Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
It’s eight months since Russia started its attack on Ukraine and it’s all too easy for the violence to recede into the background – pushed off the front pages by everyday news and plentiful domestic political drama.
So let’s remind ourselves what the Russian state has done. Of the massacres at Bucha and Irpin. Of how Mariupol was razed, and Kharkiv would have been, had Ukrainian forces not pushed Russia out of artillery range. Remember the civilians tortured and raped by Russian troops. Recall how artillery pulverised Ukraine’s industrial base and murdered prisoners of war at Olevinka.
Don’t forget the mass deportations of children from occupied territory, who are now to be raised in Russia by citizens of the country that invaded their country and murdered their parents. Nor should we forget there’s more to come: when Kherson is liberated, new atrocities will be discovered. Every day Russia occupies Ukrainian land is a day in which it can extort and disappear innocent people, and pres- gang men to fight against their own country, commanded by officers sadistic or indifferent, and left out in the open as the sleet starts to fall.
Putin has brought barbarism back to Europe on a scale unseen since the 1940s. Defeating it is the defining moral question of our time.
Ukraine, under attack from Russia’s Iran-made drones, is watching anxiously to see if Britain, steadfast in its support of Ukrainian freedom under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, will keep it up under Rishi Sunak. Retaining Ben Wallace in post as Defence Secretary suggests he will. Keeping John Bew as foreign policy adviser in Downing Street would be a further sign of his determination.
Signs are needed because Sunak’s first speech on Tuesday fell short in two ways, one arguable, the other rather less so.
The arguable mistake was to speak of “Putin’s war in Ukraine.” There was a time, particularly at the very beginning, as thousands of shocked Russians braved batons in Moscow and St Petersburg to oppose their dictator’s aggression, when it was worth emphasising the distinction between Putin and his subjects. But this war of Russian revanchism is the work of more than just one man. It is the product of a doctrine whose main tenet is that the Soviet empire’s collapse was conceded under duress at a time of exceptional Russian weakness, and that the independence of Moscow’s former colonies should be reversed. The reversal is being executed by a state apparatus that stretches from the army, the security services, the riot police and prison system, propaganda outlets, military industry through oligarchs tapped to pay for it all. Like it or not, our conflict is not with Vladimir Putin, but with the state he has built in his image.
The more serious mistake came later. The war, he said, “must be seen successfully to its conclusion.” You don’t have to have been a speechwriter to note the telltale signs of toning-down. Wars between a war-criminal aggressor and a democracy fighting for its freedom should not be seen successfully to their conclusion. They must be won.
What does Ukrainian victory look like? The very minimum is the liberation of all territory seized by Russia since 2014, including the Donbas and Crimea. Russia’s naval base in Sebastopol is no longer tenable either. It needs to be handed over to Ukraine. Russia must be required to pay reparations, and war criminals sent for trial at the Hague.
If these goals appear unrealistic, it is because Ukrainian victory is not yet being conceived alongside what it entails, which is Russia’s defeat. Russia won’t hand over war criminals (which on any reasonable interpretation include Putin himself, and his key generals) or pay reparations, unless it doesn’t merely end the war, but loses it – and arrives at the conclusion that it makes more sense for its government to improve the lives of Russians than to fight its neighbours to recover lost territory.
Short of Russia abandoning militarist imperialism (a long shot, but Germany, Japan and Argentina all did following military defeat) the best realistic outcome is what Volodymyr Zelensky calls the “big Israel” scenario, whereby Ukraine develops the means to deter further attacks by Russia, and develops an advanced high-tech economy, integrated into Europe’s, which is able to sustain the cost of deterring Moscow. Even this, which would include eventual EU, if not NATO, membership for Ukraine, requires greater commitment than the West has so far shown able to provide.
But the alternative – a minimal expulsion of Russia, without the means to deter further Russian attacks – is a recipe for instability and renewed war. Sunak needs to show he understands the geopolitical stakes. After all, Xi Jinping, with his eye on Taiwan, is watching too.