Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Two weeks ago, I was in Odessa, the city that Putin must capture to claim any kind of victory. Seizing that Russian-speaking oblast would give him control of Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coastline, rendering the rump state wholly dependent on the Kremlin.
What I found there struck me as inexplicable – until five days ago. Life in Odessa was almost completely back to normal. The gorgeous opera house was open again. The restaurants and cafés were full. Even the little tourist trolley that runs from Tchaikovsky Lane was operating.
How could this be happening so close to the front line, in a city that was recently hit by missile attacks? We kept reading that the south was where the fighting was, that Ukraine was launching an all-out offensive to take back Kherson, that the war was being determined here. Yet, even in Mykolaiv, the last Ukrainian-held city before the front-line, a city without its water supply and under daily bombardment, a great deal of ordinary life was carrying on.
I was in southern Ukraine with Brooks Newmark, the former Conservative minister, who, at war’s start, rushed to help. Since then, unreported, Brooks has evacuated 14,000 women and children from war zones. With us was Adam Holloway, the Tory whip and former special forces officer, who bears out my theory that the MPs with the most distinguished military careers are the ones least likely to mention it.
In Mykolaiv, to the accompaniment of artillery fire and sirens, we had the best cheesecake of our lives. My mind drifted to a passage in Roy Jenkins’s memoirs. As a boy, Jenkins had been shocked to hear relatives mentioning an Aberystwyth holiday they had enjoyed in 1916. How, he thought, could anyone have gone on holiday during the First World War? Yet, when the Second World War came, Jenkins found that he was more upset at not being elected President of the Oxford Union than he was by news of the fall of France.
Every day that I was in Ukraine, I read Western newspaper accounts of the Kherson offensive, the counterpunch that was going to knock Putin senseless. Yet there was no sign of it happening. The Ukrainian soldiers we spoke to told us that they were losing more ground than they were gaining.
I returned and was just penning a column about how the war was going to last much longer than anyone realised when news came through of the Queen’s death. I switched topics at the last moment, and was saved from making an arse of myself.
It was all a bluff – a military deception. By bigging up Kherson’s importance, and by imposing a news blackout, the Ukrainians convinced the enemy that that was where their hammer would fall. But it was a feint. As Russia began to redeploy from the north, Ukrainian troops punched through so hard that many Russians fled without fighting. My Ukrainian friends tell me that there is now fighting in parts of Donetsk occupied by Russia since 2014.
Putin is staring at defeat. That is the one thing that a strongman can’t sustain. It’s what I call the Galtieri Principle. A tyrant can get away with much, but he can’t survive losing wars.
We must prepare for a transition of power in Moscow. In defeat, Putin’s propagandists have called for some of the generals responsible for this failure to be shot. Imagine how such talk will alter the calculus of other military chiefs. They have no intention of being blamed for their deranged President.
We must also consider what Ukraine will demand . It wants full control of its pre-2014 territory, including the Crimea. I suspect the status of the Crimea (though not that of the Donbas) will be negotiable. But Ukraine will also need compensation for the ravages of Russia’s attack.
Putin still has cards to play. Switching off Europe’s oil supply will force the West to seek terms and the EU may push Ukraine into a dishonourable peace.
I arrived through Moldova. I spent some time with Maia Sandu, Moldova’s clever and charming president, who is trying to preserve her country’s independence.
Sandu leads Moldova’s first unequivocally pro-Western government. The Kremlin has responded by ending Moldova’s deal with Gazprom. Britain’s energy problems are trivial compared to theirs. Buying at world prices would consume more than entire household budgets for most.
Putin plainly hopes that Moldovans will throw out their leaders, bringing in the Russophile opposition. This could pave the way for a reunion with Transnistria, whose voters would bolster Moldova’s pro-Russian majority. Odessa would find itself squashed between two Russian armies.
The contrast between Russian-speakers in Ukraine and Russian-speakers in Moldova is telling. Outside the Donbas and the Crimea, most Russophone Ukrainians are anti-Putin and pro-democracy. They were not always that way. In 2014, Odessa, a Russian-speaking city, might have gone the same way as Donetsk and Luhansk. There were clashes here between pro- and anti-Russian groups which left dozens dead.
But, since then, opinions have changed. Some switched sides when Putin annexed Ukrainian land. Others, when he began to rain artillery on other Russophone Ukrainian towns. Still others when the first Russian missile hit their own city. The overwhelming majority of the city is now fiercely anti-Russian. The remaining Soviet memorials are hitting, and Catherine the Great’s statue seems set to follow.
The contrast with Moldova could not be greater. There, not only ethnic Russians but also ethnic Ukrainians, usually see the world through Putinite eyes, as do a fair chunk of ethnic Romanians. Why? Largely because of the power of Russian TV broadcasts, which are widely watched in Moldova but jammed in Ukraine.
It reminded us that being Russian, as Putin conceives it, is not simply a question of ancestry or language. Rather, it implies a way of viewing the world, what we might call a Weltanschauung. For Putinites, the collective matters more than the individual. Sacrifice is a higher virtue than freedom. Blood and soil, spiritual purification, struggle – these things are contrasted to the West’s decadent bourgeois liberalism.
Now here is a hard thing to say. On the whole, it is we Westerners who are the exceptions. Putin’s brand of autocracy would have been recognisable to every slave-emperor from Hammurabi onwards. The really extraordinary thing is to evolve a society where the rulers are answerable to their populations, and where individuals can deal with one another through free-standing agreements – contracts – rather than having their relations governed by birth, caste, and tradition.
Because open societies are so odd, they can feel unnatural. Hence the fundamental argument of every totalitarian system – fascism, revolutionary socialism, jihadism, eco-nihilism – namely that liberal capitalism alienates us from our true nature.
Putin is the most active proponent of that argument today. His creed appeals, not only to ethnic Russians, but to all opponents of Western liberalism, including certain kinds of Trumpian protectionist. That is the conflict that is playing out now on Ukraine’s blood-drenched steppes.
And that is why we – we the West, we the democrats, we the open societies – need to win. Not simply for natural justice. Not simply to preserve the post-1945 international order. Not simply because it is right to stand up to bullies. But because this is a war between two visions of human life. And ours is the better.