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Hope for peace – but prepare for the worst in Ukraine

Hope for peace – but prepare for the worst in Ukraine

Behind the scenes, Western leaders are preparing for Putin to escalate. Which is why we must redouble the flow of arms to Zelensky

Trotsky had it right. In his 1933 essay, ‘What is National Socialism?’, he wrote: “Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic powers of signs and exorcisms. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!”

The murderous revolutionary’s point was this: history is not linear but geologically stratified. It is a colossal mistake to imagine that modernity erases all that has gone before, that science disinfects superstition, that progress quashes atavistic instinct. And, for a case study, just look at what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine. 

Of course, the Russian president was well ahead of the pack in his mastery of cyberwarfare as a disruptive tool; he grasps completely the need to control, as far as possible, not only traditional media but digital platforms. He has also fully embraced modern asymmetric warfare, in which unpredictable, nimble or confusing methods are used to confound the lumbering adversary: witness (for instance) the use of notional “militias” rather than conventional forces in Crimea in 2014; the online nurturing of culture wars in the West; and the extraordinary disorientation of the the British governing class sown by the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018.

Yet the spirit of the Ukraine invasion – true to Trotsky’s analysis – has been one of ancestral brutality; of a savagery that sheds copious blood but also, in its sheer horror, sprays psychological shrapnel around the world. On Wednesday, Putin’s forces struck a maternity hospital in Mariupol; two days later, a psychiatric facility near the eastern Ukrainian town of Izyum was shelled. 

According to the World Health Organisation, at least 27 healthcare centres have been targeted. Breaches of promised local ceasefires and attacks on defenceless evacuees are routine, as are strikes on residential areas – such as the shelling of a nine-storey building in northwest Kyiv early this morning. On Saturday, the governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, declared that the town of Volnovakha had effectively ceased to exist under Russian bombardment.

Even as the West repeatedly and publicly promises that it will not impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, or do anything else that might trigger “World War Three”, Putin makes clear that the only rules he cares about are his own. The only conventions he observes are primordial. Does this make him mad? Absolutely not. It simply explains how he approaches conflict.

On this, the 19th day of the invasion, there is a surge of optimism that peace talks between the two sides may be making some headway, and one can only hope, with all due fervour, that there is a kernel of justification for such hopes; a “golden bridge” across which Putin may yet retreat. 

As against this: dozens were killed and more than 130 wounded yesterday as 30 missiles were fired on the Yavoriv base, just 15 miles from the Polish border. Meanwhile, US intelligence suggests that Russia is now seeking arms from China: a deadly request, in effect, to redraw the 21st-century geopolitical map definitively, pitting a united Eurasia against the West; and one that Xi Jinping will surely be canny enough to reject. 

In this context, it is important to remember that Putin is a spy by trade, rather than a soldier or a diplomat. To ask whether he is sincere – about anything – is to ask the wrong question. His objective, at all times, is to outfox, deceive and confuse his adversary. It is no accident that he is a master of judo, a martial art that depends upon destabilising your opponent – and then flattening them.

Behind the scenes in Whitehall, as in other Nato countries, there is profound concern that Putin is stringing Ukraine along in what passes for peace talks; while preparing, in strategic jargon, to “escalate to de-escalate”. This lethal paradox is described thus in the 2003 manual, The Priority Tasks of the Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation: “Deescalation of aggression [means] forcing the enemy to halt military action by a threat to deliver or by actual delivery of strikes of varying intensity with reliance on conventional and (or) nuclear weapons.”

As one senior UK official puts it: “The initial failure of Putin’s blitzkrieg on Ukraine is good news on one level, but it also puts pressure on him to do something devastating to bring matters to a head and force [Ukrainian President] Zelensky to cut a deal that favours Russia.”

Does this mean the use of a tactical nuclear weapon on Ukrainian soil? Conceivably – because everything is conceivable while Putin’s finger hovers over the button. But every UK minister and official I have spoken to believes that the localised use of chemical weapons is a much more immediate peril. 

Putin will remember what happened when President Assad’s Russian-backed forces deployed sarin in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013. Having declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria to be a “red line”, Barack Obama – exploiting Ed Miliband’s decision to vote against David Cameron in a Commons vote backing military intervention – executed the most shameful U-turn of his presidency. The Russian president will also recall the reaction of Theresa May’s government to the use of the Novichok nerve agent on British soil – which was long on angry rhetoric and short on painful retaliation.

Much has changed since the Salisbury poisonings, of course, Russia is now a pariah state, subject to a much sharper and broader range of economic sanctions than Putin can have expected. The spotlight of global scrutiny is upon him as never before. This time round, he cannot be sure of what the response would be to the use of chemical weapons.

The folly of pre-emptively ruling out a no-fly zone – taking it completely off the table – was that it disclosed to Putin the limits of his adversaries’ resolve. In the words of one military figure who has been pushing for Nato to reconsider the option of air denial: “It was madness – like a boxer saying to his opponent at the weigh-in, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I won’t be using my killer uppercut, because I know that might annoy you’. Or a poker player saying: ‘I always fold if I think I’ll get less than three of a kind.’”

On this occasion, however, Western politicians are doing nothing to assist Putin in his calculations. “I’m not going to speak about the intelligence,” said President Biden at the White House on Friday. “But Russia would pay a severe price if they use chemical weapons.” 

Asked on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday to spell out what, exactly, this price might be, Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, flatly declined to do so. “I will just say that the United States, in coordination with our allies and partners, is prepared to impose such severe consequences,” Sullivan said. “And we have communicated that directly to the Russians. We’ve consulted with our allies and partners about it. And we are prepared for that eventuality.”  

On the other side of the Atlantic, Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, was being similarly delphic – telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge that it was “not for me to spell out” what the response to Putin’s use of chemical or biological weapons might be, but that the UK defence and security establishment was certainly “calibrating” its prospective options in such horrendous circumstances. This studied vagueness is a much improved counter-strategy to Putin’s brutality: would that it had been deployed earlier.

Politically, the UK government’s priority at present is to defend itself against the charge that its response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has been deplorably poor: tricky, since the charge is entirely justified. On this matter, the exchanges between Number 10 and the Home Office have, I am told, been “sulphurous” – the prime minister’s team desperate for a story to tell the media that does not make the UK look both cruel and incompetent.

Hence, Gove’s scheme, announced over the weekend, to allow British families, charities, businesses and faith groups to “sponsor” and provide accommodation for a named Ukrainian individual or family – and to be paid £350 per month for doing so. The oddity of this proposal is that it implies that the blockage in the system was not UK border bureaucracy or the Home Office’s “hostile environment” strategy, but an absence of financial incentives. 

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that Richard Harrington, the new minister for refugees, reportedly referred on Friday to the new scheme as a move towards the “privatisation” of humanitarian resettlement. The safeguarding, monitoring and logistical issues raised by this proposed system are colossal. All that can be said with confidence at this point is that it is better than the shameful shambles that preceded it (a low bar).

The understandable focus upon HMG’s response to the humanitarian emergency has distracted attention from a no less significant development in its thinking on the supply of weapons to Ukraine. On Wednesday, Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, made a statement to the Commons, in which he disclosed the government’s readiness, in principle, to arm Zelensky’s forces with Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles. “We believe that this system will remain within the definition of defensive weapons,” Wallace said, “but will allow the Ukrainian forces to better defend their skies.”

Why does this matter? It may not matter at all. The Starstreak – a man-portable air defence system (MANPADS) developed by Thales Air Defence in Belfast – might not, in the event, reach Ukrainian units. But, if it did, with sufficient geographic distribution, it could cause Russia real problems in the skies, against helicopters, drones and fixed wing jets. It is the fastest short-range surface-to-air system in the world, reaching speeds above Mach-3; lighter than the FGM-148 Javelin; and capable of striking targets at a distance of 7km (compared to the Javelin’s 2.5km). The snag is that the Starstreak is a relatively sophisticated weapon that, accordingly, requires practice and training. Which, as the defence secretary himself acknowledged, raises the question: who would be training Ukrainian cadres in its use and upkeep, and where?

I am not sure that MPs fully grasped what Wallace was signalling to them last Wednesday. In recent decades, a convention has arisen that parliamentary approval is required for military intervention (a convention that nearly acquired statutory force in Gordon Brown’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, but was dropped in the last months of his premiership). 

Wallace was not seeking any such approval, and no vote followed his statement. But, in his subtle way, he was certainly warming MPs up, or, at the very least, testing the water. “One reason why I wanted to come to the House as soon as possible,” he said, “is so that the House has the earliest warning possible.” And then: “[T]he decision is about bringing the House with us and making sure that people understand… I have come to the House today to tell people in advance that this is happening.” 

Why emphasise the point? First, so that MPs cannot later complain that they were not warned that UK-supplied weapons would be blowing Russian aircraft out of the heavens. Second, and more importantly, to alert those with the intelligence to listen to the fact that the accelerated provision of lethal aid to Russia would have consequences. Technically, the Starstreak may be categorised as a purely defensive weapon; whether Putin will agree with that semantic distinction is another matter entirely. Yesterday’s attack on the Yavoriv base, so close to the border and to Nato forces, was a clear sign that the Russian president is already angry about the flow of Western arms into Ukraine. That anger is certain to grow in the days ahead.

On the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme yesterday, Markyan Lubivsky, adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister, pointedly referred to Churchill’s famous broadcast request to Roosevelt of 9 February, 1941: “[P]rovide us with the means to protect ourselves…please provide us with the tools and we will finish the job.” Zelensky and his comrades-in-arms will not stop calling for a Nato-imposed no-fly zone. But they know that – as we approach the fourth week of the invasion – their best immediate hope is to seek a sufficient supply of the right kind of weapons to construct their own DIY version.

In his masterpiece, The Use of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, General Sir Rupert Smith reminds us of the all-important distinction between “power” and “force”. Power, he writes, “is a relationship, while force in the military sense is a product of violence and direction. Power is therefore ongoing and shaped between sides; while force is absolute.”

Today, the West is still trying to defeat Putin by means of power: economic, diplomatic, political. It clings to the hope that the Russian president will step back from the edge of the abyss in the face of all this leverage, pressure and opprobrium. It calls upon him not to exile himself and his country from the systems of power that govern the world from day to day.

Yet he has already heard the very same leaders with whom, until recently, he stood on summit platforms, accuse him of war crimes; heard them – quite rightly – say that he must lose and be seen to lose. What power, in reality, will they ever permit him to wield again? What “relationship”, in Smith’s language, could they have with him after this? 

Small wonder that he clings to force; to what he still hopes will be the decisive use of violence in Ukraine, whose existence as a distinct nation he does not even recognise. If there is indeed a golden bridge out of this carnage, then the shape of its foundations, wing walls, beams and girders is still very far from clear. With that in mind – and with heavy hearts – a growing number of Western leaders are bracing themselves privately for a much bleaker resolution; in blood, steel and fire. 

This is not how it was meant to be, when the Wall came down and history was declared to be at an end. Yet – as Trotsky understood – history is not a process but a beast that returns to bite humankind. In Ukraine it has come back, hungrier than ever, red in tooth and claw. Can it be tamed? A nation’s future, and so much more, depends on the answer to that pitiless question.

Past reporting

Explore more of our coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war

You’ll find more of Matthew d’Ancona’s columns, as well as podcasts, Sensemakers and ThinkIns covering the conflict.

Photograph by Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/Shutterstock