Ukrainians from besieged cities evacuate by train to Lviv. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hard times, hard truths

We must see beyond the myths surrounding the Ukraine crisis

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Who knew that when a besieged city bravely refuses to surrender, its assailants don’t just go “oh” and back off? Instead, they carry on with ever-greater brutality. There is nothing new in the manner of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” was the realism that Athens supposedly offered Melos — an independent state destroyed chiefly because, Thucydides suggested, the Athenian empire could not be seen to be weak. The Melians resisted, and died.

Is this not Ukraine and Russia today? Is not brutal realism all on Moscow’s side? It is not. But to see that clearly it is necessary to recognise what has already happened in this war. Here, the media, the BBC not least, has felt able to report the conflict as if it is a cause, draped in blue and yellow without shades of grey, in part because the absence of British forces in the fight relieves British journalists from feeling the calling to show astringent detachment.

What have they reported? A war that Ukraine is winning, almost. Or that Russia is losing, almost. This is not a picture many of Thucydides’s heirs would recognise. Viral videos win one kind of war, but not the one that really matters.

A neutral Ukraine was and is a good thing for us

The most alarming element in Western analysis of the war is that we should “impose” a no-fly zone with a breezy attitude towards trivialities like nuclear escalation. Middling American and British politicians — including the chairman of the Commons defence select committee — have called for risking nuclear war to aid Ukraine; retired top brass have been still more gung ho. This is a discouraging reflection both on some of those who have served us and on those who would govern us. 

What we should not do is respond to such silliness with a White Cliffs of Dover attitude verging on self-parody that claims, for example, that a country like ours does not have a very real interest in a cordon sanitaire being maintained around Russia.

Just because it was fatuous to argue for NATO military action against Russia on behalf of a country that NATO (and the EU) was reluctant to admit, the benefits of Russia being further away should never be underestimated. A neutral Ukraine was and is a good thing for us. Seeing the merit of that doesn’t need us to subscribe to the fantasy of her perfection, or that of her charismatic president, Volodymyr Zelensky, any more than we should be cynical about his courage, skills and achievements.

There is a wearisome predictability to the uses this war has been put to domestically. We are sinful for not taking as many refugees as those countries that border the conflict zone. We are at fault for having left the EU that Ukrainians are so keen to join. Why are we not more central to events?

The prime minister mentioned Brexit in a speech too closely to sentences bordering the Donbas, and the reaction was one of outrage. No wonder, we are invited to conclude, the grown-ups next door won’t invite Britain to European councils to which the us, Canada and Norway are invited. Woe is go-it-alone Britain with her Brexit that, somehow, Putin must have bought. 

Yet, who supplied many of the most useful arms to Ukraine on the eve of the invasion? The weapons had to be flown via a round-about route to avoid German airspace, such was the cravenness of German subservience to Putin’s sensibilities — appeasement and dependency that failed to discourage his gamble to attack. 

Russia manufactures almost nothing any of us want

Uncritical applause was accorded Olaf Scholz’s decision, after the invasion had begun, to reverse German policy and provide arms for Ukrainian self-defence. Scant mention has been made that German bureaucracy has conveniently been permitted to severely curtail those shipments. For its part, France refuses to say what “defence aid” it has provided.

The main myth is that here has been a decisive Western response. There has not. We in Britain delude ourselves with childish nonsense about the significance of impounding oligarchs’ yachts, while every day Germany and her diplomatic satellites continue to send billions of euros to Moscow. Russia can go a few weeks without McDonald’s: the things we have sanctioned are things they do not need to survive. 

Russia manufactures almost nothing any of us want. There are no Russian iPhones, handbags or cars worth boycotting. What they have is energy and minerals, commodities that pay for Putin’s war. Germany has paid no price for giving them up because it has not given them up. If Britain is to continue to be lectured by eu politicians, then is it not reasonable to ask them what sacrifice they are really making on behalf of Ukraine? 

They resent our departure from what is ever more starkly the EU of Berlin’s vision. They seek to make us pay for leaving their political and economic project. Not least by attempting to divide our country with the Northern Ireland Protocol whose practical failure they refuse to acknowledge. 

Unless Germany’s collaboration with Russia somehow endures and Berlin continues to fund Putin’s war machine not just during the intensifying invasion but even after it is concluded, a greater price must eventually fall upon Germany. Will she really be prepared to pay it? If the Western response to Russian aggression amounts to more than gestures and promises, then she must do so. 

Telling Berlin this uncomfortable truth is a task from which British diplomacy instinctively shirks (though there would be no end to lecturing London if the UK was still buying billions of euros of Russian exports while Putin reduces Ukrainian cities to rubble). It should be the task, nonetheless. 

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