Russian invasion will drive more nations to seek weapons of mass destruction

Published by The i paper (28th March, 2022)

The town of Slavutych was the Soviet Union’s attempt to atone for the world’s worst nuclear disaster by carving out an urban utopia for Chernobyl’s workers in the contaminated forests of Ukraine. It sits beside the border with Belarus, so was quickly over-run on the first day of Russia’s latest invasion. Then it became trapped behind the frontline after a key bridge was blown up. The 20,000 residents have endured power cuts and fuel shortages, while there has been global concern over exhausted staff stuck in the power station. One woman told me a few days ago how they were cooking on open fires while all shops had run out of food and medicines.

Yet on Saturday, after one month of occupation, Slavutych proved that it remained defiant against Vladimir Putin. Russian forces returning to the town, presumably in retreat from Kyiv, were met with flag-waving protests and rude chants about the Russian dictator. Stun grenades, shots in the air and several casualties failed to deter the brave demonstrators.

The mayor, Yuri Fomichev, was detained – then reappeared  to tell residents he had made a deal for their enemy to depart after a search for weapons. “They will be in town until noon, in the afternoon they must leave,” he said. “We will rule our town by ourselves. We just have our hands, our brains and our heart. That’s all we have – and love for Ukraine.”

Such spirited events in this isolated northern town are the latest uplifting sign of Ukraine’s resistance, which has defeated Putin’s plans to bludgeon their nation into rapid submission. There are claims Russia has even lost full control of Kherson, the only captured major city. I am not surprised: one official there confided a couple of days ago that their side was leaving “presents” for the occupiers.

After 10 weeks in Ukraine, it has been amazing to see this sprawling nation unite and fight back so fiercely against one of the world’s most feared military machines, although still the atrocities and carnage continue in cities such as Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol.

I have argued that the invasion was borne out of Putin’s multiple failures in power – and regardless of how the war evolves, it is clear that his goals of dividing Ukraine, rebuilding Russia’s empire, weakening the West, wrecking Nato and undermining democracy lies in tatters.

His hero Peter the Great won a battle against the Swedes in Poltava that gave birth to Russia’s empire, yet this latest tsar’s failure to threaten this serene city in eastern Ukraine seems significant when it lies little more than 100 miles from his border. This symbolises the failure of his initial assault, the weakness of his armed forces, the stupidity of his attack, the strength of the response and – with luck – the collapse of this malevolent despot’s imperial dreams.

It is foolish to predict the course of any war, since things can change fast in conflict. There is considerable disinformation and propaganda flying around on all sides. Yet the statement by Russia’s defence chiefs that Moscow will focus on the “liberation” of the Donbas region implies an acceptance that the invasion on multiple fronts and assault on Kyiv has stalled. So much for Putin’s attempt at regime change with all that crazed talk of “denazification” and absurd characterisation of Ukraine’s elected leadership as a fascist junta inflicting genocide on Russian speakers.

Instead, he is feeling the heat himself as his economy is throttled, generals die on the battlefield, intelligence leaks and rumours swirl of top-level splits over his murderous military fiasco.

Let us hope Putin ends up in the dock for war crimes, swapping his $14,000 puffer jacket for prison fatigues. Even his despotic soulmates in Beijing seem to be having doubts over backing for his horrifying actions.

But the danger is he turns any defeat or setback into another frozen conflict, the two sides locked into a long-dragging war of attrition while Ukraine’s fiscal woes intensify, the Western alliance fractures and the world’s attention moves elsewhere. Pressure would grow for a peace deal, allowing Putin to pretend he has won a victory, when the only just outcome is restoration of Kyiv’s control over all of its terrain – including the self-styled Donbas republics and stolen peninsula of Crimea that were ripped away when this war began eight years ago.

Ukraine’s battered electorate might accept changing their constitution regarding support for Nato membership. But even if he wanted to agree a deal to swap land for peace, it seems unlikely that Volodymyr Zelensky could persuade his people to accept continuing Russian incursion on their soil amid such intense hatred for the Kremlin. Indeed, one more sign of Putin’s dismal failure is how he has demolished his own claim that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”.

Now the West needs to show similar strength standing up to Moscow’s assault – and this includes putting strong pressure on avowedly democratic nations such as India, Israel, Pakistan and South Africa that pathetically refuse to take sides in this struggle.

Russia must remain a pariah state until Putin has gone. The toxicity of his regime and the risk it poses to the world was shown again with the statement from his ally Dmitry Medvedev, a former president and influential security figure, that Moscow might unleash a nuclear response in retaliation over conventional weapons.

Sadly, one lesson from this conflict has been that a country with nuclear arms can behave as it wants without fear of direct military response from outsiders, so this war will drive more nations to seek weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has already proved this point. Now Shinzo Abe, Japan’s long-serving former prime minister, says Japan should seek such protection, sparking fierce debate in the only country on the planet to have suffered nuclear attack. The shock waves of this invasion are being felt even in Tokyo, far from those towns suffering the pain such as Slavutych.

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