John Humphrys - Ukraine: What should we do?

March 11, 2022, 3:47 PM GMT+0

The hideous reality of war is that those who suffer the most are those who are the most blameless. The poor, who live in the areas most likely to be bombed or shelled. The leafy suburbs offer few targets.  There are the sick and the very old and the pregnant women who cannot escape the bombardments. There are the children. Those of us who sit on the side-lines and watch it happening from the safe distance of 1500 miles may complain about the side effects of war on the cost of our own food and energy but only the most insensitive of us would use the word ‘suffering’. I speak from a little experience: I’m old enough to remember the effect of World War 2 rationing. The suffering of so many Ukrainians as I write these words is on a different scale. We can all agree on that can’t we? Where it’s much more difficult to find agreement is how to stop it.

What we do know is that the Russians have succeeded in encircling more and more towns and the result of each has been horrendous. None worse than Mariupol. It’s a city the size of Bristol and much of it has been reduced to rubble. It is as though the city has been under attack for months. In fact it’s barely two weeks.

Sasha Volkov, a delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a satellite phone message from Mariupol: ‘All the shops and pharmacies were looted four to five days ago... Some people still have food but I'm not sure how long it will last.’ Three hospitals has been bombed, including a maternity hospital. It is now a fight for survival not just against the enemy but often amongst the citizens themselves. Volkov described how people are now ‘starting to attack each other for food’ and stealing petrol from neighbours’ cars.  Water, electricity and gas supplies have been shut off so there is no heating. This in temperatures which have have fallen to minus six.  Sergei Orlov, the deputy mayor, says the suffering is ‘medieval’. As I write the death toll has passed 1200. Many have had to be buried in mass graves. Russian promises of safe passage to desperate citizens have been betrayed time and time again.

The terrible prospect is that the same fate might await Kyiv, the capital city with a population ten times that of Mariupol. The Russian attack had been stalled for some days but as I write Russian forces are believed to be less than ten miles from the city centre.  Some very senior western military experts believe they may take a very long time to occupy the city because their leadership has been so incompetent and the Ukrainians so determined to resist. Instead, they will simply lay siege to it.

The history of warfare tells us that people are capable of holding out for extraordinary lengths of time when their cities are under siege. The most hellish example of recent years is, of course, Stalingrad, the bloodiest battle in modern warfare. After nearly three years Hitler’s forces were defeated – but at a terrible cost. It’s believed nearly a million citizens died, most of them from starvation.  There was precious little the west could have done to help them.  When the siege began in 1942 we were fighting desperately for our own survival.  It is unimaginable surely that such horror could be repeated eighty years later.

But perhaps we should recall the wise words of a great British prime minister in a book he wrote nearly two centuries ago.  He was Benjamin Disraeli and he said: ‘We must hope for the best but prepare for the worst’.

The best we can hope for is that Putin accepts that he has made a terrible error, reaches an agreement acceptable to the government of Ukraine and withdraws his forces. But you know and I know that that’s not going to happen. So how do we prepare for the worst? Perhaps we need to define what we mean by ‘the worst’.

On one level it is the use of chemical and biological weapons against the people of Ukraine. American intelligence is warning that that’s precisely what Putin, frustrated by the resistance his ‘conventional’ forces are meeting,  is planning. He denies it flatly. Indeed he claims that it is Ukraine – with the help of laboratories in the United States -  that’s planning chemical warfare. A pretty bizarre allegation even by Putin’s notorious standards.  

Boris Johnson has observed that it’s straight out of the Kremlin playbook. He said: ‘They start saying that there are chemical weapons that have been stored by their opponents or by the Americans. And so when they themselves deploy chemical weapons ... they have a sort of maskirovka, a fake story, ready to go. And you've seen it in Syria. You saw it even in the UK.’ And we hardly need reminding that Putin denied any intentions of invading Ukraine even as his tanks were revving their engines on its borders.

Nor should we rely on the fact that Russia is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention the agreement signed in 1997 by 193 states that prohibited the development, production and stockpiling of toxins for the purpose of warfare. So it would be a clear violation of international law. But that hasn’t stopped Putin in the past. As Boris Johnson reminded us there was the attempt to murder Sergei Skripal in Salisbury and the murder of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny? Plus, of course,  the killing of so many civilians in Syria.

On a global scale the biggest danger of Putin resorting to chemical warfare is that it would be seen by western political leaders as Putin having crossed a ‘red line’. That would mean some sort of intervention by Nato forces might become inevitable. Ten years ago President Obama had warned that using chemical weapons in Syria would mean a red line had been crossed and the west would intervene. But it happened and the west did nothing.  Obama was vilified and the reaction of the west was: never again... next time it will not go unpunished.

This time it would almost certainly be different. The consequence of chemical warfare in Ukraine might well be Washington approving action that has, until now, been regarded as simply too dangerous. Nato enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.   If that were to happen it seems inescapable that a Russian warplane would be shot down by a Nato aircraft or vice versa. Either way, the consequences are too terrible to contemplate. Nato would be at war with Russia. A nuclear confrontation would become a realistic prospect. We would be talking about a third world war.

You may think I am painting too bleak a picture of where the war in Ukraine may take us and you may be right because there are, of course, alternatives. One is that the west hugely increases the amount and sophistication of the military aid it sends to Ukraine and its brave fighters manage to stem the Russian advance. Scarcely anyone suggests they might actually defeat the Russian army in any real sense. The odds against them are simply too great however bravely they may fight. But public opinion in Russia might turn against Putin as their military casualties mount and those  Russian generals surrounding and protecting Putin might reach for a revolver. Wishful thinking no doubt.

Another is that the economic warfare being waged by the west against Moscow will prove so devastating that Putin will have no choice but to sue for peace.

The other is that both sides will reach an agreement. The military historian Sir Max Hastings is hardly a pacificist but he believes this, in the end, is the only realistic approach. He wrote this week that ‘we are unlikely to secure the outcome of this tragedy we all wish - an end of Putin, the humbling of Russia, a liberated Ukraine rebuilt with reparations paid by the nation that has wrought so much misery.’ Instead, he said, ‘the only realistic hope is for a deal with Moscow, in which painful concessions will have to be made.’  

Another distinguished war writer, David Patrikarakos, makes the same point. He says one solution would be for Crimea and Donbas, which already have de facto independence, to become semi-autonomous and self-governing until each can hold a referendum to decide its future. ‘Frankly,’ he says, ‘ Ukraine is better off without them. Russian aggression since 2014 has galvanised Ukrainian identity: the country is united as never before.’ And he offers one more ‘practical concession...  something that the heroic President Volodymyr Zelensky has already hinted he would be willing to discuss. Ukraine should drop its application to join Nato, enshrined in its constitution in 2019.’ For the West, as well as for Russia, he says this is a sensible solution.

Do you agree? And if not what do you think we should do? Send much more military equipment including fighter planes? Or even impose a no-fly zone and risk war with Russia with all its dangers? Or simply accept that we have no realistic alternative except to leave Ukraine to its own fate?

Let us know what you think.

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