Western commentators on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war are frequently using the term, ‘quagmire’ – a bog, swamp or morass, from which, once you have entered, it is between hard and impossible to get out, as every move you make to free yourself sucks you deeper in. The term was widely used in the 1960s about the USA’s war in Vietnam.
As Lawrence Freedman has pointed out in one of his commentaries on the war, the term has a closely related partner – escalation, which might seem to a state stuck in a quagmire like the only way out. Both terms have a history and have considerable currency when analysing the problems and risks big states face in wars with smaller states.
But there is another metaphor from the time of the Vietnam War and all those arguments and debates, which I find even richer – the six-sided box. By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has taken his country into a box from which it is hard to see the way out. And that is bad news for everyone.
Well, yes, of course it is. All that is needed to start the process is that Russia, which started the war with its invasion, decides not to continue and pulls back.
That’s all that’s needed to start a peace process. But much more will be needed to sustain it and generate a real peace in Ukraine and between Russia and Ukraine. Much more and many years and the process will always be fragile.
On 3 January, the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA, the P5) jointly stated that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. So say we all, I hope. But what does it mean for the P5 to say this, and to say it now?
“What is the state of the world?” my colleague asks as we enter 2022. I’m still not sure whether to count my answer as optimistic or pessimistic.
While the years from 2015 to 2019 were marked by a distinct worsening in world security – which I traced each year in the Introduction to the annual SIPRI Yearbook – it was different in 2020. That was the year when things didn’t get worse.
All right – now, how to characterise 2021? That was the year when things didn’t get better.
In the history of colonialism and war, there are many atrocities, many of which stay hidden for decades and more. One such is known as the Jeju 4:3 incident, on the island of that name off the south coast of South Korea, in the years just before the Korean War. A sub-tropical island, a tourist magnet within Korea, the honeymoon island for prosperous Koreans before foreign travel became more popular, and again now during the Covid-19 pandemic. I know about it only because the Jeju Peace Foundation 4:3 has done me the extraordinary honour of awarding me the 2021 Jeju 4:3 Peace Prize. In this post, I summarise the Jeju 4:3 incident; the next one will contain my remarks upon receiving the award.
Histories of 2020 will start with the Covid-19 pandemic and there will probably be a lot about the US presidential election. Both the pandemic and the election have big implications for peace and security in 2021 and further ahead. Despite Covid, on the security horizon, 2020 was different from the three preceding years: at last, things didn’t get worse. It doesn’t sound like much but given how badly global security had deteriorated, it was an important, refreshing and much needed change.
Unfortunately, things didn’t get better either. But read on.
The extension of the US-Russian New START agreement on strategic nuclear weapons was achieved through the exchange of two sets of diplomatic notes between the respective governments, on 26 January and 3 February. The process was super-straightforward. Both President Putin of Russia and Joe Biden while US President-elect made clear they would each favour extension. The day after inauguration President Biden officially confirmed the position. A few days later, it was done. This was the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Good to have gotten it out of the way (and stupid that the previous administration let it go down to the wire) but now the real work starts.
This week is the week of the second Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development, on the theme of Shaping Africa’s New Normal: Recovering Stronger, Rebuilding Better. In a couple of months (4–7 May) we at SIPRI together with the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs will convene the 8th edition of the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Our theme will be Promoting Peace in the Age of Compound Risk. The agendas meet in interesting ways and a collaboration between the two forums is natural and already began last year. So I was very happy to be asked to record and send a message to participants at this year’s Aswan Forum, highlighting the dovetailing of the agendas and stressing the possibilities of a continuing partnership.