Destroyed Western-donated armoured vehicles of the Ukrainian armed forces

No happy endings

Our worst sin has been to be weak, rather than merely to be wrong

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If we took the foreign policy rhetoric of Western statesmen at face value, we would have to conclude that Western adults are as neurotic and delusional as so many twentysomething Western youth appear to be.

Obsessed with social media, moral posturing and feelings, the West’s stated policies seem almost comically divorced from any serious assessment of national interests, capabilities and actual needs.

If only there was a “but actually the truth is … ” moment. But that’s not going to happen. Because the West is as bad as it looks, for the West acts openly. And our deeds are, if anything, worse than our words: being irresponsible, unworthy of our patrimony and inviting of disaster.

To see where we are we should see where we clearly are not. In the case of Ukraine we are not on the brink of disaster, however much Ukrainians might be. For we have to be realistic about the Russian threat. That, to us, was not terminal even when for nearly half a century Moscow’s rule reached halfway across Germany.

Just as it won’t be terminal should Russia somehow advance beyond the areas of Ukraine it has conquered and advance all the way west of Lviv to the border with NATO member, Poland. And it is risible to suggest that each Russian creep forward into some obscure and now ruined hamlet near the banks of the Dnieper is the end of the Western way of life. However brutal and ugly Russia’s assaults are, it is not.

The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, went to Ukraine for a Boris Johnson-in-political-peril photo opportunity. He signed a sonorous agreement with President Zelenskyy and promised the Ukrainians more money. Arriving back home, Mr Sunak solemnly declared in the House of Commons that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO”. This is fantasy.

Britain’s military enfeeblement is embarrassing

Britain’s latest gift to Ukraine is not of an order to shift realities on the ground. The money is a drop in the ocean even for Ukrainian finances, never mind British ones. And as for Ukraine being in NATO, is Mr Sunak serious in promoting a potential nuclear war-entailing obligation to defend her borders? Never mind what her borders will be, with what would we defend them?

The disconnect between the fantastic objectives of British foreign policy and the reality of Britain’s military enfeeblement is embarrassing. The current government has effectively mothballed the Royal Marines. Our carriers can’t sail for action in the Middle East because they lack escorts and even one — just one — supply ship.

They can pose in northern waters near home, but the entire expeditionary posture of Britain’s armed forces can no longer work because this government hasn’t given them the men to do their actual job, never mind enable the make-believe promises for Ukraine.

In this issue of The Critic, Patrick Mercer makes the case that we have seen the war in Ukraine wrongly from the start. That we rushed into a pleasing morality tale of our own making, ignoring the reality of Ukrainian politics since the déclassé Putin was of course distastefully so much worse.

We were distracted by and gained false over-confidence from Russia’s pitiful failure of arms in its advance on Kyiv at the start of the war, ignoring in the process the significant ground it won in the east and southeast of the country, not least along its coast.

More corrosively still, Colonel Mercer makes the point that, yet again this century, the NATO manual just hasn’t worked. Whether for ourselves or taught to others, our military doctrines have consistently failed in the field. However, it’s worse still for proponents of “Ukraine: our sword and shield”.

For if this rationale holds up, and we’ve hard-headedly backed a war waged by others in our self-interest, what have we done whilst our proxy bled? The answer lies plain enough in our tied-up assault ships: we have done and are doing nothing, save hobbling ourselves still further. And that’s just in Britain, easily as gung-ho a state as the West has left.

We should reflect on what Britain’s wars of choice have actually done for this country

We’ve done nothing in the last two years to prepare for the threat we claimed justified coming to Ukraine’s aid. Mercer’s argument is that our worst sin has been to be weak, rather than merely to be wrong. However fanciful the Western boosterism — by some very usual suspects — was for Ukraine’s supposed road to victory, it is self-delusion which is going to come back to hurt us, not things we’ve dreamt about others.

Curt Mills of The American Conservative acutely notes that for President Biden, Ukraine is a political millstone that is energising his Republican opponents electorally. Biden, of course, followed-through with the liquidation of an even starrier US commitment gone sour in Afghanistan.

We should remember, as Rishi Sunak grandstands, how little Britain’s voice counted as the Americans scuttled out of Kabul. In bearing that in mind, we should reflect on what Britain’s wars of choice have actually done for this country (let alone what they did for the countries in whose plight we involved ourselves — Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya).

Britain has chosen, most recently, to throw a handful of Typhoons thousands of miles from their base in Cyprus at the Houthis in Yemen in order to make the American attack on them look multilateral.

For all the talk of world trade being at stake through this maritime chokepoint, Germany, France, Italy, India, Brazil, Japan and, so tellingly, China did not offer to join the fight. We have gained nothing in doing so; those countries have lost nothing in not doing so.

This, the hype which accompanied it — the Cabinet has been assembled late at night! the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition have been briefed on Privy Council terms! — was a bagatelle. It was no Iraq, or Afghanistan, where our participation was justified, not least by our Foreign Office, in terms of the immeasurable influence participation would afford us.

And, hard as this is to intellectually reconstruct at the distance of decades, it was influence which would have been denied to others who failed to participate. That would have been what was lost if we had stood back and let those wars proceed, as they would have done, without our dead.

Yet Daniel Johnson, founding editor of Standpoint, makes the inescapable point that we could give the Ukrainians the tools to do the job we won’t do ourselves — but only if we have them to give.

Economic sanctions have meant Russia’s transition into a satellite of China

During Russia’s war in Ukraine, “Western” supplies of shells, as vital now to real war as they were a century ago, have seen South Korea send more than the EU combined. Put starkly, even if the Johnsonian argument, centred on combined moral and strategic arms, is conceded, we have insufficient to give. Our withered industrial base precludes the wars Sunak, Biden and others say that we, or others on our behalf, should fight.

There is no happy ending here. As bad as the battlefield has been for the West this century, a far more frightening fact should have been how little use the economy, “the fourth arm” of war, has become for us and our causes. And even more specious than giddy talk about what drones and returning blue-haired graduates would do for Ukraine has been our foolhardy expectations of what Western economic sanctions would mean.

They have meant nothing other than the completion of Russia’s transition into being an economic satellite of China. This is not a good outcome for the West; that it happened shows exactly where and how we declined most.

The United States replaced Britain’s place in the world — a comparable military footprint, indeed, largely the same values and worthiness — because Britain lost the economic wherewithal to maintain her world system.

Either China is a threat which can and must be faced, or it is not. Every piece of evidence we have thus far — what we said, what we have and have not done — suggests that if we fear China, we have nevertheless preferred to engage in the displacement activity of wrestling with second-rate Russia instead.

The West’s talk of how much of a threat Russia is, even although it has yet to reach Kyiv, represents a fearful evasion of what confronting China will truly mean. China means business and, critically, is good at business. As yet, we don’t want to pay the price of resisting her.

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