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The Intolerable Risks of Frozen Conflicts
And why America needs to help Ukraine win outright.
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Strolling along the corridors of power in Washington this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky heard any number of promises to support his country. Everyone from President Biden down to congressional leaders and, well, everyone in the American policy elite vowed to stand with Ukraine in its war against Russia.
But no one is more aware than Zelensky that these reassurances are needed mostly because, privately, many in Washington and Brussels hold another view, one that is too crude to bubble up to official statements, but which silently haunts the public expressions of support.
According to this second view, the risks involved in humiliating a leader like Vladimir Putin are far too high, so the Ukrainian conflict is likely to be frozen before it can be resolved. Vladimir Putin may, as the Ukrainians now believe, be planning a winter offensive without having the resources to sustain it. Sooner or later a relatively stable line of control is going to arise, and when it does, it will tend to harden. Despite Biden’s lofty pronouncements, the temptation will be overwhelming for Western allies to leave well enough alone and tacitly accept the new frozen reality on the ground.
But this would be a mistake. Freezing the Ukrainian conflict would bring dangers of its own, dangers that would stretch on indefinitely into the future, with unpredictable results. The world already has too many frozen conflicts, each of which could thaw at any time and, imaginably, help thaw the others. Adding one more to the list would deepen the systemic risks indefinitely into the future, incurring dangers that can’t be quantified and shouldn’t be tolerated. Far better to help Ukraine win its war now, risky though that is, than to shove off the risk onto future generations.
Frozen conflicts are a relatively recent phenomenon. Look through the history of international armed conflict and you’ll find a very long list of conflicts that ended when one side was victorious and the other side defeated. Then the nuclear era started, and things changed. Since 1945, the trend has been for key conflicts to be interrupted rather than resolved. Starting with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, warring parties began to find new reasons to pause fighting even if the results could not be made official through a diplomatic settlement.
All of today’s most destabilizing international fault-lines double as yesteryear’s frozen conflicts. The chronic tensions across the Taiwan strait amount to the long aftermath of the Chinese Civil War, which got frozen in place rather than settled when the defeated nationalist regime fled the mainline and set up shop in Taiwan in 1949. The air raid sirens that sporadically send people in South Korea and Northern Japan scurrying for bomb shelters are the farthest echoes of the Korean War, frozen for the last seven decades rather than resolved.
In the international relations literature, the term “frozen conflict” usually describes the jagged edges of the old Soviet Union, from the on-again-off-again carnage between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, to the gangster republic of Transnistria in Moldova, to the Moscow puppet states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. But the old Soviet sphere has no monopoly on frozen conflict: the world is strewn with them, from the Western Sahara to Kosovo.
We don’t really have a good theory about why so many conflicts get frozen rather than resolved. Intuition suggests it’s just another unintended consequence of the nuclear age: when one or both sides, or their backers, are nuclear armed, the imperative to avoid escalation becomes a powerful argument to stop fighting whether or not the conflict is over.
If the Ukrainian conflict does eventually end up frozen, there’s no doubt that the fear of nuclear escalation will be the main reason for it. To use a medical analogy, freezing does to a conflict what insulin does to diabetes: transforming an acute, deadly illness into an uncomfortable but manageable chronic condition. In the same way that no diabetic would give up insulin just because it doesn’t ultimately cure diabetes, we would be misguided to frown on freezing in principle just because it doesn’t ultimately resolve a conflict.
The problem, of course, is that a conflict that can freeze is a conflict that can thaw. Frozen conflicts resist permanent solutions, so the dangers just remain there, indefinitely, compounding one on top of another, decade after decade. And we have terrifyingly little idea how the thawing of one conflict could affect the temperature of all the other frozen conflicts around the world.
That puts the prospect of a frozen Ukrainian conflict in a very different light. The future is long, and systemic interactions are fundamentally intractable. Who is to say that the kinds of measures that will be needed to keep the Ukrainian conflict frozen won’t be precisely the ones most likely to thaw another conflict—India-Pakistan, say? Conversely, if the U.S. finds itself locked in an acute, possibly active nuclear showdown with North Korea, it’s easy to imagine a future Russian leadership calculating that strategic distraction offers it a unique chance to “finish the job” in Ukraine.
You can multiply scenarios like these ad infinitum. Their likelihood of coming to pass is fundamentally unknowable. What we can say, I think, is that with each new conflict that gets frozen in place, the likelihood of these sorts of systemic interactions taking place at some point in the future rises.
And the most disquieting prospect is one so dire it’s barely discussed: what if three or more thaws begin to feedback on one another concurrently? It isn’t difficult to construct a model where conflicts remain frozen so long as other conflicts are frozen, but where the thawing of one increases the likelihood of the thawing of all the others. As any doctor will tell you, managing one chronic condition is one thing; managing five or six concurrent ones is something very different. What you do to treat one could destabilize another. Any addition to the list—such as a frozen Ukraine war—compounds systemic risks in incalculable ways.
The good news is that the same concerns about untrammeled escalation that tend to freeze conflicts in the first place tend to keep them frozen over the long term. The most optimistic scenario, then, is that freezing the Ukraine conflict turns out to be an ultimately stable kludge: the least bad way of dealing with a war that carries unacceptable nuclear risks.
Unfortunately, the West already tried its hand at freezing the Ukrainian conflict in place following Russia’s 2014 aggression—and look where that’s gotten us. With Moscow continuing to reject partial solutions, it seems only a complete one will do.
Thankfully a complete—or near complete—victory for Ukraine is no pipe dream. Thanks to Western backing, Ukraine’s technological edge on the battlefield is proving decisive in ways Moscow failed to anticipate. The latest $1.8 billion weapons package making its way to Ukraine will only deepen the imbalance. Russian forces’ morale and material problems are real and worsening, and Putin has few options for addressing them. And while control over an increasingly russified Crimea looks likely to remain unresolved even in the best-case scenario for Ukraine, the prospect of repelling Russian forces from the whole of the Donbas no longer looks like a pipe dream.
Which are all good reasons to hope President Biden means what he says when he pledges to help Ukraine. Ukraine did not choose to begin this conflict, and nor did the West. But together, they can choose to win it.
Francisco Toro, a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty, is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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