The Russian aggression in Ukraine must be defeated. The remaining hope of Vladimir Putin is that the Western resolve weakens. The US, the UK, the EU, Nato must therefore stay strong. This much is obvious.
This was the invasion of a peaceful country, with a democratically-elected president, which posed no threat to its neighbors and which, whatever its internal tensions, abided by the norms of the international community. The idea that Nato provoked this aggression is absurd. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nato offered Russia a partnership; Presidents Yeltsin and Putin were invited to NATO summits; the G7 was the G8 including Russia; and Putin himself, certainly in the early days, wanted good relations with the West and to concentrate on economic reform.
What “provoked” the invasion of Ukraine was not Nato’s desire for conflict. That much is clear from the degree to which Europe was prepared for such a conflict, for example in reducing its reliance on Russian gas (in other words, not at all).
The cause of the invasion is illustrated by my own conversation with Putin, before leaving office, who by that point had given up on reform and democracy and had embraced nationalism and dictatorship. I tried to reason with him, following a discussion with then-American President George W Bush, that whether Ukraine joined Nato or not should be up to them. “It’s their choice”, I said. “It’s not their choice”, he replied. “They’re with us.”
Putin believes that the Soviet Union had the wrong ideology but the right geo-politics. It’s an imperialist vision completely at odds with the existence of the independent nation states of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia. And that is why he must be stopped.
His original war aims have disintegrated. His strategy now is a version of what he did in Syria. For over a decade, he has held firm. At that time, Western staying power in Afghanistan and Iraq frayed, and Putin now has Russian interests there secured. The Russian President has contempt for Western democracy and believes it will exhibit frailty over the long haul.
There is an assessment of the state of Western politics as divided: some parts of the West want the conflict to end by negotiation; others are for the defeat of Russia.
In reality, there should be no difference between these two positions. Everyone wants the conflict to be over, and understands it won’t end in a WWI or WWII-style surrender. But neither option is necessary to demonstrate that the Russian aggression against Ukraine has been comprehensively defeated.
But at present, Putin’s demands in any negotiation would be totally unacceptable to Ukraine, which is why President Zelensky has ruled out a negotiation.
The only way to get a just negotiated solution to the conflict is to prove to the Russian leadership that they cannot win. That, however long it takes, their aggression will be defeated. That their analysis of Western weakness is misplaced and their only option, therefore, is to withdraw – and never engage in such madness again.
President Biden, our own prime ministers, Europe and Nato have shown the requisite determination up to now and that is greatly to be celebrated. We have surprised Putin and possibly ourselves.
That determination needs constant reinforcing.
There is too big a lag between realizing what weapons and ammunition the Ukrainians need and our supply of them. In fact, there are dangerous shortages of some essential materials and those supplies and the capacity to manufacture them need to be ramped up, for our own future defense as well as for Ukraine.
The West needs a broader strategy to push back not just against Russian aggression in Europe, including support for the brave people and leadership of Moldova, but also, for example, in Africa. It’s a campaign of de-stabilisation, involving large scale disinformation, the malign actions of the Wagner Group, the provision of arms and even the support of coups. Watch the Sahel. It will be the source of the next wave of extremism and migration to Europe if we do not coordinate and focus Western policy.
We should keep engaged with China but with clarity and firmness. President Xi has said to several leaders I have spoken to that he was not told of Putin’s plans to invade. Maybe. They’re making it clear they will not support the use of nuclear weapons. And they’re presenting themselves as offering a route to negotiation.
They won’t believe that their present ideas on “peace” will be seen as serious by Ukraine or the West.
But their primary audience is the rest of the world which, as I know from my Institute’s work in the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia, believes – despite some appearances – that the invasion was foolish and wrong, but which is also desperate for it to end because of the disruption and economic distress it has caused. As a result, it is more open to the siren song that Russia is as much victim as aggressor.
We need a concerted strategy to refute this. However, China might decide to play a role. Xi’s influence with Putin is significant. Not now, but at some point, that may offer an opportunity to bring Russia to an understanding of what is necessary. So we should keep lines open as the EU and US are doing, while making it clear that active support for Russia’s war aims will be a red line for our relationship.
This conflict is horrible. But what is at stake is fundamental. We have no alternative but to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. Only when Putin understands that our resolution will not wane can we begin to hope that the conflict will end sooner rather than later.