Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022 (Photo by Alexander Nemenov / AFP)

Serious choices

We must make them soon

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

What has not happened in the war in Ukraine? Russia has not withdrawn. Nor has her economy collapsed under Western sanctions. Her armies in Ukraine are still in the field and being reinforced for a new offensive. 

Almost 20 per cent of the country is in Putin’s blood-soaked hands. As Lucas Webber details in this issue, although Russian military incompetence arguably squandered her opportunity to knock over the entire independent Ukrainian state a year ago, no one should think outright defeat is close for Moscow now. Grimly, her armies seem set to advance.

How does this proxy war differ from other Western wars of choice this century? We have chosen to ally ourselves with Ukraine. This was courageous and right; we did not have to do this — a truth gruesomely illuminated by the behaviour of many foot-dragging European countries, and by the indifference of non-aligned ones. 

But, demonstrably, this time we are not fighting an enemy whose formal state structures fall over on contact. Russia’s capacity for retaliation means we cannot act with near-impunity, as we have been accustomed to do since the end of the Cold War.

Despite Western sanctions, Russia has, with much Chinese support (and Indian acquiescence), been able to keep her war going. We have kept Ukraine in the field, but were most Nato countries themselves to fight this sort of war, it would be a race to see whether they ran out of men, munitions or morale first. 

Our industrial base has been hollowed out and there is no long-term thinking on how to supply and sustain a prolonged decoupling from the arteries supplying the West with its cheap fixes. 

And as Mark Almond details in our cover story this month, we face in China a country determined to learn the lessons of how America succeeded Britain rather than repeat how Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany failed to do so. 

Thus, in framing policy towards Ukraine, the real question ought to focus upon who is the greater enemy: Russia or China? And how does the prolongation of the Ukrainian conflict impact upon that calculation?

A year supporting Ukraine, a decade in Iraq and 20 years in Afghanistan should make the English-speaking world chary about answering the question, “Where did it get us?” We know where it got so many of them: dead, displaced and destroyed. 

Reckoning with the failure, political and military, of Anglo-American interventions abroad is vastly overdue. This is not least because Iraq and Afghanistan, contrary to what the bunco-men and propagandists claimed at the time, did not fundamentally matter to us. 

By contrast, strategically, Chinese intentions and alliances do matter to the West as much as controlling Ukraine seemingly does to the regime in the Kremlin. If we want our interventions to work, and not just be geopolitical gestures, it is long past time for realism to dictate priorities.

What do we realistically expect will happen? A Russian “victory” could take various forms. It could amount to more Ukrainian territory falling under Russian control but “free Ukraine” valiantly retaining its autonomy. 

Or that autonomy could be clipped by Russia like a latter-day “Finlandisation”. Worse still, the rump Ukrainian state could be forced into a client status even more wretched than Belarus. 

Whatever the outcome, Western states will move on, in due course, as they did rather speedily over the annexation of Crimea in 2014, either to renew Russian business and energy links or with the objective of detaching Russia from China. 

In the absence of strategic thinking, what other humiliating climbdown in the face of reality is to be expected?

But what if Russia loses, and in the process the war doesn’t escalate into one we become formally involved in fighting? Although there are few signs of it so far, perhaps it might result in a more democratic, pro-Western Russia, which becomes, on a gigantic scale, what we failed so utterly to achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite defeating and occupying those states. 

Or do we expect Russia to fall apart? If so, would China benefit from this more than the West? If Putin is killed or left to spend the remainder of his days in a closely guarded dacha, would he be replaced by someone chastened and slightly less bad, or revanchist and even worse? Who knows what we can expect because we show no capacity for realistically assessing what we have done in our foreign policy this century, and why it went so badly wrong in every single instance.

Putin’s specious claims to be interested in what Russians outside Russia popularly want can be dismissed as fully as any claim he cares about what Russians inside Russia want. But having championed self-determination at the expense of the integrity of an established state for Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and — most contentiously of all — Kosovo, Western principles are ill-adapted to make a stand on the future of Crimea or Donbas.

We have been willing to help Ukraine because we can afford to do so. At what point would that support become a price we cannot or simply do not wish to pay? 

German ambivalence about Ukraine — her hugely greater economic (and psychological) stake in Russia compared to Britain or America being very much the issue — is much sneered at in London and Washington. However, this reflects the tendency of the Anglophone chattering classes to be either licking Berlin’s face or vomiting on her shoes. 

There is a happy medium, and while Germany may not have found it, Berlin at least seems to know it conceptually exists.

We have serious choices in front of us

Lucas Webber charts clearly that the war in Ukraine is militarily tilting Russia’s way: this war matters to her as none of ours have done to us this century. Those now in power in Moscow know they’re unlikely to die peacefully in their sleep in Monégasque penthouses decades hence if they lose now. It is a matter of life and death for them and perhaps, too, for their collaborating crooks and satraps in Russian-occupied Ukraine. They are not going to give up tamely.

Mark Almond illuminates a deeper truth that this cold war redux with China is not comparable to the former showdown with the Soviet Union. The struggle against Soviet-inspired Communism automatically gifted the West’s allies — often very disagreeable ones — who feared for the future of their regimes domestically. 

India, Brazil, South Africa, Israel, Saudi Arabia were all with us then. They are not with us now. They don’t fear Chinese capitalism: why should they? What threat is that to them? It doesn’t — yet — tell them what to do at home or bomb them if they don’t toe the line.

Imperial Germany failed to supplant Britain’s place in the sun because although she had the capacity, she lacked the resources. China has every capacity America has and more besides. What she lacks is what Russia has: resources. 

The one strategy that must be avoided is a half-hearted reinforcement for Ukraine that is too under-powered to achieve results, prolongs the agony, and cements Moscow’s and Beijing’s “no limits” partnership because we lack the will and resources to match such determination.

 We have serious choices in front of us, and we must make them soon.

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