March 2023

High cost of long wars

Amit Agnihotri assesses the global uncertainty triggered by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and the PLA’s preparations for aggression over Taiwan

Even as the world powers ponder ways to end the year-long Russia-Ukraine conflict, Europe’s worst since World War II, an aggressive China appears to be beating its own war drums.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent call to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to become a world-class force by 2027 and win local wars prompted former US National Security Adviser HR McMaster to infer that Beijing was preparing to annex breakaway Taiwan in a few years.

US-China rivalry seemed to have peaked last year over Taiwan, when Beijing conducted its largest ever military exercises in response to the Taipei visit of former US House ofRepresentatives Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Then, last month, the emergence of suspected Chinese spy balloons that were shot down by the US led to increased friction between the two undeclared cold war rivals.

Over the past years, China has been making provocative territorial claims in the East and South China Sea, which led to the creation of the US-led Quad in 2020 as a countermeasure.

The emergence of suspected Chinese spy balloons that were shot down by the US led to increased US-China friction

That same year in April, China deliberately violated the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh, known as the de facto border with India, and heavily militarised the zone that led to an escalation of tensions in South Asia.

Since then, the Asian Dragon has made little effort to defuse border tensions with India, which was forced to match military deployment along the LAC and continues to eye China with suspicion.

The heavy military deployment and continuous infrastructure upgrade along the LAC is an indicator that Beijing has plans to prolong the conflict, which may result in a war.

In Eurasia, Xi’s friend and Russian President Vladimir Putin seems in no hurry to end the war in Ukraine, despite operational setbacks, a loss of over a lakh of soldiers and a mounting financial burden resulting from harsh Western economic sanctions.Indeed, Putin has hinted that Russians should prepare for a long war.

Against this backdrop, the Eurasian war is unlikely to end soonas the root of the conflict is decades old. A close look at events before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shows the conflict is less about Moscow’s tensions with Kyiv and more about the US-Russia rivalry that started after World War II.

biden zelenski
UNPRECEDENTED: US President Joe Biden (pictured, left, with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky) in Kyiv on February 20

Ukraine is just a pawn in the game and has suffered immensely through becoming a theatre of war. But for the massive military and financial aid from the West that has flowed into the country since February 2022, it would have been impossible for Kyiv to put up such stiff and lengthy resistance against Moscow’s military might.

According to estimates, Kyiv has received military aid worth $50 billion from the West and the deployment of modern western tanks will only prolong the conflict rather than shorten it.

While President Putin seems willing to dig in his heels till the Kremlin regains its sphere of influence in the former Soviet region, the sudden appearance of US President Joe Biden in Kyiv on February 20demonstrated that the West, too, is prepared to fight it out till Moscow is exhausted and coerced into a peace deal.

As both sides work on their strategies and wait for them to bear fruit, the battered Ukrainians continue to live in hope that peace will soon dawn on their homeland. 

fighting in Ukraine
The Eurasian war is unlikely to end soonas the root of the conflict is decades old

Russia’swar in Ukraine has challenged the United Nations-based world order

Power games

At a time when talking about disarmament is politically correct but contrary to realpolitik across the world, a preference for long wars would lead to stockpiling of weapons and setting up of war chests by nations looking to settle scores with their rivals or assert their strategic influence.

Surprisingly, the US support to Ukraine came just a year after it wriggled out of its longest war, which started in Afghanistan in 2001. That withdrawal had generated an impression that the US’ global influence was waning.

But support for Ukraine in countering Russia provided an opportunity for the US to reassert its global power status and bring its European allies closer.

According to some estimates, the US has spent over $6 trillion fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan over the past two decades. It is safe to conclude that the US could sustain these wars primarily due to its economic might.

In the case of China, which has the second largest defence budget in the world after the US, surplus funds have allowed Beijing to carry on with its Himalayan misadventures while the situation along the LAC caused financial stress in India. The latter has been trying to move up the development curve fast to retain its South Asian power status and to secure a seat at the global table.

Long wars are not only expensive for the nations fighting them; they have the tendency to create problems for the wider world. For instance, the Russia-Ukraine war resulted in a global energy crisis and disrupted international supply chains.

Geopolitical posturing in the wake of the Eurasian conflict hasnot only brought China closer to Russia, it has allowed nations like India to pursue a sharper non-aligned policy, by being simultaneously on the US side and helping Moscow by buying its discounted oil.

The conflict has also challenged the United Nations-based world order and provided an opportunity for developing nations torenew their demands for reform to the existing international system. 

Human cost

As well as having a political impact, long wars exact a human cost. In Ukraine, more than 6 million people have been displaced due to the conflict and over 7.8 million refugees were recorded from the country to Europe up to the end of 2022.

In another example, the decade-long conflict in Syria has left over 3.5 lakh civilians dead, as per UN reports, which also point out that the crisis was marked by utter disregard for international human rights and peace norms in the trouble-torn country. The conflict that started off as pro-democracy protests in 2011 later snowballed into a full-scale civil war.

In the process, Syria, too, has became a playground for world powers out to assert their spheres of influence. The West, Turkey and the Arab states backed the opposition while Russia and Iran supported the government led by President Bashar al-Assad.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues