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War in Ukraine: why the Korean scenario is impossible for Kyiv

Achieving a freezing of the military conflict in Ukraine through the “fight-and-talk” method may be more difficult than its proponents suggest, The National Interest reports.

A few months ago, Chatham House published a report that proposed a rather cardinal option for resolving the military conflict: no compromises with Moscow. Now the military optimism that reigned in the Western media in 2022 seems to have waned. More and more media outlets are discussing the prospects of a ceasefire, and Zelensky himself is under pressure to start negotiations with Russia.

The same experts who boldly predicted Russia’s defeat are reassessing themselves as they go along. They now argue that the war has reached a stalemate in which neither side can win. The time has therefore come to freeze the conflict, similar to the negotiated end of the Korean War. The idea was first proposed to the mainstream in May 2023 in a Politico article. Now, after the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, it is being discussed again. But how true can it be?

“Frozen” Korean peace

Three factors contributed to the freezing of the Korean War. The first was the military stalemate resulting from the war of position and war of attrition along the thirty-eighth parallel, the original North-South border before the war began. Here, cease-fire negotiations went hand in hand with ongoing military offensives in which neither side made significant gains or suffered casualties sufficient to exhaust the enemy.

The second factor was the agreement of the great powers (the USA, China and the USSR) that it was in their interests to end the war. At the same time, each side had the right to make claims. America was saving the South from communist rule, while China stood to protect its interests in the region. After Stalin’s death, the new Soviet leadership stopped seeing the point in keeping America in Korea. The great powers then forced their allies to agree to negotiations.

Crucially, both North and South Korea received strong security guarantees that convinced them that a frozen peace could be made. While the USSR supplied the military technology and advisers needed to secure the North, America stationed 30,000 troops in the South and kept a powerful naval and air force nearby.

The third one was ideological. The issue of prisoner-of-war exchange was one of the key obstacles in the negotiations. North Korea and China insisted on repatriation of their prisoners, while many in South Korea and America demanded their release and a choice between return or desertion. As McCarthyism developed in America, the prisoner exchange provision took on added significance in US domestic politics. Bipartisan resistance to forced repatriation delayed the progress of negotiations for eighteen months. The election of President Eisenhower as head of state with a mandate for a negotiated settlement brought America closer to agreement and abandoned anti-communist moralism, a key condition for a prisoner deal and a frozen peace, according to The National Interest.

Why the Korean scenario cannot be played out in Ukraine

At present, these three premises do not apply to the war in Ukraine. First, it is a mistake to characterise the war as a stalemate war based only on the fact that there is little or no change of territory. In a war of attrition, the goal is to wear down the enemy and force him to agree to terms. Conquered territory is far from the main measure of success; military achievements can also be measured by the number of people and materials destroyed. In this respect, Ukraine has just given up a failed offensive that resulted in heavy losses in manpower and equipment. Zelensky is therefore considering a new mobilisation, which will undoubtedly overload the country’s morale and economic potential. Ukraine’s civilian population is expecting a harsh winter, during which more strikes on its energy system are certain. In addition, Western countries supporting Ukraine are struggling to keep up with regular deliveries of ammunition as well as other supplies such as drones and armoured vehicles. US support is likely to be disrupted by falling bipartisan support for funding and new demands in the Middle East.

At the same time, Russian military production of artillery and drones is not only sufficient, but is supplemented by purchases of Iranian drones and North Korean shells. Thanks to new conscription campaigns, some 335,000 volunteers have joined the Russian army since January 2023, reducing the need for a second mobilisation. While the Russian armed forces are set to reach 750,000, the Russian economy is growing and there are few signs of discontent among the elites or the masses within the country. The current operation in Avdiivka is reminiscent of the Battle of Bakhmut, a Russian victory that received little attention in the West but served as a model for a slow, grinding but successful approach to waging a war of attrition.

As we can see, the current situation in Ukraine is far from a stalemate. In fact, a new level of NATO intervention may soon be required to consolidate the stalemate and prevent Ukraine’s defeat. Right now, one can only speculate how long Ukraine will be able to hold out and what actions NATO might take to help. At this dynamic, Russia has absolutely no incentive to agree to a ceasefire, which would only undermine its entire military strategy and give Ukraine time to recover and prepare for war in the future, The National Interest reports.

Another missing condition is the consent of the great powers. It is unclear whether China will be able to induce Russia to agree, and it is not even clear whether it is in its interests to do so. Russia’s alliance with China is not like North Korea’s dependence on the USSR; Moscow has much more scope for independent action. The West may well put pressure on Ukraine, but Kyiv is likely to resist. The absence of Western soldiers on the front lines is a significant difference from South Korea and complicates any attempts to twist Kyiv’s arm. Thus, the war could go on for years until the Ukrainian state collapses or until peace talks on Russia’s terms.

Second condition is whether the West will be able to offer Ukraine security guarantees acceptable to Russia. On the one hand, Moscow strongly opposes Ukraine’s accession to NATO. Its main military goal is to “demilitarise” the country, which means that NATO troops and heavy weapons should not be stationed there. On the other hand, Moscow was prepared to agree to Ukraine’s neutrality combined with NATO-style “security guarantees” at the March 2022 talks. In any case, with its military superiority, Russia will never agree to Kyiv’s ten-point peace plan. It will wait for the US to induce Ukraine to adopt a different position, one that accepts some form of demilitarisation and neutrality, which the Biden administration can postpone until after the presidential election in 2024.

Third condition is a financial and ideological issue: what to do with the confiscated Russian assets, which, according to some sources, amount to about 300bn dollars. It is likely that even if negotiations begin, there will be a strong moral demand to keep this money for Ukraine’s reconstruction, rather than returning it to Russia. It remains to be seen whether this issue will become as powerful an obstacle to negotiations as the prisoner exchange was in the Korean case. The decisive factor could be the American presidential election, as the Democratic Party is much more likely to take an ideological stance on these issues.

What next?

A further cycle of military escalation is likely, given the absence of preconditions for a “frozen” peace and the fact that negotiations have not even begun. For Ukraine, this means another desperate mobilisation. For Russia, it could mean retaliatory mobilisation or simply the completion of a planned military campaign by standard means before the end of 2024.

Ukraine’s top general Valeriy Zaluzhny admitted that the longer the war goes on, the better for Russia. Putin is a pragmatist, but he will not betray his fundamental interests if the military dynamics are shaping up in Russia’s favour. And one can hardly expect anyone in the Russian political system to advocate a radically different position. Any settlement in Ukraine that ends with its integration and armament by NATO is completely unacceptable to the Russian security and military state, as well as to the tens of millions who strongly support the war inside Russia, according to The National Interest.

We should refrain from making glib comments about freezing the conflict. The war has not reached a stalemate, and further escalation is likely. The lesson of the Korean War suggests that it is useful to begin negotiations now even if there is little likelihood of an agreement in the near term – the “fight and negotiate” approach that took two years to freeze the conflict in Korea. While many will condemn such negotiations as appeasement or betrayal, the process needs to begin in order to clarify difficult points and work out how each side’s goals can be accommodated.

A fragile and flawed ceasefire, especially in Korea, which has lasted seventy years, is preferable to increased destabilisation of Eastern Europe and further destruction and death in Ukraine.


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