Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 26 November 2023

 Ukraine’s long war — and how to win it

Alec Russell · Nov 27, 2023

Adull tone prevailed on the London Stock Exchange today. Given the amount of attention given to Russian affairs . . . coupled with the statements on war expenditure . . . the heaviness was not surprising.” So read the lead story on the front page of the Financial Times on May 11 1917. Readers had to turn inside for the next mention of what we now know as the first world war. It is worth reflecting on this amid the angst that Ukraine risks becoming a “forgotten war”.

How many times since Hamas’s attack on Israel have I been chided over Ukraine’s fall from the global headlines — sometimes as if this is a conspiracy — before being asked if a deal with Russia is now inevitable? After a week in Ukraine, I am now peppered with a third gloomy refrain: surely Kyiv is in despair at how the Middle East is distracting the west.

Well, the answer is no; just as it is to the question over a deal. And as for the disappearance of Ukraine from television screens, that is what happens in long wars; there are ebbs and flows, and in Ukraine for now, as for so long on the western front in 1914-18, the front lines are all but static.

Wars take time. So often in the postcold war era the west has had to relearn this lesson. A few weeks into the Gulf war in 1991, the US-led coalition faced nervy questions about the risk of becoming bogged down. The syndrome reappeared early in the Kosovo war eight years later.

Now the same skittish assumptions are in the air, albeit over a bigger conflict. The well-rehearsed argument runs like this: contested politics in the west will lead to a dwindling of support for Ukraine, not least given that its counteroffensive has run into the sand (or rather mud). And if American backing wanes, as seems likely if Donald Trump is re-elected as US president, then a colossal burden falls on Europe to keep Ukraine going, let alone finance victory.

All that may come to pass. But Ukraine has no interest in playing along with the pessimists’ — or as they see themselves, realists’ — corollary to this scenario: an exchange of land for peace. Nor does the Kremlin, which is clearly happy to await the result of the US election. As the foreign minister of a neutral state notes: much of the world may be keen for this war to end, but “no one has told the two parties”.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s young datadriven ministers are no Pollyannas. They are frantically trying to transform the economy to maximise domestic arms production, while aware that autocracies such as Russia have always found this easier to do at speed. With the dream of EU membership in mind, they know they have to take on their opaque business culture and the corruption of the courts.

But they also know all about long wars. Their war did not start on February 24 2022, as it did in the minds of so many outside Ukraine. It started in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. So the idea that the dominance of Gaza on western TV has discombobulated Ukrainians misses the point. They seem genuinely perplexed when asked about this. In my scores of exchanges, from Kyiv to Kharkiv, the crisis in the Middle East did not feature once.

All that matters to Kyiv is their own war: how to furnish as many of their own needs as possible — drawing on their success in deploying the private sector in drone production — and also secure critical weaponry from allies. That means F-16s to counter Russia’s air supremacy, more long-range missiles to push back its support units — so that if Ukrainians break through they can press ahead — and air defences.

They are also pinning their hopes on being able to use the billions of euros in interest on frozen Russian assets to fund reconstruction, which is vital to shore up morale and entice back some of the millions in exile. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal envisages a three-part mechanism: an international register of damages, an international compensation commission and then a fund into which all countries with frozen Russian assets can contribute. As for the west, it needs to think creatively about how to extend war insurance for the swaths of the country not under threat, a critical factor in encouraging companies to commit to rebuild.

Of course, the situation is nightmarish. Kyiv is under strain from within and without. While funding Ukraine is less contested in the EU — and in the UK — than in America, the politics around it in Brussels are becoming more complicated. EU ministers worry that a corruption scandal could dent popu- lar support. Back home Zelenskyy’s boosterism is wearing thin with some on the ground.

In every fateful war, however, there have been moments of defeatism. For all the gloom, the geopolitical landscape may be shifting. The west did not argue its case well to the “global south” last year. But Beijing is signalling that fostering an axis of autocracies does not trump the need to keep its economy on track. India cites history rather than interests to defend a non-aligned stance.

Ukraine’s allies have been too slow to ramp up procurement. But it is not too late and is ultimately affordable. One of Zelenskyy’s ministers, the pony-tailed Oleksandr Kamyshin, who was plucked this year from running Ukraine’s super- efficient railways to overseeing logistics, likes to say that all that matters in lead- ing is picking “iron people”.

Zelenskyy has appointed his. They just need our help and for us to keep the faith. I repeat, wars take time.

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