On the UN International Day of Peace is war now too expensive?

By Keith Best

Wednesday 21 September is the UN International Day of Peace. The UN website states that the UN General Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, through observing 24 hours of non-violence and cease-fire. But achieving true peace entails much more than laying down arms.  It requires the building of societies where all members feel that they can flourish. It involves creating a world in which people are treated equally, regardless of their race. As Secretary-General António Guterres has said: “Racism continues to poison institutions, social structures, and everyday life in every society. It continues to be a driver of persistent inequality. And it continues to deny people their fundamental human rights. It destabilizes societies, undermines democracies, erodes the legitimacy of governments, and… the linkages between racism and gender inequality are unmistakable.” The 2022 theme for the International Day of Peace is “End racism. Build peace” one, which, no doubt, we all endorse. But my theme is whether war itself, not only has become illegitimate in seeking solutions to international issues but has priced itself out of the market.

I know that many will point to the low-level wars fought by guerrillas or armed militia with the Kalashnikov and the improvised explosive device by the roadside. Such wars, often insurgencies, are often the legacy of a wider war in which large quantities of small arms have been left available once the principal combatants have left – such, undoubtedly, is seen in Afghanistan. These are cheap wars and there are many of them around the world often neglected by popular attention. For these the continued restriction and registration of small arms is the most important international action.

In 2001 countries adopted the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA). In the instrument governments agreed to improve national small arms regulations, to strengthen stockpile management, to ensure that weapons are properly and reliably marked, to improve cooperation in weapons tracing and to engage in regional and international cooperation and assistance. Within the PoA framework the General Assembly adopted the International Tracing Instrument (ITI) in 2005, a global instrument for cooperation in weapons tracing. Improving weapons tracing is now part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together, both instruments constitute the normative framework on small arms and light weapons, which all UN Member States have agreed upon.

States periodically report on the implementation of the PoA and ITI and review implementation efforts at Biennial Meetings of States and Review Conferences. Additionally, countries have held Meetings of Governmental Experts to benefit from the knowledge of technical specialists on matters pertaining to small arms control.

The global framework of treaties and instruments also includes the Firearms Protocol and the Arms Trade Treaty. In addition, there are regional instruments and regional roadmaps to control and regulate small arms and light weapons.

My focus, however, is on the more expensive wars in which armoured vehicles, smart munitions, missiles, drones, large quantities of armaments and novel weapons are used.  These are the wars in Vietnam for the French and the USA, Iraq (for the USA and the Western Alliance) and Afghanistan (for Russia, USA and other Western countries). The amount of money that has been poured into these conflicts is well documented elsewhere (one “smart” bomb costs at least $25,000) – in most rational minds it represents a terrible diversion of funds that could and arguably should be spent more on elevation of the condition and living standards of the global population as well as on measures to prevent conflict in the first place.

Yet it is not just that only those states with the largest economies can afford such expenditure, especially on a sustained basis, but the political fallout. Vietnam humiliated the American military and showed that a committed group of irregulars (admittedly with the addition of the North Vietnamese Army) could defeat the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth. It also divided (and still does) American society and its politics. The end of the war was brought about mainly through domestic pressure on why so many young Americans were losing their lives or being mutilated for life in a far-away land. Its effects on sentiment for overseas engagement still impacts on American politics. The Monroe Doctrine of two hundred years ago still has resonance!

It is argued by historians that the disastrous decision by the UK and France to send in troops to the Suez Canal in 1956 – after its nationalisation by Gamal Abdel Nasser President of Egypt – only to find that the invasion was not supported by the USA “signified the end of Great Britain’s role as one of the world’s major powers”. There are significant consequences to a bad military intervention!

Most generals will tell you that there is never a military solution to any conflict and that peace can come only through diplomatic and political involvement. Hence the frustration of the military when there is clearly no exit strategy or statement of political goals – meaning that conflicts can drag on for years. This was never more evident than in the Gulf War which saw the downfall of Saddam Hussein. The reverberations of disbanding the Iraqi military forces who could have maintained an uneasy peace and upheld the rule of law are felt to this day. The false premise of the excuse for war through the claimed existence of weapons of mass destruction still arouse passions in the UK today with people calling for the prosecution of the Prime Minister at the time Tony Blair as a war criminal.

Russia’s ten-year involvement in Afghanistan demonstrated that a super-power with advanced weaponry and extensively armed attack helicopters could be defeated by what most dismissed as a rabble armed only with light weapons. The end for the Russians was to go home with their tail between their legs – it was not just glasnost and perestroika that signalled the end but the increasing number of body bags that brought home to the Russian matriarchs that their sons and brothers were being sacrificed for no gain. They joined the experience of the Americans sixteen years earlier. The appalling chaos of the American and Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 is not only an ongoing source of shame and Parliamentary investigation but, again, left those countries, which had done so much to stabilise that country over the previous twenty years with women given the status and education they not only deserved but was essential for the Afghan economy, humiliated in the eyes of global opinion.

So we come to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The manifest failure of Russia to secure its declared objective of suppressing the whole of Ukraine has left it and its military humiliated in the eyes of the world. The incompetence of resupply lines, the vulnerability of Russian armour to drone location and destruction and the old Russian tactic of levelling an objective with indiscriminate artillery shelling (tactics that have not changed from the Great Patriotic War ie WWII) have been so manifest that what Putin has shown is the very limits of Russian military ability and resources. Poor generalship (so many have been targeted and killed by the Ukrainians), ageing and badly maintained equipment, inadequate training of the soldiery and the clear retreat from objectives have exposed Russian military might for the chimaera it is. Never again will other countries (including NATO ones) fear the Russian bear as an unstoppable force. The war, of course, has been of inestimable benefit to NATO: it has been able to see the weapons Western countries have donated to Ukraine used on the battlefield so that they are fully tested in combat conditions – never achievable in peacetime. It has shown the inadequacy of Russian command and control.

Sadly, it is not only the tactics that have not changed in 75 years but also the brutality and licence of Russian soldiers either ignorant of or careless about the Geneva Conventions and humanitarian law – for which enormous evidence is being assembled of alleged war crimes – which were the hallmarks of the rape and looting effected by Soviet forces entering Berlin at the end of WWII. With the fightback by the Ukrainians and increasingly sophisticated weaponry from the West at their disposal, coupled with bold attacks on Crimea itself it is clear that Ukraine will not wish to stop at pushing the Russians out of the Donbass but will wish to reclaim Crimea, occupied in 2014 and allowed to remain by a weak reaction from the West.

Putin, of course, has a nuclear arsenal but there are many constraints on its use. His fear should be that this is a war that NATO now wants in order to remove for a generation the threat to its integrity by Moscow and that NATO would win. Only recently retired US Army Chief of Staff General Jack Keane stated that the conflict against Russia which NATO has been preparing for “is here”. “Russia has invaded Ukraine and if successful and they’re able to take this sovereign country and own and control this country, they will be encouraged to go further with that,” he told Sky News. There must be many others who are seeing this as the showdown to finally end the Russian potential threat and will wish to push it to its final conclusion. The outcome of war is never certain. It is a terrifying prospect not least because of events that can shape it that are beyond political planning and control.

Perhaps Putin should have studied the ancient Chinese military genius Sun Tzu’s text in The Art of War from which come his famous sayings “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak” and “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” He also advised “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”  Sadly for Russia, Putin has failed all three tests. The mythology of the invincible Russian massed military is in shreds, he has embarked on a war when the threat of military force has been substituted by the weaknesses exhibited by its actual use and, clearly, he did not know his enemy. Whether it was his own fanciful thinking or the advice he received and believed, it soon became obvious that the Ukrainians were not a people suppressed by neo-Nazis and a government they detested, waiting only to be liberated by the Russians, but were prepared to undergo any hardship in order to repel an unwelcome invasion. If the Putin line was the one that was fed to the Russian troops before they invaded then they had a rude awakening once they came into contact with ordinary Ukrainians.

It seems that Putin will be remembered as the Russian leader who not only diminished the status and reputation of the Russian military but also destroyed his country’s economy. It will be interesting to see if at all Russia is able to recover and, if so, how long this will take. The likelihood is that Russia will become increasingly dependent on China as the destination of its oil and gas and for support at the UN. This is a danger that the West should not neglect. It is bad enough having two autocracies flexing their military muscles on the world stage – the consequences of an unholy alliance between the two does not bear thinking about.

For Putin and other dictators the nostalgia for former empire and the attraction of rebuilding it is irresistible; the rest of the world has moved on. None of the former great colonial powers are contemplating going back to the old hegemony – indeed, the British Empire has been transmogrified into the Commonwealth, a free association of 53 states with so much in common. It is true in the words of Dean Acheson in 1962 that Britain has lost an empire and failed to find a role (words that still have resonance) but, unlike Russia, Britain does not seek to reimpose its colonial authority over its previous dependants. Russia needs to live with it!

Yet we need rapprochement. Consequently, once Putin is despatched by the intervention of either the Grim Reaper or a group of disillusioned oligarchs around him the West must look to negotiate with the new face of Russia – hopefully a more liberal and sensible one and not a continuation of the present policy. It is important that we all accept that from the days of Peter the Great (on whom Putin models himself) Russia has been largely a European power facing West, not East, and that the olive branch of peaceful co-operation and co-existence is proffered so as to enable Russia to feel that it is a respected and valued contributor to the development of Western ideals of respect for the rule of law, human rights and democracy.  The most effective influence comes from within a relationship rather than from outside it.