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Escalation without victory is a ripe time for conflict resolution

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Picture: AFP – A Ukrainian serviceman walks past destroyed Russian tanks not far from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on April 3, last year. The only consolation in this summary of defeat and destruction is that the moment is approaching when conflict resolution might become possible, say the writer.

By André Thomashausen

“Whatever it takes … to defeat Russia”, this is the battle cry repeated on every occasion since February 24 last year by US President Joe Biden and his followers in Europe and Canada. Outside Europe, only Japan, Australia and New Zealand applaud US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken when he calls for more and deadlier arms to be delivered to the Zelensky government in Ukraine.

The defenders of a new “just war” (for the upholding of democracy and Western values), argue, in the words of US historian Timothy Snyder (Yale University) that “the cohesion and thereby the survival of the West depends on the Ukrainians winning” (Der Spiegel, no 8/23).

Journalists and academics are vilified, when they ask why such an existential objective has not won the hearts and minds of everyone. Rather, South Africa and the BRICS alliance, representing close to 65 percent of the world population, are demanding an end to the war on Russia without determining who may be to blame. Important former allies of the West, such as Algeria, Argentina and Saudi Arabia are eager to join BRICS.

The largest parts of Latin America and Africa are objecting against the massive resources of the West fuelling the war, instead of helping to combat climate change and poverty. After one year, at least 400 000 soldiers were killed in battles on the contested Western border of Ukraine.

More than $150 billion (about R2.7trillion) have been spent to sustain the Ukrainian refusal to grant self-determination to the now-independent Russian minorities. More than $500bn in Russian public and private assets were frozen and confiscated, during one year of the most severe sanctions against Russia which constitute economic warfare.

The only thing achieved has been the nullification of almost all international law principles conquered and established over centuries. The precious consensus concerning nuclear disarmament, responsible environmental or “green” policies, the safeguarding of minority and self-determination rights, humanitarian law and the principle of proportionality in the use of force, are discarded in the Western determination to impose its view of democracy on everyone on this planet.

“Whatever it takes” signifies by any means whatsoever. How can the West hope to win the hearts and minds of the rest of the world by subscribing to the totalitarian proposition that “the end will justify the means”.

What end? One year on, the rouble has stayed its course and shows an exchange rate slightly better than before February last year. The dramatic fall in gross domestic product predicted a year ago has not happened and Russia is expected to score a GDP growth this year of at least 0.3 percent, higher than the EU average.

After the terrorist attack on the main natural gas pipelines from Russia to Europe, Russia diverted its energy exports to India and China, while Europe exchanged its energy dependency from the low price of Russian supplies to the up to six times more costly alternative supplies from the US and Middle East.

Militarily, Nato has exhausted its ammunition stockpiles and equipment reserves and Ukraine has run out of soldiers. The only consolation in this summary of defeat and destruction is that the moment is approaching when conflict resolution might become possible.

The threshold that can allow conflict resolution to commence is called Conflict Ripeness. Continuing escalation without victory leads to exhaustion equilibrium, when the material and emotive resources of the parties are spent.

This is when a generalised subsequent sentiment emerges that the conflict has become meaningless. The exhaustion of conflict energies signals that conflict ripeness has been attained.

The indicators are, an increase in desertions from the armed units on each side, the difficulties experienced by each side in finding new recruits, the embellishment of military reports and propaganda, the existence of shady business trading between soldiers and officers from both sides, and the growing disassociation of intellectual elites.

When a conflict stalemate is reached, the military leadership on both sides will become aware that they no longer have a clear understanding of the causes that have originally led to the conflict. The resulting debates will encourage rationalisation, thereby overcoming justifications based on emotions and subjectivity.

At this point, a discrete facilitation process can help exchanges of points of view between leadership groups, by employing what I call perception or opinion messengers. Dealing with the conflict rationally through a debate of its causes will lead to the identification of external factors, especially where they attract large economic interests and benefits of multinational companies, such as the US agricultural giants that own most of the farming lands in the Ukraine.

A sign of the letter V in the colours of patriotic black and orange Saint George’s ribbon and the Russian flag – a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine, sits in the Zaryadye park, a short distance from the Kremlin, in central Moscow on February 24, 2023. Picture: Yuri KadobNov/African news

International approval in order to justify belligerent conduct is an important element in the process of conflict resolution. It explains, for instance, why Russia has not suspended its participation and interaction with the UN.

Eventually, the competition of the parties for international acclaim will redirect their energies away from a fixation on perceived past injustices. A further necessary condition for conflict resolution is the decontamination of the political discourse.

The ending of war propaganda and demonisation of the other should be rewarded. Just like any other form of social behaviour, conflicts can and should be managed. A simple example is the normal judicial practice in divorce actions, where courts routinely make interim orders, for instance on access to the children.

The management of conflict matters of common interest (such as the exchange of prisoners) will happen while the conflict proceeds. My proposition, from decades of experience in conflict management, is that ceasefire agreements are best deferred until the conclusion of the conflict resolution.

The Principle of Deferred Cease Fire Agreements achieves that the success of a conflict resolution process does not depend on, and will not benefit from, a prior ending of hostilities. Why should a party to a conflict lay down arms without knowing what benefits will accrue from such a move? Instead, by deferring the ceasefire arrangements, the ability of the parties to choose on the end of the conflict, is not compromised.

The principle of deferred ceasefire agreements avoids the interruptions and distractions of negotiations provoked by the inevitable allegations of ceasefire violations.

The case of South Africa in 1991, is an illustration of the risk posed by having to negotiate under the constant threat of new ceasefire disputes and their time-consuming controversies and investigations.

Critics will point out that this approach is immoral, as it would seem to belittle the dangers of violent confrontation, and allow for the accumulation of further war damages during negotiations.

However, nothing is gained by denials of the conflict’s reality. While we try to repress this reality, we deprive ourselves of the ability to manage and eventually resolve a conflict. The repeated twisting of conflict participants’ arms to sign ceasefire agreements as a pre-condition for negotiations, is misguided and disingenuous.

In the case of the Ukraine conflict, it would serve only to delay the resolution of the conflict’s causes, and the prevention of its further escalation.

Dr André Thomashausen is a German attorney and Professor Emeritus of International Law at Unisa