When Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine on 24 February 2022, he flagrantly violated international law and committed a breach of the UN charter. Denying Ukraine’s right to exist, he used massive force to try to erase it from the map of Europe, leaving an ever-increasing trail of gross human rights abuses and war crimes in the process. One year later, Putin has not given up his objective of taking over Ukraine; he believes he has more staying power than Ukraine and the international coalition that supports it.
If he succeeded, Putin would no doubt set his eyes on Moldova and possibly the Baltic states, increasing the risk of a direct confrontation between Russia and Nato. A Russian victory in Ukraine would undermine the rules-based international order and fundamental principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty, setting a dangerous precedent for territorial conquest elsewhere.
However, if the countries supporting Ukraine adopt the right strategy and remain steadfast in its execution, Putin will fail; he underestimates – totally – the power of freedom. Putin faces brave opposition from pro-democratic forces: in Ukraine, of course, but also in Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Central Asia and even in his own country. Nato is united and stronger than before the conflict, as is the EU. Russian allies such as Iran and North Korea are politically and militarily weaker; China is not willing to provide full support for Putin’s war aims. Freedom exerts a stronger external appeal than tyranny.
Victory is not preordained. Freedom needs to be defended; the Ukrainian freedom fighters need to be supported by all means – including military. At this year’s Munich security conference, transatlantic leaders affirmed that Ukraine “must win this war”. But a declaration of unwavering support is not enough, and actions still fail to match the rhetoric. Current levels of incremental and halting military support will only produce a stalemate on the battlefield.
Putin miscalculated every aspect of the war before launching the full-scale invasion last year. He thought his army was strong, China a solid partner, the west divided and Ukraine contemptible. He could not have been more wrong. Now, his only hope is that his determination is greater than his opponents’, and he can win a war of attrition. We must prove him wrong once more.
We have to go “all in” in our support for Ukraine. The coalition of states supporting Ukraine has delivered an impressive performance, but this is no time for complacency. We have to provide the weapons and ammunition Ukraine needs to fight, and defeat Putin’s war of aggression. The faster Putin understands that he will not achieve his objectives in Ukraine, the earlier peace can be achieved, and the sooner the suffering of the Ukrainian people will end. Ukraine needs the combined force of tanks, longer-range missiles and aircraft to conduct a successful counterattack, paving the way to Ukrainian victory and peace negotiations on acceptable terms.
When speaking about possible peace negotiations, we should be wary of China’s role in this conflict. Beijing is already helping Putin’s war efforts, supplying non-lethal aid and permitting North Korea to transfer weapons to Russia. John McCain’s 2014 prediction that Russia would serve as China’s “gas station” is increasingly true; during Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, Russia looked content to play the part of China’s junior partner. But we should have no illusions: wary of democracy and Russia becoming an open society, China has every interest in keeping Putin in power.
In order to counter Moscow and Beijing, we have to be much more active outside the transatlantic community. In many parts of the world, China and Russia are successful in convincing governments and publics of their narratives, blaming Nato for the war in Ukraine and accusing US and European allies of neocolonial practices and double standards in their foreign policies. One-off actions will not suffice. Instead, we need to shine a spotlight on Russia’s and China’s malign activity and work on our partnerships with countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia – by constantly engaging with them, continuing to address past failings, and fulfilling the promises we have made, including on climate finance and more inclusive international institutions. After the end of the cold war, many government bodies became non-strategic. To compete successfully in this new era of rising geopolitical tensions, we need to reform our foreign ministries as well as development aid and trade agencies, and better align their efforts.
If the world’s democracies are going to deter and, if necessary, defend themselves against Russia and China, major economies like Germany will have to do their fair share. It is no longer acceptable that Germany and Italy do not spend 2% of their GDP on defence; the 2024 budget will be a litmus test. With regard to France, the move by the defence industry to a “war economy”, as called for by the French government, needs to be genuinely pursued. In similar vein, Europe needs to live up to its decades-old promises of strengthening European defence capabilities. Recent steps such as the EU’s Strategic Compass or the EU’s joint military support of Ukraine point in the right direction, but more needs to follow. This stronger European contribution is also necessary to help preserve bipartisan US support for Ukraine. Putin counts on “Ukraine fatigue” in the US; he needs to be proven wrong.
On the economic front, the EU, the US and international partners implemented stinging sanctions with unprecedented speed; they significantly degraded Russia’s military capabilities and weakened its economic prospects. But, as a global financial centre, the UK has more work to do on sanctions implementation, since the current sanctions regime still has too many holes. By boosting reverse south-north gas flows from suppliers across the Mediterranean, Italy can help strengthen European energy security and mitigate the ripple effects of Russian energy warfare.
Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the erroneous belief that Ukraine would be defeated within a few weeks. More than a year later, Ukraine’s unity and resilience in the face of Russia’s aggression have shown the country’s remarkable strength. Instead of ruling an empire, Putin has become an international outcast, facing an arrest warrant for his war crimes, issued by the international criminal court. To continue its fight for freedom and defeat Putin, however, Ukraine needs more support. Ukraine’s partners have to step up; when freedom is better equipped than tyranny, its victory is assured.
Simon McDonald is Master of Christ’s College Cambridge, former permanent under-secretary at the FCO, former UK ambassador to Germany and a former diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Christoph Heusgen is chair of the Munich security conference, former German ambassador to the UN and a former diplomatic adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel
Stéphane Abrial is a former Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (Sact), former chief of staff of the French air force and former chief of the military staff to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin
Jim Jones was a national security adviser to President Barack Obama, is a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Saceur) and chair emeritus of the Atlantic Council