Russia has deployed more than 16 battalions of tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery and even landing craft around south-east Ukraine, in an arc ranging from Chornomorske to Voronezh. If the place names sound unfamiliar, I advise you to look at a map – because it is here that ten years of Western foreign policy is about to fail.
The Ukraine crisis began in 2014 with the breakaway of two pro-Russian republics and the illegal annexation by Vladimir Putin of Crimea – sporadic fighting has endured ever since. To understand Russia’s motivations, you again need the aid of a map. If you imagine yourself as a paranoid dictator bunkered in the Kremlin, and gaze westwards, what you worry about are three patches of blue: the Barents Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, which seem to reach towards you like outstretched fingers.
Once you discount the ridiculous claims of Russian nationalism – that Ukrainians are “really Russian”, that their language does not exist – the logic of Putin’s aggression is that he wants strategic control of the Black Sea coast. If a shooting war starts, we should expect to see Russian troops invade the whole coastline of the Sea of Azov and perhaps an attack to the west towards the River Dnieper.
Why here, why now? Because, first, Putin’s popularity is waning, with the Alexei Navalny-led Russian opposition movement threatening further mass demonstrations. Secondly, because after four years with a proxy in the White House, Putin needs to shape US foreign policy by means other than private conversations and “kompromat”.
The Ukrainian government has sleepwalked into this crisis. Its decision in 2014 to shut down the North Crimea Canal, depriving Crimea of a fresh water supply from the Dnieper, has slashed the area under agricultural cultivation from 130,000 hectares to 14,000 hectares in less than a decade – and induced water rationing in some Crimean cities. It has created an obvious military-diplomatic target for Putin: open the canal or we take it back.
In February, buoyed by the election of Joe Biden, Ukraine shut down three TV channels owned by a pro-Moscow businessman, triggering the escalation of its border war with the breakaway republics in Donetsk and Lugansk and loud protests from Russia. But security sources believe that, even after the modernisation of its armed forces, the Ukrainian military would be incapable of defending its country against a Russian attack. Its ammunition supplies are low, following mysterious blazes and explosions at ammo dumps, and Western advisers are only reluctantly accepted by local commanders. A “thin blue line” of Ukrainian troops could hold the border for a while, but once it broke there would, analysts tell me, be no interior lines of defence.
Yet Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukrainian government is behaving as if it has the backing of Nato and as if the US will come to its defence if needed. Each of these assumptions is wrong. Nato may have been sparked back into life with Donald Trump gone, but it has no “strategic concept” – to use the jargon – for defending Ukraine against Russian conquest.
The reaction of both France and Germany to the new phase of Russian aggression has been to threaten harsher sanctions on Putin-aligned oligarchs and to muse about shutting Russia out of the Swift international bank transfer system. With both Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns, there is zero chance that they would take military action in defence of Ukraine – because there is zero support for that among western European electorates.
Russia knows this. All the talking points of its proxies in the Ukrainian media are premised on the assumption that “France and Germany want peace as long as Zelensky is not at the table”. As a result, since Nato membership confers the automatic right to collective self-defence, there is no chance of Ukraine joining. As someone who supports the UK’s membership of Nato as a defensive alliance, I think it’s only right to make clear to Ukraine’s people that they will not receive the protection of Nato’s Article 5 as long as there is a threat of war with Russia.
Finally, though the US has made unilateral deployments – preparing to send two destroyers into the Black Sea and deploying a surveillance drone from Naples to patrol the Ukrainian front line – it does not seem certain that Biden himself will do anything more than supply weapons, intelligence and advice to Ukraine.
Defence experts in Kiev believe that Russian troops will be battle-ready by 19 April and have pencilled in 24/25 April as the earliest start date for any land-grab. Unless Biden is listening to different experts, or has clear intelligence that Putin is bluffing, US actions so far are simply not commensurate with a serious military defence of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
And here’s the explanation. To the democratic world, the US appears strengthened after the fall of Trump. With a majority in both houses of Congress, and a dramatic $1.9trn stimulus under way, the Biden administration is demonstrating purpose and executive competence.
But to the rising dictatorial powers, the US appears not only weak but incapable of shaping the global agenda. To Chinese Communist Party strategists, who think in terms of “centuries and continents”, the US’s time as the global hegemon looks over. Since the presidency was captured in 2016 by a fascist-aligned crook, and the Republican Party became the willing host to the parasite of white supremacism, much worse can be expected in this century, they calculate.
It makes sense for both Moscow and Beijing to test Washington at this moment, by picking at the weakest seams of the world order. That’s the meaning of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, which has humiliated the UK and destroyed a quasi-democratic civil society. It is also what lies behind China’s increasingly provocative rhetoric and military incursions against Taiwan. This week, 25 Chinese warplanes, including four nuclear bombers, flew over Pratas Islands, 200km south-east of Hong Kong, which are owned by Taiwan and occupied by its military. There does not need to be coordination between Beijing and Moscow for the combined impact of their belligerence to achieve its current strategic effect.
The US looks as paralysed by the combined crises as the UK did in the 1930s, when – mindful of its decline and challenged by Germany, Italy and Japan – it ducked every potential confrontation. In summary, if the Russian military advances further into Ukraine in the coming weeks, or Putin formally annexes the Donetsk and Lugansk breakaway states, I do not expect an active military response from the Western democracies.
All talk of shutting Russia’s access to the Swift system will evaporate for a reason well illustrated by David Cameron’s antics in Saudi Arabia: figures within the Western policy elite have economic interests aligned with those of the dictatorships. The French firm Total, for example, is a major investor in Russia’s Arctic oil fields.
The way forward lies through developing meaningful and collective European security. We need democracies and media ecosystems resilient enough to withstand disinformation campaigns such as those currently being waged by Russia. We need Nato to become a self-sustaining defensive alliance, eschewing “great game” deployments such as that in Afghanistan and any extra-territorial ambitions.
And we need Boris Johnson’s government to give up on its “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”. The government’s Integrated Review was right to highlight the unravelling of the rules-based global order. Its response – “coalitions of the willing” sailing half-equipped aircraft carriers into the range of Chinese hypersonic missiles, while Johnson recites Kipling’s “Mandalay” in the briefing room – is fantasy geopolitics.
Labour is right to say that the defence of UK national security starts at home, in Europe, in the developing Arctic sphere and in the North Atlantic. That means building new alliances and solidifying old ones with our immediate neighbours. It means giving Nato a new strategic concept that is defensive only, that does not extend beyond the Danube, and that can win legitimacy among voters sick of the images of war and instability that populate their screens.
In this sense, the smart thing for politicians sickened by Putin’s aggression to do is to plan for the next phase, even as this one plays out. As for sanctions, I am told that the US now sees targeted anti-money laundering enforcement, asset seizures against named individuals, and the export of these practices to all Western jurisdictions as a better bet than further blanket sanctions on Russia itself.
The bottom line for the West, as the post-1989 US empire slides towards oblivion, is that 21st-century electorates want peace, prosperity and democracy. They will not approve anything that resembles an oligarchs’ war, or a technocrats’ war – no matter how many national flags politicians insist are flown on government buildings.
Voters want governments to defend their rights and their socially liberal way of life against the encroachments of men such as Putin and Xi Jinping. But they are sick of expeditionary warfare, endless low-level conflict, mass imprisonments and torture, and they see the West’s “allies” – Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey for example – as little better than its adversaries in this regard.
It is from this contradiction that Putin draws his strength. We can only hope that all he wants from the current deployment are new cracks in the system, not new borders in the Black Sea region.