Western calls for a total victory in Ukraine can only lead to a ruinous escalation | Simon Jenkins
AAs the war in Ukraine no longer makes the headlines, it is reaching a point of maximum danger. Can the parties be driven towards compromise and settlement, or will their desperation, coupled with the war fever of the non-participants, lead the conflict to wider escalation and risk of catastrophe?
The British government has offered Kyiv what it calls unwavering support. Boris Johnson has thus delegated his policy on Ukraine to the President of Kyiv, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. This includes the ambition to drive Russian troops from all Ukrainian soil, including Crimea and Donbass. Russia’s weight of numbers already makes such a total victory and a return to pre-2014 borders less and less plausible. It would also require a massive increase in Western aid over a long period. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already called it a US proxy war against Russia.
At this stage of the war, the bet is of another nature. When Ukraine repelled the initial Russian advance, Western aid appeared both crucial and glorious. In recent months, the balance of military forces has become bogged down. France and Germany are now showing caution. Like most NATO members, they provide military and humanitarian aid to Kyiv, but they rightly view the war as a war of Russian expansion. They are not using the Joe Biden and Johnson language of a great conflict involving all of the West.
As more and more lethal ‘defensive’ weapons are delivered by Western powers to Ukraine, Russia’s complaint of a proxy war seems increasingly plausible, and Vladimir Putin will continue to shake his arsenal nuclear. If he can level entire Ukrainian cities with bombs, why not with nuclear howitzers? Western hawks have spent their lives training for such a confrontation. You can sense they are eager to test Putin’s mettle – from a safe distance from home. The hawks must know that he will not withdraw from all of Ukraine. So why not see how far his nuclear bluff can be called?
As today’s wars drag on, their effect on public emotion comes and goes, while vested interests flex their muscles. When the Soviets occupied Eastern Europe after World War II, Western discipline was absolute. He followed George Kennan’s containment doctrine, not backtracking. The Soviet suppression of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 went unchallenged. A nuclear confrontation was deemed unthinkable. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and Andropov’s aging moment of madness in 1983 (when the Kremlin, spooked by a NATO exercise, nearly launched a nuclear strike) saw military leaders in paralyzed excitement. Recent studies have shown how close the world is to catastrophe, averted only by frantic feedback channels, covert compromises and split-second decisions.
If the Falklands War of 1982 had been settled by UN trusteeship before the San Carlos landings – as it almost was after the sinking of HMS Sheffield – hundreds of lives could have been saved, not to mention the £60m a year still spent on Falklands Fortress. In Afghanistan in 2001, then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld advised President George W. Bush to come in, punish the regime, and leave immediately. It was ignored by the “nation builders”, who set about imposing a vast imperial apparatus on Afghanistan and destroying it. These critical turning points are forgotten in war stories.
As soon as a conflict becomes fiery, war fever distorts reason through emotion. Fueled by the media, it poisons every attempt at peace with the cry, “too many deaths to allow compromise”. The strategy is also flawed. Just as we were told in 2003 that Iraq was planning a missile assault on Britain, we must now believe that Putin is a similar threat to our security.
The doctrine of Cold War containment, tacitly accepted by Moscow and Washington, was to scrupulously avoid an East-West confrontation between the great powers. Everything else was subordinate. We are now at such a turning point.
Whatever settlement is reached in eastern Ukraine will be a compromise. Johnson and Britain did their duty to common humanity by helping a foreign state, not an ally, resist outrageous Russian aggression. Putin barely made progress on his 2014 foray, although he did. This is where the realm of compromise must lie. If Johnson feels unable to plead for peace, he should at least stop crying war. The next chapter in Russia’s relations with Ukraine must be for these two countries to decide.