Boris Johnson’s six-point plan for action in Ukraine, unveiled yesterday in a New York Times essay, would make a very good fridge magnet or tea-towel; or, better yet, an addition to the Little Book of Affirmations. Its proposals, presented as a Churchillian blueprint for victory, are bland to the point of banality.
“Halt the normalisation of Russia’s aggression” is a good one: is anyone, other than Vladimir Putin, suggesting that we do the opposite? “Support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself” also reflects a nice sentiment – though the Ukrainians themselves, as we shall see, have a couple of questions about this particular pledge. One wonders what promises failed to make the cut when the prime minister was choosing his six points: “Be nicer to Dilyn the dog” or “Set aside an hour’s ‘me-time’ every day – and stick to it!”
Why, when there is so much else to worry about, mock anodyne political rhetoric? For the simple reason that there is too much of it about by far: too much Western self-congratulation, too much back-slapping (much of it self-administered), too much barely concealed smugness about how splendidly well it is all going – unless, of course, you are actually in Ukraine where conditions are, as they say in Whitehall, sub-optimal.
The pathologies at work here deserve to be unpicked before they fester. Especially egregious is the constant refrain that we are standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the warrior-citizens of Ukraine. It was deployed by the G7 on the very day of the invasion – and Johnson had already used the phrase demonstratively in talks with President Zelensky of Ukraine earlier in the month.
On 27 February, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss said that “we stand with Ukraine, shoulder to shoulder, in its hour of need”. Her colleague at the Ministry of Defence (and rival for the Conservative leadership), Ben Wallace, has declared that “we stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and are pursuing every option to support them in their defence against President Putin’s unprovoked and illegal invasion.”
Even Priti Patel, whose shoulders are usually associated with barging migrants and asylum seekers away from the border, has gone along with the mantra of the moment. On Friday, she said that the UK “stands shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians, providing humanitarian practical support.”
All of which would be fine – if it were true. Yes, the West has laid the groundwork for tough new sanctions against Russia. There has also been a remarkable shift, in a matter of days, on the question of defence spending; notably, in Germany, but also in less obvious countries such as Denmark, where a referendum will now be held on the Danish opt-out from EU defence policy. If not quite a full-blown awakening, there is at least a hemispheric stirring, as the western world starts to acknowledge afresh what true security means.
But let us return to Ukraine specifically. Quite rightly, we wave the yellow and blue flag, honour Zelensky and lionise the valour of the people he leads. No opportunity is missed to give the Ukrainian national anthem a standing ovation. Football players run on to the pitch in Ukrainian colours, and Chelsea fans are pilloried for chanting the name of Roman Abramovich.
Symbols matter, but – in a moment of historic geopolitical confrontation – they are manifestly insufficient. In the first 12 days of the onslaught, Putin has already shown that he is willing to shell nuclear power plants; to rain down fire on evacuees who had been promised a ceasefire; to drive terminally ill children from their hospices; and to target residential areas as a matter of course.
In such desperate circumstances, it is not only meaningless but immoral to claim that you are standing “shoulder to shoulder” with a people facing such an onslaught, if you are firmly withholding the particular form of assistance that they want most; the specific help that they have requested time and again – at first, politely, but now, with mounting frustration.
On Friday, Zelensky asked the West once more for the introduction of a no-fly zone, denying Putin control of the skies. The Ukrainian president has issued this plea many times before – but, on this occasion, his anger was palpable.
By denying his country this military support, he said, Nato was giving “a green light” to further bombardment. “All the people who will die from this day will die because of you, as well,” he declared. “Because of your weakness… Is this the Nato we wanted? Is this the alliance you were building?… You will not be able to buy us off with litres of fuel for litres of our blood, shed for our common Europe, for our common freedom, for our common future.”
Interviewed yesterday on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme, Zelensky’s deputy, Olha Stefanishyna, was no less robust. Seated in front of a mountain of sandbags, she scorned Nato as “a group of 30 leaders… gathering itself in the fancy cabinet with the fancy garniture and talking about defensive things… these 30 leaders, I think they can sit on fences of what would happen if they will [implement a no-fly zone] – but they’re not thinking of what wouldn’t happen if they would do this.” (And if you find her imperfect English grating, think how your English would be if you were sitting in a bunker waiting for the angel of death to pound on your door.)
The response of western politicians is straightforward: a no-fly zone, they say, would involve strikes on Russia’s air defence capability and dogfights with MiGs. This, inescapably, would be interpreted by Putin as a significant escalation, and could lead to the use of nuclear weapons of which he warned on 24 February: “consequences that you have never encountered in your history”.
Two caveats must be applied. Even as Western leaders insist that a no-fly zone would lead inexorably to a skyline full of mushroom clouds, they urge us – confusingly – not to take Putin’s nuclear threats too seriously.
In an interview with Sky’s Trevor Phillips yesterday, Dominic Raab dismissed the Russian president’s menacing language as “rhetoric and brinkmanship”. Meanwhile, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, told the BBC that Putin’s comments were “bizarre or ridiculous”. So which is it? Are we taking the Russian autocrat’s nuclear threats at face value – or not? Because a great deal hinges on the answer.
Second: it is a big mistake to imagine that a no-fly zone is the only measure that will be used by Putin as an excuse to escalate or to deploy non-conventional weapons. On Saturday, he said that the new sanctions and measures designed to hobble Russia’s economy were already “akin to an act of war”.
How, then, will he respond to the influx to Ukraine of arms from the West – including, potentially, Polish MiGs that Ukrainian pilots can fly, replaced in Poland by US F-16s? Or the arrival of Javelin anti tank missiles from Estonia? Or Stinger surface-to-air missiles from Latvia? Or other weapons from any of the 20 mostly Nato and EU nations that have thus far pledged military aid?
At what point does the difference between Western “aid” and outright “intervention” become so blurred that the man in the Kremlin sees no distinction worthy of his restraint? In other words: ruling out a no-fly zone is no guarantee against escalation, and we deceive ourselves if we think otherwise.
The mood in the West in the past twelve days has been very strange: a curious mix of natural horror at the scenes on our screens; and a rather tasteless smugness about our diplomatic unity, supposed rejuvenation of liberalism and general wonderfulness.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Biden spoke at times as if the war had already been fought and won. “When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger,” said the president. “We see the unity among leaders of nations and a more unified Europe, a more unified West… In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”
One wonders how much comfort, if any, this really brings to the people of Kyiv, or Kharkiv, or Mariupol, or Mykolaiv, or to the 1.5 million refugees who have already been driven out of Ukraine. When Johnson tells the House of Commons that it should be “proud of what we have done already” and of the “unprecedented measures” that the UK government has taken and the extent to which it had “led the way” during the crisis, it is hard to know if he believes in his own triumphalism. Is the PM high on his own supply – or is his braggadocio simply a matter of muscle memory?
Indeed, what are we to make of a commentator as fine and nuanced as David Brooks hailing “a restored faith in the West, in liberalism, in our community of nations” and “a second wind” for the “creed of liberalism”? That all sounds great to me. But I think it spectacularly exaggerates what is actually happening.
The West, to my mind, is indulging itself in a huge group-hug – which would be harmless enough, were it not taking place against the backdrop of unconscionable bloodshed. For much of the 21st Century, what used to be called the free world has been engaged in a prolonged bout of miserable introspection: Iraq, the Crash, the rise of the populist Right and nativism, the impact of digitally enhanced political polarisation.
Our capacity to act as an international community has been shredded. Our efforts to address climate emergency are mostly exercises in appeasement, obfuscation and procrastination. We have not even been able to immunise the world against Covid, in spite of an abundant over-supply of vaccine.
And in August, under Biden’s tetchy direction, the whole wretched business was dramatised all too crisply in the ignominious retreat from Kabul. Moscow and Beijing looked on, trying not to snigger too loudly.
This is the correct context in which to understand the West’s response to the invasion of Ukraine. Here, at last, was a collective opportunity to get unambiguously butch – but not too butch, given that, in this case, the invaded country is conveniently not a member of Nato. We have talked a good game and – to be fair – put together a reasonable suite of economic sanctions against Russia. The binding principle has been: no more tears of self-pity. We have declared a no-cry zone.
I am afraid I find all this swagger repellent, for the simple reason that, beneath all the rhetoric and performance, we are doing what we always do: which is to sell out Ukraine. We sold out Ukraine in 1994 in the Budapest memorandum when, in return for its handing over of the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile, the US, Russia and the UK swore to respect its territorial integrity.
We sold out Ukraine in the early 2000s when we encouraged its ambitions to join Nato but failed to deliver significant progress. We sold out Ukraine in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea (looking back on his premiership, David Cameron singled out this crisis to me as the “disappointing chapter”). We sold out Ukraine as recently as 10 November in the Charter on Strategic Partnership, in which the US again explicitly encouraged its “aspirations to join Nato.”
At heart, though, we in the West have always known that Zbigniew Brzeziński, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, was absolutely right when he observed in 1996 that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” Which is to say that, for Putin, the potential loss of Ukraine to Nato is an existential rather than a narrowly geopolitical matter. In this conflict, he is not playing chess like an old-fashioned Cold Warrior but waging metaphysical battle on behalf of the soul of Mother Russia.
For all the talk of defending universal principles such as liberal democracy, freedom and national self-determination, the West’s strategy is one that will not take effect – assuming it does – in time to save Ukraine. The sanctions will not bite quickly enough to force Putin’s forces into rapid retreat. As long as Russia’s oil and gas continue to be exported, its economy will not collapse entirely. It is true that national indigence may eventually do for Putin – but that is a long-term plan for regime change in Moscow, not a short-term project to save Ukraine from a war that may last years and reduce one of the homes of European civilisation to rubble.
And – even for those who are privately indifferent to Ukraine’s fate – the present wave of Western smugness is profoundly ill-advised. The signals we are sending to our rivals and adversaries are not as powerful and muscular as we suppose.
The opposite of weakness is not unity: it is strength. As the US foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan argues in The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperilled World, a book that is being read in the more thoughtful quarters of Westminster and Whitehall: “If the United States has to back down every time an act of aggression is committed by a nuclear-armed power, it will be backing down more and more in the years to come.”
“Shoulder to shoulder”? Truly: how can you make such a claim when you are simultaneously tying the other guy’s arms behind his back? Let us not pretend that we are doing more for the Ukrainians than we really are. And let us not delude ourselves that it is only they who are weakened by the sham.