John Humphys - Ukraine: the forgotten war?

March 03, 2023, 3:06 PM GMT+0

On the face of it the question posed in this headline answers itself. It is obviously not forgotten by the millions of Ukrainians who witness its barbarity at first hand every day of their lives. Nor is it forgotten by those in the west and by the media. Every day there are stories about it in one publication or another and all the major broadcasters maintain a presence in that beleaguered country. But what some believe has changed is the tone of that reporting and, indeed, of the approach being adopted by some western politicians. After a year of slaughter and no sign of the Russians backing off, many are asking whether the question at the heart of the crisis is not when Russia will be defeated on the battlefield but what it will take to satisfy their demands.

What is not in dispute is the terrible cost in human life that the illegal invasion has already exacted. It is impossible to reach an accurate figure for obvious reasons, but the number of new graves on the outskirts of Kyiv tell part of the story. The latest estimates suggest as many as 100,000 Ukrainians have been killed or wounded so far. Russian casualties, it is believed, are almost double that number. Countless lives have been destroyed in so many other ways too. Vast numbers of Ukrainians have seen their homes reduced to rubble or have been forced to flee to seek sanctuary in other countries. The Ukrainian economy has been shattered. So have the hopes and dreams of so many children.

As for the hopes expressed by so many political leaders in the west that when Putin sent his tanks across the Ukrainian border he had finally bitten off more than he could chew and would quickly come to regret it? Well, by some reckonings that is already the case. His lightning strike against Kyiv in the first hours of the invasion turned into a humiliating setback. Instead of Ukraine’s president being forced to flee the capital and beg for peace, the seemingly endless Russian tank columns got stuck in the mud, pounded by Ukrainian shells and landmines.

Yet Kyiv is still a free city and instead of a victorious President Putin addressing a conquered nation from its seat of government we have another president – Joe Biden – walking its streets to the applause of its grateful people. So it is tempting to assume that it can be only a matter of time before it is Putin himself who is forced to sue for peace. Tempting but, according to many observers, dangerously misguided. Kyiv remains unconquered but the Russian offensive in the Donbas region, in the east of the country is another matter. The city of Kherson was one of the first to fall to Russian forces. After more than eight months of occupation Ukrainian forces retook the city but the Russians regrouped across the Dnipro river.

Putin’s lightning assault on a poorly defended country has turned instead into a war of attrition. Few doubt that new fronts will be opened up. The outcome of this will depend not so much on the willingness of the brave Ukrainian defenders to fight to the death as on the approach taken by western democracies. This is not a question of moral support – important though that may be – but on giving Ukraine the tools to do the job. Or, rather, the weapons. It has been calculated that Ukrainian forces are firing as many shells in one month as the United States produces in six months.

In the eyes of many seasoned commentators, the war in Ukraine was a military disaster waiting to happen. Edward Lucas writes that it has laid bare three decades of delusions: ‘We ignored the threat from Russia and hollowed out our armed forces. We fought and lost two wars of choice, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We covered up our weaknesses with spin, stunts, slogans (“Global Britain”) and legerdemain. Now reality is biting. We face in effect a war of necessity: a direct military challenge from Russia to the European security order. But our enfeebled military cannot meet its obligations to defend us and our allies.’

Lucas is not alone in that dire assessment. Table Media, a German news organisation that specialises in military matters, has revealed that Nato is so worried about Britain’s military overstretch that it has asked Germany to keep the rotating leadership of the alliance’s new spearhead force, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), for a further year. The purpose of the VJFT is to provide a 5,000-strong force which, crucially, can be deployed within two to five days. Its soldiers must not be committed to any other task. But, according to Lucas, Britain cannot offer to make such a guarantee. Given that Germany is seen as a relatively weak military power, that strikes observers like Lucas as pretty shameful.

He also claims that the 14 Challenger tanks we are sending to Ukraine are between a third and a half of our usable fleet: ‘Most of the nominally 200-strong force of these giant killing machines are rusting in warehouses. We promised 30 AS-90 self-propelled artillery guns. Now it turns out we can send only eight, with another 16 at “various states of readiness” elsewhere. That will doubtless be of great comfort to the Ukrainians, who need them all right now. Overstretch last year forced us to bring home half of our 2,000-strong tripwire force in Estonia. The troops still deployed there lack ammunition: our puny “war stocks” of shells are kept in Britain. Our training programme is in shreds.’

In the colourful language of Edward Stringer, a former director of Strategic Command, our approach has been ‘like trying to create a medium-sized rhododendron by pruning a large one. You end up with a lot of roots and too little foliage. Instead, we need a rethink on the lines of those that followed the disastrous Crimean and Boer wars. It should centre on our biggest duty, the defence of Europe in Nato, rather than faraway missions where we will always be too small or too weak to make a difference.’

Here’s how Lucas sums it up: ‘Time is not on our side. Our allies are increasingly impatient with the mismatch between our grand words and skimpy capabilities. Moreover, while we dither and fantasise, Ukraine bleeds and shatters. Worse lies ahead as Russia continues its war of attrition. By the time western allies finally provide warplanes, for example, Ukraine will be gravely short of pilots to fly them.’

There is, of course a more optimistic scenario. The Russian offensive in the east of Ukrainian may well become hopelessly bogged down once the winter frosts have ended and the hard ground has turned to mud. It is also possible that the Ukrainian counter-offensive will succeed and that discontent will grow within Putin’s own armed forces. It’s true that he has vast numbers of men but many have only recently been conscripted and are poorly trained.

Western optimists recall what happened towards the end of the Great War in 1917 when the once-mighty armies of the Tsar disintegrated. In some respects that could prove a mixed blessing. There are some very powerful men in Moscow who command large private forces and hold no personal loyalty to Putin. The leader of the most powerful – the Wagner private army – only recently accused the top Kremlin leaders of ‘treason’ for the deaths of many of his men. An unstable Russia controlled by private armies is not, for many seasoned observers, an attractive prospect.

As the Sunday Times has opined in its editorial column: ‘We should beware of magical thinking. A defeated Russia will be volatile and vengeful. And it may yet cudgel Ukraine into submission, gaining territorial and other trophies. Whatever the war’s outcome, Europe will be a dangerous place. And we are dangerously ill-defended.’

Britain must also, it says, reassess its diplomatic relationships: ‘The war has had a seismic impact on global geopolitics, and we must respond accordingly. China is now considering supplying arms to Russia. If it does so, it will effectively turn a regional conflict into a proxy world war. Sweden and Finland want to join Nato. We must help them. Relationships with Poland, Moldova, the Baltic states and the Balkans must be strengthened. At a time when pro-Russian sentiment is growing in Africa, we must also invest in the Commonwealth. Putin has made it clear he is preparing Russia for a war that will last a generation. He believes the West will tire of its commitment and sue for peace.’

And if that happens? Do you believe we should adopt a posture of letting bygones be bygones… that anything is preferable to a return to the worst days of the Cold War with the shadow of a nuclear confrontation always hovering? Indeed, do you accept that might there might come a point when it is we in the west who sue for peace in Ukraine? Perhaps we should put pressure on President Zelensky to cede some territory in the east on a promise from Putin that he will respect the sovereignty of what remains of Ukraine? Or do you believe that a promise from Putin is as worthless as a spent cartridge and the west should give Ukraine everything it needs to turf him out?

Let us know