Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 22 January 2023


Ukraine is fighting for all of us. Now Europe must fight Putin too

Simon Tisdall

As Russia threatens another offensive, this is the moment of maximum danger. Ukraine’s allies must move fast and decisively

Members of the military walk on a tank in Bratislava, Slovakia, as Germany delivers its first Leopard tanks for Ukraine, on 19 December 2022.

Europe must fight. The realisation has been slow in coming. Yet almost one year after Russia invaded Ukraine, most western governments finally understand Kyiv’s war for survival is their war, too. It’s a fight to the death for Ukraine, but also for European democracy, rights and values. It’s a fight against the historical evils of fascism and imperialism embodied by Vladimir Putin, a dictator for our age.

Europe must fight. It really has no choice. As Russia doubles down, threatening a huge new offensive, a turning point approaches when tragedy turns to ruin – or triumph. This moment, when the war has become familiar and wearying, is the moment of maximum danger. From Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Poland and the Baltic republics, the flow of arms is turning into an urgent torrent.

The EU is toughening its stance, too. Council of ministers president Charles Michel urged Europe to be “very ambitious” in helping Kyiv withstand imminent attack. “The following weeks can be decisive because of the military situation. There is a risk of a massive assault,” he warned. It was an admission by a senior EU figure that economic sanctions, diplomatic ostracism and nonexistent peace talks cannot by themselves end this war.

Fears of an escalating, even nuclear conflict, most often expressed by Germany’s government, are daily trumped by the horror of Putin’s relentless butchery. Military escalation has become unavoidable, as shown by the ineluctable shift from providing light weapons last spring to advanced missile systems, state-of-the-art artillery, armoured fighting vehicles – and now, main battle tanks.

Every time a kindergarten, school or hospital is bombed; every time atrocious war crimes, rapes and hideous acts of torture are uncovered; every time a family weeps over the grave of a loved one, killed in a struggle waged on behalf of all, Europe’s obligation to resist such brutalism is reinforced.

In their hearts, Europeans know full well that defeat would be disastrous. Surveys show public opinion remains overwhelmingly hostile to Russia. While many people would back a negotiated settlement, they realise it’s unobtainable at present. Meanwhile, hesitant, unimaginative leaders such as Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, are pulled along by a tidal wave of disgust.

Europe, in order to prevail, must fight back with everything it’s got, even at the risk of national armed forces ultimately becoming directly engaged. Last week’s wrangling over sending hi-tech German Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv merely reprises previous, futile arguments about the level of weapons supplies. Ukrainians fight for all of us, so why tie their hands?

East and central European politicians have a clearer-eyed estimation of the physical Russian threat, rooted in history. They want Nato to send combat aircraft, too. How different things might be today, they suggest, had a less chary western alliance deployed such weapons last spring.

It’s a question Joe Biden, Nato’s de facto boss, should ask himself as he dithers anew, this time over Kyiv’s plea for long-range missiles that could hit bases in occupied Crimea and Russia itself. Emotionally, Biden gets it. Visiting Warsaw last March, he blurted out: “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.” Yet politically, his instinct is to play safe – even when safety is an illusion.

It’s pointless blaming the US, which provides the lion’s share of arms and aid – including $2.5bn last week alone. Europe must fight its own battles and not hide, as Scholz tries to do, behind America’s skirts. Even France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has abandoned his peace hotline to Moscow and is supplying heavy armour. Macron, too, realises Europe must fight.

By offering a squadron of Challenger tanks last week, the UK gave Europe an important nudge. “It will cost so much more in human lives and so much more in money if we allow this to be a long, drawn-out attritional war,” foreign secretary James Cleverly said. “We should look to bring it to a conclusion quickly, the conclusion has to be Ukrainian victory. And that dictates therefore that we need to intensify our support.”

Blundering Putin’s belief that he’s now in a fight to the finish feeds a growing sense of emergency. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Nato secretary general, said Kyiv should have all the tanks it needs. And it was time to “close the skies over Ukraine” to prevent more civilian deaths.

Rasmussen’s appeal recalled last summer’s arguments over whether Nato should create safe havens or a no-fly zone over all or part of Ukraine – suggestions dismissed as too dangerous. Thousands of Ukrainians have since paid in blood for that shameful reluctance while vital infrastructure and millions of homes have sustained incalculable damage.

If Europe is to win the fight it is in, it must revisit such military options and wean itself off the too careful half measures and incrementalism that have bedevilled its approach so far. Retired general Wesley Clark, a former Nato supreme allied commander for Europe, warned a crunch was fast approaching. “We’ve got to give Ukraine the weapons to eject Russia. Russia is not relenting on what it’s doing. Putin is mobilising more forces. He is planning for another offensive,” Clark said. Promised additional weaponry and assistance was still insufficient, he said. “We have got to get serious.”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, spelled it out for the hard of hearing with passion and panache in Switzerland last week. The allies must move faster and more decisively, he said, because “tragedies are outpacing life [and] tyranny is outpacing democracy”.

Zelenskiy is right. Risk-averse Nato has been too slow and too cautious from the start. To outpace tyranny, Europe must fight – and fight to win. Our common future depends on it.

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