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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

FAR FROM PEACE

The past week or so saw several developments relating to the war in Ukraine. The best I can say about these developments – from the G7 decision to use interest from frozen Russian assets to fund a loan for Ukraine, to the peace summit in Switzerland, to Vladimir Putin's visit to North Korea – is how challenging it can be to undertake impartial analysis.


Russia's Vladimir Putin would like us to think that the world is sliding away from one dominated by western states and liberal ideas. Even in 'the west' it is now commonplace to talk of an 'anti–western axis' involving Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. There is, however, no coherent set of ideas or beliefs uniting those states which see themselves as resisting the west. More importantly, the events of recent days only reaffirm how open to different interpretations current affairs are.


Striving for peace in Ukraine


Let's start with the large gathering at Bürgenstock in Switzerland on 15–16 June. Ukraine and its backers can claim some success from the summit. Indeed, for President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, it was a sizable show of support; more than 90 countries and organisations were represented at the peace talks. The US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called the summit 'a tremendous success... showing that there is broad and deep support for a just peace.' Nearly eighty of the countries and six of the organisations present signed the outcome document. In my opinion, mind, the joint communique was underwhelming.


From a different perspective, the crucial details lie elsewhere. This perspective emphasises that China declined an invitation to attend and the lack of invitation for Russia. Perhaps just as crucial, also, is those countries present who didn't sign the joint communique, such as Brazil, India or South Africa, despite how minimal the communique's content actually was. The 'broad and deep support' Sullivan spoke of looks threadbare.


An Indian official directly linked his country's refusal to sign the document to Russia's absence from the conference. This was China's argument as well. A couple of other states signed and later withdrew their signatures. So Russia, too, can plausibly claim many in the global south endorsed its position despite its absence. Its sympathisers will argue that the largely western turnout in Switzerland was less than impressive and demonstrates the presence of a growing anti–western coalition. But the absence of African, Asian or Middle Eastern states tells us little in itself as they are far away or preoccupied with local crises.


On the eve of the Bürgenstock gathering, Russia set out its own peace offer which involved Ukraine withdrawing its troops from the four regions Russia partially occupies, hence ceding territory Russia hasn't even conquered, and renouncing its NATO ambitions. Putin also took to calling Zelenskyy an 'illegitimate president' in reference to the expiration of his five–year presidential term and said that Russia was having to deal with 'an illegitimate government'. For the record, the constitution of Ukraine prevents an election from taking place while the country is under martial law.


As part of this 'peace offer', Russia made no concessions whatsoever. It was brass–faced and obviously rejected out of hand. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it a 'dictatorial peace' and Italy's prime minister Giorgia Meloni said it was 'propaganda'. The gathering in Switzerland, by contrast, did at least try to get down to brass tacks and identify issues where consensus could be forged (nuclear safety, food security and prisoner exchanges).


Those supporting Russia's position will claim it was excluded from the Bürgenstock peace summit. The Swiss organisers were clear, however, that the sole reason Russia was not invited was that it had 'indicated many times that it had no interest in participating.' The organisers also stressed that Russia needs to be included once the process progresses. So while I don't think the summit can be described as 'a tremendous success', it could still form the foundations for a resolution in the medium term which was, in fact, its stated goal. It is simply too soon to tell how successful or significant the gathering was.


Entrenched alliances?


Putin's unwillingness to countenance any concessions suggests he remains convinced things are working out for him. He thinks that an end of US hegemony is on the horizon. He thinks that he is winning on the battlefield. He thinks that the global south is with him and, undoubtedly, Russia's arguments do find a receptive audience in the countries of the global south. As is often pointed out, the global south represents two–thirds (actually: more than two–thirds) of the world's population and opinion there cannot be easily ignored.


From one perspective there is evidence of a consolidating anti–western axis. Putin visited North Korea on Wednesday and the security agreement signed with Kim Jong–Un sounds like a formal alliance agreement. The full text has not been published but it has been described as a 'mutual defence pact'. Kim, who benefits most from the other signatory's promise of assistance, was the one to use the term 'alliance'. Putin evidently knows there's some humiliation in relying on North Korea for military support and used softer language. Yet no one can ignore the agreement because, as Nigel Gould–Davies pithily put it in an interview with the BBC, it 'connects two volatile theatres: Europe and Asia.'


In fact, there are two starkly different ways to view the cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang. One view is that it is a stepping stone to a broadening formal military alliance that will eventually include China. It is possible, to be sure, that these states could form an alliance to fight a war against the US and its allies. But I come back to the point that it would be a very superficial arrangement since they share few interests beyond dislodging the US from the top of the global pecking order. I'm inclined not to see the Russia–North Korea agreement this way because China would not want to join something initiated by others.


The second view, by contrast, is that this is actually a way of the two states countering China's preponderant influence over them. The agreement, as reported, covers trade and more besides the defence component and there were media reports of Chinese dissatisfaction with the two states' tightening friendship. Maybe. Or maybe such rumours could also be a deliberate effort by Beijing to mislead western states and conceal a strengthening axis?


Russia presents itself as leading the challenge to the current order alongside China, downplaying any rivalry or frictions between them. As I've said before in this blog, though, I think it is wrong to describe China and Russia as military allies. China's response to the invasion of Ukraine indicates that there was no formal agreement between the two sides about military backing in the event of war. It's true that China has increased its support to Russia over the two and a bit years since the large–scale invasion and has an interest in Russia avoiding an outright defeat: this is convenience rather than a reflection of any deeply shared beliefs, values or commitments. They share a common aim of unseating the United States as hegemon; they share little else in common. China, its economy faltering, may not feel ready for a military confrontation with the US.


As to Russia's pact with North Korea, I expect it simply reflects Russia's short–term needs to wage war in Ukraine and gratitude for Kim's support. It is too soon to tell whether it has any longer run significance, which I think is likely to result from accident rather than design.


Funding for Ukraine


Both the peace summit and Putin's trip to North Korea came a few days after two potentially significant developments among western states. The first thing was the European parliamentary elections which saw appreciable gains for populist and far–right parties. If you view this from Russia, you might think it corroborates your belief that the world is moving in your favour. Germany's Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) came second in that country with 16% of the vote; its policies encapsulate the typical view that populist parties doing well might mean weakening support for Ukraine. Their MPs in the Bundestag boycotted a speech by Zelenskyy recently. AfD leaders said bluntly: 'Zelenskyy's term of office has expired.' (That, as we have seen above, is Putin's claim too.)


The counter–perspective would note that several populist leaders have come round to criticism of Russia. Italy's Georgia Meloni has upturned the stereotype of the populist right being pro–Russia. She may be a Eurosceptic but she is committed to NATO and supporting Ukraine. In France, Marine Le Pen has traditionally advocated for Putin's views and her National Rally party traditionally argued for a French withdrawal from NATO's command structures (as happened in the era of Charles de Gaulle). But Le Pen has also occasionally criticised Russia since the February 2022 invasion. National Rally's current leader, Jordan Bardella, has been even more emphatic ahead of France's parliamentary election in which his party could win a majority. He has vowed to keep supporting Ukraine and work with NATO. Perhaps the motivation here is gaining credibility rather than changing beliefs: does that matter though?


The second development was that, on 13 June, G7 states agreed to a US plan that will use the interest accruing on Russia's frozen assets to advance a loan to Ukraine. But those who have been lobbying to seize Russia's assets will be asking: Why only a loan? Why only the interest? (EU leaders similarly reached an 'agreement in principle' last month to use interest on frozen assets to finance more weapons to Ukraine.)


Russia described the G7 actions as 'theft'. Many in the global south will endorse that claim, if only privately, but again that reflects distaste for perceived western dominance and hypocrisy, not any deep–seated sense of unity with Russia. The US and Ukraine meanwhile signed a bilateral security agreement. In the US, Republicans could though stand in the way of its full implementation as they could also scupper the foundations for peace laid down in Bürgenstock.


So what can we conclude from all this? Very little, frankly. To return to my main theme, as it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about the peace summit or the Russia–North Korea alliance, so too is it early to determine much from the G7's decision or the populist gains in the European elections. Nothing yet feels decisive, nothing yet feels 'locked–in'. And so we muddle on with the pattern of the past decade, things lurching from bad to worse and an unclear path ahead.


All of these things from the past days look significant and yet they are far from simple to interpret in the here and now. The choice of details to focus on in analysis is hardly a neutral one. It is as easy to overestimate as it is underestimate the importance of particular details. And so people see what they want to see and march on in their convictions. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.



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Cover image: Kim and Putin meeting in 2019, from Kremlin.ru and used under creative commons licence 4.0


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