only way to convince all warring sides that the game (the war) is definitively over. Of course, “ending” the bloodshed is not enough on its own to meet the larger interests and needs of Russia, Ukraine and key Western countries, and so a UN force must be packaged within a larger strategic agreement that has economic, political and military dimensions.
What should be the composition of the UN peacekeeping force? It cannot be made up of soldiers from Nato countries, as this would be opposed categorically by Russia. It cannot, equally, be made up of soldiers from the countries of the former Soviet space (today’s Collective Security Treaty Organisation), as this would be opposed by Ukraine. This leaves Asia as the lone continent able to supply peacekeeping troops that would be respected by, and acceptable to, both the Russians and the Ukrainians.
Which countries in Asia? Answer: Likely India. Perhaps Indonesia. Chinese participation is not to be excluded. What is critical is that both Moscow and Kiev see the peacekeepers as neutral and professional. In the case of India, in particular, there is conspicuous historical sympathy among both Russians and Ukrainians for the Indians, many of whom were educated in the engineering and science faculties of the former Soviet Union.
What should be the mandate of this Asian-led UN peacekeeping force? If the starting Russian position, as articulated at Xiamen – that is, that it should be limited to protecting OSCE observers in the Donbass – was manifestly too narrow, then Ukraine, the EU and the US should treat this as a starting position in a negotiation that expands the mandate to something that categorically ends the bloodshed – to wit, an interposition force along the ceasefire line, as well as along the Ukrainian-Russian border.
To be clear, the roots of the peacekeeping idea in general, and for Asian peacekeepers in particular, come directly from the strictly neutral Track 1.5 work we at the Institute for 21st Century Questions have been leading in key capitals on three continents over the last three and a half years, starting in the days and weeks immediately following the Ukrainian revolution, the Crimean annexation and the start of the Donbass war in 2014, to find and drive winning algorithms to solve this major international conflict in its many dimensions.
If the Ukrainians could perhaps live with peacekeepers alone, the Russians would not accept any broadened peacekeeping mandate without a broader set of conditions being met. While it may be too late (but perhaps not impossible), given the increasingly precarious political situation inside Ukraine, to include conditions relating to non-Nato membership for Ukraine or even significant constitutional concessions from Kiev within a broader (global) deal, Russia would certainly expect, in exchange for agreeing to peacekeepers, considerable sanctions relief relating to its activities in, and support for, the separatist campaign in the Donbass.
While Europe may be able to deliver on partial sanctions relief in relation to Donbass (not Crimea), the US, politically unpredictable and preoccupied by any Russian connection to the 2016 presidential election, is unlikely to be able to deliver any meaningful sanctions relief for the foreseeable future.
Back to Asia, and perhaps with China now clearly in the lead. A critical, underappreciated part of any global deal to stop the fighting in, and more generally to stabilise, southeastern Ukraine, and indeed Ukraine as a whole, must be a very large economic package that seeks, first, to rebuild the territories of southeastern Ukraine ravaged by war; and second, to resuscitate the near-bankrupt overall Ukrainian economy, including by reformatting it as an economic bridge between Europe and Russia (and why not with Asia also?). This economic restructuring or re-engineering can be funded principally by China, and perhaps by the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in particular, with subordinate support coming from Europe and Russia (although Russia today enjoys very little liquidity).
Importantly, China can bring its proven expertise in 21st century infrastructure to bear on a country that, in spite of having a highly educated and cultured population, has fallen severely behind in building itself up for the challenges of the day.
What Asia brings to the table in solving this conflict is new “energy” (in the figurative, human sense). Ukraine and Russia have both grown exhausted from the fighting and from the radicalisation resulting from war. For its part, despite the diplomatic heroism of France and Germany, Europe has run out of solutions and imagination. The continent remains vulnerable to any resurgence in or expansion of the Donbass conflict – something that could well occur should one or both of Ukraine or Russia become internally destabilised (and domestic collapse, political or economic, is not to be excluded in either country in the not too distant future). And any expanded conflict would, to be sure, quickly envelope the Asian continent – economically and, before long, militarily. It is a catastrophe to be avoided at all costs.
Finally, for Asia, and perhaps for China in particular, there should be an especially satisfying irony in the prospect of coming to the rescue of the West (and of the former Soviet space to boot) for the first time since the end of the cold war. Such a rescue might prove once and for all that, between Gorbachev and Reagan, the real winner of the cold war was none other than Deng Xiaoping.