What are the West’s war aims? As the Russians pull back, or feint, north of Kyiv, and the peace-talks minuet carries on in Turkey, this is the single biggest policy question for Western capitals. It is one which, from a mixture of embarrassment and desire to present a united front to Moscow, is barely talked about in public.
But this is no good. It’s no good because President Joe Biden keeps shooting from the hip. It’s no good because without some understanding of the West’s aims, and how they are viewed in the Kremlin, there can be no serious peace negotiations. And it’s no good because it’s no good. If we have no clear picture in our heads of what an acceptable conclusion to this conflict might be, what are we doing arming Ukraine in the first place?
There are broadly two positions: that this war must be ended as soon as possible, even if that means the partition of Ukraine and the neutrality of the western half still unoccupied by Russia; or that it can only end with the fall of Putin. Both aims have a logic. Both are fraught with danger.
“Stop the fighting now” crashes straight into President Volodymyr Zelensky. A great leader, he prioritises human life over mere territory and seems prepared to make big compromises to get the Russians out. But after their heroic successes, could he really persuade Ukrainians to lose half the country? And who is anyone else – who is Biden, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – to order the Ukrainians to accept it?
This question alone could split Western unity. In London, at the hawkish end of the Western alliance, there is already criticism of Macron over his negotiate-for-peace stance. In 2008 another hyperactive French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, kept the lines open to Putin after the Russian attack, or “peace enforcement” mission, against Georgia. Sarkozy brokered a deal that allowed Russia influence over two big bites of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In 2015, working with Angela Merkel, another French president, François Hollande, was hugely influential in so-called Minsk II, which was never fully implemented. The peace agreement effectively allowed Putin to keep two large chunks of eastern Ukraine, in Luhansk and Donetsk, following the first Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Now in London, observing the number of French companies carrying on doing business in Russia despite the sanctions, there is a fear that the same message will be sent to Moscow again: “When Macron is re-elected, he will see this as an opportunity to fly in and negotiate a glorious settlement that will be based on large territorial concessions to Russia,” says an ex-diplomat. Then there would be a drive for business as usual and the lifting of sanctions.
In late March a gripping Economist interview with Zelensky, though carefully worded, implied that he feared European division between pro-Russia appeasers and those countries, notably Britain, that are properly on his side.
In truth, the fighting dictates what possible compromises could be agreed. Every time the Ukrainian army north of Kyiv pushes back Russian forces, the chances of consigning fellow Ukrainians to Putinland shrink; every time Russian forces in the south link up, Putin is less likely to agree guarantees for the rest of Ukraine.
A senior British observer told the New Statesman that he thought a likely peace deal on terms acceptable to Ukraine was not achievable during the next six to eight months. There would probably be a withdrawal of the Russians to the eastern territories – maybe including a full attack on Odessa – and a “frozen conflict” or long stalemate. Western strategy then would be to hunker down and hope that Putin finds it difficult to get through the renegotiation of his mandate as president from 2024.
Shoving Putin into that corner is dangerous enough – particularly for a country (Britain) already identified as Moscow’s most irreconcilable enemy. The alternative to it was blurted out by Biden: a more full-on conflict intended to lead to Putin’s overthrow.
This is frankly terrifying. I would be more persuaded that Biden simply misspoke had he not already told American business leaders he sees a new world order emerging in which the US must take a lead. Those remarks, and his emotional speech to US Marines about what they would discover inside Ukraine, makes one wonder whether this old man with a gleam in his eye is becoming truly dangerous.
Worry not, says the State Department. He didn’t mean to say it, say British ministers. Mon Dieu, not so, says Macron. Of course they do. But there is a logic to what Biden said – and may or may not mean. So long as Putin, in charge of a huge nuclear arsenal and military machine, remains in the Kremlin, the world is unsafe. He has been explicit about his war aims, and he has shown in Ukraine his willingness to cause maximum destruction to achieve them. The Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza recently told me that Putin “is capable of anything”.
How can any end to this war that leaves all this untouched be acceptable? The West already arms Ukraine; why not stretch to attack aircraft and tanks? There are already freelance Western fighters there. Are the Nato countries not already, de facto, waging a proxy war? Why not go a bit further for the big prize?
In theory, trying to topple Putin might work. The intense economic, social and now military pressures on the Kremlin might become so great that an internal coup removes the president. There are now almost daily whispers of manoeuvres inside the army and Russian secret service.
I say again, this is terrifying – and it is madness. The Kremlin has said that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons if it faces an existential threat. Putin sees himself as the embodiment of Russia. Join the dots. Declare you’re going to pull him down and fail to pull him down, and then you really are at war.
I turn with a certain sense of relief to a third half-answer to my original question. It goes like this, and comes from the heart of the British intelligence establishment: “Our war aim is very simple. It is not to go to war with Russia; it is to prevent this becoming a Russia versus Nato conflict. And that aim is being met.”
In London, as in Washington, there has been intense private pressure to ensure that elected politicians, many of them relatively inexperienced, understand the dangers and implications of a full-scale confrontation with Russia. The general rejection of a no-fly zone and the knowledge that neither Nato nor Russia had gone anywhere near direct confrontation has calmed the mood in the past two or three weeks.
Minds are now concentrated on escalation. What does Nato do if there is a Russian attack on a Western supply line into Ukraine? What if there is a Russian military intelligence covert operation in Poland or the Baltics? In every case, the answer is to try to cool tempers and slow reactions. Given the awesome stakes, this is reassuring – unless, of course, you are Ukrainian.
The country faces a long, hideous, meat-grinding urban conflict that may drag on through the rest of this year and into next, exhausting both the Russian army and the ability of the West to constantly resupply Kyiv with modern weapons. It will increase the movement of refugees to a point at which even the EU finds it hard to accommodate everybody decently. It will close down much of the global economy as we’ve known it.
Hard times ahead, particularly in a country with a flailing government. No final answers. Because of the difficulties of a real peace deal, and the dangers of trying to bring down Putin, a period of “frozen war” is the likeliest outcome. It is an unsatisfactory, even ignoble, answer to that original question – in 2022, what are our war aims? But because of the great peril the world is now in, perhaps the moment of maximum danger we have ever seen, it is also the sanest one.
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain