The West needs to show strength – like Ukraine
Published by The i paper (20th June, 2022)
Four weeks before Vladimir Putin sent his tanks and troops over the border in a vainglorious attempt to impose a puppet government in Kyiv, I visited a small town called Avdiivka. It looked like many similar places in Donbas with its scruffy market, pastry shops and smoke swirling from chimneys at a huge industrial plant – except for all the buildings bearing the cruel scars of war with shell holes and boarded-up windows. For the remaining residents, those people I met on icy January streets, were trapped behind trenches filled with troops that were the lethal legacy of the Kremlin’s last assault on their country eight years ago.
This gritty town sits four miles from Donetsk, capital of the self-styled “people’s republic” seized by Moscow-backed separatists in 2014. Yet despite the intensity and savagery of Russia’s latest assault, the Ukrainian troops I met hunkered down in their trenches have so far resisted bombardment from howitzers, missiles and tanks. “Our thoughts are only about victory,” texted one officer. “We will not forgive them for a single ruined town, for a single dead civilian, for a single killed soldier. I look at the people coming together during the war and I am really proud of our country. Please believe in us – we will not let you down.”
Who knows how long they can resist? But Avdiivka serves as a reminder of Russia’s failures in this sordid war – just like Mykolaiv, the battered city visited by President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday that is frustrating efforts to seize the Black Sea coast. Putin spent more than two decades pouring cash into his military machine, then many months preparing for this invasion. Yet the world’s second-largest army was defeated in the initial battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv. Its war planes have failed to control the skies. Now Moscow is focusing its efforts on capturing the Donbas. But even here the gains are slow and small, relying on demolition of towns and villages that the despot in the Kremlin claimed to be saving from supposed fascists.
This is a pivotal moment – as highlighted by warnings from Boris Johnson and Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg – about the dangers of fatigue in a conflict that could drag on for years. “We need to steel ourselves for a long war,” wrote the Prime Minister in The Sunday Times following his second visit to Kyiv. “Time is the vital factor.” He is right. Putin anticipates global attention will shift to other issues as his forces grind on mercilessly through bloodstained terrain. He expects Ukrainian support for Zelensky to fray in a tired nation as their body count grows and the economy is devastated, for the Western alliance to fracture and people around the world to grow restless over rising food and energy costs leading to pressure for a peace deal accepting his evil occupation.
The Pope bleats pathetically that “there are no metaphysical good guys and bad guys” yet Putin’s mask has slipped, revealing that he is simply engaged in a land grab designed to shore up support for his corrupt dictatorship. In a speech earlier this month to mark the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great’s birth, he likened this invasion to his idol’s 18th-century campaign to take territory from Sweden’s empire. Then the bully boy President indicated that he sees all former Soviet countries as part of his domain, warning that they risk similar invasion if they think differently. The failure of democracies such as India and South Africa to support a country being subjected to brutal imperialism is disgusting and should not be forgotten.
Russia has expended huge human, financial and military resources for relatively limited territorial gains thanks to the fortitude of Ukraine and nimbleness of its armed forces, backed by the flow of funds, intelligence and weapons from the West. It is still fighting over the ruins of Severodonetsk, with much bigger cities lying ahead in Donbas, while facing growing threat of partisan resistance in occupied zones. Losses on both sides are horrendous – although as exiled Russian defence analyst Andrei Soldatov told The New Yorker, Russia’s military thought it could win a war against the West despite weaker technology due to their ability to sustain losses. “But in this war, in Ukraine, all the casualties are not by Nato but by the Ukrainian army. And that is why they think they picked up a fight with Nato in the wrong place.”
This return of terrible industrialised warfare to Europe, relying on huge consumption of arms, troops and vehicles, has shattered many illusions. It raises questions over the shape of our own armed forces and capabilities; in one recent war game, British forces ran out of ammunition after just eight days. It throws up profound issues over the strength of our democracies, the hypocrisy of our own foreign interventions, the wisdom of alliances with other dictatorships, even the corruption of our financial and political systems. But this is not just a war that Ukraine cannot afford to lose. It is a struggle for supremacy between democracy and dictatorship with China watching in the wings under another ultra-nationalist dictator, reiterating his support for Russia’s “sovereignty and security” as he slavers over Taiwan.
Despite Putin’s claims of greatness, his stupid war has exposed Russia’s weakness and the limitations of top-down dictatorship. There are undoubted risks but the West should tighten sanctions, speed up the supply of heavy weaponry and break the illegal blockade of Odesa by escorting cargo ships from Ukraine’s last major port. But the big question confronting our country – along with every other Western nation – as the conflict drags on and bodies pile up is whether our divided, introspective and tormented democracies have the strength to take economic pain while Ukraine battles on for survival amid such bloodshed. The brave soldiers on the front line in places such as Avdiivka promise not to let us down. But will we let them down?