Russia is in trouble. Not trouble to the extent that it’s going to lose the war in Ukraine, but big enough that it is forced to choose – between a siege of Kyiv or an expanded occupation of the Donbas region. This week, publicly at least, it has chosen the latter.
It’s been brought to this by the Ukrainian people’s bravery and willingness to fight; by the decision of Western governments, including Britain’s, to supply anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons; and by Russia’s own military inadequacies.
It’s not that Russia lacked tanks, aircraft or personnel, but that they were sent into battle by a president addicted to improvisation. Like a bored child, Vladimir Putin raced through stages of warfare that are meant to take weeks: the air strike phase, the manoeuvre phase, the pitched battles, the siege and the negotiations were all “achieved” within four days of the first shot being fired.
Yet Putin’s stated aim – the total occupation of Ukraine, or even its substantial partition along the river Dnieper – cannot be achieved. With the reserves of combat forces available he can probably take the whole of Donbas, linking it via Mariupol to an expanded Crimea. Yet even that would entail permanent sanctions, crippling the Russian economy.
The operational failure, in turn, rests on a strategic failure. Putin’s overall aim was to split the West: to split Nato, the EU, to render the UN and Organisation for Security and the Cooperation in Europe irrelevant, to force his way to a global negotiating table facing Joe Biden alone – confident that in November 2023 he has a good chance of picking Biden’s replacement.
So far, he has failed to divide the West. But the cracks within Nato are there, and Volodymyr Zelensky anatomised them carefully this week.
“There are those in the West,” he told the Economist, “who don’t mind a long war because it would mean exhausting Russia, even if this means the demise of Ukraine and comes at the cost of Ukrainian lives.” Asked whether the US belongs in this category, he replied: “we’ll see”. It certainly includes France, and possibly Spain.
A second faction wants a short war, because they want a rapid de-escalation of sanctions, which are disrupting their own economies. Pre-eminent here is Germany, whose move to rearmament and the projection of European power under Olaf Scholz was courageous, but is still unnerving its business and political elites and a strongly pacifist electorate.
A third, said Zelensky, are the “branch offices” of Russia, which want Ukraine to surrender. He didn’t name them but they include Hungary, Austria and, on a bad day, parts of the Italian political elite.
Finally, there are Ukraine’s outright supporters: the UK, the Baltic states and Poland. Though they desire a clear Ukrainian victory, they are aware that this is impossible. Even to force Russia back to its positions on 24 February requires Nato and the EU to remain united around a six- to 12-month war of attrition until the full effect of sanctions start to bite on the Russian economy.
Because none of the diplomatic players will state their position publicly, Zelensky’s candid outline of the rival approaches did us all a favour. It should force the electorates of both the EU and Nato countries to embrace some clear, strategic choices.
The first is to recognise that Biden was right: Putin has to go. He ripped up the architecture of international law; he launched an ethnonationalist invasion to wipe out the national identity of 41 million people; the results – bombings of civilian areas, kidnappings, rapes, forced population movements and the imposition of the Russian language on Ukrainian schools – were entirely predictable from the rhetoric.
Whatever ceasefire terms that Russia imposes on Ukraine – and they currently look like neutrality, the permanent loss of Crimea and the Donbas at the minimum – the West should not flinch from an economic war with the Putin regime. It has assaulted our democratic structures and cultures to their depths; it will go on doing so until it is finished.
On 4 February, both Putin and Xi Jinping declared they were in systemic competition with the West; on 24 February, Putin asserted his right to define where the West ends and the East begins. He will not stop at the Ukrainian border – as the veiled threats that the Kremlin has made against Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Moldova and Poland demonstrate. The systemic conflict is here until he’s gone.
There is, if we are brave enough to do what is needed, a one-time opportunity: a democratic Russia, in the hands of its own people – and strategic Western coexistence with it. If we don’t, then as the Russian petrostate dies its inevitable slow death, it will still be emanating threats and obscenities into our grandchildren’s lives.
That requires a long, cultural and political counteroffensive, to neutralise the hybrid warfare techniques that Russia uses inside our own societies, and to promote the values of universal human rights, rule of law and social justice inside the post-Soviet space. It means the progressive parties of the West adopting, as a political goal, the thing Putin fears most: a mass, democratic “colour revolution” to end oligarchic power.
In the short term, however, the UK is going to need a bigger military. Rishi Sunak refused to boost defence spending last week, despite calls from some Tories to double it. Britain has a government facing multiple crises – inflation, stagnation, climate and war – yet it is convinced that they can all be handled by a smaller state.
Labour’s shadow secretary of defence, John Healey, has called for a Finnish-style emergency white paper to identify the immediate priorities for increased defence spending. Labour is light on detail, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Last year, because the disastrous Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy specified a “tilt” of British military power to the Indo-Pacific region, the Tories were happy to cut army numbers by 10,000; cut a third of the army’s tanks, and leave the chaotic Ajax fighting vehicle project in limbo. Having declared their intent to buy 138 F-35 strike fighters – the most advanced military aircraft there is – the Tories have committed money for just 48 of them.
Meanwhile, according to the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, the core commitment of a “warfighting division” consisting of four deployable brigades – the basic building block of a Nato force that could deter Putin in the Baltics – will not be achieved until 2030.
Britain has done well in the supply of small arms to Ukraine’s fighters. But it has dragged its feet on sanctions, and is saddled with a Chancellor placing ideological limits on the rearmament needed to meet an existential threat.
By the time this is over, the UK may, sadly, need an armed force closer in size to the commitment it made to Nato during the Cold War. The country is certainly going to need all the F-35s it can lay its hands on, and should start committing the money to them today. And if, as looks likely, the Ajax programme comes up dud, it will need a rapid replacement for that.
Above that, the UK needs to help the West open up a deterrent technological advantage over Russia – in missiles, missile defence, cyber and electronic warfare. The aim would be to convince Russia that, in any attack on Nato itself, its conventional forces would be destroyed a lot more comprehensively than on the mud banks of the Dnieper, and a lot quicker.
There will be a high price for this. Some of the increased military spending will be benign: boosting skills, wages, R&D and steelmaking in parts of the UK that sorely need it. Done right, increased defence spending can boost GDP pound-for-pound. But there will have to be choices – and as Labour pointed out, the sooner we make them the better.
[See also: How will the Ukraine war end?]