If the Ukrainians are prepared to endure a long war, we must back them
Ukraine and her president, Volodymyr Zelensky, are enduring the almost unendurable. So, much though our advice to them on how to end the war in their country may be based on a humane desire to stop further slaughter, there is something distasteful in all such unsolicited suggestions.
This is not only because it is presumptuous for any of us non-combatants to judge what “should” be acceptable to the Ukrainians, as they fight for their national existence, but also because all such proposals are based on providing Vladimir Putin with what is invariably described as a “face-saving” exit: that is, something he can present to his own people as victory. So, on the one hand we say that Putin is a war criminal, but on the other we say he should be able to claim that war crime pays.
The BBC’s most distinguished foreign correspondent, John Simpson, had a scoop last week when the Turkish government (which aims to broker a deal) relayed to him the terms Putin had told it would be acceptable in exchange for withdrawing his forces. Apart from various predictable territorial claims, they included the preposterous demand that Ukraine engage in “de-Nazification”.
Simpson, in a characteristically lucid article for BBC News online, argued that Putin’s terms were “not as harsh as most people feared”, being mostly “face-saving elements for the Russian side”, and that “given [Putin’s] heavy-handed control over the Russian media, it shouldn’t be too hard for him and his acolytes to present this all as a major victory”. And that’s a good idea?
Meanwhile Olaf Scholz had direct talks with Putin to, as the German chancellor’s office put it, “find a diplomatic solution”. The best observation on this came from Andrei Kozyrev, who was Russian foreign minister under Boris Yeltsin: “Vladimir Putin does not need to be led by hand out of this. He went into this war and he will find his way out, but only if he smells defeat.”
It seems, as far as anyone can tell, that Putin does not yet have that odour in his nostrils, despite the prodigious losses of men and matériel (the Ukrainians now have more tanks than they had at the outset, because of Russian desertions under devastating fire). Russian forces are now being pushed back from outside Kyiv: that may soon mean they cannot actually hit the capital with their vaunted artillery (which would explain why on Friday Russian generals said that Kyiv was no longer their priority).
As the acclaimed military analyst Phillips O’Brien points out: “We have pretty good intelligence that the Russians have deployed 75 per cent of their best fighting formations to Ukraine (these are the ones wasting away now). Basically, because of a shortage of trained, professional (motivated) personnel, if Russia is going to fight this long war some are mentioning, they are going to have to create almost an entire new army. With what? Forced conscripts or out-of-shape reservists? Not the easiest sell if your media is telling the Russian people the war is a great success.”
In fact, the Russian media, on the Kremlin’s orders, deny that Russia is in a “war”, which would make the deployment of conscripts and reservists even harder to justify. Especially to mothers.
I argued here, before Russia invaded Ukraine, that if it did so it would have the same experience as the Americans in Vietnam, or its Soviet predecessor in Afghanistan: notionally superior occupying forces were eventually forced to scarper, in the face of persistent lethal resistance from much more highly motivated defenders of their own country. But today Russia’s army can’t even manage to hold, let alone rule, captured territory.
The result is that, according to such opinion polls as have been conducted, the Ukrainian people overwhelmingly believe they are “winning”. With continued provision of advanced weaponry from Nato countries, vitally augmented by American “real-time” intelligence on Russian troop movements, that may not just be wishful thinking. But this mood in turn creates a political problem, of a sort, for President Zelensky. Even if he wanted to concede Crimea and Donbas, and demilitarise, in exchange for peace and a Russian guarantee never to step an inch over the line in future (whatever that would be worth), he could not now sell such a deal to his own people.
And they cannot forget how Putin expressed such demands in a press conference with President Macron (after yet another round of pointless talks) in February. The Russian leader declared of Ukraine: “You may like it, you may dislike it, but you’ll have to endure it, my beauty.” Putin seemed to be quoting from an obscene song by a Soviet punk rock group, Red Mold: “Sleeping beauty in a coffin, I’ve crept up and now I’m f***ing her. You may like it, you may dislike it, sleep, my beauty.”
Even after that public humiliation, Macron is still engaging in talks with Putin, and it would be quite in character for the French president to have his eye on the Nobel peace prize. I don’t see it, somehow.
When I spoke to a British government minister focusing on this, he agreed with Kozyrev that there was little point in talking to the Russians now, as Putin was clearly not yet interested in a cessation of hostilities. There is going to be another big military push from the east, he said. Only if that, too, fails is there a chance of Putin arriving at the stage, as that former Russian foreign minister put it, when he is motivated by the acrid whiff of impending defeat.
That may never happen; and we could be in for years of (at best) “frozen conflict”. But I entirely agreed with Sir Lawrence Freedman, the author of Ukraine and the Art of Strategy, when he said this week: “Too often, especially among the American commentariat, those who argue that Russia must be given something tangible to end the war, however painful and unjust that may seem, appear to be advising the Biden administration on its negotiating strategy, or at least on the sort of deal Zelensky should be encouraged to accept. It must always be stressed that is up to the Ukrainian government to decide on what steps they are prepared to take to achieve peace.”
Until then, the most sensible approach for the West, whether through financial sanctions or lethal aid, is to do everything short of becoming active combatants to bring about a Ukrainian victory. That is not just a morally clear policy. It also embodies the hard-headed “realism” that those advocating “face-saving” deals for Russia claim as their justification. For, if the Ukrainian people are themselves prepared to endure this terrible war for months longer, it will also continue the savage depletion of Putin’s military — to the great benefit of other nations threatened by Russia’s imperial aspirations.
It is horrible, but necessary.
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