‘What the hell are we waiting for?’ was the question asked by Boris Johnson on his latest visit to Ukraine. He was, of course, referring to the long delay in western nations sending desperately needed tanks to slow the advance of Russian forces and ultimately defeat the invaders. Within a few days of his visit the wait ended. An announcement was made in Berlin that a decision had been taken to send tanks. The president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky called it an ‘historic day’. But questions remain. Foremost is whether there will be enough support to defeat the invaders. But beyond that lies the bigger question: what might defeat for Moscow mean for a longer peace in Europe?
The tanks will be sent by Germany, Britain, Finland, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States. Some of the German Leopards will arrive in Ukraine within weeks and may be in time to counter what is expected to be a major offensive by Russian forces in the spring. The American Abrams, which are far more sophisticated, will take much longer – perhaps as much as a year. But the prospect of this war continuing for that long at its present intensity is, for the millions who are suffering so terribly in Ukraine, almost inconceivable. Especially as they watch Russian troops capturing their town of Soledar – Moscow’s first important military breakthrough since the summer.
As with virtually every war that has ever been waged there are two intertwined perspectives: the military and the political.
The political consequences of a clear victory by Moscow are seen by most in the west as simply unacceptable. It would give a green light to Russian expansionism. Putin’s dream of restoring the great Russian empire under his oppressive rule would have moved a giant step forwards. Western democracy would have suffered a humiliating setback.
From a western military perspective there is only one way to stop that happening: overwhelming force. That case was spelled out this week by Sir Richard Sheriff, the former deputy supreme allied commander Europe, who welcomed the decision to send more tanks to Ukraine but said it’s not enough. His approach – shared by most senior military figures in Nato – was spelled out in one simple demand: give President Zelensky everything he needs.
The president has been very clear about what that amounts to: 300 tanks, up to 700 armoured vehicles and 500 artillery pieces. In addition there would need to be long range precision missiles and sophisticated fighter aircraft. From General Sheriff’s perspective, there must be no half measures. Here’s how he expressed it in an article in the Daily Mail: ‘Ukrainians are paying a heavy price in blood to repel the Russians so we should be prepared to give them the tools to do the job.’
He conceded that, at a time when the cost of living is already spiralling, that would be painful, but he said everything is at stake, even our own ‘national security and our democracy.’ For nearly a year he said our politicians have failed to comprehend this: ‘They have been dragging their feet, hoping that the conflict would somehow resolve itself. This was wishful thinking and has put us in heightened danger today.’
It is accepted by most observers in the west that this conflict did not begin when Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border almost a year ago. It really began back in 2014 when Russian forces seized the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and the west allowed it to happen. That gave Putin the green light to attempt his land grab for the rest of Ukraine.
We shall, of course, never know whether Putin made the assumption that the west would adopt the same stance as it had over Crimea. What that amounted to was some stern language of condemnation but effectively no help on the battlefield with desperately needed equipment. What is reasonable to assume is that Putin underestimated the determination of many western countries to support the government in Kyiv. In the words of Sheriff: ‘He has now convinced himself that the west wants to wipe out his country and his propaganda hammers that message home to the Russian people every day… He will never forgive Britain, Germany or America for sending tanks.’
Nor can we predict with any accuracy the effect the additional weapons the west has pledged to send will have. Some western observers believe that Putin will have no option ultimately other than to sue for peace. If that does indeed prove to be the case, the more hard-line view is that all talk of a ceasefire should be dismissed out of hand. Sheriff believes it would be deeply cynical: ‘Putin's war crimes are well documented and there can be no negotiating peace with such a man - nor one that would leave a single Russian boot standing on Ukrainian soil. Even if the Kremlin offers a ceasefire it would be only to regroup their forces until they are ready to try again. That is why it is critical for the west to deliver a devastating arsenal to the Ukrainians as soon as possible.’
But what does ‘devastating’ mean’ in the context of the Russian aggression? Sheriff himself concedes that it is possible to underestimate the capability of the Russian army to soak up punishment. He cites the terrible carnage of World War II and the German invasion of what was then the Soviet Union as an example. Nazi invaders were ‘stunned by the willingness with which Soviet generals consigned thousands of Red Army soldiers to their deaths.’ Putin, he says, shows precisely the same callous disregard for human life: ‘The idea that his inexperienced, ill-equipped troops will surrender or retreat is a fantasy. Russia is an immense country with an effectively limitless supply of conscripts and it is a country inured to suffering. However appalling the cost of this war to the Russians, it is unlikely that ordinary people will depose their megalomaniac leader. So our number one task is to help the Ukrainians to win.’
Few western politicians or commentators argue that helping Ukraine to win should be our objective but not everyone accepts that sending more armaments is wise. Some, like the columnist Peter Hitchens, argue that it could prolong and deepen the war. Maybe, he writes, Ukraine's new tanks will ‘sweep all before them’ and even take back Crimea. But what happens then? Here’s what Hitchens writes: ‘If they cross into what Russia regards as its own territory then do not be surprised by anything that happens. Putin is obviously a sinister tyrant but if he is overthrown in a midnight putsch he will not be replaced by some jolly, liberal minded chap. He will be replaced by someone who might view it as a positive pleasure to press the red button so there is the real possibility that a large chunk of Europe might be turned into a radioactive graveyard.’
In Hitchens’ apocalyptic scenario America’s retaliation would be ‘furious and powerful … would take us a stage further into the world of horror, loss, flight, pestilence and poverty which always follows war.’
Sheriff concedes that the risk of escalation is a real one but points out: ‘Putin's mouthpieces have been rattling the nuclear sabre for month after month, threatening he could unleash atomic weapons on Ukraine or even target western cities with long range nuclear missiles. None, thank God, have been fired. Yes the threat is real, but we have to keep it in perspective. Already the Russians nuclear rhetoric has been dialled down since the start of the war, thanks to forthright condemnation from all sides including China. NATO and American intelligence agencies will be keeping a close watch on any deployment of warheads or missile carrying systems. The Kremlin has been told that any indication of an imminent nuclear threat would invite an unprecedented response from the west, using conventional capabilities on a scale never seen before. That is the only way to manage the nuclear sector through deterrence as we did during the Cold War. This can only be effective if we increase our military budget and rearm urgently.’
So where do you stand? Are NATO countries right to send more armaments to Ukraine? Should we be sending even more and become more directly involved in the conflict if that seems the only way ultimately to defeat the Russians? Or do you believe that the risks of escalation are too great? How do you balance the dangers of a victorious Russia using its power to build its empire against the possibility of a nuclear confrontation?
Let us know.