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Published: 21:39, November 14, 2023 | Updated: 09:34, November 15, 2023
Alternative narratives cast a new light on the Russia-Ukraine conflict
By Lau Siu-kai
Published:21:39, November 14, 2023 Updated:09:34, November 15, 2023 By Lau Siu-kai

Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in early 2022, governments, politicians, experts, and the media in the West have fabricated a narrative of the conflict favorable to themselves. The purpose is obviously to allow the West to occupy the moral high ground and isolate Russia internationally. Because the Western media enjoys a considerable influence worldwide, Western discourse has become almost a “mainstream” view. However, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has turned into a protracted crisis of attrition. The West’s “mainstream” conflict narrative is encountering more skepticism and challenges. Recently, alternative narratives on the Russia-Ukraine conflict are appearing in the West. These alternative narratives may not necessarily benefit Russia, but they have eroded the moral claim of the West. It has been further eroded because the US and its allies have excessively favored Israel in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which exposes their double standards and hypocrisy.

Western discussions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict include several themes. In the first place, Russia is the main culprit of this crisis as its initiator. Second, to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Ukrainian people are united and fight bravely. Due to Russia’s weak military capabilities and the West’s continuous supply of advanced weapons and equipment to Ukraine, Ukraine will eventually be able to regain the territories occupied by Russia, including Crimea. Third, to fight against Russia, the Western camp, especially NATO and the European Union, have demonstrated unprecedented unity and common indignation. They have imposed inordinately severe financial, trade, and technological sanctions on the aggressor. This has dealt a devastating blow to the Russian economy and will ultimately lead to the collapse of Russia. Fourth, since the West and Ukraine are engaged in a just war, countries around the world would stand on the side of the West and Ukraine, condemn Russia’s aggression, and join the West in imposing sanctions on Russia. Fifth, under the vast military, diplomatic, and economic pressure from other countries, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will end soon, and the crisis will be short. Finally, since Russia will eventually be defeated, the West’s goal should be to completely crush Russia militarily rather than to end the conflict through negotiations with Russia.

However, the “mainstream” Western war narrative is increasingly untenable as the Russia-Ukraine conflict becomes more protracted. Alternative reports on the Russia-Ukraine conflict have emerged in the West, raising doubts about the “mainstream” narrative. The alternative narratives, in contradistinction with the “mainstream” narrative, hold that:

First, the West and Ukraine had undeniable responsibilities for the outbreak of the conflict. On the eve of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, to win Russia’s acceptance of German reunification, the United States promised the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand eastward after German reunification. American scholar M. E. Sarotte, in her book Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, recounted, “To convince Gorbachev to relinquish this military and legal might, (US Secretary of State James) Baker uttered the words as a hypothetical bargain: what if you let your part of Germany go, and we agree that NATO will not ‘shift one inch eastward from its present position’? … Gorbachev let his part of Germany go, but along the way, Washington thought of its options, not least after the Soviet Union’s collapse in December 1991. The US realized that it could not only win big but win bigger. Not one inch of territory need to be off-limits to NATO.” Since then, NATO has expanded to the East repeatedly in defiance of the legitimate security concerns of Russia.

Jeffrey D Sachs believes the Russia-Ukraine conflict stems from the US’ provocations against Russia. “There were two main US provocations. The first was the US intention to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia to surround Russia in the Black Sea region by NATO countries. ... The second was the US role in installing a Russophobic regime in Ukraine by the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, in February 2014.”

 In the new developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China is better positioned than any other country to play a more prominent role as an envoy of peace and is bound to take up this role amid international expectations

Not only that, but the pro-Western Ukrainian governments groomed and patronized by the US have repeatedly made requests to join NATO after coming to power, which, if successful, will pose a fatal threat to Russia’s security.

The “mainstream” narrative fails to produce any evidence that Russia wants to annex the entire Ukraine. American political scientist John Mearsheimer is adamant that “there is zero evidence to support the claim that Putin was bent on conquering all of Ukraine and incorporating it into a Greater Russia.”

Chas W Freeman believes that Washington has sought to “exploit Ukrainian courage to thrash Russia, reinvigorate NATO, and reinforce US primacy in Europe.” After Russia is defeated, the US can concentrate its efforts on China, which is deemed the primary adversary of the US.

Second, for a long time before the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US and NATO vigorously strengthened Ukraine’s military, including training Ukrainian soldiers. They believed that if a conflict broke out between Russia and Ukraine, Ukraine would be able to gain an advantage on the battlefield. John Mearsheimer accused the US and the West of egging the Russians on. However, Ukraine is increasingly disadvantaged on the battlefield as the war progresses. Alexander Ward and others noted wistfully, “The conversation about Ukraine’s counteroffensive has shifted from excitement to disappointment.”

The well-known American journalist Seymour Hersh even believes that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has reached a “bad moment”. In his words, “There are significant elements in the American intelligence community … who believe that the demoralized Ukrainian army has given up on the possibility of (victory). … The reality is that Zelensky’s battered army no longer has any chance of a victory.”

Mearsheimer put it even more bluntly, “I believe Russia will win the war, which means it will end up conquering and annexing substantial Ukrainian territory, leaving Ukraine as a dysfunctional rump state.”

Third, in the early stages of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, both the political elite and the public in the Western camp were unprecedentedly united, supporting extremely severe sanctions on Russia and voluminous financial, material, and military assistance to Ukraine. Although Russia has endured tremendous pain and sacrifice, as a significant country in energy, resources, and industry, its economy has not collapsed. On the contrary, Europe’s economy and its people’s livelihoods have been hit severely, while its industrial competitiveness has plummeted due to soaring energy prices. Even in the US, Americans are beginning to grow tired of a war in which the outcome is uncertain but requires endless investment of resources. Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage noted, “Continued Western commitment to Ukraine cannot be guaranteed. Political constituencies in Europe and the US question long-term support for Ukraine. … Optimism about Ukraine’s success has begun to waver, leading to uneasiness about a major, open-ended war on European soil. … To Europeans, the longer the war continues, the more it could seem intractable and costly, more a vehicle for US power than a core European interest.”

Nina Jankowicz and Tom Southern also believe that “(The) public … may already be beginning to waver in several Western countries.” “Key Russian narratives — including the notions that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis and that NATO is responsible for the war — have gained traction in these societies.” “Similar trends are appearing in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center poll published in February (2023), a quarter of Americans believe that the US is giving too much support to Kyiv.”

Stephen Collinson of CNN reported on Aug 9, 2023, “A new CNN/SSRS poll last week reflected the political complexities in the US over the war, with 55 percent of voters now saying Congress should not authorize additional funding to support Ukraine. Some 51 percent said the US has done enough to help, while 48 percent said it should do more. Soon after the Russian invasion in February 2022, 62 percent said the US should do more to support Ukraine.”

Several recent polls confirm that a sense of weariness and apathy toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict has gripped the Western public.

On the other hand, after a period of continuous delivery of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, the US and its allies need more stocks of weapons and ammunition, making it challenging to support Ukraine in continuing this conflict of attrition. Swedish columnist Malcom Kyeyune said, “The world’s largest economy has almost no conventional ammunition to send to Europe. This is after the US scooped up its stockpile while scavenging ammunition for Ukraine from every ally on the planet.”

Fourth, regarding the nature of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, there are glaring differences in perception between Western countries and non-Western countries. Most non-Western countries have adopted a “none of my business” attitude towards this crisis. Although they disagree with Russia starting the war and occupying Ukrainian territory, they also believe that this war is a “proxy war” deliberately instigated by the US to crush Russia. This war has forced other countries and even the world to pay a hefty price, especially in terms of food and energy, and it has hindered the handling of many pressing global problems. Shivshankar Menon stated, “Most commentary in Asian capitals has regarded the conflict as a war between Europeans over the European security order — not an epochal global conflagration.”

Fifth, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has lasted for nearly two years, but it has turned into a war of attrition. No one knows when it will end, but Russia will not likely be defeated. Samuel Charap of the RAND Corp reasoned that “15 months of fighting has made clear that neither side has the capacity — even with external help — to achieve a decisive military victory over the other. Regardless of how much Ukrainian territory forces can liberate, Russia will maintain the capability to pose a permanent threat to Ukraine.”

Finally, because the US and several of its European allies are convinced that Russia will eventually be defeated, not only do they have no intention of engaging in peace negotiations with Russia, but they have even torpedoed possible negotiations from time to time so that the conflict can continue. According to Freeman’s description, in the early days after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, “when third-party mediation achieved a draft agreement between Russia and Ukraine, the West — represented by the British — insisted that Ukraine repudiate it.”

However, since Ukraine has a higher chance of final defeat than victory, some demands have emerged that the West and Ukraine should seek negotiations with Russia to end the conflict without even making Ukraine’s recovery of the land occupied by Russia a precondition. In this connection, the views of Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan, both influential American scholars, are particularly noteworthy. They asserted that “maintaining Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign and secure democracy is a priority, but achieving that goal does not require the country to recover full control of Crimea and the Donbas in the near term.”

The rise of alternative narratives about the Russia-Ukraine conflict means that the moral and political appeals of the “mainstream” Western narrative are diminishing daily. The voices calling for peaceful negotiations to end the Russia-Ukraine conflict are increasingly strident and widespread. The eruption of the Israel-Hamas conflict has diverted the attention and the support of the West from Ukraine, making the continuation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict an increasingly heavy burden on the West. Accordingly, the chance of restoring peace in Europe through talks is rising. After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China has consistently adopted the stance of “persuading talks to promote peace”. In the new developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China is better positioned than any other country to play a more prominent role as an envoy of peace and is bound to take up this role amid international expectations.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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