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Sensemaker: The price of defeat

Sensemaker: The price of defeat

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UN voted for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.
  • Rihards Kols, a Latvian MP, told the Russian delegation to the OSCE to “go f**k” themselves.
  • Demonstrators painted a giant Ukrainian flag on Bayswater Road outside the Russian Embassy in London.

The price of defeat

Last weekend US Vice President Kamala Harris told the Munich Security Conference Putin was badly mistaken if he thought Russia could wait out the West in Ukraine. Time, she said, is not on his side. 

So what? Harris is probably wrong. Russia’s resources dwarf Ukraine’s, and Ukraine’s allies are taking too long to approve and ship military aid. A year into Putin’s war of choice it’s clear that 

  • Putin needs to be stopped sooner rather than later;
  • if it isn’t, he could still grind out a victory of sorts that leaves Ukraine dismembered and dysfunctional; and
  • in that event, the world would pay a much higher price than the cost of high energy bills and military and financial aid. 

Defeat for Ukraine would be a global catastrophe in at least half a dozen ways:

Moral contagion. Russia’s invasion and its conduct of war are “acute forms of impunity,” the former British foreign secretary David Miliband tells Tortoise. This is part of an “incredibly dangerous” global trend towards state-sanctioned crimes without accountability – crimes whose victims are overwhelmingly civilians and whose culprits are autocrats waging open warfare on democracy a generation after the Cold War. 

Polarisation. Russia has few openly declared allies in this conflict, and yesterday’s UN vote condemning the invasion underlined its isolation. But 32 countries including India abstained. Many of these either silently support the invasion or provide Moscow with weapons. A Russian victory could open the door to more wars of choice by anti-democratic regimes on other continents, including Africa.   

Military threat. If Russia occupied or controlled Ukraine, it would have common borders with EU and/or Nato members including Poland, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Romania, the Baltic states and Finland. It would be poised for more military adventurism in other post-Soviet states like Moldova and Armenia, with convenient flashpoints in the illegal “Transnistrian Republic” and Nagorno-Karabakh. 

EU’s treat. With an emboldened and heavily weaponised Russia on its borders, the EU’s member states would have to be ready to

  • increase their military budgets significantly;
  • enlarge and re-train their armies for ground warfare;
  • expand their weapons stockpile; and 
  • rewrite their defence doctrines. 

Refugees. Eight million Ukrainians (20 per cent of the population) fled Ukraine, mostly to the EU. The majority of them are eager to return when the war is over or earlier. 

But if Russia occupied Ukraine there would be another wave of refugees driven not just by fear for their lives but fear of living under Russian rule, being deported to Russia and being conscripted into the Russian army, as Ukrainians in Donbas and Crimea already have been. 

Food supply. Ukraine’s ultra-fertile “black earth” supplied the world with much of its sunflower oil, corn and wheat. The invasion has burned wheatfields, pitted agricultural land with cluster bombs and poisoned soil with toxic missile propellant. Occupation would bring a key food exporter under Moscow’s direct control, and even indirect control has already proved disastrous: Russia’s attempts to block grain exports from Odesa last year created a threat of severe hunger in Africa and the Middle east. 

Taiwan. “What is happening in Europe today could happen in east Asia tomorrow,” Nato’s Jens Stoltenberg warns. If Putin were to prevail in Ukraine the signal to China as it plots the annexation of Taiwan would be that brute force wins. 

The bill. If Ukraine is defeated, Russia will have blurred international borders in the heart of Europe. As a pariah state its ruling nationalists would likely become even more radicalised, with ever closer ties to other authoritarian regimes and ever angrier rhetoric towards the West. The price of defeat for Ukraine would be a new Cold War at constant risk of boiling over into a hot one. 

This is the second of two Sensemaker specials to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Read yesterday’s on how to win


Still Standing (yeah, yeah, yeah)
The UK’s Conservative Party held its annual winter party at London’s Savoy hotel last night, looking to rebuild its war chest after what sources say has been a tough period for fundraising. Tortoise understands that “approaching £1m” was raised, a much-needed injection of cash amid concerns the party is running on fumes. A Swarovski crystal portrait of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak went for £25,000, as did four tickets to an Elton John concert. According to one attendee, the lot was dedicated to Labour leader Keir Starmer under the strapline “sorry seems to be the hardest word”. Lord Leigh kept up the Elton theme, asking Sunak: “can you feel the love tonight?” But the bigger problem facing the Tories’ tiny dancer is donor drop-off. One Conservative said he hadn’t attended the party as “none of my donor friends are giving at the moment”, acknowledging that on the basis of the party’s current polling it would be a waste of money. Sunak is still standing, but his premiership is seen as a candle in the wind.


Quantum breakthrough?
Google claims to have overcome a big obstacle in the way of useful quantum computing. The obstacle was a high error rate caused by a fundamental property of quantum computers, namely that they run on so-called qubits which hold their quantum state for such a short time that the information they store disappears before it can be used. Google’s solution, it says in Nature, is to group large numbers of physical qubits into “logical qubits” with lower error rates. The company says it has also fine-tuned its control software and the equipment that keeps the computer at close to absolute zero. Nod-crafty mortals will nod along. They may also ask what the point is of a giant Heath Robinson-style machine that costs billions and barely functions even at minus 270 C when ordinary supercomputers can do so much.  

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Hospital targets
Images of pregnant women escaping the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol during the first month of the war in Ukraine remain some of the most visceral reminders of Russia’s aggression. Now, nearly a year on, a report from Physicians for Human Rights and the Ukrainian Healthcare Center documents the systemic and persistent Russian attacks on Ukraine’s health infrastructure. By the numbers: there have been more than 700 attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities since the Russian invasion began, killing 62 health workers and injuring 52. Between 24 February and 31 December 2022, there were an average of two attacks a day and 48 hospitals were hit multiple times, suggesting deliberate targeting by Russian forces. The report concludes that there is a “reasonable basis” for these attacks to be classified as war crimes. But Russia has a long history (see Chechnya, Syria) of targeting hospitals without legal repercussions – and the war continues. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Let them eat turnips
Britain’s environment secretary suggests British consumers cherish seasonal home-grown produce such as turnips, as supermarkets struggle to source more popular vegetables such as tomatoes from abroad. Pictures of empty shelves have been spreading across social media this week and the UK government has blamed a cold snap in North Africa and southern Europe. It may have been chilly there, but that hasn’t stopped Carrefour in Calais offering a full range of produce. “It’s not Brexit,” said a sub-head in one BBC story on the mystery of the vanishing vegetables this week. Really? What lies between Calais and Kent if not 22 miles of water and an external EU border that’s too much faff for truckers to bother with if they have a choice?


South Africa’s trough
Rolling ten-hour blackouts were always going to be a big political issue in South Africa as next year’s elections approach; the more so now that the CEO of the Eskom electricity giant has quit after an interview in which he said corruption at the company was like metastasizing cancer, and that the ruling African National Congress treated it like a “feeding trough”. Andre de Ruyter, the CEO, was already serving out his notice having resigned in December, but after the interview the Eskom board told him to leave at once. The ANC says it isn’t corrupt but that de Ruyter could be criminally liable for concealing corruption. The opposition Democratic Alliance wants Eskom to identify a “high-level politician” de Ruyter mentioned but didn’t name. As the WaPo notes on its masthead every day, democracy dies in darkness. 

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Nina Kuryata

Additional reporting by Jess Winch, Cat Neilan, Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis. Graphics by Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images, Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/Shutterstock

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