Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 6 March 2022


Western democracies will be sucked into this conflict. It’s time they threatened Vladimir Putin with a no-fly zone

Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze after a Russian airstrike in Chernihiv, northern Ukraine

Can Ukraine weaponise time? As long as the will to fight exists, the country’s soldiers and citizens can hope to wear down, even to repulse, the Russian invaders. But their dilemma is a terrible one. As Vladimir Putin’s bombardments grow more barbarous and indiscriminate, the human cost of resistance is rising daily. If they hold on, will the western powers belatedly come to their rescue?

Time does not favour Russia’s president. Casualties are increasing. His Nazi-style military blitzkrieg didn’t work. His conscripts are reportedly demoralised, his war machine may bog down. His hubris is destroying Russia’s economy. Protests at home reflect a new political vulnerability. Putin is being tracked by war crimes prosecutors in The Hague.

For any rational leader, an immediate ceasefire, accompanied by a bogus claim of victory, would be an obvious way out. But logic and reason play no part in Putin’s “thinking”. This catastrophe recalls Iraq in 2003. How could anyone, however delusional, possibly believe a full-scale invasion was a good idea? The man Donald Trump calls a “genius” turns out to be really stupid.

To avoid defeat – to eventually win – Ukrainian resistance forces will need the west’s sustained, long-term military, logistical, financial and intelligence support. Will the allies, fresh from their Afghan cop-out, stay the course this time? Nato combat jets are nowhere to be seen in Ukraine’s skies – but there’s a whiff of betrayal in the air.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, wants instant EU membership. He was cheered at the European parliament last week – but he will not get his wish. Kyiv is pleading for a Nato-patrolled no-fly zone to help stop the merciless bombing of cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv. That isn’t happening, either.

Ukraine’s people are determined to fight on. It’s impossible not to admire them – but also impossible, or so western leaders appear to say, to protect them from mass murder.

Such bravery underscores the grave responsibility of western governments. Britain and the US, in particular, have encouraged resistance, sending missiles and lethal aid. Raising the stakes, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden portray the war as a defining struggle between freedom and tyranny, democracy and authoritarianism. That’s not the sort of war you can afford to lose.

Most European countries, plus Australia, Japan, Canada and others, have pledged open-ended backing, too. For the first time, the EU will supply weaponry. This is all very dramatic, perhaps suspiciously so.

Should Ukrainians trust these sweeping promises? What if the war lasts five or 10 years, which is not unusual for such conflicts? Fuelling an apparently endless, widely destabilising insurgency will require grit and consistency in London and other capitals.

Few western politicians, eyeing the next election, display such qualities. How long, for example, will German voters’ current outrage outlast the impact of higher bills and taxes to pay for non-Russian gas and vastly increased defence spending?

How long will Biden stay engaged if the crisis turns into a grinding war of attrition? He could be a lame duck after November’s midterms. Possible 2024 replacements, such as Trump, have a very different view of Nato and Russia. The longevity and reliability of public and political support for Ukraine is one question. Another will be how to meet the resistance’s need for an unceasing flow of arms, assistance, and staging posts and safe havens outside Ukrainian territory.

The probability that displaced fighters, plus a European “foreign legion”, will seek bases in neighbouring Nato members – from which to launch attacks on the occupiers – is strong. Remember how the mujahideen, fighting the Red Army, and later the Taliban, fighting Nato, operated from Pakistan.

Extended cross-border warfare would ineluctably suck in alliance countries. It would be viewed by Putin as the product not of unextinguished Ukrainian nationalism but of US-plotted regime change. If Russia, over time, continues to suffer significant losses to a western-backed resistance, Putin will take the war to the west. This is exactly the dangerous escalation Biden and Nato say they are determined to avoid, which supposedly justifies their refusal of a no-fly zone. It’s the “third world war” nightmare scenario Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, warns against. But how to dispel it?

Uncertain, too, is the west’s ability to maintain the unusual unity of purpose lauded by a too self-congratulatory Biden in last week’s State of the Union address. The EU is likewise proud of its united stance and tough sanctions package.

But big gaps and internal differences remain. Revenue-spinning Russian oil and gas still flow. The banking bans have large loopholes. Even the best-laid sanctions regimes crumble over time. And despite an initially generous EU welcome, the expected huge increases in refugee numbers, if the war drags on, will exacerbate existing tensions in Europe and the UK.

Worries about an unvanquished Putin going on to threaten other former Soviet republics, as Biden predicts he might, are also intensifying. The defeatist argument goes like this: Ukraine, sadly, is already lost. Better to concentrate on ensuring the Baltic republics and similarly vulnerable states do not go the same way. The paradox is that the more successful and long-lived Ukraine’s resistance is, the bigger the dangers for Nato. Yet if by supporting it, the allies cannot ultimately avoid being drawn into conflict with Russia, why delay the inevitable?

In other words: rather than leave the fighting, and the dying, to Ukrainians alone – and then eventually abandon them – the western democracies should put their air combat forces on standby, declare their intention to impose a no-fly zone – and tell the Kremlin to stop the killing.

Putin’s slaughter of innocents is unbearable, yet we are forced to watch. Will the west fight to the last Ukrainian? Or will it stand up and fight for itself?

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