We need to talk about Ukraine. While the world’s attention has been focused on the war between Israel and Hamas, grim tremors have been shaking that rich, black soil. Ukraine’s counteroffensive has failed – or, in Volodymyr Zelensky’s words, “did not achieve the desired results”.
As exhausted Ukrainians fall back from Russia’s ramparts and minefields, the initiative is swinging to the invaders. Russia is advancing through the skeletal remains of what used to be Marinka, a city in Donetsk, perhaps of greater psychological than strategic importance. Missiles are again hitting Kyiv. Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, has taken to the BBC to warn that her country is in “mortal danger”.
Now, it is the Ukrainians’ turn to dig in, to try to hold what they have. As in 1914, a fortified line runs the length of the front, from the Dnieper delta to the Russian border. And, as then, military technology favours the defender, so that tiny gains are bought at terrible cost.
The First World War eventually ended in part because the Allies had greater manpower. Brutally, they were able, especially after America had fully mobilised by the beginning of 1918, to throw more men at the front lines than the Central Powers.
This time, the demographic advantage is with Russia, whose population is three-and-a-quarter times the size of Ukraine’s. Russia has switched a third of its pre-war civilian production to weapons and ammunition, and may now have the edge when it comes to drones – that modern equivalent of the barbed wire and machine guns that gave the defending side such a lethal advantage in the Flanders mud.
The long-term costs to the Russian people of this shift to a wartime economy are dreadful. Vladimir Putin has condemned his long-suffering muzhiks to years of penury and hunger. But, for now, it has done the trick. Russia has made it through to winter without a Ukrainian breakthrough.
We are all prone to hindsight bias, and there will no doubt be articles about how it was always going to be tough to unseat entrenched defenders. But this stalemate was far from predictable when the counteroffensive was launched in June.
I was one of those who expected Ukraine to break through to the Sea of Azov, a move that might well have ended the war. During 2022, Ukraine had demonstrated that Russia could not resupply Crimea across the Kerch Strait. Breaking the land bridge would have left the Russian garrison on the peninsula cut off. Ukraine could have turned off its electricity and food, and a negotiating space would have opened.
Why did I get it wrong? I had been talking not only to Ukrainians, but to British military observers with direct knowledge of the battlefield. They had watched the extraordinary Ukrainian gains in Kharkiv and Kherson in 2022 – gains that had emboldened the West to offer the kinds of matériel that they had previously held back from sending, lest it fall into enemy hands.
Ukraine now had long-range missiles, mine-clearing kit and modern tanks. At the same time, the Prigozhin mutiny had shown how soft Russia was behind the hard shell of its front lines.
But the invaders had learnt from their earlier mistakes. While Ukraine rushed to train its men in how to operate their new weapons last spring, Russia seeded mile after mile of landmines, built fortifications, dug trenches and amassed drones.
Putin needs only to hang on for another 12 months. Even if Donald Trump is not elected – the former president makes no secret of his admiration for the Russian tyrant, once going so far as to declare that he trusted Putin before the US security services – Republican congressmen have turned against the war. Last week, they blocked President Biden’s £88 billion aid package to Ukraine.
Their concern is supposedly financial, but a bigger motive may be their partisan dislike of Biden, the same ignoble impulse that led an earlier generation of Republican congressmen to oppose Harry Truman’s war in Korea. For the MAGA wing, there is also a lingering resentment of the cameo role that Ukraine played in the Trump impeachment drama.
You can’t have missed the spring in Putin’s step. For a long time, he was too scared to stray beyond Russia’s borders. Quite apart from an international arrest warrant, he had a well-founded fear of assassination. His only foreign ventures were to former Soviet states, and two friendly dictatorships: Iran and China.
But, this week, he visited two neutral dictatorships – the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The footage shows beyond doubt that it was the despot in person, not a body double. What gave him confidence to travel to places that have security links with the West? Is it possible that some tentative entente has been reached? Might the Saudis have been asked to sound him out, discretely and deniably, as a possible prelude to peace talks?
If so, we risk a Suez-level disaster for the Western democracies. Any deal that rewards Russian aggression will signal to the rest of the world that Nato, with all its collective wealth and weaponry, could not succeed in the minimal goal of rescuing a country that its two most powerful members, the US and the UK, had undertaken to protect.
The case for intervention in Ukraine is not that it is a liberal democracy. Sure, it is vastly more liberal than Russia, but it falls well short of our standards. Russophile parties have been banned, and there is a worry that the crackdown might extend to pro-Western opposition politicians, too. This week, I was at a meeting of global Centre-Right parties at which Petro Poroshenko, the former president, was meant to speak. At the last minute, he and two of his MPs were banned from leaving Ukraine – and though Poroshenko patriotically declined to make a fuss, it left me wondering, not for the first time, why Zelensky refuses to draw other parties into a wartime coalition.
Then again, Poland was run by an authoritarian government in 1939. That did not alter the fact that it was attacked without provocation after we had guaranteed its independence – just as we guaranteed Ukraine’s independence in 1994 when it surrendered its nuclear arsenal.
While we are not ourselves at war this time, we are so invested in the Ukrainian cause that a Russian victory – and absorbing conquered territory is a Russian victory, present it how you will – would mean a catastrophic loss of prestige for the West and the ideas associated with it: personal freedom, democracy and human rights.
Conflicts will spread as regimes that never cared for liberal values in the first place realise that there is no longer a policeman on the corner. Venezuela’s outrageous claims against Commonwealth Guyana are just the start of this process.
“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion... but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence,” wrote Samuel Huntington. “Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
But this is not yet over. Ukraine has driven Russia out of the western Black Sea, which is open again to international shipping. We should be on our guard against the tendency that George Orwell observed during the Second World War, whereby intellectuals over-interpret each new military development – a tendency, he believed, not shared by ordinary people. Just as there was excessive pessimism immediately after Russia invaded, and excessive euphoria when Kherson was retaken, so we should not infer too much from this setback.
It is still possible to imagine a peace deal that does not overtly reward aggression. Perhaps the eastern oblasts could win autonomy under loose Ukrainian suzerainty; perhaps an internationally supervised referendum might be held in a demilitarised Crimea.
But if Russia ends up annexing land by force, it is not just the West that will lose; it is the entire post-1945 international order.
The world is getting colder. The nights are drawing in.