The war won’t be over if Ukraine wins

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At the London Defence Conference last week, a mood of optimism prevailed about the likelihood of Ukraine’s ultimate success in its war against Russia. The conference, which is a new event in the already crowded rota of global security conferences, is in its second year. Its aspiration is to be the British equivalent of the Munich Security Conference. Those participating included British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Polish President Andrzej Duda and an impressive line-up of ministers, senior officials, diplomats and scholars.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky.Credit: AP, Bloomberg

Since the invasion on February 23 last year, Russia has spectacularly failed to achieve either its military objective – territorial conquest – or its overarching geopolitical goal: to divide the West. The opposite has happened. Russia is now on the defensive, militarily, as the world awaits the much-anticipated major counteroffensive by Ukrainian troops, significantly better equipped than they were when they halted the Russian advance last spring.

Diplomatically, the invasion has been catastrophic. The West – after early equivocation by some European nations – has united in a way not seen since the end of the Cold War. The imminent accession of Finland and Sweden has more than doubled the length of Russia’s land border with NATO. Germany has rearmed in the greatest reversal of its foreign policy since World War II. All the NATO nations have recommitted to the defence expenditure target of 2 per cent of GDP. Some have exceeded it. Britain, which has Europe’s largest defence force outside Russia itself, now spends 2.25 per cent, with an aspirational target of 2.5 per cent. Poland has elevated its target to a whopping 4 per cent.

It is not difficult to understand the reaction, particularly in Eastern Europe, where memory is freighted with the misery of decades of Soviet domination during the Cold War and, in nations such as Poland and some Baltic countries, centuries of Russian overlordship. As the Swedish Defence Minister Pal Jonson told the conference: “Ukraine is the shield of Europe. Putin will not stop until someone stops him. That is Ukraine right now. In fighting for their freedom, they are fighting for our freedom.”

If Ukraine does eventually prevail – and notwithstanding the optimism about the final outcome, nobody is predicting that the war will end soon – the challenges that would be the legacy of the Russian invasion are daunting.

First, there is the reconstruction of Ukraine itself. The World Bank estimated the cost at $US411 billion ($630 billion). That is not going to come from reparations from a defeated Russia; it will be a global task of Marshall Plan-like dimensions. It will involve private capital as well as public money. Next month, the British and Ukrainian governments will co-host – also in London – the Ukraine Recovery Conference. One of the keynote speakers will be Australia’s Twiggy Forrest, who has been a leader among the world’s super-rich in marshalling (no pun intended) private capital.

Then there is the issue of bringing the perpetrators to justice. Doubtless, numerous war crimes have been committed by Russian political leaders and military commanders during the conflict – most obviously, the violation of No. VI of the Nuremberg Principles by waging a war of aggression, and the crime recognised by Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population [and] civilian objects”. As the experience following the Balkan War demonstrates, investigating and prosecuting such crimes is the work of decades. The possibilities for the enforcement of international criminal justice seem remote.

Whether the war ends in Ukrainian victory or in a stalemate, the vital question is how to protect Ukraine in the future. The abject failure of the post-Cold War assurances embodied in the Budapest accord of 1994 and the Bucharest Declaration of 2008 is proof of Thomas Hobbes’ dictum that covenants without swords are but words.

The most obvious course of action would be to grant Ukraine’s request for NATO membership, which would bring it within the security guarantee of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. That is the course favoured by most East European nations. However, there is hesitancy in Washington, Berlin and Paris to take a step so provocative to Russia at a time as delicate as this. Ukrainian membership is unlikely to be an outcome of the NATO summit in Vilnius in July.

Another course would be to strengthen or extend the bilateral security agreements that already exist between Ukraine and several NATO member states. Some even talk of Ukraine as “Europe’s Israel”. Short of NATO membership or bilateral agreements, there is little doubt that in future the West will ensure that Ukraine is armed to the teeth to deter future Russian aggression: a porcupine to a bear.

The strategic challenge posed by a Ukrainian victory – or even an angry stalemate – goes far beyond Ukraine itself. How does the international system deal with a humiliated Russia? A criminal state yet a permanent member of the UN Security Council, alienated from its European neighbours and much of the international community yet in tight alliance with China, and possessing the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal? Should Putin fall as a consequence of his failure in Ukraine, does another regime promise to be more accommodating of the international order than the last? Will internal instability lead to yet more fragmentation?

As Professor Funmi Olonisakin, Vice President (International, Engagement and Service) at King’s College, told the closing session of the London Defence Conference: “Military victory will not equate with strategic peace.”

George Brandis is a professor at the ANU’s National Security College. He was a delegate to the London Defence Conference.

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