Ukraine war
Russia-Ukraine war: The extra attention Ukraine is getting is not because of its uniqueness but because of its location in Europe Image Credit: Gulf News

Since last week, the war in Ukraine has raised fear in many circles about the overall health of the global security architecture, even the possibility of a World War III. Though most of the world is possibly hearing about the Ukraine conflict for the first time, this conflict is neither new nor has it become instantly violent.

The genesis of the Ukraine conflict goes back at least 100 years, but this round had started in 2008 when US President George W. Bush approved the idea of Ukraine joining Nato. The linguistic divide between the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west turned violent in 2014; since then, at least 14,000 people have lost their lives.

For almost eight years, mediation and negotiation to manage the Ukraine conflict have not been successful. But the Ukraine conflict is not a special case for being intractable. Resolution of armed conflicts that are ethnonationalism in nature is a long-term and arduous process. There was a drop in the number of armed conflicts worldwide in the first decade of this century. But that trend reversed after the so-called Arab Spring.

The number of armed conflicts is rising, and fatalities are also increasing. In recent years, though fewer people are dying than before in wars in Syria and Afghanistan, the conflicts have become more violent in Nagorno-Karabakh, Tigray, and Ukraine.

Ongoing armed conflicts

Though there are nearly five dozen armed conflicts ongoing worldwide, at least eight of them are extremely violent, in which battle-related deaths are more than 1,000 per year.

These conflicts spread from Nigeria to Yemen — one common factor is that they are not new conflicts. None of these conflicts has terminated despite long mediation or external intervention, and if they had taken a break, the conflicts have reoccurred again.

All these intractable conflicts are at least three decades old, if not more, and you might get a superficial impression that these conflicts are between the regime and a rebel group. However, the structure and nature of these conflicts are more complex as they involve and interlink several other actors in the conflict formation and escalation.

After the ceasefire in an interstate war, the soldiers return to their respective countries. However, that possibility is not available to soldiers or militants in a civil war as they must live in one country. Moreover, an external intervention, which has become more common, does not end the civil war; instead helps to prolong it by financing the war economy and creating hope for the challengers to win rather than being pushed to negotiate.

If a civil war is sparked by ideology, there is less possibility of it being intractable as the change of regime can bring the termination of the conflict. However, the real challenge remains to find a long-term sustainable, peaceful resolution of a civil war driven by identity issues, such as religion, race, ethnicity, or language. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of the world’s civil wars are identity-based.

No outright victory

Though the world is witnessing the birth of very few new conflicts, the real challenge for world peace has been these identity-based armed conflicts, which are hard to find a negotiated solution unless it results in secession from the country. However, the civil wars in recent decades are primarily not resulting in the outright victory of one party over another rather in ‘failed’ peace settlements.

Thus, these conflicts are mainly recurring. The UN peace operations are also becoming more prolonged, and the results have become more uncertain. The UN peacemaking is not as effective these days as it was in its golden period of the 1990s, which ended the conflicts in Namibia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, and Cambodia.

There are several reasons why identity-based intrastate armed conflicts are becoming more intractable and difficult to negotiate. Groups have found many more avenues to finance themselves in this globalised world. Diaspora support, drugs and illegal arms trade, access to cyberspace, and hybrid warfare have given more power to rebel groups.

The civil wars are also witnessing more and more direct involvement of external forces. They provide both parties with material, moral, and military support and help the conflict last longer. The world is no more governed through one superpower-centric global system as it was in the 1990s. The new challengers directly support the other side in a civil war, making these armed conflicts non-negotiable and intractable.

Complex and challenging for peacemaking

The other factor that is helping to make the identity-based civil wars more complex and challenging for peacemaking is the direct involvement of transnational ultrareligious and far-right groups.

In the armed conflicts worldwide, it has been quite common that these groups are provoking violent discourse and, in some cases, directly take part in the fighting on the ground. The engagement of these outsiders pushes the rebel groups to take a maximalist position, leading to escalation of violence and limiting the space for negotiation.

So, what the world is witnessing in Ukraine is not a surprise development; instead, the violent escalation of identity-based conflict, involvement of external forces, and failure of a negotiated settlement is part of a global trend.

The extra attention Ukraine is getting is not because of its uniqueness but because of its location in Europe. Considering the present state of global geopolitics and the rise of ethnonationalism, we must prepare for an increased number of intensified identity-based armed conflicts worldwide.