Boris Johnson meets with Zelenskiy, February 2022. (Photo by Peter Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Incompetents abroad

Our hopeless foreign policy elite has no idea of what winning in Ukraine looks like — or how to bring it about


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

In response to the Yale historian Timothy Snyder declaring, “This war ends when Ukraine wins”, Critic contributor Sumantra Maitra asked, “what does ‘win’ mean in this context?” 

Henry Kissinger, as elliptical as ever at 99, was still clear enough that the best “win” Ukraine is getting out of Russia’s invasion is not losing any more. “At no point”, the former US Secretary of State explained, “did I say that Ukraine should give up any territory. I said the logical dividing line for a ceasefire is the status quo ante.”

Whatever worldly imprecision Kissinger meant for his successors to contemplate in terms of front lines on maps, his advice was directly for them, and only indirectly for Ukraine’s leaders.

What are the lethal resources we are sending there?

The time when Britain was in America’s place today will soon be beyond living memory: the arbiter of the affairs of other nations while precariously seeking to maintain her own hegemonic position. In other words, those who conduct, and those who merely think about our foreign affairs, have had a long time to adjust their habits of thought to the task actually in front of them.

What evidence is there that we have a foreign policy elite in this country even adequately up to the job of charting a middle power’s place in the world? Lots, and all of it bad. 

We should reflect on why such unremitting elite failure goes on happening decade after decade without salutary consequences for the people who keep screwing up.

Name a British national strategy: EU membership was a 50-year failure; the bubble of Blairite and Tory Moderniser Sinophilia is long since burst; and always unexamined is the great question of what exactly we are getting out of Atlanticism that we wouldn’t anyway get if we behaved just as France does?

If the big picture is dismal, zoom into the micro: take Ukraine. What are the lethal resources we are sending there? Why are we doing it? What do we hope to get out of doing that? Before February this year, the idea that British interests had a frontier on the Dnieper would have been seen as a fantastical example of strategic overreach. Yet it is there that our arsenal’s range now extends. 

But we could have a strategy, too, in Ukraine

This is not to make a point about the war being lost by Ukraine — lost at least in the sense that the conflict will eventually end with it dispossessed of large parts of its land. That was evident the day Russia invaded. Nor is it to consider the moral case: the rationale behind the invasion and atrocities committed by Russian forces are abominable. It is to simply ask: having done what most of the world did not by choosing to intervene, what do we hope to get out of our intervention?

Have we decided to help bleed out Russia in Ukraine, the fate of Anglo-American folly in Iraq and Afghanistan? It is a bold strategy. But assuming Russia is still in miserable, bloody possession of territory come the winter, what then? What should we, or do we, ask Ukraine to do with our support? Fantasy piles upon pipedream.

Look at Ukraine another way, the way we should have looked at our intervention in Libya (which was as disastrous for her people as an endless war fought in Ukraine would surely be there). This was dressed up as morality, but it should have been seen as revenge. The long memory and longer arm of the British state paying back Gaddafi for arming the IRA. 

So too could Boris Johnson’s impulsive intervention in Ukraine have been regarded as due punishment for Russia for her insults offered on British territory, by her crude murders on British soil. Thinking like this conceives of limited goals and limited outcomes: it does not dream about remaking the world.

But we could have a strategy, too, in Ukraine. Except it would be directed against our grossest foreign policy failure: the division of our own territory by the EU’s Northern Ireland Protocol. We could see our optional war in Ukraine as bringing absolutely inescapable costs for one of the Protocol’s great European patrons, Germany. We could — in fact, why don’t we? — point to their sanction-busting determination to keep Kaliningrad in business as proof of how flexible and realistic the EU can be when it wants. 

Yet we are not supplying the Ukrainian war effort to teach Germany a lesson, nor even to stay in step with the United States, although President Biden’s unabated and unabashed favouritism for the neutral Irish Republic over NATO’s most important pro-American European member tells much about how little influence British diplomacy has with a Democrat administration in Washington DC. 

Russia and Ukraine both know what winning would represent. Our hopeless foreign policy elite has no clue what winning would even look like, or how to bring pressure to secure a tenable end to the conflict. There is no coherent strategy driving our foreign policy, whether in Europe or beyond.

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