Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, US President Harry Truman, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Photo by Bettmann / Contributor)

Bleeding the Russian bear white

Britain, the US and the War in Ukraine

Artillery Row

As Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to legitimise his illegal invasion of Ukraine by means of referenda in the occupied regions of that country, commentators are largely silent as to the conspicuous lack of diplomatic engagement between the West and Russia. A potential clue as to the rationale behind this reticence on the part of London and Washington to open a political dialogue with Putin, may be found in recent history.

Mark Twain, the celebrated American humorist and author, once quipped that “History never repeats itself but it sometimes rhymes”. Whilst the Russian invasion of Ukraine is evidently not a repetition of history, the historical circumstances surrounding this new struggle on what is now NATO’s eastern flank do appear to rhyme.

Eighty years ago, as Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Stalin’s Red Army fought each other to the death in the killing fields of Ukraine, a remarkably indiscreet official memorandum was circulated in Whitehall. Its author was Victor “Bill” Cavendish-Bentinck, the bespectacled and debonair chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the apex of the British secret state. The memo in question exposed the extent of the realpolitik underpinning high-level British thinking regarding the respective fates of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on the eastern front.

Writing in February 1943 in the aftermath of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, a pivotal turning point in World War II, the aristocratic Cavendish-Bentinck confessed that, “Until now it has been in our interest to do all we can to take pressure off Russia. Now that the tide has turned, it is in our interest to let Germany and Russia bleed each other white. We would find it easier to effect a landing in Europe, and Russia, however sentimental the British people might be about her, is likely to be a troublesome customer at the end of the war.”

Pre-empting Cavendish-Bentinck’s classified remarks by some eighteen months, a little known Democrat Senator named Harry S. Truman, who would become 33rd President of the United States, revealed an identical brand of realpolitik within isolationist America. Speaking in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, Truman declared, “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.” In the 21st century, international relations experts describe the process championed by Truman in 1941 as “bait and bleed”, whereby “two rivals … engage in a protracted war, so that they bleed each other white, whilst the baiter remains on the sideline, its military strength intact”.

Severely depleted Russian forces cannot be redeployed

Although neither the US or UK were “baiters in the context of the Russo-German war of 1941–1945, the fact remains that had these pieces of political dynamite leaked out at the time they would have caused a political storm. The people of Britain had been calling for a “second front”, i.e. an invasion of the continent of Europe to relieve pressure on the Red Army, ever since the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941. Public support for the Soviet cause during the early years of the war manifested itself by means of crude chalk slogans scrawled across walls calling for a “second front now” or “wot — no second front”? In 2022, the physical manifestation of UK solidarity with Ukraine has been expressed on the streets of Britain, not by hastily chalked graffiti, but with yellow and blue flags.

Back in 1942, so shrill did the clamour for a second front become, that Britain’s wartime premier Winston Churchill felt compelled to double-down on military support for the USSR. Bigger and more frequent shipments of military aid were sent via the “Arctic Convoys” to Murmansk. RAF Bomber Command flew greater numbers of night-time sorties against German cities, with heavier payloads of bombs. British intelligence concocted elaborate deception operations aimed at drawing away as many German divisions from the eastern front as possible. In August 1942, an Anglo-Canadian force was landed with disastrous consequences on the beaches of Dieppe, ostensibly to assuage those at home and abroad who felt the Allies were not doing their fair share of the fighting. 

Yet despite the US and UK straining every sinew of war to keep Stalin’s Russia in the fight, no substantial British or American forces were ever sent to the eastern front. Plans to invade and liberate western Europe by means of a cross-Channel amphibious assault were repeatedly put into abeyance by Churchill and his opposite number in Washington, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Strikingly, in 2022 the UK is taking a similar stance over Ukraine. Whilst refraining from physically confronting Putin’s forces on land, at sea and in the air, the UK is content to supply the embattled nation with crate loads of NLAW and Javelin anti-tank missiles, artillery pieces, secret intelligence and military advisors, all at great financial cost to HM Treasury. No wonder Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, complained earlier this month that, “As you [the UK] count pennies, we count our casualties.”

It would therefore appear that US/UK enthusiasm for military assistance to Ukraine is in direct proportion to their eagerness to put the Russian military through the proverbial meat grinder. To date, it has been estimated that over 25,000 Russian combatants have been killed in action. This is ultimately at the expense of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s own military forces (losses calculated at 9000) and the civilian population of Ukraine, the death toll for which is rumoured to run to tens of thousands.

Of course, to NATO this hard-nosed, politico-strategic stance is perfectly logical. Severely depleted Russian forces, in urgent need of reinforcement and reorganisation, cannot be redeployed to places such as Poland or Moldova, for instance. Quite simply, the grinding attrition inflicted upon the Russians by Ukrainian forces since the war began in February has significantly reduced the range and scope of Putin’s geo-strategic adventurism, at least for now. Yet the overwhelming impression remains that for all its strident anti-Putin rhetoric, the West is quite prepared, materially-speaking, to wage a proxy war in Ukraine indefinitely, fighting Putin’s war machine to the last Ukrainian if necessary.

In light of the West’s collective reluctance to broker a peace-deal between Russia and Ukraine, today’s Cavendish-Bentincks sitting in Whitehall, Washington and NATO HQ, would do well to remember that all wars must eventually come to an end. Their cessation is invariably brought about by diplomatic or political means. Barring the destruction of mankind by a nuclear holocaust or some other catastrophe, the Russia-Ukraine conflict will be no exception. 

Public calls for a political solution will only intensify

Thought must therefore be given to the nature of the peace desired by the leading state actors in this international imbroglio, as well as to the process by which they endeavour to reach a peaceful end-state. Continuing to fuel Europe’s first major war since 1945 without convening political talks with Putin’s Russia makes the NATO powers look increasingly reckless, callous and ultimately cynical. Consequently, without a timely political and diplomatic initiative from the West, one designed to bring the conflict in Ukraine to a satisfactory and peaceful end, the perception that London and Washington wish to see Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s forces “bleed the Russian bear white” on the field of battle, so as to attain a level of short-term security for the West, will persist. 

Significantly, whilst the un-avowed policy of “bait and bleed” may well satisfy the immediate security objectives of the UK and her NATO allies, there is a real danger that its adoption by London and Washington could represent a gross miscalculation on their part. If Putin continues to lose in Ukraine in a conventional sense, he could potentially commit some “mad dog act” by employing chemical, biological, radioactive or nuclear weapons against his western-sponsored foe. Such a drastic and escalatory move would certainly conform to current Russian military doctrine, which advocates the use of such weapons of mass destruction at the tactical and operational levels of war. 

Ultimately, the longer Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is allowed to proceed without the possibility of conflict resolution, the harder it will be for the UK and US to deny that their ulterior motive for eschewing diplomacy is to help facilitate the bleeding white of Russian forces in Ukraine. Harder still for these state actors will be their ability to disregard, in the event of a protracted war in Ukraine, an evolving public appetite for a diplomatic “second front now”. In the end, “meeting jaw to jaw”, as Churchill once so wisely observed, “is better than war”.

In light of Putin’s mobilisation of 300,000 fresh troops; his renewed nuclear sabre-rattling; and the deepening financial, fuel and “cost-of-living” crises in the UK — public calls for a political solution to the Russia-Ukraine war will only intensify, just as calls for military assistance to the Soviet Union did in 1942. History may not repeat itself, but the historical circumstances surrounding the conflict in Ukraine today rhyme most definitely with those pertaining to the realpolitik inherent in official UK-US thinking regarding Russia eighty years ago.

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