Prospects of peace and an end to the war in Ukraine need to be assessed in the context of three overlapping developments. Three events are overlapping. First, the war in the Ukraine is escalating in terms of both weaponry and casualties. This presents a problem for Putin as if the casualty estimate is correct (already over 100,000), he will run into a barrier greater than the enemy as he runs out, not of money or bullets, but men. If Russian wives and mothers love their children like everyone else, at some point, Putin will discover, as the Americans found out in Vietnam, that it will be domestic unrest couple with an unwinnable war, that will make a change of direction essential.
Second, as the rhetoric of nuclear threats continue, nuclear arms control is in freefall. Putin’s most recent suspension of participation in the New START Treaty, is only the latest in a sequence of treaties or arms control and regional security that either the United States or Russia have been busy deleting since 2002.
Third, it appears China is on the cusp of supplying arms to Russia. This would be a small step given the military cooperation and technology development that already exists between the two countries. The only current barriers to Chinese supply are American pressure and the Arms Trade Treaty, of which China, to its credit, is a signatory, unlike both the United States and Russia. This treaty, in theory, prohibits any arms trade which, inter alia, facilitates crimes against humanity, attacks on civilians, or undermines peace and security.
How much credence China will give to the Arms Trade Treaty is unknown. China is currently balanced between a strong friendship with Russia and the chance to join forces to end western hegemony as they see it, as opposed to strong economic risks, that they could end up causing harm to themselves. Provoking a strong reaction from the western countries which collectively provide both the majority of the materials and export markets which have China’s growth so successful, cannot be lightly dismissed.
I expect that the decision of whether China moves to a fully non-neutral position will depend, in part, upon the success of their 12 Point Proposal on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis. This document, follows a long tradition where something visionary is proposed, and that forms the basis for negotiations. The more neutral a country is in making the proposal, the more integrity it has.
The Chinese proposal sits between two other proposals. The first, by the Russians is built on their suggestion that peace will be “on our terms”. This is not a surprise as modern Russian wars have followed a pattern – victory is either total (Chechnya or Syria) or it involves the dismemberment of the other country (Georgia or Ukraine after the first Russian intervention in 2014). Peace treaties are rare and settlements have been Russia’s alone to approve. Opponents are expected to surrender, not negotiate. Exactly what the Russians want is uncertain. Given that Putin has earlier denied the existence of Ukrainian statehood at all, he may believe Russia is entitled to it all. Or he may only demand international recognition of Russian claims to territory already conquered and illegally annexed. Beyond that, he may be looking for the disarmament of all parts of eastern Europe that were once part of the Soviet Union.
The peace plan, by Zelensky, involves a collection of wide goals including radiation and nuclear safety, especially around Zaporizhzhia; food security via allowing the international trade to continue; energy security via, inter alia, restoring Ukrainian power infrastructure; environmental security via, inter alia, the restoring of all water treatment facilities; and release of all prisoners and deportees. Critically, the Ukrainian proposal includes a formal end to the war, which recognises their full territorial integrity and withdrawal of all Russian troops from their territory; and a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes. They also want new security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic space, including guarantees for Ukraine.
The third peace plan by China echoes part of Zelensky’s. They too emphasise protecting civilians and prisoners of war; keeping nuclear power plants safe; and facilitating grain exports. They add the importance of resolving the humanitarian crisis, with the UN at the forefront of relief. They also support the ideal of promoting post-conflict reconstruction, as a responsibility of the international community. Wisely, they spelled out the critical point that ‘nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed’. The inclusion the word ‘threat’ was important. They recommend a cessation of hostilities and a resumption of peace talks, which the international community should commit to. Critically, in a clear pointer to the integrity of the Ukrainian nation, the Chinese proposal stipulates,
Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed. The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld.
The counter-weight to this proposal is that ‘the security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others. The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs’. They suggest a new, ‘balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture’ must be created. Both Russia and the Ukraine agree with this, although they have very different ideas of what this will look like. Although a very difficult task, the Chinese are correct to put this on the table. If peace for Europe is to be returned, they will need to restitch and potentially rethink, a new generation of arrangements, which balances the needs of all parties. This was done once before at the end of the first Cold War. It can, and must, be done again.
What the Chinese proposal misses is suggestions that about bringing those accused of war crimes to justice, or Russian responsibility for restoration of the damage caused. Where it adds something unique, which reflects their vulnerability, is their recommendation on the importance of keeping globalisation spinning, ensuring that industrial and supply chains remain stable and not weaponised; and stopping unilateral sanctions, as in those unauthorized by the UN Security Council. While there is merit in this idea, to be successful, the sanction question must be contextualised against the failure of the Security Council, due to the veto, especially around matters of peace and security that threaten the international order.
There is a lot to unpackage in this proposal by China. Although not ideal, it contains some excellent points, and it should be acknowledged as a good starting place on the long pathway to peace in the Ukraine.
Professor Alexander Gillespie obtained his LLB and LLM degrees with Honours from The University of Auckland. He did his PhD at Nottingham and post-doctoral studies at Columbia University in New York City. His areas of scholarship pertain to international and comparative environmental law; the laws of war; civil liberties; and a number of pressing issues of social concern. Alexander has published nineteen books. His most recent works are People, Power and Law: A New Zealand History (jointly written with Professor Claire Breen, which was published in 2022 by Bloomsbury/Hart in Oxford, UK); and Volume IV of his Causes of War (1650-1800) series. This was also published by Bloomsbury, in 2021. He has also written over forty academic articles. Alexander has been awarded a Rotary International Scholarship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a residency at the Rockerfeller Bellagio Centre in Italy, and the New Zealand Law Foundation International Research Fellowship. He was the recipient of a Francqui Foundation award with which he held a professorship at Ghent University, Belgium, for six months during 2018/2019. In 2021 he was the joint winner of the Critic and Conscience of Society Award.