Ukraine and the shadow of Korea


For some conservatives, every foreign policy crisis is “Munich”. For some leftwingers, every war threatens to turn into “Vietnam”.

But as the Ukraine war moves inexorably into a second year of conflict, a less commonplace analogy is doing the rounds — Korea.

The point of the comparison is that the Korean war never formally ended. It was brought to a close by an armistice in 1953, which stopped the fighting without the signature of a formal peace treaty. Instead there has been a decades-long ceasefire, which essentially froze the conflict.

The hope that an armistice might be a route to the end of hostilities in Ukraine is based on three ideas. First, neither Russia nor Ukraine is in a position to achieve total victory. Second, the political positions of the two countries are too far apart to make a peace agreement possible. Third, both countries are suffering severe losses that could make a ceasefire attractive.

It is true that Moscow still talks the language of victory. Vladimir Putin likens himself to Peter the Great, the tsar who won the Great Northern War after fighting Sweden for 21 years.

But the reality is that Putin has already failed in Ukraine. His forces have been driven back from Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson. His partial mobilisation of civilians has caused thousands of Russian men to flee the country but failed to reverse the tide on the battlefield. About 100,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded — with more dying every week in brutal trench warfare.

It is Putin’s inability to acknowledge the scale of the disaster that he has inflicted on his own country, as well as the war crimes that Russia has committed in Ukraine, that are now the major obstacles to peace.

But it is possible that a Russian decision to wind the war down could be dressed up as an adjustment in military tactics, rather than an acknowledgment of defeat. This was what happened when Russia withdrew from Kherson. Putin distanced himself from the decision, which was announced by military commanders and the defence minister.

Sir Lawrence Freedman, author of the recently published Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine, sees a possibility of “military to military negotiations on disengagement”. While Freedman stresses that there are important differences between the Korean and Ukraine wars, he thinks the Korean armistice points to the possibility of “stopping the fighting, by separating the forces” — without a full peace deal.

Without territorial or political gains to claim, Putin is unlikely to be able to announce an end to the war. But he might be able to accept a halt to the fighting — which could be dressed up as a response to military advice or a goodwill gesture.

But why should the Ukrainians ever accept that? The moral, political and existential case for them to keep fighting is strong. The momentum in the war is with Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has promised to retake every inch of occupied territory including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. After the atrocities inflicted on Ukraine by Putin, the idea of any sort of “normal” relationship with an unreformed Russia seems inconceivable to many Ukrainians. And there is also a realistic fear that Russia would simply use a ceasefire to rearm before attacking Ukraine once again.

However, there are also considerations — undoubtedly much harder to voice — that might make a prolonged Korean-style ceasefire attractive to Ukraine. Like the Russians, the Ukrainians continue to take heavy casualties. They are also having to contend with a brutal, but effective Russian tactic — the deliberate targeting of Ukrainian infrastructure. By making winter very hard to withstand, the loss of water and power supplies makes it much harder for millions of Ukrainian refugees to return home. Instead, a further wave of refugees is building. As months of exile stretch into years, it becomes less likely that refugees will ever return to Ukraine — placing a huge strain on families and on society.

In private, some Ukrainians acknowledge that taking back Crimea would involve even more brutal fighting in an effort to reoccupy a territory where many people, including but by no means limited to retired military officers, are loyal to Russia.

So the Ukrainians also have some incentives to freeze the conflict — without giving up their ultimate political aims. The major obstacle for them is a complete lack of trust in Russian intentions. But the fact that Ukraine’s western allies have also had their illusions stripped away about the nature of Putin’s Russia means that a post-ceasefire Ukraine will not be left alone to face the future. Instead, it is likely to be given military aid and security guarantees to turn it into an indigestible “porcupine” that Russia would hesitate to attack.

A ceasefire would also allow Ukraine’s sympathisers to pour in foreign aid that would allow the country to rebuild. South Korea was utterly devastated after the Korean war, but is now a prosperous, advanced nation. By contrast, a Russia that was still led by Putin, and that refused to atone for its crimes in Ukraine, could expect a future of continued international isolation and growing poverty. As that reality sank in, the long-awaited political reconstruction of Russia might finally begin.

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