Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Difficult questions on Ukraine

We must not shrink from reassessment

The odds seem to be turning towards Russia in Ukraine, after accumulating many losses in recent months. Regardless of the military importance of towns like Soledar, Putin’s forces seem to be getting better and better at defending themselves against Ukrainian counter-offensives. 

Dutch expert Rob de Wijk, professor of international relations and security at Leiden University and founder of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), warns: “Ukraine’s victory is no longer a foregone conclusion. […] The worse things get for Ukraine, the more likely it is that NATO countries will become ever more deeply involved in the war. The risk of a direct confrontation with NATO is also increasing. The heavy weapons NATO countries then need, limit the possibilities of delivering them to Ukraine now.”

The United States, France, Germany, Poland and Britain just decided to start supplying artillery and even tanks to Ukraine, amidst discussions on which equipment to supply. The country desperately needs those if it wants to take back Russian-occupied territories. At the same time, there seems to be growing opposition in the United States to the massive aid to Ukraine, especially now that Republicans control a majority of the House of Representatives. 

Finding new customers for gas is much more complex than for oil

In other words, with the first anniversary of the brutal Russian invasion looming, a thorough review of Western strategy seems much needed. What has worked? What has failed? 

One thing seems clear at least: arms deliveries have helped Ukraine a lot more than sanctions. Again Rob de Wijk writes: “The Russian economy is surviving the sanctions remarkably well. The latter explains why Western war rhetoric is hushed up. ‘Destroying the Russian war machine’ called for by leaders like [European Commission President Ursula] Von der Leyen is proving less easy than thought.”

French policy analyst Agathe Demarais devotes a new book to the policy instrument of sanctions. Tellingly titled “Backfire”, it provides an overview of the unintended side effects of modern U.S. sanctions and export controls, whilst also describing the innovative techniques regimes use to evade such sanctions.

At the same time, Demarais indicates that sanctions are hurting Russia very badly in the short term. She notes on Twitter: “Growth, retail trade, vehicle manufacturing all dropping off a cliff (car production fell by 80 per cent in Nov.) Russia’s deep recession will continue in 2023, weighing on [the] Kremlin’s ability to wage war in Ukraine.”

It should be noted that the main interruption in trade between Russia and the West is the sharp decrease of European imports of Russian gas. It was not Western Europe that turned off Russia’s gas tap, but Russia itself, albeit in response to Western policy. European sanctions so far only hit imports of Russian coal and — partly — oil. This may turn out to be a blunder by Putin, as finding new customers for gas is much more complex than for oil. The necessary pipelines and infrastructure to replace European customers with Chinese ones are simply not there at the moment.

It remains to be seen whether the economic pain caused by sanctions will force Putin to end his war. Of the arms supplies, on the other hand, it is clear that they have made a difference. There, the question is whether they threaten to plunge the West into direct conflict with Russia.

We all wish for Ukraine to recapture its territory, but is that realistic?

At the very least, it is good not to send any weapons of any kind to Ukraine without consideration. The last thing we need is, for instance, Ukraine bombing a Russian city with Western weaponry — accidentally or not. Yet there is sometimes a hysterical atmosphere around making reasonable reservations about this. Germany is portrayed by some as a bogeyman, allegedly unwilling to help Ukraine, even though it supplies the second most weapons and equipment to the Ukrainian army after the U.S. (the British do supply more when including financial aid with a military purpose), and it is also the second largest donor of humanitarian relief to the country. 

With the changing situation on the ground, trade-offs will become pressing. We all wish for Ukraine to recapture its territory from Russia, but is that realistic, let alone when it comes to recapturing Crimea? Shouldn’t a dirty deal be struck with the Kremlin at some point? Is it really in our interest for Putin to be ousted from power in Russia? Possible successors, like the head of the Wagner paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, seem even worse. 

On the other hand, is there not a risk that Putin will perceive a peace deal as a great victory — and so should we not start to think of ways to punish his regime? A seizure of Russia’s frozen government assets would perhaps be an appropriate punishment, but caution is needed. As Demarais makes clear in her book on sanctions policy, by weaponising the financial system, the United States and its allies are undermining the branch on which they sit. 

Most fundamentally, how far can the West go in providing military-political support to countries under attack from their neighbours? Ukraine may be corrupt, but it has a pro-Western population, and there are close cultural links with Eastern European EU and NATO member states. One can defend the argument that if Putin did not get a signal from the West now, his regime would sooner or later attack NATO. If Russia were to terrorise, say, Kazakhstan or Mongolia, those elements are not present. Somewhere we will need to draw a line, where we accept that it is no longer in our power to help. 

These are all extremely complex questions to which there are no simple answers, but it is of the utmost importance that we raise them, with the concrete stakes being whether and to what extent we continue the policy of sanctions and military support for Ukraine. With the changing situation on the ground, that might be sooner than we would prefer.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover