Putin May Win in Ukraine, But the Real War Is Just Starting
Putin May Win in Ukraine, But the Real War Is Just Starting
Deliver us from evil. The line is among the most familiar, in one of the oldest Christian prayers. Most of us are wary about using the E-word, because grown-up people know that few issues, or indeed people, can rightfully be characterized as either wholly good or the other thing, but instead exist somewhere between.
Yet it seems hard to consider Russian President Vladimir Putin as anything other than a force for evil. He is personally responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Ukraine through an act of unprovoked aggression, designed to fulfill a vision of national and personal greatness that has no foundation in law or morality.
At least as appalling, through his strangulation of Ukrainian grain shipments he is inflicting hunger and threatening starvation upon a growing portion of the Southern Hemisphere.
This is why it hurts to say that it is hard to see an outcome of the catastrophe that punishes Putin and his nation as they deserve. Or one that restores to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s people the security and prosperity to which they are entitled.
In Britain today, emotions are running higher than in any other European country save Poland and the Baltic states. People like me, who assert skepticism about the prospects of Ukrainian victory, are widely derided as at best “ultra-realists” — not intended as a term of flattery — and at worst as appeasers. We lie awake nights, searching hearts and minds about whether the evidence indeed justifies our grim forecasts.
In a famous, or rather notorious, address to a committee of the Prussian parliament in 1862, Otto von Bismarck said: “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided” but by “Blut und Eisen” — blood and iron. We like to believe that civilized 21st-century societies have advanced beyond such brutish doctrine. Yet Putin is attempting to demonstrate that he can exploit extreme violence to secure a vastly larger role on the world stage than Russia’s economic and political stature confers.
The Russian leader contemptuously defies the guiding spirit of such nations as Germany, industrial giant of Europe, which has long renounced Bismarckian principles: It has identified itself as a so-called “civilian power,” forswearing credible armed forces.
Against this avowed pacifism, Putin is waging a new kind of asymmetric warfare. In the long term, a clumsy exertion of force cannot substitute for economic and social success. A critical difference between Bismarck’s Prussia and Putin’s Russia is that the former’s army was backed by a rising industrial nation, while the latter’s is yesterday’s superpower. The combined GDP of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations is nearly 30 times that of Russia’s, and their defense spending is 15 times that of the Kremlin’s.
Yet to meet Putin’s aggression, Europe needs to liberate itself from Russian energy bondage and to rearm. Both these measures require time, during which Putin’s soldiers are advancing in the Donbas region. As of now, even the best-armed, or least weak, European allies — Britain, France and Germany — would require months to put into the field a single battleworthy division.
The might and commitment of the US are indispensable. R.D. Hooker Jr., a former dean of the alliance’s defense college, wrote recently: “NATO must have the will to compete, and the US must lead and encourage.”
In the immediate term, Putin’s blood-and-iron policy seems likely to succeed, because even a blundering Russian army is stronger than the Ukrainian one. My friends now serving in the military predicted weeks ago that Zelensky’s forces should be able to prevent an absolute Russian conquest of Ukraine. They have always also argued, however, that the chances of Kyiv ever retaking the occupied Donbas are “zero” — a general's word, not mine — no matter what weaponry the West supplies.
Russia is fortifying the territories it has seized. Despite its army’s stunning losses and poor morale, Putin still has at his disposal an inventory of unused weapons, some of them horrible. Only direct Western military intervention offers a prospect of tilting the odds decisively against Russia.
There is a case for US and allied warships to escort vessels carrying Ukrainian grain to and from Odesa, defying Putin to fire on them. At present, however, President Joe Biden’s administration seems wary of taking this step, which might precipitate general war. It is almost unthinkable that US forces will be directly committed.
Many Americans, not all of them Republicans, think that their country is already staking too much in Europe, when China remains the more dangerous adversary. The frustration of national objectives over two decades in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan makes the skeptics unwilling to see the US again commit to a messy struggle in a faraway country that costs blood and treasure, while securing little glory.
The domestic politics of another unsuccessful American war look terrible. Putin, thinking long as usual, is surely calculating that the 2024 presidential election will return to the White House either former President Donald Trump or a Trump clone, opposed to deeper entanglements — perhaps to any entanglement at all — in a European showdown with Russia.
A US retreat from Europe would leave Ukraine dependent on European military, political and economic support, a grim prospect indeed, because the US supplies more than 80% of its aid. Most of Europe is embarrassingly desperate for a settlement that will defuse its energy crisis before winter comes.
Whatever expedients are adopted to preserve a façade of continental unity against Putin, there is no sense of real steel behind the rhetoric of most European governments.
Britain sacrificed almost all influence upon the continent’s leaders when it quit the European Union, an act we know significantly emboldened the Kremlin, because it highlighted European weakness and division. France appears extraordinarily unwilling to break decisively with Russia.
Five years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hailed as Europe's foremost statesman. Today she is widely criticized for having embraced Russia as a reliable partner and energy supplier. It is hard to dispute her folly, having also renounced nuclear power in the cause of green virtue, making one of the greatest industrial nations of the world a hostage to Moscow.
Then there is Putin’s lightly veiled threat to resort to the worst weapons of all. Some bold spirits argue that we cannot indefinitely allow ourselves to succumb to a Russian or Chinese nuclear bluff. We must instead fight; if necessary, commit our own soldiers, defying the nuclear-armed bullies to do their worst.
The case certainly seems unassailable for stationing credible NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic states permanently, to deter and if necessary resist further Russian aggression.
Some of us, however, still flinch from challenging the Russians to use their nuclear weapons by going further. Whatever long-term expedients are adopted to bolster NATO, it remains hard to identify means to frustrate Putin’s immediate objective of reducing the rump of Ukraine to a failed state.
While Russia continues to devastate Zelenskiy’s country — by the latest estimates, it has inflicted over $100 billion of infrastructure damage, and counting — Putin's own domain remains inviolate. Indeed, the Kremlin makes dire threats about consequences if Ukrainian forces or the Western powers make serious strikes at targets on Russian soil.
It is monstrously unjust that one side in a conflict should exercise a license to wreak havoc on the other, while itself remaining physically impervious. But this is an element of Russia’s war-making that is challenged only by Western economic sanctions. Putin can characterize any assault on Russian property as representing an existential threat, which would justify his unleashing weapons of mass destruction.
In the emotional climate currently prevailing in Britain — much more so than in the US, where the struggle seems more remote in every sense — much of what I have written above is reckoned to constitute an ignoble defeatism. The optimists say: With more Western arms, the brave Ukrainians may yet reverse the tide; Putin could be deposed; continental European governments may yet display more guts than I give them credit for.
As a historian of World War II, I am mindful of the number of smart people, including generals and ministers, who, in the summer of 1940 after the military disaster at Dunkirk, concluded that Britain had no choice save to cut a deal with Hitler, because there was no rational prospect of defeating him militarily.
The Duke of Bedford wrote to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George on May 15, asserting that peace should be made “now rather than later” because Hitler’s strength was “so great … it is madness to suppose we can beat him.” This view was shared by his correspondent, who had led Britain’s government in victory in World War I.
Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, told Winston Churchill (then first lord of the Admiralty) that if Italian dictator Benito Mussolini could broker terms with Hitler “which did not postulate the destruction of our independence, we should be foolish if we did not accept them.”
During the Dunkirk evacuation, Britain’s director of military intelligence told a BBC correspondent: “We’re finished. We’ve lost the army and we shall never have the strength to build another.” Many Americans became convinced that Britain was doomed.
Those pessimistic people were absolutely right, rationally. But today we can see, and celebrate, Churchill's higher wisdom, in grasping the fact that Nazism represented such an absolute evil that there could be no compromise with its leaders; they must be fought to the last gasp, even against the tide of reason.
Since I asserted initially that Putin too represents evil — and now also megalomania, given his comparison of himself with Tsar Peter the Great — there is a principled argument that we should follow the example of 1940, by continuing to insist that nothing less than Russia's defeat and expulsion from Ukraine can constitute an acceptable outcome. People whom I respect, in Britain and the US as well as Kyiv, adhere to this view.
Among them is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who believes that Ukraine and its allies must fight on until Russia succumbs to the immense economic pressure being exerted against it, and/or Putin is toppled from power by his own people, appalled by the cost of his aggression. The West “must uphold a critical international norm: that borders cannot be altered by force.”
Yet Haass's analysis makes plain that he, too, sees no prospect of Russia either being driven back by Ukrainian forces to their pre-war positions, or of sanctions obliging Russia to yield.
Unfortunately, much of the world remains indifferent to the struggle. India is conspicuous both for its willingness to buy Russia's cheap oil and refusal to condemn the Kremlin. China continues to support Moscow and is likewise buying its sanctioned energy.
Putin has almost certainly relinquished his initial objective of extinguishing Ukraine as a sovereign state. But he seems likely to fulfill his hopes of achieving its de facto partition. He remains convinced that the soft West will sooner or later decide that its creature comforts, and above all its energy needs and fear of his nuclear weapons, will compel acquiescence.
The historic challenge for the West is to prove this calculation mistaken, because its success would deal a shocking blow to the cause of democracy, freedom and justice in the 21st century. Zelensky must rely upon Churchill’s dogged policy: KBO (“Keep Buggering On”) and pray that something will turn up. The West must continue to provide him with arms and economic support, not merely for as long as Kyiv keeps fighting, but far beyond.
If there is no short-term hope of overcoming Putin. Economic sanctions and social isolation, especially of the Kremlin’s oligarch friends, should be maintained for years to come, together with a huge injection of funds to strengthen NATO. It is vital to show the American people, as well as the Biden administration, that US leadership and support for Ukraine are properly valued and respected by Europeans. Without them, our predicament would be dire indeed.
Today, we must acknowledge how slim the prospects are of delivering Ukraine from evil by military means alone. But for tomorrow, or next year or next decade, if Putin’s blood and iron strategy triumphs, the historic success of the Western European democracies will become hollow indeed.