Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 27 December 2023


Russia is going all in. The West must snap out of its sleepwalk

The defence secretary, Grant Shapps, is correct when he warns that the world is “sleepwalking” into an autocratic era

The Sunday Times
The Sunday Times
Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed to break through Russian lines
Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed to break through Russian lines

Ukrainian claims that an air defence battery shot down three Russian bombers in the south of the country on Friday appeared to have been issued with a Washington audience in mind. Unconfirmed reports suggested that American-supplied Patriot surface-to-air missiles were used. After the US Senate broke up for Christmas without agreeing a new aid deal for Ukraine, the message from Kyiv seemed to be: look what your support allows us to do.

In 2023 the pendulum of sentiment on the war has swung from euphoric hope to gloom. Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed to break through Russian lines, and a new crisis in the Middle East distracted the West. President Putin’s forces have suffered astonishing 90 per cent losses since their full-scale invasion last year, according to a declassified US intelligence report, with more than 315,000 dead or wounded. But as fatigue sets in, and the US and the EU squabble internally over the next tranche of aid for Ukraine, Russia is re-arming and turning itself into a war economy. Putin’s 2024 budget shows the country will spend 6 per cent of GDP on defence for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite tighter western application of a price cap on Russian oil, Moscow expects energy revenues to rise by almost a quarter. Putin is digging in financially for a prolonged conflict — and, lest we forget, it has now been running for nearly ten years. Although reports put the Ukrainian death toll at closer to 70,000, the respective sizes of the two countries mean Russia can afford to tip more bodies into its war machine.

If anything, Putin’s domestic authority has been strengthened since an abortive rebellion by the mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin led to his fiery death in an air crash in August. Research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace indicates that the Russian public has got used to living against a backdrop of bloodshed and sanctions. Support for Putin’s actions has consistently averaged about 75 per cent since his full-scale invasion in February last year, with more than a fifth of the Russian population said to be strongly in favour of continuing the fighting and refusing a ceasefire.

The defence secretary, Grant Shapps, is correct when he warns that the world is “sleepwalking” into an autocratic era and cannot afford to let Putin win in Ukraine. Even leaving aside the tinderbox situation in Israel and Gaza, and Iranian-backed attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, the informal coalition that has formed around Russia’s war on Ukraine is worrying. In Washington the countries are being called the Crinks — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. China, more dependent on trade than the others, and perhaps preoccupied geopolitically with Taiwan, has declined to arm Russia. But Iran’s Shahed drones entered Ukrainian airspace for the first time in October last year. And after a tour of Russia’s military industries by the dictator Kim Jong-un in September, North Korea has sent an estimated one million munitions to Russian troops.

Letting Putin keep his territorial gains in eastern Ukraine — or, a nightmare scenario, allowing his army to roll westwards across the whole country — would not just encourage his aggression and bring Russian forces into contact with more Nato borders, including those of the Baltic states and Poland. It would embolden this new axis of evil, perhaps giving China the confidence to try seizing Taiwan.


After the original shock over Russia’s full-scale invasion, horrors such as the mass killing of civilians in Bucha and the near-destruction of cities including Mariupol, the sense of urgency is fading. And not only among Ukraine’s allies: President Zelensky has been criticised by the mayor of Kyiv and undermined by his top general, who said the front line had descended into “stalemate”.

The Middle East crisis and pressing domestic concerns have inevitably re­focused politicians’ minds. In the UK politicians of both main parties are queueing up to meet Zelensky. But in Washington a spending package including $60 billion for Ukraine has been held up while Republicans demand more measures to reinforce America’s porous southern border. In Europe, Hungary’s President Orban has blocked a four-year €50 billion aid deal. The EU’s national leaders have been left scrabbling to see whether they can piece together bilateral deals with Ukraine. Relenting now would be a grave long-term mistake. Putin — and, just as importantly, Putinism, the willingness of sophisticated countries to violate the rule of international law — is plain wrong. Britain must help put steel in the spines of Ukraine’s allies as another year of defending democracy’s frontiers beckons.

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