The West’s reluctance to commit fully to Ukraine’s fight will prolong the war

Published by The i paper (15th May, 2023)

Since coming to power at the start of this century,  Vladimir Putin has used the Soviet triumph over the Nazis as a tool for his propaganda, twisting a narrative about past military glories into warnings about the supposed threat modern Russia faces from foes in the West and “fascists” in Kyiv. So it felt deeply symbolic to see a solitary old tank rumbling through Moscow’s Red Square in shrunken Victory Day events last week – a stark demonstration alongside cancellation of parades in many other cities of how the despot’s attack on Ukraine backfired so badly by shredding his military and fuelling his paranoia.

After 15 months, this war is set for a decisive new phase. Everyone is waiting for the much-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive as Spring mud dries, Western weapons are embedded and 12 new brigades complete training. President Volodymyr Zelensky claims Kyiv needs more time, but this might be another smokescreen. Russian forces have fortified the 900-mile frontline, but there has been a spate of attacks on logistics hubs behind the trenches. And they are losing ground in Bakhmut, the devastated town they spent so long trying to seize, reportedly losing 20,000 men there since December in a battle that looks increasingly like another Ukrainian tactical masterclass.

Ukraine keeps defying expectations but Zelensky knows how much is staked on this next move. ‘The more victories we have on the battlefield, the more people will believe in us, which means we will get more help,’ he said. But officials fear that if they make only small gains, domestic and foreign support might waver leading to pressure from frustrated allies to concede terrain in another flawed peace deal. Defence minister Oleksii Reznikov tried to play down expectation, warning there might be “emotional disappointment”. Meanwhile, the dark shadow of Donald Trump looms, refusing to even say who he wants to win the war as he runs again for the White House.

Behind this dramatic moment lies an unresolved question: what does the West really want for Ukraine? For all the fine talk about supporting a free nation under attack, there is still disturbing reluctance to fully commit to Kyiv’s fight for fear of the consequences. Most Ukrainians, horrified by Putin’s atrocities and war crimes, want return of all their land, including Crimea. But are we too frightened by nuclear threats or fear of the Russian empire’s collapse to fully back them?

Take the issue of weapons. Reznikov first asked the United States to supply Patriot missile defence systems in August 2021. This was six months before the full-scale invasion – but more than seven years after Putin’s initial incursions to steal Crimea and chunks of the Donbas. Last month, the minister tweeted that ‘our beautiful Ukrainian sky becomes more secure’ after the first two systems finally arrived. Then a few days ago one downed a hypersonic Kinzhal missile, which Russia claimed was “impossible” to detect or intercept since so advanced.

This sort of delay has been a feature of the war, despite mounting Ukrainian losses. We see hesitancy again and again over supplying Ukraine with maximum means to defend its land and defeat the invaders. First come questions over Kyiv’s ability to use weapons, then concerns over training, and finally fears over Russia’s response – the real reason for such restraint, suggest Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University, and former air marshal Edward Stringer, in a powerful The Atlantic article pleading for urgent supply of F-16 fighter jets.

Even Britain, forcing the pace with tank deliveries and now longer-range missiles, spent six months between publicly mooting this idea and delivering Storm Shadow, despite Ukraine’s desperate need to drive back Kremlin supply lines. The arrival of US Himars rockets last summer put arms dumps and command posts 50 miles behind the frontline in range, causing huge problems for Russian forces. The first reported Storm Shadow strike at the weekend hit a supply depot in Luhansk 80 miles into occupied terrain, yet the US holds back on even longer-range weapons. As one senior Kyiv military officer said: ’The more high-precision modern weapons, the closer the victory and end of the war.’

Red lines keep being raised, then crossed. Behind this tentativeness lies fear of triggering nuclear escalation or the Kremlin empire’s collapse, sparking instability. This led the West to restrain Ukrainian sabotage attacks over the border and efforts to stir up internal Russian resistance. Such timidity simply drags on the war. Putin has a bloody nose, with huge losses of men and military machinery, but his ruthless regime and invasion force is far from defeated. One Ukrainian intelligence source told me the West seems content to prolong the conflict: ‘They would prefer Russia to withdraw in two years rather than be defeated this year.’

These are risky times. But anyone pretending Putin can be trusted in a peace deal or prepared to give in to nuclear blackmail betrays not just Ukraine but all who live in freedom – as well as displaying disturbing naivety over history. Crimea, like all of Ukraine, should be liberated rather than continue as a Russian military base to intimidate the region. If the rotten regime in Moscow falls apart as a result of its own war, this is a consequence of its corrupt dictatorship. Besides, Russia is already a source of immense global instability; just look at its sinister ties to events in Sudan through the Wagner mercenary group. 

Russia has a record of absorbing huge losses in war and Putin believes that if he clings on long enough, he can win due to the weakness of the West. Will we prove him right – then see China target another democracy in Taiwan? Or have we finally woken up to the threat, realising we are engaged in an epochal struggle between dictatorship and democracy with global consequences? The impact of this counter-offensive could stretch far beyond the bloodstained battlefields of Ukraine.

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