John Humphrys - The Battle of Boris: But What of the Real War?

June 16, 2023, 12:18 PM GMT+0

Apologies if you were expecting this week’s debate to be about Boris Johnson but there are two reasons why it’s not. One is that I suspect you have long since made up your mind what you think about him and there is really not much new to say. If anything. The other is that there is something infinitely more important to debate. And that is the war in Europe.

It is now sixteen months since Russia launched the biggest European invasion since the end of World War Two. Vast columns of tanks and 200,000 troops crossed the Ukrainian border. What Vladimir Putin still preposterously refers to as a "special military operation" was intended to "demilitarise and denazify" Ukraine. Russia would, he promised, protect people from years of Ukrainian “bullying and genocide”.

The first objective was to occupy the capital Kyiv. The tanks would sweep into the capital in a matter of days. Russian forces would unseat President Zelensky and a puppet government would be installed. Putin would be welcomed into Kyiv to be hailed as lord of all he surveyed.

But, of course, none of that happened. The tanks got bogged down in Ukrainian mud or blown up by Ukrainian fighters. A month into the invasion Putin’s boasts were dramatically scaled down. Kyiv was brutally bombed but unbowed. Putin’s main goal, as BBC correspondents report, became the so-called "liberation” of Donbas. Four Ukrainian provinces have been annexed but Russian forces are still not in complete control of them.

Putin has been forced to announce Russia's first mobilisation since World War Two.

A war of attrition is now taking place along an active front line of 530 miles and Russian victories are small and rare. It’s still not clear who destroyed the massive dam in an area controlled by Russia but the flooding has been devastating.

So what can we conclude after sixteen months of brutal war – apart from the obvious fact that the suffering of the Ukrainian people has been immense?

It is clear that Putin has failed in his original ambitions but has no intention of admitting it. It is also clear that most western leaders remain determined to support Ukraine – if only because they have no realistic alternative. President Macron of France will have spoken for many when he said Russia must be defeated but “not crushed”. And it is also clear that the much-vaunted Ukrainian counter-offensive is having only a limited effect.

The brutal truth seems increasingly to be that this is a conflict that neither side can win but neither side can afford to lose. One certainty is that the suffering will continue. Russian bombs and missiles have already left more than 13 million Ukrainians either as refugees abroad or displaced inside their own country. Or hideously injured. Or dead. Putin himself has acknowledged that the war "could be a lengthy process". Rather bizarrely he added later that Russia's goal was "not to spin the flywheel of military conflict" but to end it. There is little hope of that on the horizon.

For years, Putin has denied Ukraine its own statehood. In 2021 he wrote an essay in which he said that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people dating back to the 9th century”. But behind all the Kremlin rhetoric of "denazifying” Ukraine and “de-Ukrainisation” seasoned observers note that in war actions always speak louder than words. And Putin’s actions this month have been sending an alarming message.

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Kremlin has deployed nuclear missiles outside Russia. They will be housed in a new storage facility in Belarus, Russia’s client state bordering Ukraine as well as Russia and Poland. The Times is not alone in suggesting that this is the “most pronounced nuclear signal to the West” since Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

Whenever this question has been raised in Washington President Biden’s people have said there have been no signs that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. The stock response has been: “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture.” There’s been a similar message from Nato: there are “no signs” that Russia is preparing to unleash its nuclear arsenal. Yet even before the Belarus development many observers noted that the nuclear rhetoric from Moscow was becoming more bellicose. Now we are seeing actions rather than words. The huge question that poses is why. Why might Putin even consider using a weapon that could invite only one response from the West?

One answer offered by the Times is that, after 16 months of war and with the prospect of a never-ending conflict ahead of him, Putin “could come to the conclusion that only a mighty blow, using the most deadly weapon at his disposal, would save his nation — and his regime — from humiliation and ignominy.” A truly terrifying prospect, but both Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have said Moscow would have the right to turn to nuclear weapons if the very existence of the Russian motherland was threatened.

So the next question is where might such an existential threat come from? One possibility is that the war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight, a growing involvement by the west and growing casualties on the Russian side – plus serious damage to the Russian economy. And perhaps we should remember what Putin said when he was asked five years ago. He had been asked about the possibility of nuclear confrontation with Nato. He replied: “We will go to heaven as martyrs and they will just drop dead. They will not even have time to repent.”

Overly dramatic rhetoric, of course, but it’s worth remembering that Putin has been in power for 23 years and dictators can come to believe that they are the very embodiment of their nation. Plus he has advisers on whom he can rely whatever he chooses to do. After all, they have nowhere else to turn if their leader is deposed.

But perhaps this apocalyptic musing ignores the reality that tactical nuclear weapons are not in the same league as strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles. They are for use on the battlefield. True enough. Not in the same league as a nuclear missile fired from Moscow at Washington. That would invite instant reprisal. We’re talking World War Three and there’s only one outcome to that – literally the end of civilisation as we know it. But “tactical” weapons are clearly different.

So why should Putin not take that risk if he concludes that it might be the only way to “win” the war in Ukraine? China is one reason.

China, destined to becomes the most powerful economy on the planet, is a vital ally for Russia. It has become ever more crucial in many ways since the war began. And President Xi has made it very clear that he is not prepared to see Putin use nuclear weapons of any kind. Xi wants the world to see him as a peacemaker. Like many dictators before him he seeks international respect – however he may behave to his own people. And Putin dare not cross him.

Nor, we must assume, dare he challenge Washington directly. The United States has made it clear that the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would have “catastrophic consequences” for Russia. We can only speculate as to what those consequences would be but, as the Times, suggests, it’s impossible to rule out a direct confrontation between Nato and Russia. That might involve American forces fighting directly alongside Ukrainian forces. And if Putin, perhaps unable to match America military might, responded with tactical nuclear weapons would not Nato do the same?

At that point Putin might unleash the most fearsome weapons the world has ever seen.

I hope, by this stage, I have persuaded you that the future of Boris Johnson is pretty small beer by comparison with Ukraine and its potential consequences. But perhaps you take the view that this is scare-mongering and, anyway, you might shrug and ask: so what? What can you and I do even if the risks I have outlined here are real? A perfectly fair question, to which you might say: We have to trust our leaders to do the wise thing. Do you? Do you trust our leaders? Perhaps that question takes us back to Boris Johnson after all!

Do let us know what you think.

Explore more data & articles