Chinese mediation in the Russian/Ukrainian conflict
February 24, 2023 marked exactly one year since the Russian invasion of its south western neighbour, Ukraine, with proactive Belarusian support. The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, characterised it as a “special military operation” with the stated aims of the “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine.
The geopolitical context was the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO’s) signalled eastbound move towards Ukraine, which Russia considered to be within its critical strategic sphere of influence and therefore a serious threat to the latter’s national interests.
NATO considered Russia’s stance expansionist, setting a dangerous precedent for Members and therefore unacceptable; especially when juxtaposed with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, in March 2014. These dynamics upended any Consensus Ad Idem highlighting the inevitability of conflict.
In actual fact, the so-called “special military operation” is to all intents and purposes a war of aggression against Ukraine, in direct violation of article 1 (1) of the UN Charter 1945, which obligates Members to maintain international peace and security and settle disputes via the principles of justice and international law.
Besides, Russia’s avowed basis for the invasion – demilitarisation and denazification – is vehemently contested by the Ukrainians.
Shortly after the invasion in my article of March 5, 2022, in this publication, I advanced considered arguments, for a pragmatic resolution of the crisis on a number of counts. One, serious diplomacy was insufficiently explored by superpowers and regional powers for a variety of competing strategic geopolitical interests.
Two, the war would heighten the risk of a nuclear confrontation between Russia and NATO allies: a most undesirable outcome for humanity. Three, averting the loss of tens of thousands of human lives on opposing sides of the conflict and preventing the displacement of at least 12 million people, of a quantum not witnessed since
World War II (1939-1945), does not amount to capitulation by any objective definition.
Since then, the war of attrition has continued, with the attendant loss of approximately 200,000 lives, claims and counterclaims of war crimes by both sides and perhaps more concerning is the toughening of the rhetoric by Russia, of its willingness to deploy nuclear weapons if pushed.
Worryingly too, the latter on February 21, 2023, announced a unilateral moratorium on Russia’s participation in the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which envisages limits on the deployment capacity of all United States and Russian intercontinental-range nuclear weapons.
On economics since, whilst American and European sanctions aim to cripple the Russian economy and by extension, its capacity to effectively prosecute the war, the unintended consequence of the debacle is the exponential rise in global energy and food prices.
The economic blockade is harming Russia’s circa USD1.78 trillion economy according to the World Bank, which estimates a 3.3% contraction in 2023. However, the degree to which that blockade impedes Russia’s capacity to meaningfully prosecute the war remains unclear. For instance, Russia’s natural gas and oil exports have risen over 40% to approximately USD120 billion (NPR) since the invasion.
Undoubtedly, the crisis is, in one sense, jinxing the international financial order, given rising inflation around the world with rising energy prices, shipping costs and trade barriers. Chinese telecom giant, Huawei, for example, contends that US 2019 trade sanctions were adversely affecting global customers and American suppliers.
The optics are patently ominous and demand action. The question however is what kind of action? For Ukraine, the United States and NATO allies’ action means one thing: victory for Ukraine! Proof of that assertion is reinforced by the fact the US Congress has approved USD 46.6 billion in Ukrainian-bound military aid.
NATO/EU allies have also extensive military assistance worth USD 551 million to Ukraine which, it would appear, is making a huge impact on the ground. For example, the deployment of the US High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), Javelin Guided Anti-Tank Missiles and Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) missiles have made a transformative impact on the Ukrainian resistance efforts.
Plus, the concerted NATO/EU military assistance, generates a strategic convergence of mutually beneficial interests.
It sends a strong signal to Russia that: the latter’s expansionist strategy will be robustly resisted; NATO will stoutly defend its allies using its vast economic and military might; unwavering political pressure will be mounted on the global stage to counteract Russian aggression; and the deployment of NATO weaponry by definition enables American allies to further test and improve the capacity, effectiveness, readiness and robustness of their conventional weapons against Russia’s from a competitive position of military advantage.
Cynics, however, contend that American weapons manufacturers secure a significant competitive advantage via the propagation of the war, because more sales results in more profits for shareholders and enhanced fiscal income for the States.
For Russia and its allies, action means victory too albeit of a rather pragmatic hue on several fronts. One, it demonstrably projects Russia’s super power credentials with the nuclear weapons capability and willingness to deploy same in its geopolitical interests.
Two, Russia will resist American and NATO incursions into what it considers and defines as its own strategic sphere of influence: Ukraine/Crimean Peninsula. Three, the notion of an American- unipolar world leadership is gone forever.
Four, Russia has strategic allies across the world who share its ideological stratagem of multi-polar world leadership. Five, it possesses the conventional and non-conventional capabilities to enforce its geo-political will how, where and when it determines. Russian proponents argue that notwithstanding the economically strangulating effects of Western sanctions, the country’s economy has proven to be more resilient than anticipated.
Pragmatists, however, contend that the Russian invasion does little to advance the interests of the average Russian and that this is no more than a vainglorious attempt by the Vladimir Putin to rewrite a painfully stark fact: Ukrainian independence in name and deed!
Given these contending dynamics, how much thought has been accorded the views of the average Russian in Aksay, Nikolsk, and Novaya Lyala etc who never gave their permission? How about innocent Ukrainian children, workers and pensioners peacefully living their lives prior to the commencement of hostilities and whose lives have now been completely upended in Leski, Rivne, Strusiv say? They don’t know whether a trip to the grocery store, hospital or nursery automatically places them in the crosshairs of artillery fire and missile attacks. How about folks who sleep in and are blown to smithereens overnight?
Whilst the political brinksmanship, destruction of swathes of Ukraine, allegations and counter allegations of war crimes by opposing sides persists, this article adopts the view that it is eminently sensible to seek a negotiated means of ending the conflict to avert further cataclysmic loss of lives and destruction of property.
Upon that foundation, the Chinese offer to mediate in the ongoing crisis merits careful, nuanced and reasoned consideration rather than an outright ideologically pure rejection for several pertinent reasons.
First, it is eminently reasonable to immediately prioritize dispute resolution in this pernicious war on humanitarian grounds. It matters little whether that initiative emanates from the United Nations or a relatively neutral country, that is, one that is not directly involved in the prosecution of the war and neither derives a financial benefit thereof.
Second, China is a nuclear superpower, a permanent member UN Security Council with veto-wielding powers and, importantly, a Russian ally. It exercises huge strategic leverage over Russia in a way which other UN permanent and UNGA members do not.
Third, China is an economic superpower. Its Belts and Roads Initiative, an interwoven thread of major infrastructure projects traversing Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East worth over USD 4 trillion, optimises the country’s economic and military penetration and, by extension, its strategic leverage in several countries which support Russia covertly and overtly.
Fourth, in terms of positive tangible diplomatic outcomes, very little headway has been accomplished since the August 2022 United Nations and Turkey brokered grain deal which enabled Ukrainian grain exports to leave the Black Sea ports hitherto blockaded by Russia.
Besides, Turkey is currently grappling with the after-effects of the recent earthquakes, which has claimed over 40,000 lives, therefore it is highly improbable, at present, to have the capacity to redirect resources towards brokering a peace deal between the warring parties.
Ultimately, China, positions itself as the leader of the Global South “developing” countries. What better way to test its claims to leadership therein than an opportunity to broker a peace deal between the warring Russians and Ukrainians?
There are compelling counter-arguments too. Critics question China’s commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, especially against the backdrop of the powerful role of the Chinese Communist Party in policy formulation and execution.
The democracies of the “developed” Global North cross-examine China’s commitment to the orthodoxies of free market economics. The contention is that China operates a “command and control” economy on the one hand and, other, exports its goods and services to the Global North with predominantly free market economies.
Thus, China, it is contended, builds up huge trade surpluses at the expense of the Global North, undermining, the very foundations of fair trade through opaque and unorthodox practices!
On the geopolitical axis, real tensions subsist between China and the United States over Taiwan, which the former views as indivisibly part of China. The US adopts an opposite view, regarding Taiwan as an independent nation.
Plus, China is perceived by the United States and its allies to be a major strategic threat, technological and military rival, and therefore viewed with extreme suspicion. Evidence for that hypothesis is affirmed by the United States’ decision to ban the Chinese app, TikTok, on government devices in December 2022, on national security grounds.
For similar reasons, Canada and the European Union followed suit shortly afterwards. The United States shot down a Chinese “surveillance balloon” in February 2023, further widening the diplomatic chasm between both countries.
Summing up, it is critically important not to conflate nor obfuscate issues. Nations compete for a variety of reasons and in different contexts. On occasions, they also have reasons to disagree on fundamental issues of strategic interests or even engage in “dark arts”; this is all within the province of realpolitik! That real diplomatic tensions exist between China and the United States and allies, in of itself, is not a sufficiently compelling enough reason not to intelligently consider the Chinese offer to mediate in the Russian/Ukrainian war.
Leadership and statecraft call for empirical logic in policy formulation, execution, diplomatic affairs and safeguarding national interests.
Yes! But it also calls for nuanced strategic thinking and emotional intelligence. Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) succinctly captured the point in The Gathering Storm (1948): “Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.”
Ojumu is the Principal Partner at Balliol Myers LP, a firm of legal and strategy consultants in Lagos, Nigeria.