As Russian T-64 battle tanks rumbled across Ukraine’s border one year ago tomorrow, Vladimir Putin said: “Whoever would try to stop us and further create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to such consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any outcome.”
The outcome he was not ready for, however – and neither were many others – was that 12 months later the Russian army would be bogged down in the east of Ukraine having lost thousands of men and a substantial amount of equipment.
It was expected that the Kremlin’s mighty battle machine would be in Kyiv within days, toppling the government of Volodymyr Zelensky and installing a pro-Moscow puppet regime. Yet the attempt to take the Ukrainian capital foundered and the Russians were forced to withdraw, leaving behind the evidence of atrocities that have been the grisly hallmark of its soldiers down the centuries. What President Putin still calls a “special military operation” was refocused to carve out for Russia the eastern provinces that had been locked in civil war since 2014.
The Russian leader’s miscalculations have been legion. Not only did he fatally underestimate Ukrainians’ determination to defend their homeland but he misjudged the West’s willingness to support them in this endeavour. As millions of mothers and children fled west from Ukraine, homes were opened across Europe to accommodate the refugees, while the men and younger women stayed behind to fight.
Above all, having stalled Russia’s initial thrust, Kyiv needed weapons and Britain led the way in ensuring it got them. Boris Johnson, then prime minister, galvanized Western support at a time when it looked likely to weaken. President Macron of France was pursuing a fruitless strategy of engagement with Moscow while the Germans, heavily reliant on Russian energy, were reluctant to get involved.
Now they are ready to supply Ukraine with more weapons (but need to get on with it) and, crucially, are weaning themselves off the Kremlin’s oil and gas. By next winter, Russian energy markets in the West will have all but dried up, forcing it to sell its output at a discount to countries like China and India still willing to buy it.
Putin’s failure to achieve a swift win has geopolitical consequences that have yet to become fully apparent. Since Nato has pulled together, Russia has had to seek out its own alliances. Ominously, China reaffirmed its tacit support with a visit to Moscow by Wang Yi, a senior diplomat, raising speculation that Beijing might supply Russia with weapons, dangerously destabilizing the global power balance. More optimistically, China might rein in Russia by making it clear that the reckless rhetoric about nuclear war needs to end.
On his visit to Kyiv earlier this week, Joe Biden said “the world” was backing Ukraine, but sadly that is not the case. India and other non-aligned countries are pursuing a policy of “strategic ambivalence”. Russian naval exercises are underway off the coast of South Africa. Many national leaders believe Ukraine cannot win.
This is the key question. Is a military victory in fact possible unless Nato commits aircraft and risks of a direct confrontation with Russia? President Biden says America will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”, but he won’t be in the White House forever and there is a growing Republican backlash against continuing US military provision.
A major demonstration is taking place in Berlin this weekend in protest at Germany’s agreement to help re-arm Ukraine with its Leopard 2 tanks. France is ostensibly supportive of Kyiv and yet has sent less military aid than most. President Macron’s position remains hard to decipher as he tries to keep open a dialogue with Putin.
These EU leaders are guided by public opinion which is not as wholeheartedly behind Ukraine as it is in Britain. Apart from Jeremy Corbyn and his cheerleaders on the far Left, no one has argued against British military support for Ukraine.
The true plaudits must go to the Ukrainian people who have to live with this nightmare and are braced for worse to come as Russia launches a counter-offensive. Who can tell where we will be a year from now? But as Tony Blair writes in this newspaper todayone thing is clear: Putin cannot be allowed to win.