West mired in Ukraine crisis due to unwillingness or inability to confront reality
Published: Apr 21, 2024 08:29 PM
Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

As the Russia-Ukraine war drags on, a peace conference is to be held in Switzerland this summer. But Russia's President Vladimir Putin said that Russia hadn't been invited to participate in June's talks. "It would have been funny if it weren't so sad," he commented.

Practically all Russian commentators, and even some prominent Western ones, trace the roots of the conflict in Ukraine to NATO's attempts at incorporating Russia's neighbor - as officially stated since at least as far back as 2008. A disregard for Russia's status as an equal and sovereign partner was evident in the contempt for the Minsk agreements, which both former German chancellor Angela Merkel and former French president Fran?ois Hollande described as gimmicks to buy time for the only option that was seriously pursued, military confrontation. Later on, Vladimir Putin's vocal request for security guarantees was dismissed yet again. 

Fast forward a few years, and this historical tragedy has snowballed to its extreme conclusions. Politico recently reported Ukrainian officials' concerns about a collapse of the frontlines. As Elon Musk calls for a negotiated settlement to come soon, he warns that the longer the war drags on, the larger the territory Russia will seek to annex. Even CNN is now explaining how Russia's guided bombs are wreaking havoc on Ukrainian defenses. Meanwhile, the IMF has raised Russia's growth outlook. In short, and irrespective of whether this will take weeks, months or years, Russia is well placed politically, economically and militarily to inflict the final blow.

The conditions of Ukraine's sponsors are remarkably less favorable. Europe's economic problems are "far bigger than a shallow recession." The Union faces a dilemma over restricting imports from Ukraine or throwing its own agriculture under the bus. It is also split on the use of frozen Russian assets to finance the war. The Union will renew its Parliament in June and it is unclear whether Ursula von der Leyen will be re-elected. Even though the US House of Representatives on Saturday passed a $95 billion legislative package, including $60.84 billion to address the conflict in Ukraine, the US' presidential elections in November still cast another shadow of uncertainty, to the point that NATO is considering setting aside "Trump-proof" funds.

Europe's public opinion has also made up its mind on the matter. Only one in ten Europeans believe Ukraine can defeat Russia. The Pope has literally invited Ukraine to raise a white flag. Wolfgang Streeck, the Director of the Max Planck Institute, said, "The war is lost but our governments refuse to admit it." A crushing military defeat would be the worst possible background for European and American elections, and erode confidence in the respective leaderships: The West should not fall prey to a sunk cost fallacy of catastrophic proportions. What would then be the way forward?

The rational course of action would be for the West to turn to diplomacy to correct such a disastrous trajectory, much like Musk and the Pope suggested. Even if Russia refused, or the attempt failed, the West would at least claim the moral high ground on this occasion. A comprehensive peace conference with the involvement of representative guarantors from the Global South could offer a lifeline to Ukraine, and a model for ironing out geopolitical tensions that are dangerously multiplying all over the world. Chinese diplomacy is going out of its way to make this possible, and the African Union, Brazil, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and many others have also stepped forward with constructive proposals.

Yet leaders on both shores of the Atlantic are headed elsewhere. US Vice President Kamala Harris and European Council President Charles Michel are adamant that "There is only plan A": military support for Ukraine. Along this path, some risky decisions appear increasingly likely. And pressure is mounting to use seized Russian assets to finance Ukraine. Of this move, in 2022, US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen said "would not be legal." But, apparently, a green light could come at the G7 summit in June.

If a botched peace conference would exact high reputational costs for Western diplomacy, the seizing of Russian assets could turn into a kamikaze attack, and unsettle the very domain wherein the West retains relative dominance, the international financial system. Neither initiative is likely to end the conflict in Ukraine.

If all such workarounds are really only dead ends, a reckoning with reality should be hastened rather than delayed. Yet, it is precisely the unwillingness or inability to confront the reality of the situation that got us here in the first place.

The author is a foreign policy analyst for Italy and the EU. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn