Do the Russians love their children too? So asked Sting (that noted geopolitical thinker) in his 1985 song – ahem – ‘Russians’. His plea to save “his little boy” from “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” was soon out of date. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Francis Fukuyama made a fortune from book sales. Even so, contemplating the current situation in Ukraine, I feel that the erstwhile Gordon Sumner might have been onto something.
Of course, that era of post-Cold War optimism seems like ancient history as we approach the miserable first anniversary of Russia’s invasion. The good news for the West is that Ukraine is winning. Who would have thought, this time last year, as Western pundits wrote off Kyiv and its ex-comedian leader, that we would now be contemplating Ukraine’s reversal of eight years of Vladimir Putin’s occupation of Crimea, and the humiliation of his despicable regime?
Back then, many doubted whether Putin intended to invade as if all his meandering rhetoric and troop movements were some huge bluff. Now we know we cannot underestimate just how mad and dangerous Putin is – and those who pushed early to arm Ukraine, like our own trifecta of Boris Johnson, Ben Wallace, and Liz Truss, stand vindicated. Rishi Sunak’s decision to send Challenger II tanks is the latest example of Britain leading Western action and proving that our money (and missiles) is where our mouths are.
All the same, we should not get too carried away. The war’s dynamics certainly favour Kyiv. With Britain, France, Germany, and the US now exporting heavier-grade weaponry to Ukraine – including a new $28.5 billion commitment from Washington – the ability of Volodymr Zelensky’s forces to advance is greater than ever. Hence Crimea’s recapture is now plausible. But Ukraine’s success – as wonderful as it is – brings with it a familiar risk: namely, how might those mad bastards in Moscow respond?
What Johnson would call “gloomster” opinion on Ukraine has regularly been proven wrong. Kyiv did not surrender within days. The Russian bear is old and cathartic, reliant on unhappy conscripts and Soviet-era junk. Zelensky has proven his mettle can do more than just play the piano. Western support did not collapse as energy prices surged and costs spiraled. Putin’s war has been an embarrassment for the aging autocrat, rather than a triumph. And yet. The boy cried wolf numerous times, but those sheep still ended eaten.
Putin is a fantasist, playing a bloody game of toy soldiers, surrounded by clueless generals and ex-KGB wingnuts. His delusions have forced him into an unwinnable war. That has been obvious since the war’s first weeks, with the failure to take Kyiv and turn Ukraine into a second Belarus. Battlefield disasters – Ukrainian commanders estimate he loses 500 soldiers a day – and domestic opposition increase as it becomes obvious failure is due to poor leadership and sub-standard equipment.
His only option is to mobilise ever more men and chuck them, under-trained and ill-equipped, into the bloody maw. As Ukraine’s tactics and use of technology become more sophisticated, Putin’s strategy remains a faith in overwhelming numbers and the levelling of Ukrainian cities. Russian troops are reportedly now using the corpses of their fallen comrades to provide cover for their efforts. Even so, he cannot find – and does not want – a way out.
Crucially, though, neither does the West. If Ukraine had not been so successful in first resisting and then turning back the Russian invasion, one imagines that the talk of a settled solution, along the lines of Henry Kissinger’s suggestion of the status quo ante, would be louder. Zelensky – elected on a platform of improving relations with Russia, and previously sympathetic to the idea of referendums in disputed areas – no longer has any wish to trade away his previous successes just as his hand further strengthens.
Internationally, Putin’s hopes are placed in the Western coalition splitting. Certainly, across the Atlantic, the percentage of Republicans supporting military aid has fallen from 80 per cent in March to 48 per cent. If the war ground on for long enough, one can imagine Americans losing interest, and a penniless and unenthusiastic Europe being forced to reduce its commitment. Yet this week’s tank decision shows that support is not waning fast enough to hobble Zelensky’s campaign in the short-term – and he has the momentum.
We thus confront the prospect of, this year, a Ukrainian offensive designed to push re-take Crimea and overwhelm Putin’s forces. Putin’s best option is, like Germany launching the Spring Offensive in 1918 before American soldiers crossed the Atlantic, is to get his big push in first. If this were pushed back, it would show – to quote Sting again – that is “no such thing as a winnable war” for Russia. Putin would be humiliated and discredited; like the Tsar in 1917, his authority in the eyes of his disillusioned people would be shot.
How should we respond? What one might term the Whig approach, as best illustrated by our own Daniel Hannan, is that the West should push Ukraine on to total victory. Resisting Russia’s efforts was a test for Western liberalism, and Putin’s defeat would be a vindication of them. He may then be forced out of office, his regime collapsing in a whirl of popular anger and war crimes tribunals, and Moscow may finally see the restoration of democracy.
Maybe I am too much of a young cynic, but I cannot share Hannan’s optimism. I am a Tory, not a Whig. Rather than see liberty’s triumphant march, I see a febrile Russia with its back against the wall. I cannot dismiss the threat of nuclear escalation by suggesting Putin’s missiles might not work, or by hoping the West neutralised them long ago. If Putin fears defeat and defenestration, has anything so far suggested he is not mad enough to press the button – at the cost of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainian and Russian lives?
I also do not see how his potential downfall brings anything other than chaos – and the replacement of one mad bastard with another. Toppling the Tsar did not lead to peace, prosperity, democracy, and apple pie. It unleashed the horrors of Bolshevism, civil war, and starvation – and the replacement of one bumbling autocrat with some of history’s greatest monsters. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Union lead to a decade of poverty and chaos, providing fertile ground for Putin’s rise.
Russia is too large to simply disappear from the map. Its government, through a combination of history and geography, tends towards autocracy. It is not in our interests – political, economic, or humanitarian – to risk another cycle of bloody disorder, as noble as Ukraine’s cause is. We must marry our principle to some form of practicality. Fortunately, Sunak is the best-placed person in the Western alliance to inject this note of caution.
At the conflict’s start, Sunak’s Treasury brain meant he suggested an eye should be kept on the cost and economic impact of the endeavour whilst Johnson, Truss, and Wallace dug in. That did not make him a coward, an appeaser, or a Putin apologist. It showed we can cheer Ukraine’s success whilst being conscious of the consequences. With Britain’s credibility in Kyiv unparalleled, he is now best placed to raise the question of how this war might end, with an eye to Russia’s stability and reintegration into the international system.
Pursuing Russia’s destruction may make this terrible interlude even bloodier. With Putin willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of his own countrymen to satisfy his own delusions, it is clear he does not love Russia’s children. The question is – should we?