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Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
The first 20 years of our century haven’t been kind to moral clarity. The defining certainties of its first years – that al-Qaeda was a barbarous threat to the civilised world; that Saddam Hussein was an unspeakable dictator who should be removed from office – fell apart in a decade and a half of counterinsurgency warfare, rendition, and military-political failure.
Standing by while crimes against humanity were committed in the Balkans and Rwanda decayed into standing by while Russia-backed Bashar al-Assad massacred his own people, and two successive British home secretaries schemed to send any survivors of his crimes unwise enough to show up on British shores to, that’s right, Rwanda (though of all refugees resettled in the UK from January 2010 to December 2021, around 70 per cent were Syrian citizens).
Perhaps we’re not as virtuous as we thought. Perhaps we have been led up the garden path by our leaders. Perhaps the West is in decline. In moderation, these worries warn us against hubris but, in excess, they leave us open to Vladimir Putin’s propaganda. Unlike the former rulers of the Soviet Union, he doesn’t really try to persuade anyone of the Russian ideal, but to bring us down to his level. Russia lies? Well so does the West. Abuses its economic power? It’s hardly alone. Invade whole countries, well…
As his attempt to conquer Ukraine was prepared a year ago, Putin propagandists brought out all these lines: Ukrainians and Russians had, historically been one people (he said himself in a 7000 word essay), but simultaneously irretrievably divided by language. Ukraine was corrupt (omitting that the most corrupt leaders had also been the most pro-Moscow), and even “Nazis”. That these apparent Nazis had elected a Jewish president whose first language was Russian did not undermine the seriousness with which the main element of Russian propaganda (that Ukraine was the subject of a battle for influence between its natural Russian brothers and an expansionist NATO) was given in the run up to the invasion.
It took the full-scale war itself for these lies to burn up (reminder for slow learners: Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the Donbas began eight years earlier). Russia’s plan was a Nazi-style blitzkrieg. Attack helicopters flying low to seize Hostomel airport. Paratroopers flying in afterwards to rush in and seize the capital. Isolate and destroy the bulk of Ukraine’s army on the east bank of the Dnipro. Huge columns of tanks and artillery, supported by strategic bombers, to surround Kyiv and Kharkiv and pound them into submission as Mariupol was. A dash to seize the coast to Odessa, and perhaps Moldova too.
Elements of the country’s leadership unwilling to collaborate were to be liquidated (lists of journalists, politicians and human rights activists had been drawn up), their small children seized and deported to new families in Russia. The Ukrainian culture would be eradicated and its language marginalised if not forbidden. We know this not only from intelligence reports, but from how Russia behaved in Bucha and Irpin, Mariupol and Kherson. This is a war of conquest and extermination, twentieth century evil revived for the twenty-first. If it had been allowed to stand, it would not have been the last.
That it did not is first down to the bravery – no, the heroism – of Ukrainians from Volodymyr Zelensky down to private soldiers and medical staff, electricity workers and programmers, engineers and train drivers – and even, though their work has not yet been needed (thank God), the pensioners filling molotov cocktails.
And also to the agility of the UK, whose NLAW anti-tank missiles arrived in the nick of time; the clear thinking of the Baltic states, understanding that the best use for their kit is to have it used in battle now; the intelligence assets and convening power of the United States; the financial weight of the EU and, eventually, the industrial might of Germany (if, like Blücher at Waterloo, they arrived a trifle late).
A year after “the orcs”, as many Ukrainians call the invaders, began their attack, where do we stand? The good news is that Kyiv and Khrakiv and Dnipro are still free, and the Russians have been pushed back from Kharkiv and the Western par of Kherson oblasts.
Outside Ukraine, we’ve survived the winter without power cuts or destabilising our economies, despite Russia cutting off gas supplies. Our market economies are still extremely flexible. Of European leaders, only Viktor Orbán takes the Kremlin side.
Russia’s military modernisation has been much exaggerated, in the manner of the tour of Ukraine that Prince Potemkin stage- managed for Catherine the Great. Its generals were unable to pull of the sophisticated combined arms tactics that their invasion plans required, so they have returned to the traditional Russian way of war, in which the lives of enemy civilians and their own soldiers are held in equal contempt.
Yet they have shown more resilience and ability to adapt than we had thought. They brought in drones from Iran, and are using prisoners for human wave-style attacks, as revolutionary Iran did against Iraq, or China did in the Korean war. Though sanctions have damaged Russia’s economy, evasions are being improvised. Mobilisation, however chaotic and unjust, has stabilised Russian lines. As I write, the latest intelligence suggests they may attempt a desperate massed air attack, sacrificing their air force in the hope of overwhelming Ukraine’s defences before the much-delayed Western main battle tanks can be brought to bear in the spring.
The most important geopolitical change has been in the posture of the Nordic countries. These small but extremely rich and technologically advanced countries (their GDP matches Russia’s) have become unequivocal hawks, joining a group of former Soviet satellites led by Poland and Ukraine.
Taken together, this bloc outmatches Russia in money, and comprises some 100 million people, for whom Russia is a major security threat. It constitutes a new pole of European power without the wider interests of Britain and France, or a Germany whose zeit has still not quite wended. It will help to draw the Western alliance back together, but the United States remains the nation on which Ukraine depends. Without American stockpiles, Ukraine would have run out of ammunition.
Overall, we’re in a better position than we could have imagined on February 24 last year, but there are months, and perhaps years of hard fighting ahead for Ukraine. We’ll need to overcome our qualms about supplying it with the means to expel Russia, and about digesting the implication that if Ukraine is to win, then Russia must lose. Today’s Russia is like Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Argentina of the Juntas – an inherently dangerous regime deriving its legitimacy from militarism which needs to be dealt military defeat before it can be readmitted to the community of civilised nations.
Ukraine is fighting for the survival of civilised life in its territory. Ukrainians have to fight, because the alternative is to be tortured in basements beneath the rubble left after the Russians have levelled every building and tree above. They fight for their own freedom, but also for ours: to stop their resources and territory being used to equip Putin’s renewed Russian empire’s next expansion west. This isn’t the time for ambiguity, but clarity: now give them the tools so they can finish the job and free all their territory, including Crimea.