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Why are we (almost) in Ukraine?

Why are we (almost) in Ukraine?

The stakes in this war are morally fundamental. They also involve the fragilities of western democracy – not least in France and Britain

“We are defending the right to live,” said Volodymyr Zelensky last night on CBS’s 60 Minutes . “I never thought this right was so costly. These are human values. So that Russia doesn’t choose what we should do and how I’m exercising my rights. That right was given to me by God and my parents.”

Central to Zelensky’s statesmanship during this conflict has been his remarkable capacity to restore attention to the signal amid the noise. True, in his many statements to legislatures, assemblies and even the Grammys, he has tailored his message deftly to suit his audience (allusions to Churchill and Shakespeare for the House of Commons, a pointed reference to the promise “Never Again” in his remarks to the German Bundestag). Always, however, the Ukrainian president has returned to first principles: in this case, the most basic principle of all.

The profound complexity of this war – its manifold ramifications, its fractal geometry – has been clear throughout the war’s first 47 days. Geopolitical dynamics, energy security, the international food supply, the resilience of the global economy, the very definition of national sovereignty and self-determination: all are entangled in this conflict. 

Yet Zelensky is right: what matters first and most is the question of who gets to decide who lives and dies, and how the world deals with an aggressor such as Vladimir Putin, who deploys violence without compunction or proportion to achieve his objectives. The issue at stake could hardly be more rudimentary. As Simone Weil wrote in her great 1940 essay on the subject of force: “[T]he experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment.”

The world has already seen the city of Bucha, north-west of Kyiv, reduced to a human abattoir by Russian forces. On Friday, at least 50 civilians were killed by a rocket attack on Kramatorsk train station in eastern Ukraine: a Russian missile found at the scene had the words “for the children” painted on the side. 

As Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, told Sky’s Trevor Phillips yesterday: “Absolutely it’s a war crime…It was women, it was children, they just wanted to save their lives.” Already, she said, her team had recorded 5,600 cases, involving 500 suspects. And there was, she added, worse to come, as the horrors of Mariupol, the besieged city in southeastern Ukraine, were uncovered. “We understand it is not only war-crimes,” Venediktova said, “it is crimes against humanity”: the latter category being reserved in international jurisprudence for systematic, large-scale attacks on civilian populations.

As many western politicians and commentators celebrate the setbacks suffered to date by the Russian invaders – all too complacently, in truth – it is salutary to watch the Ukrainians bracing themselves for the next chapter of the war. Putin’s appointment of General Aleksandr V. Dvornikov to command his forces in the region is a brutal signal from the Kremlin to Zelensky and his people: Dvornikov is known as the “butcher of Syria”, having helped President Bashar al-Assad in 2015 by ruthlessly targeting civilian areas. The Russian president’s message to the Ukrainians is: don’t confuse my failure in Kyiv with a failure of will – I’m just getting started.

It is a message that they hear loud and clear; which is why their requests to supportive governments are becoming ever more urgent and ever more specific. On Thursday, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told Nato leaders that they had “days not weeks” to send the armaments that his homeland needed – warning them, to spell out the point, that “the battle for Donbas will remind you of the second world war.”

In the same vein, Ihor Zhovkva, Zelensky’s senior diplomatic advisor, told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth yesterday that what Ukraine required now, at this very instant, was quite straightforward: “We need a lot more weapons. Weapons, weapons and weapons.” 

Indeed, Zhovkva could not have been clearer that the time for goodwill, promises of “solidarity”, standing ovations and blue and yellow ribbons – well-intentioned as all those gestures may be – is past. What Ukraine needs now is tanks, guns, missiles and ammunition. 

And this, he said, was why Boris Johnson’s visit to Kyiv on Saturday had been so welcome: “We had results yesterday because the prime minister came not empty-handed…It was very timely and helpful.” The UK has now pledged to send additional Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles, 800 anti-tank missiles, “suicide drones”, and an unspecified number of Harpoon anti-ship missiles – crucial in the battle against Russian vessels engaged in the siege of Black Sea ports.

In January, I warned that the PM would exploit the Ukrainian crisis as a “pageant” to distract attention from the controversy over Covid rule breaches in Downing Street and his battle for political survival; and so he has. It would indeed be a travesty of justice if Johnson remains in office simply because Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

But it is perfectly possible to make that argument, and also to welcome the fact that the prime minister of this country went to Ukraine’s capital on Saturday to give visible support to its president and people, and to personalise the UK’s continued commitment to send military aid on the eve of what is set to be – grimly – an even bloodier phase of the conflict. It is perfectly possible to hold Johnson himself in low regard, even in contempt, and to welcome the fact that the head of the UK government took the action that he did, at this particular moment.

I am assured by allies of Johnson – as I was throughout the pandemic – that these momentous events are encouraging him to “think deeply” about everything: the nature of government, the role of the UK on the world stage, the lessons of the hour for the longer term. 

Well, maybe. It is tempting to conclude that the PM is rather more likely to be thinking deeply – and gleefully – about the present discomfiture of his principal Conservative rival, Rishi Sunak, whose political stock has plummeted at precisely the same rate that his petulance has become more public. There are only so many times that a chancellor can threaten to resign: he will soon be refusing to come out of his bedroom to have his tea. 

But let us apply the principle of charity and take the claims about Johnson’s profound thoughts at face value. If he is indeed reflecting upon the lessons to date of the war, he should be thinking with candour and humility upon his own rise to power, how it was achieved and the methods that he has deployed both as a Brexit campaigner and in Number 10.

As Gideon Rachman says in his fine new book on strongman leaders, it would be absurd to claim that Johnson is the UK’s Putin or Modi or Erdogan. Nonetheless, there is, as Rachman writes, a “continuum” that links the new populist heads of government; a linkage that should give Johnson – and many other western politicians – serious pause for thought.

If, as Biden insisted in Warsaw on 26 March, the Ukraine conflict is “the test of all time” for democracy, then that test must be applied within nations as well as between them. In France, to take the most immediate example, the first round of the presidential elections has yielded a run-off on 24 April between Emmanuel Macron, the very embodiment of Enlightenment liberalism (with all its strengths and weaknesses) and Marine le Pen, the persistent incarnation of the French populist Right.

Though it is true that the leader of National Rally has modified some of her more extreme positions, she remains a committed nationalist, enemy of globalisation, and foe of Islam and immigration. As Macron warned in response to the first-round results – in which le Pen scored 23.4 per cent compared to his own 27.6 – it is alarming that a nativist candidate should do so well (especially when one also takes account of the far Right Éric Zemmour’s additional 7.1 per cent).  

“When the far Right, in all its forms, represents that much in France,” said Macron, “you can’t consider things are going well, so you must go out and convince people with a lot of humility, and respect for those who weren’t on our side in this first round.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that le Pen’s resilience is an offshoot of Putinism, or a direct consequence of Kremlin intervention in French democracy. Like other leaders of the populist Right, she has simply mobilised electoral resentment of immigration, the domestic consequences of globalisation, the cost of living and the perceived smugness of the liberal elite.

Putin didn’t invent any of that. But he has, systematically, cunningly and (to some extent) deniably, intervened in democratic processes and digital networks all over the world – to encourage the growth of the populist and far Right as forces that would fragment the free world; to sow doubt; to disorient and disaggregate those who would challenge him and his ambitions for a Eurasian imperium. The point is not that Putin was responsible for Brexit or Donald Trump’s election; the point is that he felt entitled to intervene at all.

As Anton Shekhovtsov writes in his indispensable guide to Russia and the Western far Right, the Russian autocrat “syringes very specific ideas” – via social media disruption or material support – into specific contexts. And, on the whole, looking at the global scoreboard, he has reason to be cautiously pleased with his performance to date.

Yes, Putin will be angered by the direction that German politics has taken since Angela Merkel’s departure: radically increased defence spending and the halting of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. But he will be delighted that – even if, as electoral logic suggests, Macron prevails on 24 April – le Pen remains such a potent and disruptive force. Though she has kept a certain distance from the Kremlin during the war – as has the re-elected Viktor Orbán, now the longest-serving leader in the European leader in the European Union – there is no doubt that, like Orban, she is still drawn in by the gravitational pull of Putinism and by its autocratic conservative Internationale.

In the US, Trump (who calls Putin a “genius”), stands ready to run for presidential office again in 2024. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who is up for re-election in October, refuses to condemn the Russian tyrant. In India, Prime Minister Modi calls vaguely for peace in Ukraine but remains loyal to Putin. In Beijing, President Xi Jinping keeps his options conspicuously open: the Chinese did not want this war. Neither do they want to make life easy for President Biden.

So what does all this mean for Johnson? I do not believe for a moment that the PM sees himself as an ally, or a disciple, or a leader carved in the mould of Putin. Aged 57, he is a child of the Cold War, raised to distrust Russia on the geopolitical stage, and to negotiate with its leaders strictly in the best interests of the Atlantic alliance.

All the same: if he were to carry out a truly honest audit of his own methods and political techniques – especially in the past six years – he would have to acknowledge faint but disturbing echoes with the strongman style pioneered by the Russian.

His approach to the rule of law, for a start, has been little short of a disgrace. When he dislikes international legislation, he threatens to ignore it. When parliament thwarts him, he prorogues it – unlawfully, as the supreme court ruled. When the Conservative MP Owen Paterson faced 30 days’ suspension for breaking lobbying law, Johnson simply (and disastrously) tried to change the rules. And, if the saga of the Downing Street parties has one clear message, it is that this cohort of Tories – this poundshop oligarchy – thinks it is above the law. 

Johnson does not poison his enemies, or imprison them, or invade neighbouring nations. But he and his proxies do imperil the independence of the judiciary; they do seek to impose their sympathisers upon media regulators; they do propose electoral reform that could disenfranchise millions.

Again, to be absolutely clear: Johnson is not Putin, or anything like him. But his government too often flirts with a style of politics that is exactly what the Russian autocrat is hoping to see in the West: a lazy populism that puts the retention of power before respect for the rules, that plays fast and loose with the institutions that are at the heart of the Western liberal order, that puts spectacle before principle, that weakens or breaks up international alliances. All this is exactly what Putin wants.

Norman Mailer’s 1967 novel Why Are We In Vietnam? is famously set in Alaska rather than south-east Asia, and answers the question posed by its title obliquely with reflections upon capitalism and the instinct to hunt, ending with the crazy words: “This is D.J., Disc Jockey to America turning off. Vietnam, hot damn.”

We are not in Ukraine. Well, not quite – but almost. The flow of weapons from the UK to Zelensky’s forces is now (admirably) steady, and, in the week ahead, as war rages in the east, it will get harder and harder to deny that we are embroiled in this conflict militarily, even if a single British boot never touches Ukrainian ground while war is being waged. I doubt that this fine distinction means much in the Kremlin any more. Putin knows where all those Starstreak units were manufactured (Belfast).

So why are we almost in Ukraine? For good reasons, that start with the high politics of Atlanticist and democratic unity, and end with Zelensky’s statement of fundamental moral principle: that the right to live must be defended against the raging force of the aggressor.

We must stay the course, keep the Ukrainian arsenal well stocked, coax backsliding nations to do the same, learn afresh the habits of stamina that have grown so weak in the West. And, in the mean time, we should also be thinking: how did Putin get so deep under the skin of the democratic world while we were sleeping; how can we roll back his malign influence for good; and – hardest of all – how can we stop anything like it from happening again?