Robert Jenrick is Chair of Conservative Friends of Ukraine, the Minister for Health, and the MP for Newark. Their inaugural Conference Event takes place on Sunday 2nd October, 15:30-17:00, in Hall 11 of the ICC.
Putin’s war continues to fail catastrophically in Ukraine. Just over 6 months after his initial attempt to capture Kyiv and annex the entire country, Putin finds himself on the defensive as Ukraine continues to make advances in the east. Buoyed by its advances in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine is continuing to probe Russian forces, with Lyman in the Donetsk region the next city in their sights. A highly motivated, disciplined, and well-trained Ukrainian army have so far proved too much for Russia’s considerably larger and better equipped army. Remarkably, Putin’s remedy to this asymmetry is to send untrained Russian conscripts to the frontline as cannon fodder.
Elsewhere Russia’s security environment is deteriorating. Under the weight of the war, the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) alliance of central Asian post-Soviet states has collapsed, with Armenia left to fend for itself against aggression from Azerbaijan and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on the verge of war.
Russia’s ‘no limit partnership’ with China does, in fact, appear to have limits, with Chinese officials wavering in their defence of Russia and Beijing unwilling to invest more in the relationship as Russia retreats. In the knowledge that this war is unwinnable for Putin and that global opinion is firmly behind Ukraine, India chided Putin publicly earlier this month.
Within Russia, there is a palpable sense of discontent at the war, ignited in recent days by Putin’s announcement of phased general mobilisation. Aware that this would prove unpopular, Putin held off playing this card until the dynamics on the battlefield forced a change.
However, the unpopularity of mobilisation will nevertheless have surprised the Kremlin. Russia’s National Guard have struggled to contain domestic protests, and those with the financial means – often Russia’s brightest and best – have fled the country in their thousands. Astonishingly, the Ministry of Defence estimate that the exodus from Russia will ‘likely exceed the size of the total invasion force Russia fielded in February 2022’. And in a move likely to exacerbate further fraught ethnic and religious tensions within Russia, mobilisation efforts appear to be concentrated in Russia’s remote regions.
There is no shortage of ambition from senior members of the Russian military who are frustrated at the war’s course. In the state media, usually slavishly pro-Putin commentators are now publicly questioning his decisions. That is not to say that a coup is likely – indeed, Russia’s recent history suggest such events are rare – but rather that Putin’s grip on power within the Russian political elite is at a particular weak point.
Faced with growing threats from both outside and inside Russia, the stakes have risen for Putin, and he has become an altogether more dangerous adversary. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he muddied the waters last Wednesday with vague threats of nuclear war – and if there is one lesson his invasion has taught the West, it is that we should be very careful about making assumptions about what Moscow will or will not do. As intellectual inbreeding takes root in the Kremlin and Putin’s cost-benefit calculus decouples from reality, there is every reason for vigilance and prudence.
Intense diplomacy needs to be undertaken. A vote at the UN condemning any use of nuclear weapons would make clear to the Russian leadership that there is near global unanimity on this issue. Whilst preventing nuclear war should, of course, be the priority, decision makers should bear in mind that how exactly this nuclear escalation is prevented will have far reaching consequences for future scenarios involving nuclear powers.
Clear-eyed about the dangers presented by a wounded Putin, the UK must continue with its support for Ukraine – and be under no illusions of the challenges that still confront Ukraine. Russia still controls 20 per cent of Ukraine’s territory and retaking this land will require a superior force ratio that the Ukrainians do not yet possess. Nearly half of Ukraine’s GDP has been wiped out by the war, leaving it dependent on its international coalition for loans and aid.
The scale of Russian war crimes in Ukraine emerging in newly liberated areas risk overwhelming Ukraine’s fragile legal system. And as Putin declares the results in Donestsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson in sham referendums reminiscent of the Soviet elections during its expansion to Poland and the Baltic states in 1939-40, Ukraine faces a battle in international forums to convince hesitant Russian-backers that these results have no legitimacy.
Under successive Conservative governments, the UK has been Ukraine’s closest European ally. We have a record to be proud of, but we cannot afford to rest. The winter will challenge the political will amongst the public to endure the pain of an energy crisis and to increase the UK’s defence spending at a time when fiscal headroom is limited. As time passes, Ukraine’s struggle risks fading from the mind of UK households, as was the case in Afghanistan, with events elsewhere overtaking it.
Against this backdrop, Conservative Friends of Ukraine’s inaugural Conference Reception in Birmingham will play host to H.E. Vadym Prystaiko and Lesia Vasyleko, two sharp Ukrainian minds, who will undoubtedly remind us why our support for Ukraine is so important, and James Cleverly and Ben Wallace will shed a light on the UK’s strategy as the war enters a new and more dangerous phase.
I hope to see you there as the Conservative Party rallies behind Ukraine’s fight for freedom once more.