Ukraine is not losing Russia’s war. That’s not the same as winning.

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Recently the British Chief of Defence Staff suggested that Ukraine was winning its war with Russia. I’ve only picked up reports of this on the BBC News, and I’m not sure what he actually meant. Ukraine should survive as an independent political entity. winning the war is another matter.

Clearly the war is not meeting Russia’s initial expectations. Their objectives seem to be diminishing. First they wanted to take political control of all of Ukraine. Then they simply wanted to sheer off the Donbas region and the country’s ports on the Black Sea. Now they seem to have let go of their attempts to secure Mykolaiv and Odesa, and the fighting is concentrated on the town of Sievierodonetsk, with Russians on the defensive elsewhere. A major effort to complete the conquest of the two Donbas oblasts has clearly stalled. Meanwhile Ukraine is recovering territory near Kharkiv.

All this is a huge achievement on the part of the Ukrainian people and their armed forces. But take a step back. Russia has still conquered large swathes of Ukrainian territory, especially in the south, including the important cities of Mariupol and Kherson. They have almost all of Luhansk oblast, and most of Donetsk. They are consolidating these gains by establishing administrative control and building defensive positions.

So what would victory actually be for Ukraine? Firstly, the war needs to end. Ukraine must be able to rebuild its infrastructure and start functioning again as a peacetime society, by, for example, freely exporting its agricultural products. That requires Russian consent – a formal ceasefire if nothing more. Then Ukraine must recover territory. There four distinct steps to this. First is recovering territory that is not within Russia’s main territorial ambitions. This is mainly the territory in Kharkiv oblast to the north of Donbas. Ukraine is slowly taking this back, but there remains much in Russian hands, notably around the town of Izyum. Next is recovering the other territory lost since the start of Russia’s attack in February. This is mainly in the south, and includes Kherson and Mariupol. Third is the rest of the Donbas, taken in 2014/15, but which hasn’t been incorporated into Russia itself. And finally there is Crimea, also taken in 2014, but now considered by Russia to be part of its own territory.

How realistic is the prospect of Ukraine taking back these lands by force? Except where Russia has decided to withdraw, Ukrainian counterattacks have so far reclaimed territory in only small steps. They have not shown an ability to concentrate large-scale forces sufficient to make major gains; if they did it would tend to play to Russia’s remaining military strengths. But there does seem to be widespread demoralisation in Russia’s armed forces, and Ukraine has demonstrated and increasing ability to project artillery and airpower. I think the first of my four steps is distinctly feasible. After that it looks a very big ask.

Meanwhile Russia is contemplating a long war. It may reckon that Western resolve has its limits. Extending sanctions to oil and gas is already creating disharmony within Europe. The economic costs to the West are mounting. While Russia is still able to sell large quantities of hydrocarbons, especially at inflated prices, it may find other sanctions quite bearable, especially since the rest of the world is loth to join in. As ever the ruling elites will suffer only relatively minor inconveniences. The Putin regime’s grip on Russia looks secure and it is being consolidated. Any major Ukrainian victory would require this to crack – which it shows no sign of doing. Most of the Russian political class seems to be investing in the war, and they will want to see some return on their losses. This is the sort of dynamic that makes wars so hard to stop.

And how long can Ukraine keep going? Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea, and destruction of rail infrastructure means that it is hard for Ukraine to export the agricultural products that are the core of its economy. It requires to be bankrolled by its allies. It is not hard to see that Vladimir Putin might think he has the advantage in the long game.

At some point Mr Putin might offer a ceasefire, conditional on the main Western sanctions being lifted, but with Russia holding on to most, if not all, of the second category of its gains, as well as all of the third and fourth. This would return the conflict to the frozen status prior to its February invasion. This is a dismal prospect, but it will be hard for Ukraine and its allies to resist. Russia may decide to incorporate its conquests into its own Federation, following Crimea. Whether it does so or not, it will have the major headache of consolidating its control over wrecked infrastructure and a largely resentful (or absent) population. There may even a continuing insurgency, though we must hope not. It would be hard to paint this as a Russian victory – but just as hard to paint it as a Ukrainian one either.

A lot depends on the next couple of months. If Ukraine starts making rapid progress in regaining territory, because the Russian forces are too demoralised to stand firm, then a new dynamic will take hold – although an unpredictable one, as we do not know how the Russian government would respond. But if the war settles into a stalemate, as seems most plausible, then both sides will have to consider a ceasefire.

This is probably the best outside observers can hope for. Russia would claim a famous victory, but the rest of the world will note its enormous cost. Vladimir Putin will consolidate his hold on his country, but internationally it will have been weakened. Ukraine would survive as a political entity, and would be free to engage fully with the West. But many refugees would be unable to return to their homes. The country will need to invest enormously in its defence.

At the start of this war I suggested that Russia lacked resources, and would not achieve the overwhelming victory that many assumed. It would be an equal mistake to exaggerate Ukraine’s ability to reverse the gains of Russia’s aggression.

How does the Ukraine war end?

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I’ve been offline for three weeks, but remarkably little has changed in Ukraine. The Western powers have followed my advice about the scale of assistance to Ukraine. I also suggested that the West place pressure on the Russian-controlled territory of Transnistria; tension there is indeed rising, but not as the result of Western actions. Meanwhile Liz Truss, the British Foreign Secretary has been upping the rhetoric about the scale of defeat she wants to inflict on Russia. This is fluff from somebody talking to Conservative Party grassroots before a potential leadership election. But it poses a more serious question: what is the endgame?

On the ground, meanwhile, little has changed. Russia continues its assault on Donbas, but has so far gained little territory, though it is making slow progress on one of it axes of advance. The battle for Mariupol seems to be nearly over, but further drama is assured with the fate of Ukrainians holed up in the Azovstal steelworks. Elsewhere Ukraine has nibbled some territory back, notably around Kharkiv. Once again the some of the expert military commentary in the media is well off the mark. It was suggested that the more open terrain in Donbas would lead to tank battles more reminiscent of the the Second World War (notably the great battle of Kursk in similar terrain nearby). That is nonsense – technology has changed the way war is fought. Instead the battles seem to be turning on artillery. The Russians do not want to press beyond the range of their low-tech artillery forces; the Ukrainians need to resist continuous bombardment, and strike to back at the enemy artillery if they can. This makes warfare slow-moving, unlike those battles of an earlier era.

Events in Transnistria (the thin sliver in the east of Moldova on the map) are a bit of a puzzle. Grenade attacks on Russian facilities there have been reported, without casualties. The Ukrainian government suggests that these are false-flag attacks designed to give Russia the pretext for involving its garrison in an attack on Ukraine (it is close to Odesa). This doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The Russian garrison is weak (reported as 1,500 men) and difficult to supply. It is surely more useful to the Russians as a source of signals intelligence and such without direct involvement. It is more likely that Ukraine is taking a leaf out Russia’s book and preparing the ground to carry out a “special military operation” to neutralise the Russian garrison. That would be a major humiliation for Russia, given the history of the place.

My earlier analysis was that a stalemate in Donbas would continue until something broke – by which I meant that physical or morale losses, and or logistical strains, cause a dramatic collapse on one or other side. That still seems to be true. Ukraine has longer supply lines than around Kyiv, and Russia is trying to attack them with air power and missiles. Russia’s army is badly mauled and shaken, and it is using prodigious amounts of munitions, though its supply lines are more secure than in the battle for Kyiv. It is hard to tell who will break first or when, or, indeed, if either will. Conflict at the current intensity is not sustainable in the long run though.

A Russian victory would see Ukrainian forces giving ground in Donbas, with the probability of a substantial number of troops being surrounded. Russia would take control of the two Donbas oblasts, plus the southern ones of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia (or most of the southern portion of the latter). This would fulfil one of its stated war aims of “liberating” Donbas, as well as securing Crimea, including its water resources. Russia would dearly like to add Odesa to this, but it might choose to stop there. It would then enter peace talks with the ever-present threat of continuing a low level war that might be escalated. Any peace would result in a formal partition of Ukraine, with effective Russian control of its new conquests. This would be enough for Russia to claim vindication, though in fact its main war aim of “den-nazifying” all of Ukraine would not be met in most of the country. Parts of the Ukraine that the Russian leader Vladimir Putin regards as core Russian territory would have been turned into hostile ground for the foreseeable future. And NATO would have been greatly strengthened, while Russia’s own forces would require many years of rebuilding.

I don’t think this outcome is very likely. Russia’s resources are not limitless, and the damage inflicted on its armed forces is very severe. While its strategy of attacking Ukrainian infrastructure is militarily sound, it lacks the precision munitions and air capability of doing it in the way the Americans managed in Iraq, for example. The West is providing more and more logistical support, and Russia has few good options of doing anything about this – just as America couldn’t stop Soviet and Chinese support in Korea and Vietnam, which went substantially further than the West is doing now.

What would a Ukrainian victory look like? A dramatic collapse of Russian logistics and morale is possible, but not very likely. More likely Russian efforts will slacken and resistance weaken, allowing Ukrainian forces to slowly start biting bits of tis territory back. But this is unlikely to take them any further than the post-2014 frontiers. After this the Russian defensive infrastructure will be too strong. At this point America might offer Russia sanctions relief if they agree to settle. But any substantive settlement, even based on these borders, would be very humiliating for Mr Putin, and it is hard to see him accepting it. He would have to be removed through a coup from the security establishment, unable to countenance the war continuing. But Mr Putin takes his personal security more than seriously.

Meanwhile the Russians are taking steps to consolidate their control of the territory they have acquired, with the “filtration” of the remaining population, the creation of local government structures and the adoption of the Russian rouble. They are trying to find ways through the Western sanctions for militarily useful supplies, using third nations. There is also speculation that they will escalate the conflict into a full war, allowing full mobilisation. The damage to Russian military capability runs deep, though, and large numbers of conscripts won’t help. But it would show that Russia is preparing for a long haul. This would require the West to extend sanctions, potentially upsetting neutral countries. And then winter would approach with Europe’s gas supplies under threat.

What happens next depends on what happens on the ground. If Russia can complete its conquest of Donbas, it is possible that Ukraine and its backers will reluctantly accept a tactical defeat. If Ukraine can recover Kherson and Mariupol, they, and their backers, may feel they have done enough to settle, and Russian political will might crack. Neither possibility looks at all likely in 2022. Which means a long haul. The military intensity of the conflict will reduce, as both sides seek to regroup. It then becomes a battle of political wills, in Russia, Ukraine and amongst the Western powers, especially America and Germany.

That is a grim prospect for the Ukrainian people, especially if they have homes in the east and south of the country. One reason that nobody should start a war is that they are so hard to stop. The world did not need another lesson the futility of war – but that is exactly what Russia has given it.

Ukraine: the Western powers need to move onto front foot

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This is likely to be my last post for three weeks as I take some time out. I still want to talk about Ukraine, though some other interesting issues are bubbling up, especially in economics. Never mind, Ukraine is front and centre at the moment for any European.

Since my last post, Russia has completed a withdrawal in northern Ukraine, including its advances on Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy. It retains its positions near Kharkiv and continues to shell the city. It has also, for now, abandoned its advance on Odesa in the south west. It is concentrating on Donbas in the east and Mariupol in the south. There is talk that they are gathering strength for a major offensive in Donbas. Meanwhile the world is shocked by the behaviour of Russian troops in the areas they have now abandoned in the north. “Genocide” is a much-used word, notably by the Ukrainian government. I don’t think what has been happening merits that word – but claims by some authorised media in Russia that the Ukrainian national identity is an artificial construct do add weight to the claim. But it is without doubt that the actions of Russian troops amount to war crimes, even though I think a lot of it is reckless disregard rather than deliberate targeting.

It all contributes to the propaganda war being used to sustain public support for the conflict. Both sides can claim success. In the West Russian disinformation has been overwhelmed – some people are picking it up, but nobody with political heft. What had been a rather successful part of Russian political outreach is in tatters. The only clouds so far as Western propagandists are concerned are younger people in the US, who are notably more sceptical according to a poll in the Economist, and Hungary, where the sceptical government led by Viktor Orban has just won another term in power, partly thanks to a campaign suggesting that the country should not join the war. But in Russia, hopes in the West that there would be a public backlash have been dashed. The public had not been prepared for the war, but the authorities have made up for lost time. They have developed their own powerful narrative of victimhood, denied claims of heavy losses and bad conduct, and successfully shut down all alternative news sources. There is something of a parallel with Ukraine itself – there the Russian attack has rallied Ukrainians into a show of patriotism, from what had been a rather sceptical public. The Russian government is successfully using Western sanctions to achieve something like the same effect. Their main risk is the suppression of news about what is really happening – but once feelings of identity and patriotism are stirred up, facts are little obstacle. After all supporters of Donald Trump still think that he won the presidential election in 2020. There is something of a backlash amongst middle class Russians, but they are unable to organise – the most important consequence is a brain-drain.

Outside the West and Russia, the results of the propaganda war is mixed. Russia has been able to play on anti-Western sentiment, resulting from such things as the Gulf War. By and large more neutral governments aren’t falling for Russian disinformation – but they is a large well of scepticism over the motives of the West. It is not hard to make a claim of hypocrisy.

Still, while Russia has successfully rallied public support, it has two big problems. The first is the state of its armed forces. These were never as strong as most people thought, including Western experts, doubtless as a result of the endemic corruption that is the hallmark of the Russian state. The disastrous early phase of the campaign has inflicted devastating losses, leaving what remains as damaged and suffering poor morale. It is much harder to keep the front-line forces in the same information bubble as the general public. It will be a struggle to regroup for the next phase of the campaign. The second big problem is logistics. Western sanctions may not have turned the Russian public against their government, as initially hoped, but they have weakened the capacity of the Russian state to make war. Of course it is hard to get decent information on this. The Ukrainian government is publishing a lot of details about the difficulties the Russians are experiencing – but it is hard to know how much weight to put on these. To my mind, one important issue is the supply of artillery shells, so critical the Russian way of war. But I suspect that this is somewhere they could get surreptitious support from China.

But Ukraine does not seem to be in a strong position to exploit Russian weakness, and retake territory which Russia wants to defend.. There is very little decent information this – but the Ukrainian government is now focusing its efforts on getting more munitions, as well as increasing sanctions on Russia. Demands for a no-fly zone are now less audible. This is putting pressure on the Western powers. For them there is an invisible but vital line in the type of support they are able to offer without escalation. This line needs to be examined harder, but the thinking is unclear, probably deliberately. What sort of escalation do they fear? The obvious one concerns gas supplies – but Russia surely needs the currency. Military attacks on the West would surely provoke the sort of further escalation that the Russians don’t want. Of course with the threat of nuclear weapons, any move has to be thought through carefully – but surely the boundaries could be pushed? Two issues occur to me. One is the supply of more types of weapons. Better anti-aircraft defences might be one area; armoured vehicles to allow Ukrainian troops to move around under artillery fire would be another (the use of armoured vehicles in front-line combat is another matter, as they look very vulnerable to modern weapons). A second issue concerns Transnistria, the Russian-controlled enclave in Moldova. This presents a threat to Odesa, but it is also very vulnerable. Western governments need to make it very clear that any attempt to use its bases there to attack Ukrainian territory would be unacceptable and result in military action and blockade. This would make it visible to the Russian government that their war is diminishing its global status and ability to hang on to its outposts.

Why should the West want to take more risks? Because Russia’s new battle plan presents a real threat. A spectacular advance in Donbas by Russia looks unlikely, but a grinding, slow one is a real threat, and could keep the war going for a lot longer. Ukraine needs to have the capacity to retake territory in order the convince Russia that continuing the war is not in its interests.

And at some point also, the West will need to get serious about making peace – as that is the only realistic way this war will end. But for that to work, Russia’s military efforts must be weakened further. And to achieve that the West will have to try harder.

The Ukraine war settles into a slow grind to partition

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Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul drew headlines yesterday, but there was almost nothing to see. The war goes on in two main theatres: the fighting in Ukraine itself, and the economic assault on Russia conducted by the Western powers. Russia remains battered but unbeaten. Either something big breaks and one side is the clear victor, or the war will grind on to de-facto partition after both sides are exhausted. This is unlikely to be quick.

Russia drew headlines with the claim that it is scaling down its operations against Kyiv and Chernihiv as a gesture of goodwill. This is obvious nonsense. Intelligence suggests that Russia is withdrawing battered units from the area, but they seem to be replacing them with fresher units, albeit of doubtful quality. Heavy losses and logistical strains have forced them to dial back, but there is no sign that they are ceding territory. The aim of the announcement seems to be twofold: to make a virtue out of necessity for the sake of world propaganda, and to prepare the ground for any Ukrainian counterattacks, which they can label as escalation.

For their part, the Ukrainians aren’t offering much either. They are stepping back from their stated aim of joining NATO. But instead they want security guarantees that add up to much the same thing, except that they have renounced the idea of foreign troops on their soil. There is no sign of any flexibility on Russia’s territorial demands on Crimea and the Donbas. Russia does seem to have stepped back from their demand for regime change, and Ukraine’s exclusion from the European Union. That is progress of a sort, but not enough to get our hopes up.

The peace talks are missing elements that might point to success. They are not being convened by a power with the ability to knock heads together. Turkey is an improvement on the talks held in Belarus, but you need the heft of the USA or China, or preferably both, to force the sides into serious compromise. America is vital to Ukraine’s ongoing resistance, and central to the sanctions regime that is causing Russia such pain. China can put decisive pressure on Russia. But both China and America are posturing on the sidelines and show no interest in moving a peace process along. On the other hand neither of the combatants is yet close to breakdown – so neither will concede defeat in a costly war. Any serious compromise on territory will amount to a defeat of one side or the other.

On the ground we have something of a war of attrition. Russia is slowly strangling Mariupol to death. Ukraine is slowly pushing the Russians back in the north. Russia is clearly suffering from resource constraints. It is struggling to maintain its human resources – and the reinforcements that it is finding are generally of poor quality. Much the same can be said of replacement equipment. Less obvious are any constraints on ammunition supplies. Their method of war once serious resistance is encountered is very demanding of ammunition. Just how far consumption is outstripping production is unclear – the various reports I read on the situation don’t touch on this aspect, as presumably good intelligence is hard to get. However my feeling is that Russia’s scaling back in the north has as much to do with this factor as anything else. One key factor will be whether China can offer a supply of munitions to keep the Russian war machine going.

What could break in Russia’s military campaign? Exhausted units could collapse and retreat. This is more likely in the north, where Russian positions look stretched and vulnerable. It would make sense for them to conduct a physical withdrawal to consolidate – though this could free up Ukrainian troops too. In the south Russian positions look much less exposed, but if their commanders keep trying to push their troops forward, there could be trouble. If ammunition supplies do start to get stretched, some kind of disaster is more likely. If Ukraine is able to build up enough reserves to carry out more than limited counterattacks and insurgency operations, then this will make a big difference.

But Ukraine has its own weaknesses. Military experts suggest that their forces in Donbas could get cut off by advances especially from the south. I don’t have a feeling of the level of danger here – these military experts have often been proved wrong and have spouted their fair share of nonsense. I heard one on the radio saying that attackers usually need a 3:1 advantage in numbers. This number originates from General Bernard Montgomery trying to explain why he made such heavy weather of the battle of El Alamein with a mere 2.5:1 advantage. Numbers required depend completely on the context, and any rule of thumb is nonsense. Ukraine needs a continuing supply of munitions from the West, and could do with more weapons that would allow it to take the offensive – such as aircraft and tanks. Their morale is much higher than that of the Russians, though, and it does look as if they have saved Kyiv.

What of the economic war? This does not look as bad for Russia as it did at first. Loopholes have been found in the sanctions. There have been no bond defaults. They are being helped by Turkey, Israel and the Arab states, as well as China. The rouble is recovering. They are still exporting substantial quantities of gas. Still the civilian economy is taking a bad knock, and doubtless unemployment will rise. The state propaganda machine is all-out building a sense of Russian patriotism which allows its fantastical propaganda to be believed. Dissent is being stamped out. The Russian middle class is taking a big battering, though, and that is leading to a big brain drain. Russia’s s not a robust, self-sufficient economy, and corruption is endemic. Something could break. But there are plenty of examples of countries withstanding sanctions in the long term (Cuba, Iran, Venezuela). This is not what the Russian people signed up to when they voted for Vladimir Putin, but the narrative of victimisation is being developed. A palace coup is possible – as presumably not all of the Russian ruling elite is signed up to Mr Putin’s messianic vision of Russia’s destiny. But the first we would hear of that is the day after it happens.

How about the West’s resolve? The war is taking its toll, but public support is widespread. A life or death struggle of this nature is more engaging than our normal humdrum existence. The main problem is knowing how far the West can go in providing aid to Ukraine without provoking Russia into a military response. Russia’s ground forces are now overstretched, and cannot credibly threaten any NATO country. But they have a strong navy, long range bombers and missiles, and a formidable nuclear capability. Western leaders have managed this risk by defining clear limits to their interventions. This has been criticised by many of the more aggressive commentators, but it heads off the risk of a Russian first strike. Doubtless military options are being considered by Nato planners, and confidence in Western military doctrine and weapons have been given a huge boost by Russia’s struggles. But such options will only be considered if Ukraine is facing military collapse, and would aim to limit the damage.

Where is this war headed? The Ukrainian commentators who suggest the war might end in some form of de-facto partition and cease-fire, like Korea (still technically at war), are on to something. The Russian will eventually be driven out of or withdraw from the north. They will probably extend their territory in Donbas and secure a land bridge to Crimea. Unless something drastic breaks.

UPDATE: 31 March

It is confirmed that Russia has been withdrawing troops in north Ukraine, and not just rotating them. They are not abandoning territory, though, and continue with shelling. My suggestion that consumption of munitions is a limiting factor for Russia is not so far being borne out by the facts – not of low-tech artillery shells anyway. There are claims that Western sanctions applying to advanced electronics is preventing Russia from the production of advanced weapons and munitions, however. If so it is a critical strategic weakness for Russia with important implications.

Blaming the West for the war in Ukraine

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The month-long war in Ukraine is has entered a new phase. Neither side seems to be in a position to make major advances – but the fighting goes on with longer range weapons, causing continued death and destruction. The misery remains for Ukrainians and there seems to be no end in sight. It is a human catastrophe.

Most of the fighting is now around Mariupol. According to BBC correspondents, this is part of a new Russian strategy which focuses on one major objective at a time. Once this objective is secured, they will move on to the next: Odessa perhaps. This fits with a broader narrative followed by BBC correspondents that Russia has overwhelming resources and progress is simply a matter of time. Personally I am sceptical. It is quite hard for the Russians to replace the sort of resources they need to carry out an effective offensive campaign. After Mariupol, they may be too exhausted to do much more, apart from continued bombardment. A stalemate is likely to continue until something big breaks on one side or the other, militarily or politically. Both sides will seek to cover up their vulnerabilities and it is very hard to predict where the cracks will show first.

Meanwhile, I want to step back and look at the blame game. Two narratives are doing the rounds, suggesting that the war is the West’s fault. These are variations on the general, post-colonial narrative that everything that goes wrong is the responsibility of the Western powers, and especially America; everybody else is a victim. This is based on two ideas: one being that the West is all-powerful, in soft and hard power, and so has the ability to shape events everywhere. The other is a victim narrative, popular amongst developing nations, China and Russia, which seeks to absolve anybody else from blame for anything bad happening, often by digging back to some historical misdeed as an underlying cause. Neither is very convincing, especially in the Ukraine context, and, to be fair, few in the West are blaming anybody other that Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia for breaking the great taboo – using a military campaign to solve a political problem.

Still, seeking to blame yourself for things that go wrong is a better habit than always blaming somebody else. It is much easier to change your own behaviour than to convince anybody else to change theirs. It is worth asking what mistakes Western leaders made that might have spared us this tragedy. So what are the two blame narratives? One, popular on the left, and taken up by Chinese commentators, is that Western leaders disregarded Russia’s prestige and security interests, especially with the westward expansion of Nato and the EU. This forced Mr Putin into his death spiral of paranoia and a desire to rectify Russia’s humiliation. The other narrative is popular on the right: this is that Western leaders ignored the emerging threat from Russia, and were too busy engaging with the country rather than pushing back, allowing Mr Putin to think that he could get away with it. The West’s response to Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 and Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 are critical aspects of this narrative.

The first point to make is that these two narratives are incompatible. They can only be reconciled by suggesting that Western leaders followed a false middle path – aggressive enough to provoke, but too weak to head off the threat. That is an interesting thought, but we need to look at each of the component narratives a bit more closely first.

There is a case that Western leaders, and in particular George Bush Senior and Helmut Kohl were too aggressive in taking advantage of the collapse of communism. They took the opportunity to cut Russia down to size with a decisiveness and ruthlessness that was too much even for Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, usually referred to as the “Iron Lady” in her confrontational zeal. There is particular criticism of the lack of economic aid as the communist economy collapsed. Instead Russia was flooded by neoconservative economists who urged that nothing should interfere with the operation of market forces in the building of a new economy. Well-connected individuals, and organised crime, took advantage of the power vacuum to make fortunes, while life for most Russians was misery. What Russia really needed was a managed transition to a mixed economy – something the Chinese achieved in the 1980s and 1990s. But the main problem was weak leadership of Russia’s political class – something that was reflected too in other parts of the Soviet Union, not excluding Ukraine. Would Western aid have achieved anything lasting in the absence of such leadership? There is good reason to doubt this – though that is not to say that the Western powers should not have done more.

The next problem came with the breakup of the USSR. This followed the Soviet Union’s internal structure, which did not necessarily make political sense. At the core of each of the USSR’s component republics was an ethnic group distinct from Russia. But that did not necessarily add up to a sensible separate polity. Belarus in particular did not make sense as a separate nation, and Ukraine was dominated by Russian-speakers, even if they might not all call themselves Russians. Never mind: each of these republics became an independent country, while statelets within the Russian federation, such as Chechnya, did not. There was nothing rational about this, but it is hard to see what the West could have done about it, even if it wanted to. The problem was the collapse in authority by the central Soviet state. This then created a dynamic that was very hard to reverse. There was possibly something of a window in the early 2000s when Russia seemed a little less chaotic and better governed than most of the other republics, and might have reunified with Belarus and Ukraine. It is surely true that European and American leaders did not encourage this idea, in order to prevent the new Russian state becoming too powerful. But Russia chose to advance its cause by allying itself with autocrats who were spectacularly corrupt., stoking popular resistance in Ukraine in particular.

But the biggest grievance of Russia’s leadership is the expansion of Nato and the EU that took place at this time. This included most of the old Warsaw Pact countries in Central and Eastern Europe, together with the three former Soviet Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Let us take the EU first. Russian leaders tend to see this as an aggressive expansion of a zone of political and economic interest by West Europe. In a sense they were right – but it was motivated by the wish to consolidate democratic values and strengthen the European economy. It has broadly succeeded in both aims, notwithstanding many problems, notably in Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria with political corruption, and populism in Poland. Funnily enough there have been fewer such problems of integration among the former Soviet republics that joined. All these countries have prospered relative to the former Soviet republics that did not join the EU, for reasons that will be the subject of many an academic study for generations to come. It his hard not to see this expansion of the EU as a brave political move to benefit the peoples of Europe, rather than a provocation to keep Russia in its place.

That case is less easy to make for the expansion of Nato, which Russia challenged at the time. Personally I felt at the time that the admission of former Soviet republics to Nato was a step too far. But the new entrants clearly wanted to be part of the alliance, and it is hard not to argue that the threat from Russia was a real one. The West tried to reassure Russia with an agreement to limit the deployment of forces in the new countries – an agreement that they have broadly honoured until the Ukraine war. It is very hard to portray this expansion of Nato as a military threat to Russia, which doesn’t stop some people from trying. In the far left narrative Nato’s aggressive intent has been shown in its campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. But you really have to have the sort of world view that sees Cuba as a brave democracy in order to give this sort of thinking serious weight. But what Nato and EU expansion clearly presented was a limit to Russia’s ability to expand its own influence, and in particular opportunities for the self-enrichment of Russian elites. And yet it is very hard to subscribe to the principle of democratic consent and accept that Russia has a right to treat these countries as part of a sphere of influence, reminiscent of great power politics pre-1914.

The next step in the provocation narrative is the West’s growing influence in Ukraine. There was, in fact, no real prospect of this country joining either the EU or Nato. Oligarchs had too much influence over the state structures for the former, and ongoing territorial disputes with Russia doomed the latter. But western countries would not rule this out formally. Furthermore they have been very supportive of reforms that would push back the corruption rife in Ukrainian public life, which Russia has seen as an important channel of influence. Ukrainians in general have shown a clear preference for closer ties with the West, especially after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and supported separatists in Donbas, kicking off a nasty war in which many Ukrainians were killed. Before this it was possible to sustain a narrative that Ukrainian politics was a battle between Ukrainian-speaking nationalists in the west, and Russians in the east, with the former only achieving political power through corruption, and using it harass Russian-speakers. The war in the Donbas changed that – though that surely some Ukrainians would still like their country to be part of Russia. But even before the current war, most Russian-speaking Ukrainians looked to the West, and the way they voted in elections clearly demonstrated that.

And that, at heart, is the problem with this Russia-the-victim narrative. The current Russian regime is a bully that believes in subverting the interests of its neighbours to support those of their ruling elite. Do we simply accept this as a matter of realpolitik, or do we push back? And where do we draw the line? Personally I would have drawn a pretty hard line around the borders of the former Soviet Union, and allowed Russia a greater level of influence there, even if it was malign – including an effective veto over Nato membership. But what would the outcome of that have been for the people of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia? The examples of Belarus and Moldova are hardly encouraging. What I find very hard to take is people on the left supporting this Russia-the-victim narrative, using classic arguments of realpolitik. They would have been much better sticking to the high moral ground and comparing the behaviour of Russia to that of Israel, for example. To their credit this is what some of them have done.

Which brings me to woolly-West narrative. This line of reasoning instantly raises hackles with me because it reminds me of Cold War arguments in the 1970s – which I fully subscribed to at first, before moving on. Actually it may have more justification this time. The argument goes that Mr Putin was committed to his confrontational course in the early 2000s, if not before, and nothing was going to shake him from that path. Better to have frozen Russia out earlier, especially after his attack on Georgia in 2008. This may have weakened Russia economically and even militarily. But that would have given Russia little to lose from aggressive military campaigns against its neighbours, with a distinct risk of a nuclear confrontation. The West wanted to present Mr Putin with an alternative path of continued economic integration with the West, leading to greater domestic prosperity. Even so, the passive behaviour of Germany in supporting Russian gas exports while neglecting its military was not a good look.

There is a little bit of truth in both the West-is-to-blame narratives. But the West’s middle path of wary support for emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, combined with not treating Russia as an enemy was a perfectly rational one. It is hard not to see Russia’s troubles as being primarily driven by mistakes and weak leadership within Russia’s ruling elite in the 1980s and 1990s. After this a democratic path was open to its leadership but tackling corruption and building an open economy; or alternatively there was the Chinese model of developing a competitive private economy while tackling corruption in the ruling elite. But Mr Putin chose not to follow either path. Military assertiveness is not the only way to respond to political humiliation, as Germany and Japan have proved. western leaders may well have made mistakes in their management of Russia – but would that have stopped a war like this being started by Russia? That is much harder to say.

Will Ukraine and Russia settle?

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-present).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Much as I predicted last week, the war in Ukraine has ground into a stalemate. Russia has made no significant advances in the last few days, and actually not much in the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile negotiations between the two sides continue. I got rather excited yesterday when the Financial Times published a newsflash suggesting that Russia and Ukraine had agreed a 15-point plan. This sounded promising, but there has been no wider confirmation. The statements coming from Moscow continue to be bleak. Where are we at?

The reporting from the BBC continues to focus on human drama at the expense of any clear perspective on what is happening. This is especially true of Lyse Doucet, reporting from Kyiv. In her reports Russia is “extending its attack” and getting ever closer to the centre of the city. The sound of Russian artillery is louder she says – though I’m not clear how she is distinguishing between the Russian and Ukrainian guns. In fact military experts suggest that the Russians aren’t getting any closer (though they are doubtless consolidating the gains they have already made, and bringing in more forces, perhaps including artillery). Much is made of missile strikes, which are hitting high-rise residential blocks. These weapons are being fired from a distance and appear to be unguided. Precision weapons are expensive and Russia has doubtless run down its stock. This does not look like a decisive strategy. There seems to be a random element in Russian targeting, arising from the use of these long-range and unguided munitions; they are clearly not bothered about hitting civilian structures, but neither is likely that specific structures are being aimed at. This is doubtless true of Mariupol too – Russian hits on a maternity hospital, and then a theatre being used as a shelter, are unlikely to have been singled out for attack, as suggested by the Ukrainian government, and repeated by BBC reporters. But neither are Russians making any effort to avoid them.

The Russian attack has clearly run out of steam. They are desperately trying to find extra troops to feed in, including recruiting Syrian mercenaries. The numbers and types of forces don’t sound decisive, though. This would be an excellent moment for the Ukrainians to launch a serious counteroffensive. But their counterattacks seem to be quite limited. That suggests that they too lack the types of forces to mount decisive attacks – this would be beyond the extensive territorial defence forces that the country has built up so rapidly. Perhaps they are still trying to assemble and train forces able to conduct such operations, or waiting to reinforce their air force. They may be worrying about Russia’s remaining air capability, and its ability to counter any Ukrainian ground operations. This could be one reason for the country’s desperate appeals for Nato to enforce a no-fly zone.

Meanwhile the Russian government seems to be consolidating its hold on domestic politics. They have closed down independent news sources, and provided a steady stream of nonsense to bolster their side of the story. Vladimir Putin seems to be turning on the Russian middle classes, who are attracted to western values, and may have access to to external news sources. He is increasingly branding middle class sceptics as an un-Russian fifth column. This strategy also creates a narrative for resistance to Western sanctions – who wants to support a decadent Western lifestyle? People are naturally patriotic, and Mr Putin’s strategy may well be working. There seems to be little substantive dissent. The Russian public may not have been ready for the war when it started, but as it drags on, they may be as accepting of its consequences as are Ukrainians, with their remarkable rallying to their country.

Russian resilience is to be expected. They do have some weak links, however. They will not easily be able to replace hi-tech imports from the West. This may even affect their advanced weaponry. On the international scene, their Belarusian ally is weaker than Russia. They have not contributed troops directly to the campaign, even though Russia has requested them, apparently. If that country breaks out into serious dissent and unrest, Russia has no spare troops to help President Lukashenko out. These seem long shots though.

But if Russia looks quite secure, that still leaves the question of how it is supposed to win this war. The aim of establishing an occupying army or a puppet regime now look hopeless. So it makes sense to explore what the Ukrainians are willing to concede, so that they can declare victory and pull out. And the Ukrainian government must also be asking how this war is supposed to end. They don’t seem to have sufficient forces to launch a major counteroffensive to send at least one of the four major Russian thrusts back to where they started. So they too have an interest in exploring the options for a settlement.

The starting point is clearly for a ceasefire, and for Russian forces to retreat back to their start lines. That would mean Russia continuing to occupy Crimea and the eastern Donbas. Which leads us to the question of territory. It is conceivable that Ukraine concedes the Russian takeover of Crimea. The Donbas is trickier – Russia, on behalf of its surrogates, claims additional territory there. Some kind of international resolution of these might be a way forward, based on consulting the people that live in these regions. That will be hard amid the rubble of war. A previous attempt at this, the Minsk accords, has failed – there does not seem to have been any enthusiasm for this route forward from either side.

As for political control, Russia will have to drop its stated aim of “de-nazification” – replacing the current Ukrainian government with one that is more amenable. However the Russians demand for the country’s neutrality looks more feasible. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky seems to have conceded staying out of Nato, on the basis that membership was never actually on the cards anyway. Finland, Sweden and Austria have adopted formal neutrality after all. The Russians have also said that Ukraine should not join the EU either. That will be much harder for the Ukrainians to concede. And the EU will be much more willing to accept it as a member than it was before the war – though there are obstacles.

There is also the question of “demilitarisation”, another Russian war aim. That will also be quite hard for the Ukrainians to concede, but it will be necessary for them to show that Ukraine lacks a major offensive capability. Renouncing longer-range weapons could be one part of this.

And what of the wider international community? If the war ends, the sanctions regime against Russia and Belarus needs to be reviewed. But the more that Russia gets, the harder this will be. Clearly there needs to be some kind of negotiation between Nato countries and Russia about deployments of forces in Europe – but Russia’s bargaining position is weak. Nato will insist that the Baltic countries are allowed to strengthen their defences.

We can only hope that something is sorted out and that the war is ended soon. The ongoing negotiations at least offer us a degree of hope.

Russia and Ukraine contemplate an unwinnable war

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-present).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Ukrainian war is an important test of British journalism. I have mainly been following events through the BBC, supplemented by the Financial Times and The Economist – with snatches from elsewhere. This coverage is wildly better than anything coming out of state-controlled media in Russia, for example. But some, especially on the left, feel it is biased. I only get snatches of the frustration from Facebook, as I observe comments on the feed of a contact whom I respect in spite of her engagement with the wilder left. Many of these commenters snatch at anything that throws doubt on the narrative coming out on mainstream media. But the main thing to know about this critique is that it has negligible political impact, and isn’t worth getting worked up about it.

Still, the mainstream coverage is far from perfect. As ever, it is drawn to spectacular pictures and individual stories and loses a lot on perspective. It is hard to know how much damage to civilian areas is “collateral”, in the manner of US and British action in Iraq and Syria, and how much is deliberate targeting of civilians (as has been the case in the Russian-backed campaign in Syria). After days of talking about a devastating bombardment of Kharkiv, for example, I was surprised to see pictures of civilians taking trains and cars out of the city in areas that were clearly undamaged. Kharkiv is a big place, of course, but the BBC seems to be using the same old photos to illustrate its stories of the damage there.

Another niggle is that BBC correspondents have a tendency to talk up the strength and power of the Russian forces. They talk of overwhelming strength, and simply as assume that Russia can deploy this strength to prevail in the long term. Others suggest that Russia can rerun its campaign in Chechnya, or the Russian-led one in Aleppo.

But the situation in Ukraine is very different to Syria or Chechnya. It is a much bigger theatre, and the forces opposed to the Russians are much larger. Russia doesn’t have enough troops. Western experts believe that 95% of the forces brought forward by Russia for this campaign have now been committed. And this was about 75% of Russia’s army. Including reserve forces, Ukraine’s army is more than twice its size, not counting the numbers of civilians (and foreigners) enrolling. But, of course, the Russians are regulars, and better organised, and much better equipped. As the attacker they can choose the battlefield and apply overwhelming strength there. Except, for some reason, they haven’t. Russia has spread its forces across many lines of advance. Russia’s main advantage is in vast quantities of ammunition for longer-range weapons: artillery shells, missiles and bombs. While they must be running down stocks of these, they do manufacture their own, and it is much easier to ramp up production of these than it is to recruit men.

And that is leading into a stalemate. Russian forces are making slow progress: to the east and west of Kyiv, and expanding their bridgehead from Crimea. But it is far from clear whether they have the wherewithal to launch substantive attacks on Kyiv, Odesa or Zaporhizia, which appear to be the targets – though they may be able to overwhelm Mariupol, where things are clearly desperate. Of course I don’t know how much the Russians and Ukrainians are holding back. The Ukrainians might be stretched to breaking point, and vulnerable to a well-placed offensive from Russian forces. Or they might have reserves that they can put into a game-changing counter-offensive, once Russia has committed to its next major push forward. But my guess is that a horrid stalemate is approaching. In many ways that is the worst possible outcome for both Russians and Ukrainians.

What can the Russian regime do? It is apparently trying to scrape together some extra forces, including the recruitment of foreign mercenaries. It could start calling up conscripts and reservists. Vladimir Putin has apparently ruled that out today – but what worth are his promises? He can simply ratchet up the narrative about the existential threat to Russia from the West. But such a measure would have a huge political cost, given that he has done little to prepare the Russian public for a major war against fellow Slavs. Alongside Western sanctions taking effect, taking away that easy access to the West and western consumerism which seems to be so important to Russia’s middle and upper classes.

The war is increasingly looking unwinnable from both sides. Russia is a first-rank power militarily, but not economically. It will find it hard to sustain an all-out economic war with the West, even with the qualified support of China (who will want to limit the damage to their own economic relations with the West) without huge damage. It lacks the manpower required to win the sort of people’s war that the conflict is becoming. Russia has a strong national identity to call on, but the threat to its people from Ukraine is abstract, while that to Ukrainians from Russia is all too real. Ukraine, meanwhile is in the process of forging its own national identity. One thing we don’t know is how much support there is for joining up with Russia within Ukraine. There is doubtless some, but the mainstream media is not reporting it at all – as doubtless people with that view are keeping their heads down. But what is clear is that most Russian-speaking Ukrainians now identify as Ukrainian and not Russian. With continued support from the West it looks as if they can sustain the war for a long while yet. They can dig deeper into their own human resources than Russia can.

Which leads to the question of what will Russia’s break-point be? Vladimir Putin has backed himself into a corner. He may have downplayed the level of military commitment to the Russian people, but he has given them maximal objectives – to ‘de-nazify” and demilitarise Ukraine – not simply to ‘liberate’ the Donbas region and secure recognition for Crimea. It looks impossible for him to declare victory and get out. And that surely means that the only way to stop the war is to remove him from power. That would require some form of putsch. For that, the situation in Russia would have to become intolerable. How far away is that? That is another thing I cannot know. But as somebody who is steeped in Russia’s intelligence services, Mr Putin has surely payed a lot of attention to his personal security.

All of which leaves us with a grim outlook of months more killing and suffering. We thought that Europe had learned enough of the futility of war. It is heartbreaking to see that we are having to learn this all over again.

Ukraine’s fight for survival

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-present).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsCity control sources: Cities and towns during the Russo-Ukrainian War, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It is very hard to think about anything other than Ukraine at the moment. What we are witnessing is a defining moment in European history – but one that is unresolved. Vladimir Putin has crossed a postwar red line in Europe by the use of warfare as a means of furthering political objectives. Military intervention has been not unknown in postwar Europe of course. The Soviet Union orchestrated a number of military interventions within the Communist Bloc. The collapse of Yugoslavia prompted a nasty war, in which European powers, and America, intervened. But the invasion of Ukraine feels very different. What to make of events so far?

A lot of what I wrote back in January stands the test of time. I suggested that Mr Putin wanted to achieve a rapid military victory over Ukraine; I questioned how easy that would be; and I said that an attack would galvanise a previously complacent Europe.

Clearly the Russian attack has not gone according to plan. Its leaders appear to have expected Ukrainian forces to collapse quickly. They seem to have believed their own propaganda that the Russian-speaking majority resented the current Ukrainian government as dominated by “fascists” from the west of the country, and that this would especially be the case in the east. Given that Russia has formidable intelligence services, with plenty of inside sources in Ukraine, this is an astonishing failure of intelligence. It is not hard to guess its cause though: Mr Putin’s advisers were too scared to tell him what he did not want to hear. It reminds me of the “groupthink” of George Bush’s regime prior to the 2003 Iraq War, which expected that the the Americans would be welcomed with open arms, and that a democratic state would be easy to impose. The Russian armed forces were clearly using the wrong tactics – not attacking with sufficient force at the critical points. They doubtless have been trying to avoid civilian casualties too, until today at least. We know from America’s experiences that this is an impossible promise to keep in a large-scale war, and Russia’s weapons are not as accurate – so the fact that there have been many civilian casualties does not disprove this.

One curiosity about all this is that Western military experts shared the Kremlin belief that Russian forces would achieve a rapid victory. The BBC calls the Russian military strength “overwhelming”. But it isn’t. In my January post I commented that I did not think the reported size of the Russian buildup of 100,000 men looked enough. Well, the latest estimates go up to 200,000, but that is still quite small force for such a big operation. Soviet-era armies were much, much bigger. What the experts appear to think is that Russia has modernised its armed forces on the US model, and have a corresponding level of effectiveness per man. If so then then that size of force would certainly be big enough to achieve a quick initial victory, and the problems would only start later on. But I don’t think that Russia’s modernisation has got that far. Or rather the theory has got ahead of the training and the actual technical capabilities. Furthermore there must be a question over the Russian forces’ morale. They were not psychologically prepared for a hard fight against people who look and speak the same as them. It is natural for military experts to overestimate their potential opponents as a matter of caution, especially as it helps make the case for more defence funding. I think that has happened here with Western military analysts.

Which is not to deny that the situation for Ukraine looks very grim. The ferocious bombardment of Kharkiv shows new Russian tactics. The conventional wisdom remains that Russia will prevail in the end. Personally, I do not take that for granted – but let us assume for now that this is right. What next? The problem for Russia is that the powerful resistance shown by Ukraine’s army, leaders and private citizens has established a creation myth for the Ukrainian nation. Mr Putin is right that originally the country was an artificial creation. But all nation-states are that at the beginning. National identity is forged by history, and Mr Putin’s hostility to Ukraine has helped forge that in double-quick time. This attack has sealed it. This will make any puppet state created in the country very hard to maintain. Internal security forces will have to be created from scratch in a short space of time, from unpromising raw materials; it will not be like Belarus. There is a risk of an insurgency. I honestly hope that, if Russia does win, that resistance will be only passive. The West should not support an insurgency. Having endured the horrors of the IRA campaign in the UK in the late 20th Century I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But it is a risk.

But even if resistance is entirely passive, Russia will have to maintain a substantial security presence, reducing the level of threat elsewhere. It will also have a lot of wounds to lick. That gives NATO time to get its act together, if Mr Putin decides that is his next target. The key to that is Nato’s European members stepping up their military commitments. Mr Putin’s attack has certainly stimulated the European public in that direction. Also the promises made, when the eastern nations joined NATO, to limit eastern deployments can now be shredded. Unless there is regime change in Russia, we are headed towards a new cold war.

A further point of interest is developments have undermined Russia’s efforts to undermine Western politics, through the spread of disinformation and sponsoring disruptive politicians. In the period leading up to the attack there quite a number of apologists for Mr Putin. On the right were those, like Donald Trump, who are fascinated by the exercise of raw power. People on the left like anything that challenges US hegemony: we had the rather incongruous spectacle of people who claim high political principle with respect to the Iraq wars and Palestine coming over as hardened exponents of realpolitik. But the narrative now offered by mainstream media is a compelling one, and Russia has offered no coherent alternative (or not outside its own borders – within them they can promote a version of events that is much further from reality). For people the right there is the spectacle of people bravely defending against a sophisticated army using citizen militias, an idea they love. On the left, Russian apologists have been led up the garden path by Russian claims that they were not going to attack, as well ass claims that the Ukrainian regime did not have wide public support, and made to look very foolish. Anti-Russian sentiment has exploded. This has given tough sanctions against Russia an easy ride. This may have been more than Russia expected. The Russian disinformation campaign is now wholly out its depth.

Meanwhile the US President Joe Biden has played a very well-judged game. He opted to share intelligence early and quickly about Russian intentions. This pressurised Russia, forcing it into repeated denials that have weakened its overall standing – and readying the public at large for what was about to happen. He also made very clear what his response would be, again preparing the ground well. If the Russians are surprised by the strength of the sanctions, they have no reason to be.

Overall the impression is that Mr Putin became overconfident, both based on his past successes, and the apparent weakness of the West. He suffered from the delusion of many authoritarians that the Western public is too focused on the comfortable life to be any good at the life-and-death stuff. But when provoked the public responds. This now means that the Russian state has many problems crowding in on all sides: from the conduct of the war, to response to sanctions, to managing public opinion to even fending off cyber attacks (although as yet not particularly serious ones). Mr Putin’s references to his nuclear arsenal is a sign of weakness. But Mr Putin has invested a lot in that arsenal, and he wants it to count for something.

That leaves us in a very uncomfortable place. Mr Putin will be desperate not to lose face. Things have to get worse before there is much hope of them getting better. Hopes of an early end to the pain depend on Mr Putin being overthrown. And the chances of that are unknowable.

How legitimate are Russia’s claims over Ukraine?

Parts of Ukraine are already being shelled. The situation is to be sliding ever further into all-out war. Western mainstream media has been telling quite a simple and consistent story about this. Many more thoughtful people want to probe this, but the counter-infomration is polluted by Russian misinformation. How did we get here and what is really happening?

Western politicians are advancing a very simple story. Ukraine is an independent country, which is being threatened with military power. That is a very bad thing. Defenders of Russia are advancing a more complicated story, but the way of Russian propaganda is not to present anything that is consistent or coherent, but to spread doubt. It does this through a combination of truths, half-truths and downright lies. Through this fog, two key ideas are being advanced: Ukraine is not a legitimate independent state, and that the current government’s policies present Russia with a major threat to its security. The lack of clarity around this message means that its impact in the West has been very limited. It is picked up by people on the far left and far right who have very little political influence. Donald Trump may be among them, but for once the rest of his party is going in a very different direction. Nevertheless the mainstream Western view does over-simplify a complex situation.

What are my sources? They are mostly mainstream, reported in places such as The Economist and the Financial Times, combined with my knowledge of history culled from many sources. This is supplemented by the reported experience of a friend who emigrated to a Russian-speaking region of Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk, in the early 2000s (or before, even). Sadly he passed away on Christmas Day 2020 – but I remember well what he said about the experience of living in Ukraine (with some knowledge of Russian, but little Ukrainian), and especially the events of 2014, which most accounts take as the starting point of the current crisis.

Ukraine emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union almost by accident. It was not a coherent political creation. Stalin gifted it Crimea for no particularly good reason. The west of the country included lands that had not been part of the Russian (or Soviet) state until Russia occupied it in 1940 as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This included the city now called Lviv, traditionally Lvov, which had been part of the Austrian Habsburg empire. I visited it back in 1984 (along with Minsk, Moscow, Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev), and our Russian guide explained she could not understand the locals because they were speaking Polish. Further west the country has a longer association with Russia, but had they a distinctive language and religion (Catholic rather than Orthodox). But in the east, including the capital Kiev, the country has been more consistently Russian. Russian language and ways predominate. These differences created political tensions between Ukrainian nationalists and those that looked to Russia, who predominated in the West, especially in Crimea, which hosted a Russian naval base, and the Donbas, which had substantial, if increasingly obsolete, heavy industry. Both sides had substantial power bases and the Ukrainian government fell under the influence of each in turn. Among Russian speakers, who form the majority, there is no automatic looking to Moscow – which I often regard as historically a Ukrainian offshoot, rather than the other way round. The region’s experiences under the Soviet government were not happy. While not comfortable with Ukrainian nationalism, and its emphasis on the Ukrainian language, Russian speakers’ overall attitude to the country’s independence has been quite pragmatic.

The most important thing to understand about the first decade or two of Ukrainian independence is that the country was badly run. As in Russia, well-connected oligarchs amassed huge assets and proceeded to dominate politics. In fact it was worse than Russia, as, especially under Vladimir Putin, Russia began to reign their oligarchs in. The early 2000s were probably the high-point of Russian influence in Ukraine as a result. People could see that Russians were better off. But the tide turned, I think for two reasons. Firstly the standard-bearer for the pro-Russian faction, Viktor Yanukovich, who legitimately won the presidency in 2010, was unspeakably corrupt. Meanwhile Eastern European countries that joined the European Union started to prosper, and their governance improved. Ukrainians increasingly looked west for inspiration. Yanukovich tried to juggle the Europeans against the Russians, but as he was increasingly pressured by Russia away from Europe, this was too much for many Ukrainians. This led to the Maidan revolution, which turned Yanukovich from power in early 2014, but until after nearly 100 protestors were killed by the security forces.

This is where the contested history really starts. In Russian telling the Maidan revolution was a fascist-led coup, back by Western powers, and the government it created started to oppress Russian-speakers. Evidence cited includes clashes in the Black Sea port of Odessa in May 2014, where more than 40 pro-Russian supporters were killed in a fire. I can’t speak for the strict legal constitutionality of Yanukovich’s ejection from power, although it was instigated by the country’s parliament – but it is wrong to say it was anti-democratic. New elections were held in June of that year, which gave the whole thing legitimacy. But we should not underplay the bitterness felt by pro-Russian citizens at the time. And, given the muddle of the country’s creation, neither should we question their feelings of affiliation with Russia.

Then the Russians struck. They managed to occupy Crimea with very little violence. They also supported uprisings in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region. It is hard to tell what local people in the areas felt about this actions. So far as can be told most people in Crimea were (and are) happy to be part of Russia (a referendum was organised – but such haste and lack of process that it is hard to take seriously). The exception were descendants of Crimean Tatars exiled there by Stalin – who were anti-Russian rather than pro-Ukrainian. I’m sure plenty of people in the Donbas regions supported the uprising, though I suspect that most were against violence. The Ukrainian government tried to take back control, leading to a nasty war which drew in Russian troops (“volunteers”), who managed to stop the badly-organised Ukrainian effort, but not without many dead on both sides.

It is worth pausing here to consider what the stance of the Western powers is in all this. Europeans welcomed the opportunity to trade in a market with substantial potential, as well as the political kudos of promoting a European-style democratic society. But they also despaired at the corruption in Ukraine, and doubtless worried about trampling on Russian power. Americans were surely not that interested, as they pivoted away from Europe to Asia, with major distractions in the Middle East. Both are now accused of not taking Russia seriously enough at the time, and of failing to provide the country with military support, or pressing the Russians with more severe sanctions. Meanwhile the Russians accuse those same powers of orchestrating the whole thing. I think the truth was that the West saw the area as within a Russian sphere of influence, and hesitated to get involved. But neither could they easily accept Russia stopping the Ukrainian people facing westwards if that is what they chose. They also worried about violation of international law – although America had thoroughly muddied the waters there with their invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Donbas rebellions reached a stalemate, and a ceasefire of sorts was arranged through, formalised in the Minsk Protocol in 2015. This envisaged Ukraine taking full control of the rebel areas, but within a system of devolved government which would have given these states a veto over much of what happened at national level. The protocol has not been honoured by either side. Doubtless it is at the centre of French-led efforts at diplomatic intervention, but the sticking point might be as much the Ukrainian government as the Russian.

According to my friend in Dnepropetrovsk, the 2014 war was a turning-point in the attitudes of the bulk of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. They were shocked at Russia’s violent intervention, leading to so many deaths of their compatriots from all over Ukraine. They have got behind the pro-Western direction of the government, which now aspires to join NATO. Doubtless pockets of pro-Russian feeling remain, though, for example in Odessa. Meanwhile Mr Putin’s Russia finds the western drift of Ukraine intolerable. Pointing out that Russia has only itself to blame for this doesn’t help.

This is a matter of prestige rather than genuine threat to Russian security. Though NATO leaders cannot say it, they have no intention of letting Ukraine join NATO. And if they did it is hard to see that they would deploy aggressive forces there. NATO is fundamentally a defensive organisation, and its members, except America on occasion, really don’t like throwing their weight around militarily. Their speciality is soft power. Mr Putin may see westward-looking Ukraine as a threat to his political system, though. That soft power presents a real threat on that score. So he is now trying to balance soft power with hard power.

Personally I think that the Ukrainian government’s NATO aspirations were a serious mistake. It would have been better to aim for formal neutrality – a bit like the state of Finland in the Cold War. It would have provoked Russia less – though made a Russian military intervention less costly. Perhaps Ukrainians think that the 2014 interventions show that Russia may see a neutral Ukraine as an opportunity for meddling. Especially when its leader questions the country’s high to exist.

This challenge is downplayed in Western media coverage, but it is getting harder to ignore. For more than a hundred years, after the world started to reject imperialism, it has been held that the right way to settle such matters is through consent. But the bar to countries breaking away has been a high one, and that of countries absorbing neighbours higher yet. Somebody once said that Russia has to choose between democracy and imperialism. After a brief interval of democracy in the 1990s, it is clearly back into imperialist thinking.

Morally the Western powers are clearly in the right, for all the over-simplifications. Russia’s use of military power is naked imperialism. We should have stopped going to war about such things as a region’s wish for independence, provided it abides by basic humanitarian norms. Britain is not sending tanks to Scotland to suppress the Scottish nationalists. We should be standing against the change of borders except by consent. Even the invasion of Iraq ended with an independent state in unchanged borders – though that doesn’t make it right.

Is liberalism in crisis?

I was fascinated to read Why Liberalism is in Crisis in the New Statesman, which takes the form of a dialogue between John Gray and Ross Douthat. I’m familiar with Dr Gray, a British philosopher; Mr Douthat is a New York Times columnist, with a practising Christian perspective (i.e., to contrast with my own non-practising, agnostic Christian perspective, and Dr Gray’s Christian-influenced atheism). They are both highly sceptical of the liberal establishment, but are both deeply rational, and clearly Western liberals in the broad sense. As such I appreciated and enjoyed the article.

Despite their differences, both men agree that liberalism is in retreat, both within Western societies, and globally. They have an intense dislike of the “woke” consensus, as well as right-wing populist irrationality. Interestingly they think that the fashionable pessimism about the future of Western democracy is overdone. But they are firm believers in the global decline of the West: Taiwan is as good as gone, so far as they are concerned – while the rise of China, India and Russia is relentless and continuing – though I’m not sure if Mr Dothat agreed with all of the last bit (i.e. the inclusion of Russia). But neither think that these rising powers is promoting a universal credo to replace liberalism, as the Soviet Union once attempted. Instead Christian universalism is being replaced with something much more focused on national and ethnic identities. Optimism about the spread of liberalism had been based on the idea that it is the route to economic prosperity – but the rise of China has given the lie to this, says Dr Gray. Meanwhile Western ruling elites seem to be in denial about all of this.

If you break down the article into individual statements about the political state of play, I would agree with most of them. Furthermore, I would agree with two of the writers’ big conclusions: that the decline of Western liberal democracy is overdone by most commentators, and that the political heft of the West has declined sharply, as China in particular has advanced, while Russia makes mischief in the vacuum left behind. Where I disagree is that liberalism, and a belief in cosmopolitan liberal democracy, will simply retreat into being the West’s house philosophy, while the rest of the world moves to various flavours of nationalist autocracy. I think that liberalism is outgrowing the West.

This is for a number of reasons. The first thing is that I don’t think that universalism is dying. According to Dr Gray the West’s universalist out look derives from the fact that Christianity was the world’s first major universalist religion. Christian’s believe their message is for all nations. It shares this outlook with Islam but not, say, Judasm or Hinduism. Buddhism seems less tied to ethnicity, but you don’t hear of Buddhist missionaries, and its forms seem closely tied to local traditions in, say, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and so on. After Western imperialism burned out, Christianity followed the West’s commercial expansion. Perhaps the same might be said of Islam: expanding through conquest at first, and then through commerce. But Christianity is burning out – though the authors spend a bit of time talking around the possibility of a Christian revival. More contentiously, I would say that Islam is heading down the same road. So if I accept that universal religions are in terminal decline, why do I say that universalism is alive and well? Because communication technology has so reduced the barriers to universal communication. Almost everybody either has access to the internet, or aspires to it. Memes cross boundaries all the time. China is creating its on separate online world, but it can hardly hope to keep out international influences entirely – and once inside they will spread rapidly. China is already heavily influenced by Western ideas, from Marxism, the centrality of science, the embrace of capitalism to Western fashions. This is not one-way traffic, of course, as the west consumes non-Western ideas voraciously. Above all this interconnectedness promotes a certain lifestyle of which the Western middle classes are the apogee. Furthermore, the world is beset by worldwide problems, from climate change to global trade and finance. People think of themselves as human and inhabiting the planet as a single homeland. This awareness is crying out for a philosophy which embraces this idea. Nationalism, on the other hand, ends up by promoting conflict with neighbours and minorities.

The next point is that the autocratic ways of non-Western nations are in collision with the idea of individual autonomy, for which demand will rise as prosperity develops. The autocracies are stuck with an awkward dilemma. Their principal justification is that personal autonomy needs to be sacrificed in order to advance prosperity and harmony. If they don’t deliver these things, their legitimacy declines – as is happening in Russia. If they do deliver – as China is managing – demand for individual autonomy will rise, placing more pressure on the governing elite in due course. Popular resentment may not focus on demand for democracy, but it instead on corruption. The presence of corruption means that individuals are routinely humiliated by state power – personified by a lowly official rather than the commander-in-chief. Rampant corruption blights all the nationalistic autocracies. The Chinese leadership understands this threat very well, and is fighting corruption hard. But it is doomed. Its method is to concentrate yet more power to the central elite, creating more opportunities for either corruption or jobsworth local rule – which can be just as undermining of authority in the long term. Only Singapore has managed to establish autocracy and clean government at the same time – and for that it surely depends on its small size. Where the West has failed to impose its influence, in Afghanistan for example, it is largely because it had no answer to rampant corruption.

Meanwhile, each of the developing non-Western powers has a strong dependence on trade with the West. China cannot seem to break out of its huge trade surplus. In the short term this puts China in a strong position – it stockpiles Western currencies, and creates dependencies for certain products. But the country would face social collapse if it was unable to export at such volumes. And all the countries depend on the West for certain high-technology components. Their elites build bolt-holes in Western countries in case things should sour in their own.

The strength of liberalism is that it provides answers to all these challenges in a way no other system does. It embraces the idea that all people are equal and share mutual interests. It provides for a system of accountability that is the surest way of stemming corruption and providing individual autonomy. By no means all democracies have corruption under control – but nearly every country which does have corruption down to manageable levels is a liberal democracy (Singapore is the stand-out exception). The secret of liberalism is not its Western heritage, but that fact that it solves problems, and that it is the best way to secure the middle-class lifestyle than most of humanity aspires to. There may be alternatives to advancing towards that objective, but not to holding it. China, India and Russia will all discover this in their own way.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate what I am talking about is on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea is by no means a country of Western heritage. It was colonised by Japan, not by any of the Western powers. And yet cosmopolitan liberal democracy has taken root there, and the country is amazingly prosperous. Part of their journey was through nationalist autocracy, but this could not be sustained. Meanwhile in the north, a rejection of such values has led to a spiral of totalitarianism. North Korea consistently fails to feed itself, while investing heavily in the military to secure its future. Countries like China and Vietnam have retained their autocratic ways, and not shared North Korea’s fate – as they have embraced capitalism. And yet ultimately even these well-managed autocracies will face the choice of following one or other of the Koreas.

What we in the West have to realise is that our collective political power is in relative decline, and that we no longer rule the world – not that we ever did, but it has been an implicit assumption made by thinkers of left and right, who attribute all the world’s failings to Western policy failures. And the West no longer rules liberalism either. This hugely power set of ideas have a life all their own. Liberalism is not in crisis – but the self-confidence of the West is.