Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
As the shock of Russia’s 2022 invasion begins to fade, and Ukraine’s counteroffensive is slow to yield the territorial gains that are the layperson’s indication of military success, plausible defeatist arguments have started to get an airing they had been denied by the shattering of European peace, the levelling of Mariupol, the massacres at Bucha and Irpin, the indiscriminate torture and the systematic rape and castration carried out by Russian forces.
While discredited “realists” such as Stephen Walt have been given short shrift, the more sophisticated version has been disseminated by the unlikely figure of Fintan O’Toole. He is too intelligent to have made reference to the Vietnam war by way of criticising Western policy by accident, and such pieces are part of a trend.
Most recently, he wrote that the West should “help Ukraine define victory differently” and accept leaving some of its territory under Russian occupation. This has superficial affinity with the moderate Irish nationalist view that since there are what, these days, are called two communities on the island of Ireland, it was wise of Michael Collins to agree the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, and recognise that Northern Ireland would remain in the UK.
The affinity is only superficial because, in a 1991 referendum, every region of Ukraine, including Crimea, voted for independence. In Luhansk and Donetsk, 84 per cent voted for independence. Had referendums been held in Antrim and Down in 1921, they would not have yielded similar results. Fans of Edward Said might recognise O’Toole’s column as the moment in cultural history where Ireland emancipated itself from a subaltern mindset and joined the colonisers.
The defeatist argument has three main prongs. The first, that Russia can threaten us with nuclear war if it doesn’t get its way, is their weakest. A world in which Russia could arbitrarily get its way by threatening to nuke us would be intolerable — that’s why the West keeps its own arsenal. It is also — short of an attempt to seize St Petersburg or occupy Moscow — an empty threat. Vladmiri Putin’s nuclear bluff has been called both by Ukraine (which has begun drone attacks on Moscow itself) and by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Putin and the Russian military know that even a tactical nuclear weapon would produce conventional retaliation from the West so powerful as to eliminate the Russian military for a generation.
The second, in traditional form, is to accept that, while Putin himself is bad, what follows could be worse. This argument might be right, but since Putin has become the worst European leader since Hitler and Stalin, it is reasonable to conclude that the world would on balance be better off without him. O’Toole however deploys a more sophisticated version of the argument. He skilfully turns the claim, made by Ukrainians and other East Europeans, that the war must be fought to the end because Russia, and not just Putin, is inherently aggressive, on its head. Since, O’Toole argues, Russia will always be an expansionist-minded autocracy, we will have to find a way to deal with it eventually. This however begs a rather important question: is it better to live with a strong aggressive Russia, or a weak one?
Aggression can only be met with counter-force, so this leads us to the third defeatist argument, that Ukraine cannot win militarily, and the slow progress of its counteroffensive means we should cut down supply and force them to sue for peace (ahem, define victory differently). Leave aside the fact that, as Prigozhin himself found out, a peace deal with Putin is not to be trusted; one of the main reasons Ukraine’s offensive is hard going is that it took us far too long to send modern tanks and approve the training of pilots, which gave Russian troops plenty of time to dig in.
We should have started pilot training and ramping up arms and ammunition production the moment the first Russian helicopter crossed from Belarus on February 24th last year, but the Ukrainian success in saving Kyiv and Kharkiv from Mariupol’s fate lulled us into a false sense of security. The conditions of modern war, in particular the pervasive surveillance provided by drones, mean however that attack is much more difficult than defence.
While the amount of territory that has changed hands is relatively small, perhaps 100 square miles around the Robotyne salient (the very word “salient” recalls the First World War), modern war is fought in three dimensions, even without piloted aircraft. Ukraine’s plan is to supplement its assaults on Russian trenches with attacks on their logistics.
Crimea is an isolated peninsula with only two supply routes: the Kerch Bridge, and the M14 highway. Ukraine’s immediate objective is to bring the highway into artillery range. Because we haven’t given them sufficient long range artillery (the US, in particular has been dilatory in supplying the ATACMS rocket), Ukraine has had to fight through two lines of trenches before being able to threaten the town of Tokmak, the seizure of which would bring them within ordinary artillery range of the M14.
Because war is determined more by a series of tipping points than linear processes, cutting off the M14 would have compounding effects on the Russian positions. Troops short of food and ammunition are more likely to give up. Commanders under pressure find it harder to make the right decisions (and eliminating the top command, as Ukraine appears to have done with the leadership of the Black Sea Fleet, can only help matters), meaning that tactical successes around the salient can have strategic effects and call Russia’s hold on Crimea into question.
And this is exactly as it should be. A victorious Russia would not only be free to continue its extermination of Ukrainian society, but its forces would be on the Polish border, and its leadership convinced that the West lacked the will or ability to defend itself. Such an outcome would not go unnoticed in Beijing. It is a recipe for more war, not less. This is not an area where it is possible to split the difference: Russia’s defeat is essential for the security of the free world.