Bob Seely is MP for the Isle of Wight. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. His doctrinal thesis was on integrated Russian warfare. He lived in Ukraine from 1990 to 1994.
Thanks to the Ukraine war, 2023 looks set to be the most dangerous year since the Cuban missile crisis. Yet the least bad option for global stability is for the West to increase weapons supply to the level that Ukraine can defeat Russia.
I was in southern Ukraine last month and it is clear that both sides are, metaphorically and literally, digging in.
Although Ukraine’s increasingly well-trained and well-motivated troops have re-captured some territory, much of the south and east is still held by Russian forces. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is now preparing his countrymen for a long war. There are months of conflict ahead. Tens of thousands may die.
Despite this reality, in some Western capitals there appears to be the bizarre assumption that Putin will see reason, behave like a Western-style rational actor, and pull his troops out of Ukraine, as if waking up from a bad dream.
Such thinking is hopelessly and dangerously naïve. The Ukraine war stops, not when Putin comes to his senses, but when Russia is either defeated, or is in the process of being defeated, on the battlefield.
By his values and outlook, Putin is rational. His actions are to prevent Ukraine’s deepening relationship with the West by conquering it and thereby ensures that it remains in Russia’s geopolitical sphere of interest.
The invasion is no whim or spur of the moment miscalculation, but part of a generational struggle over control of Ukraine. This conflict began, not in February 2022, nor even in the summer of 2014, but shortly after the Orange Revolution in 2004/5, and it has continued in different guises for two decades since.
This fits with Russian military doctrine theories of modern warfare where military and non-military tools of state power are integrated to provide maximum effect.
Hoping that we can return to a safer world is magical thinking. It achieves nothing beyond continuing the same set of delusions that clouded Western politicians’ judgement over Russia – despite Putin’s open declaration of the new era of confrontation back in 2007.
Back then, accepting that a new cold war was starting was just too difficult for a post-Cold War generation of Western politicians. Telling the truth – that a nuclear-armed Kremlin believed itself to be in a dangerous and unstable conflict with the West – was somehow seen to be irresponsible, as if by saying it, one caused it. Best to pretend nothing was happening and then the problem might go away.
But it hasn’t gone away. It has got much worse, and now all the options facing Western governments are fraught with danger.
But the least bad option is to for Western nations – already generous to Ukraine – to increase supplies. The alternative, equipping Kyiv to avoid defeat but not to win, only prolongs war and opens up a series of potentially greater dangers.
What are these possible dangers? First, that Putin knows the limits of Western support and will eventually, despite appalling casualties and the economic cost to Russia, grind Ukraine down by retaining seized territory that Ukraine lacks that ability to retake.
Second, that the Western alliance will fray the longer the war goes on, especially with Russia’s nuclear rhetoric and its disinformation campaigns.
Third, that if the West only matches Russia as the latter throws ever greater resources into the war, a total war mentality will be entrenched in Russia, and with it the increased chance that a desperate Kremlin will resort to chemical or nuclear weapons to escalate the war out of NATO’s comfort zone.
Finally, it’s worth remembering crises do not happen in isolation. if war breaks out between China and Taiwan, Ukraine’s military supplies from the US will likely be drastically cut. Washington and London will not be able to sustain two wars of freedom simultaneously.
For Ukraine to have a genuine chance of military victory, three things are required. First, NATO states need to simplify the variety of weapons systems being give or sold. Second, it needs to improve the quantity of supply. Third, we need to be realistic, not naïve, over Russian strategy.
By way of an example on the former point: Ukraine has 14 different artillery systems, 17 if you include Soviet-era systems. Supplying these is a logistical Rubik’s cube. Ukraine needs more of fewer types of kit.
Second, Ukraine has been hampered by a lack of consistency in its military supply chain. Too often Western aid has consisted of the military equivalent of seeing what was spare and in the cupboard. For Ukrainians to plan offensives, they need to know what they will have and when. The generals I spoke with in Odesa were clear of the critical importance of this point.
Third, we need to understand Russian strategy to counter it.
Inside Ukraine, Russian tactics are two-fold; hold a line to defend the Russian occupied parts of Ukraine whilst attacking Ukrainian morale by destroying civilian infrastructure and normal life.
This is why southern Ukrainian cities that I visited, such as Mikolayiv, lacked water, Odesa electricity, and Kherson is regularly shelled. That’s why Kyiv and many other cities have been repeated hit in the past few days.
Outside Ukraine, Russia believes Ukraine’s critical vulnerability – what soldiers call the centre of gravity – is its umbilical link to the West. Ukraine is dependent on it for military and economic support. Putin will do what he can to attack that relationship and win the political victory his troops have so far failed to provide militarily in the field.
He will try to divide Europe from the US and eastern European countries against each other. He may try to drive new refugee waves towards Europe. He may yet sabotage Western internet links and pipelines. He will continue to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to create friction and risk. He may blow up a nuclear power station.
Above all, Putin believes that he has strategic patience to sit on Ukrainian lands until the alliance keeping Ukraine alive atrophies through discord, lack of major battlefield victories, or fear of further Russian escalation.
Inside Ukraine, he may hope for the collapse of political unity as its economy goes into freefall and the West fails to give Ukraine the aid it needs to win, creating a sense of bitterness as Ukrainian die for lack of practical support even as Western politicians airily pledge to ‘stand with’ Ukraine.
Short of a Kremlin palace coup, there are no good options facing Ukraine or the Western alliance – that ship has sailed. The least dangerous policy now is to give Ukraine the tools it needs to finish the job before the situation becomes even more dangerous for all of us.