March of Ukraine's Defenders on Independence Day in Kyiv, 2019

What Are David’s Options When Goliath Makes Geopolitical Reality?

The new year will inherit a handful of “frozen conflicts” from the old in which a much stronger nation looms over a weaker party.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is unwilling to pay the heavy price of challenging Russia; so, he is searching for a nonviolent solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine has Western backing as it seeks peace. In their struggles against their own Goliaths, Pakistan and Hong Kong largely stand alone as no outside power is willing or can afford to come to their aid.

I asked Tom if countries always apologized when they had done wrong, and he says, “Yes; the little ones does.”
— Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad

The old year’s parting present to 2020 is a gaggle of what the Russians call “frozen conflicts” across the globe. Any one of them may unfreeze in the year ahead, bringing bloodshed and exile to innocents and threatening an already precarious world order. In some, the balance of forces is so disproportionate that the weaker party has no options but to bow to strength. The Goliaths of Russia and India, among others, dictate terms to the Davids of Ukraine and Pakistan. The people of tiny Hong Kong are standing up to China, but for how long? Who will defend Hong Kong if China abolishes the former British colony’s “one country, two systems” status? For that matter, would NATO prevent Moscow from seizing more Ukrainian territory than it already has? Would the United Nations defend Pakistan if India expels the Muslims of Kashmir, as Burma did the Rohingya Muslims?

This was not how it was supposed to be. As the Second World War was ending in June 1945, the new United Nations published its charter in San Francisco. The first sentence of the charter’s first article promised “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.” Strength of the kind Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had used to subjugate weaker nations was outlawed. International law and justice were to replace a system where might made, if not right, then reality.

Avoiding a Fight in Ukraine

Goliath has the upper hand, but a few Davids are holding their own. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose country’s population of 45 million can barely stand up to Russia’s 145 million, lacks any obvious means to reclaim territories Russia seized in 2014. Yet he is trying. There are regular artillery exchanges along the 265-mile front line with Russian-supported forces, but the neophyte leader is avoiding war and may yet salvage something for his country.

Zelenskiy finally met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 9 in Paris at the summit conference of the so-called Normandy quartet: Zelenskiy, Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin and Zelenskiy huddled without aides for a 90-minute tête-à-tête. “We don’t know what was said,” a longtime observer of Russia-Ukraine relations, whose position requires him to remain anonymous, told me. Whatever was said, Putin told reporters there had been “a warming in relations.” Zelenskiy reaffirmed his commitment to a nonviolent solution that hard-line Ukrainian nationalists oppose: “I know there are a lot of hotheads, especially those who hold rallies and say, ‘Let’s go fight and win it all back!’ But at what price? What’s the cost? I won’t do it.”

Zelenskiy won’t fight, because he can’t. Although the Ukrainian army surprised the Russians with a strong defense in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, it lacks the force to win an all-out war. Washington, which has armed and advised the Ukrainian military, has weakened Zelenskiy with ambiguous signals of continuing support. The Russian presence among 6 million Ukrainians in the 20,000-square-mile zone of Donetsk and Luhansk, where rebels have declared Russian-speaking republics that only Russia recognizes, appears to grow less popular with time. A Russian expert, who recently toured disputed areas in Ukraine, said, “When the Russians go into these places, they become unlivable. No one wants to live there.”

Russia denies its own forces are fighting in eastern Ukraine, despite the burials in Russian military cemeteries of fallen soldiers. If Russia publicly sends in massive force to settle the issue, Zelenskiy can refuse to allow the transit of Russian natural gas across Ukraine to Europe. The Russians, whose faltering economy has forced a reduction in their military budget, seek an end to the sanctions Western countries imposed after their seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. So, the conflict is frozen for now. The status quo suits Russia, as it does in other areas where Moscow-backed separatists maintain pseudo-republics, like the Transdniestria region of Moldova and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.

Dilemmas and Struggles

Pakistan faces a similar dilemma to Ukraine’s, but it has no Normandy quartet, no sanctions on India and no pipeline route. While India has not seized Pakistani territory, it is provoking Pakistan with anti-Muslim legislation in India, the abrogation of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s autonomy and the rearming of Indian troops on their mutual border. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has offered to negotiate Kashmir’s future with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but, unlike Putin, the Indian premier refuses a meeting. Khan has told me that, while he opposes discrimination of Muslims in India, his hands are tied because the West supports Modi. The Arab states have rejected his appeals on behalf of Indian Muslims, and he cannot confront India directly without the risk of nuclear war.

Hong Kongers have staged a brave struggle to preserve their city’s autonomous status within China, but no outside power can afford to come to their aid if Beijing grows impatient with their demands and decides to treat them as it does the Uighurs in Xinjiang. China’s need for Hong Kong as a bridge to the West and a global trading center has diminished with the rise of Shanghai and other mainland cities as commercial hubs. To violate the treaty with the United Kingdom guaranteeing Hong Kong’s special status until 2047 would be illegal, but enforcing international law without risk of war is a trick that has eluded jurists for generations.

Ukraine, Pakistan and Hong Kong are beacons of power compared to the Palestinians in relation to Israel. Their population lives in exile or under occupation, their land is subject daily to Israeli expropriation, their young languish in Israeli prisons for even the most peaceful of demonstrations and their leaders are as corrupt as any in the Middle East. Not only do the United States and its European allies refuse to support their legal and humanitarian rights but the Arab states have also abandoned them. They have nowhere to turn. Yet, like Donbas and Kashmir, the status quo cannot hold forever.

Read the full article on Stratfor – The World’s Leading Geopolitical Intelligence Platform

Main image: March of Ukraine’s Defenders on Independence Day in Kyiv, 2019. Photograph by Ввласенко.

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