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30 March 2022

Wars require momentum, as the campaign to oust Boris Johnson shows

Every day, Western allies have the power to tilt the odds of war more strongly in Ukraine’s favour. They are choosing not to do so.

By Harry Lambert

There are two stories driving the day. In London, the spectre of Partygate has returned, but no longer appears likely to haunt Boris Johnson. In Istanbul, news of “progress” in talks between Ukraine and Russia has yielded a surprising amount of ink across today’s front pages, with many broadsheets talking up Russia’s “promise to ease Kyiv onslaught” (Times); the Telegraph goes so far as to say Russia will “give up” on its conquest of Kyiv.

That is an odd repetition of Russia’s stated position, but every close observer of the conflict is sceptical. Ukrainian defence staff and the Pentagon have both poured water on the idea of progress, and the UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, has said Putin “must think we were born yesterday”. The Telegraph has already moderated its headline online. The Metro captures the uncertainty best: “It’s Russian roulette.” I think that’s right – except that for Ukraine, most of the chamber isn’t empty, it’s loaded. 

This is the slight problem with pictures of peace talks. It is easy to look at negotiators meeting in the calm of Istanbul’s capital and think that this war is dying down, or that the West can take pride in its support for Ukraine. In reality, the West’s economic war on Russia has lost much of its apparent bite. Most oligarchic wealth has not been seized. The ruble has recovered. And Europe continues to fund Russia’s war effort through its daily purchases of Russian oil and gas. Meanwhile, Ukrainian cities continue to be shelled, and military aid to Ukraine is, according to the Ukrainians, still falling short.

Every day, Western allies have the power to tilt the odds of war more strongly in Ukraine’s favour. They are choosing not to do so. As Ben Hodges, the former commander of the US Army in Europe, put it to the New Statesman recently, the West is failing to “empty all of our depots to give the Ukrainians everything that they need”. We have reached a strange place in this war. The momentum behind greater support for Ukraine appears to have stalled, with Europe and the US holding further measures in reserve rather than heaping maximum pressure on Putin at his weakest moment.

But if you wait too long, as rebellious Tory MPs are now finding, the time to strike may never come. Last night, at a more informal set of peace talks, Conservative MPs met for a meal with Boris Johnson at the Park Plaza hotel in Westminster after the police issued the first set of fines over Partygate. 

Johnson’s peace meal would have been a riotous event two months ago. Instead, the evening passed uneventfully, with Johnson making light of his plight and former rebels applauding the Prime Minister. A no-confidence vote was once imminent, but the rebels held fire, waiting for a report that didn’t come when it might have mattered. “The funeral pyre was about to be lit,” in February, a rebel Tory told me. But such passions are precarious. Wars require momentum, and all the energy to oust Johnson has dissipated.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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