The Debatable Land #17: Ukraine needs more help than it is receiving
Russia's defeat is the necessary condition for peace
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Six weeks can seem an age in modern politics. Each year the news cycle shortens just a little bit more. This is an era of living quickly but without, paradoxically, getting anything done. Politics these days is exhausting.
So it takes an effort to recall that the latest war in Ukraine is only six weeks old. It seems to have lasted much longer than that. From which certain observations may ensue: I am not sure we are well-equipped - mentally, that is - for a war which is likely to continue for some time yet. Not weeks and perhaps not even months either, but possibly years. The short war in Ukraine is over and the Russians have lost the Battle of Kiev, but the long war is only just beginning.
For now, it centres on the Donbas - crucially, far from the gleaming domes of Kiev and much closer, both physically and psychologically, to faraway Russia than to western Europe. Russia has been bloodied and Russia may be losing this war but the essential terms for any peace settlement are nowhere close to being achieved. For peace requires Russia’s defeat and any settlement must leave Ukraine materially better-off than it was before Russia launched its war of aggression. That must in turn mean that the Donbas, including the separatist fake “republics”, must be free of Russian influence and interference. The alternative is Russia rewarded, on the ground, for its actions.
This is going to test the west. In some respects, it has been easy to rally round Ukraine in its hour of desperate, immediate, need. Sustaining that effort, that support, is a different matter. Already you can hear whispers of fatigue: must the Ukrainians be so unreasonable? Can they not see nobody wins from war? A settlement will be needed eventually so better to start thinking about its terms now?
As - if? - the long war grinds on, I wager these whispers will become louder and more prominent. Vladimir Putin has shown in Syria and elsewhere that he has the stomach for years of bloodletting: do his opponents - not in Ukraine, but in the west - have the patience to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes? I wish I could be more confident the answer to that question is the right one.
The possibility of slippage must always be kept in mind. The sole necessary condition for peace is defeating Russia’s forces in the field. At that point there may be useful things about which to talk; until then talking about peace is pretend chat.
For the time being, advantage lies with Ukraine. This is not just the moral superiority they have enjoyed since the war began. Russia is in retreat, regrouping - and apparently redeploying tired troops - in the east.
But for an intimation of what may lie ahead, consider this response to reports the British government was concerned that other western allies - France, Germany - might be willing to settle sooner than the Ukrainians would like:
Herr Ischinger is a former German ambassador to both the United Kingdom and the United States. He is also the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference. He is not a rogue operator or fringe voice. So his fastidious superiority here merits some attention.
Ukrainians should decide how many Ukrainians must fight - and die - for Ukraine. At present they are determined to carry the fight to the Russians. Following Ukraine’s victory in the Battle of Kiev, the war enters a new phase. From the Ukrainian perspective it is no longer a purely defensive effort even if it remains so in several mini-theatres. That is, it is no longer just a question of survival, of hanging on and hoping for the best, of enduring and waiting; it is also a battle to throw the Russians out of the territory they have invaded. This may be a prolonged struggle, especially in the Donbas.
For the Ukrainians surely know that reality on the ground dictates the sense of what is feasible at a diplomatic level. They know, too, that there are plenty of people who would be happy for them to settle for stalemate, the better to return to the consolations of a quieter life and a slow return to business as usual. Bucha and other horrors make it more difficult to express these sentiments publicly but not even the obvious evidence of Russian atrocities is enough to cancel the urge for a deal of just about any kind.
Holding the line means constantly repairing and bolstering the line and this, more than anything else, is a role the British government has taken upon itself. One may have a low opinion of Boris Johnson while remaining capable of noting that, in this at least, he is not just right but has largely contrived to say the right things, in the right places, at the right time. Peace must be on Ukrainian terms, not those of the Russians or, scarcely better, an international community whose capacity for dogged patience is sure to be tested in the weeks and months and maybe even years to come.
“Ukraine deserves full support” Herr Ischinger says even as he deplores those who are actually urging a greater measure of support for Ukraine. What does his definition of “full support” actually mean? (Again, this is not about him so much as it is about the mentality of the view he happens to express.)
For, when you drill down into this, I strongly suspect “full support” means “help to bring the war to a conclusion by non-military means”. That falls some way short of what the Ukrainians might consider full support. They need guns and missiles and drones and ammunition and armour, not concern trolling of this kind. The Czech decision to supply Soviet-vintage tanks to Ukraine is a start but more of this kind of support is likely to be needed.
Dancing on the distinction between “offensive” and “defensive” weapons is a pointless exercise. What counts is how arms are used, not their intrinsic capabilities. If this were not so, we should only supply Ukraine with bricks and sandbags. Equally, the threat of Russian escalation, while genuine, leaves this question too: if Russia attacked a Nato country, would the threat posed by Russian nuclear weapons dissuade Nato from meeting its treaty commitments? File that in the folder marked ‘Gloomy considerations.’
At the same time, were I a politician I should be bloody careful about using the term ‘genocide’ to describe Russia’s crimes. For if you accept or even edge close to accepting this characterisation, how can you then decline to offer President Zelensky all the materiel he demands? If ‘genocide’ is not enough to move you to firmer, faster, action, what would be?
In any case, regardless of the label affixed to Russian crimes - this will be something for prosecutors to determine in due course - reality is plain enough. The booby-trapping of corpses; the execution of civilians; the deliberate targeting of places of sanctuary; the looting and the raping and all the other familiar accoutrements of Russian warfare. All of this is enough and should be a still more clarifying moment.
Talk of providing Putin with an “off-ramp” is merely blather. In the first place, there is little reason to suppose the Kremlin is interested in such a road. Moscow’s propaganda, if anything, is ramping up: Ukraine delenda est. But even if it were - at this stage of the war - plausible that Putin might wish a way out, what would such a road look like? How do you build such a thing without rewarding the aggressor? To ask the question is to be alerted to its answer. There is no such means.
For as long as Ukraine wishes to fight, it seems to me we - the happy, comfortable, west - have a moral (as well as a geopolitical) need to support them in their efforts. The alternative is accepting Moscow’s rules and at least some of Moscow’s preferred outcome. Suggesting that Ukraine be asked to “settle” so western europeans may enjoy lower gas prices is close to obscene; an intimation that, actually, what we say is impermissable may actually be permitted if this makes for an easier life.
If, as politicians across most of europe say is the case, we truly do stand with Ukraine that means accepting that europe must endure some pain too. By comparison with the agonies of Ukraine these are minor wounds but the willingness to sustain these inconveniences is, in the end, going to be a test of the continent’s seriousness. The words are the easy bit; a long way needs actions too.
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