The Debatable Land #13: War in Europe
Russia has made a terrible mistake but the west must prepare itself for years of conflict.
Welcome to the latest edition of my newsletter, The Debatable Land. There is only one subject to write about this week; all else seems trivial by comparison.
A war Russia cannot win?
When members of parliament arm themselves with Kalashnikovs and when men prove willing to sacrifice their own lives to send a “Go Fuck Yourself” message of defiance to the invaders, something is happening. When 70 year old men ignore suggestions they are too old to volunteer to defend their country, something is happening. And when an old woman lays a curse on the invaders and hands them sunflower seeds - the national flower - so at least something good will grow when they lie dead on Ukrainian soil, something is happening.
The contrast between the tone of some of the international coverage in the early days of the war and the grounded defiance of the Ukrainian people and their leaders has been marked. Some of the foreign media has marvelled at the heroism of Ukraine’s defence while glumly suspecting it must be doomed. There has been an undercurrent of ‘It is only a matter of time before the Russians prevail. So is this really wise?’ The Ukrainian answer has been definitive. Russia may yet prevail, but not easily or as swiftly as they might have thought likely. The question is how much force they must deploy. Grozny and Aleppo stand as ruined warnings of what Vladimir Putin is capable but a repeat performance in Kyiv and Lviv and Odessa is also a ticket to The Hague.
The Ukrainians give the impression of a people forged anew. They were never Russian for they took the Union part of the USSR seriously. Thirty years of independence means there is no going back, either. This is not a battle they have chosen but nor is it one from which they will shrink. Because, really, what alternative do they have? As President Zelensky said when he turned down an American invitation to leave Kyiv, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride”.
The battle for the capital continues, its outcome uncertain. But already it is hard to imagine how Russia can occupy and pacify the whole of Ukraine. If the Russian strategy is to decapitate the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime in Kyiv, leaving Ukraine broken-backed and ruined, then this seems an invitation to insurgency, possibly based in parts of western Ukraine that remain beyond Russia’s immediate reach or control. It is difficult to imagine Russian generals relishing that. Winning on the ground and controlling territory is not the same as winning a war more generally.
But then it is hard to imagine Russia’s goals here. Any Ukraine which survives this war must choose between being a Russian satrap or a truly independent nation. If the latter, that means looking west not east. If Ukraine’s future was not wrapped up in the EU and Nato last month, it is now. The west recognised Russian concerns when it did not admit Ukraine into Nato and we should accept this was a mistake.
Now the Russians are making the argument for Nato’s relevance all over again. Does Vladimir Putin have ambitions on the Baltic? Almost certainly. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are fake statelets and just as Stalin knew this, so does Putin. Being part of Nato may not save the Balts but it must make Putin think at least a bit. And it does not stop there: on Friday Moscow warned that Sweden and Finland would face “military and political consequences” if they dared to join Nato, thereby making an impeccable case for them doing so.
Freedom - so often such a hackneyed word - actually does mean something. There is something awful yet also something transfixing about following a war in real time. Even if it only provides glimpses - many of which require verification - Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms are transformational platforms, flattening and personalising the front line for all to see.
For despite what some intelligent people will try and claim, there is nothing very complicated about this war. The Russians spent months preparing for an invasion they openly, publicly, warned was likely to happen and then made good on their promises. Do we allow this or do we do what we can to reverse it without, at the same time, risking escalation of a kind which leads to people talking about the actual use of nuclear weapons? (So, yes to weapons shipments but no to a no-fly zone.)
The answer is obvious and this, combined with the nature of the media experience of watching this war, suddenly makes it easy to understand why men from other countries once flocked to fight for Republican Spain (though of course that cause, never as simple as it initially seemed, was also betrayed and ruined by Soviet involvement). If Ukraine called for a new International Brigade I fancy thousands would rally to the cause and not just because there is always a constituency for martial adventurism. The fight is a real one here and one which really matters. For it is also simple: are countries free to exist and pursue their futures in peace?
Even so, these are the early days of a new struggle that will be a long one. Symbolic gestures are easy; keeping Russia in isolation even when doing so might prove expensive for Europe is another matter altogether. Bear this in mind: if tighter sanctions - necessary because there is no distinction between business and the state in Putin’s Russia - don’t hurt Europe, they’re not tough enough.
Hear this too and be ready for it: as soon as there is a lull in the fighting it will be suggested that this is a time for talking, for compromise, for accepting that anything must be preferable to further bloodshed. The important thing, idiots will say, is “de-escalation”.
But the only acceptable de-escalation is the withdrawal of all Russian forces from every part of Ukraine with the further acceptance that Ukraine’s future security arrangements and preferences are a matter for Ukraine alone. All else is to start “peace” talks on terms favourable to the Russian aggressor. Talk of “neutralising” Ukraine is Russian talk in whichever way you choose to understand the term.
This emergency is the product of years of wishful thinking and inattention and it will be years before it is defused and resolved too. That means holding the line long past the point at which doing so commands near-universal support. We are talking years, here. It is easy to rally to Ukraine now; doing so when the fashion for colouring everything blue and yellow fades will be a different matter. Then there will be fresh suggestions that the Ukrainians - whatever is left of them - accept a reality imposed upon them by, first, their Russian invaders and then, second, western countries who would like life to return to something as close to normal as soon as possible.
For happy-clappy talk of engagement and all the rest of it is, in the end, an admission that we can, after all, live with this kind of behaviour. Even terrible sins may be forgiven if doing so lowers the price of gas. The Ukrainians will be told to get over themselves and get with the new international programme. This will be a kind of betrayal so it is better to be prepared for this - because it is coming - so it may be resisted.
This is a moral moment, not just a political one. There can be no return to normalcy until such time as Russia pays the necessary price. If that means excluding Russia from the international community for years then so be it. Sanctions are not just for spring; they must remain in place until Russia recants. Better by far to err in keeping sanctions in place for too long than risk lifting them too soon.
The longer-term goal, and indeed the precondition for Russia’s return to the international fold, must be Vladimir Putin’s departure from the Kremlin. A real departure this time, not a Potemkin one. He is not a man with whom others may do business. In truth this has been apparent for a long time and it is chiefly wishful thinking which has sustained international engagement with Russia. There is no hiding place now; no means by which an appointment with reality may be ducked. Putinism is what it has always advertised itself as being: territorially grandiose and impeccably revanchist. It is Putinism - as well as Putin personally - that must be resisted.
Ukrainians are not just fighting for their country; they are fighting for Russia too. Russia’s future cannot be imposed upon it but at some point, even if this is years in the future, its people must decide between Putinism and normality. In a week of heroism, spare a moment to honour those Russians, not all of them young by any means, protesting against the war on the streets of Moscow, St Petersburg, and other cities. The crimes being committed in the name of the Russian people are not the Russian people’s crimes and this saga does not end until those responsible for this war of aggression have been removed from office. This too may take years but it must happen eventually.
Beware, again, however those who lack the patience for a conflict manufactured elsewhere. ‘We can’t have another Cold War’ they will say forgetting that of course we can and, right now, of course we must. This is Moscow’s choice, not the west’s. As the west did not begin this, nor can it end it. The ending comes when the Kremlin is free of Putin and of Putinism.
That seems a long way distant this weekend. So be it. This battle was not of Ukraine’s choosing and nor was it of the west’s either. Sole responsibility lies with the Tsar in the Kremlin, high on his own supply of imaginary history and confected grievance. This is not difficult. In fact it could hardly be simpler. It is important to insist upon this for in war even obvious truths may easily be lost in the fog.
This is Moscow’s choice but these are our rules.
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Putin is a thug atop a thuggish regime. I employ a Russian guy to help with some programming and website development. Really nice guy and very thoughtful. Should I sack him. If not how should I feel about sanctions?
Not a word I disagree with, Alex.
President Zelensky has already called for an International Brigade, after he called for all Ukrainians to come home and defend their country: https://youtu.be/Y8tUOpxdLaM