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Monday, June 27, 2022

What can the west do about Russia invading Ukraine? | Ukraine

In the wake of what the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, described as Russia’s “fully fledged invasion of Ukraine”, the west has to decide how to respond to what France’s Emmanuel Macron has called a turning point in European history.

Yet can the west now offer Ukraine more than a mixture of prayers, sanctions and diplomatic demarches? Throughout this conflict western intelligence has shown it has been able to predict Putin’s next step, but less capable of stopping it. Boris Johnson told the Ukrainian people “we are with you”, but what this western solidarity means in practice is now up for debate.

The 30-nation Nato alliance will stick to its pledge that it will never send forces to protect Ukraine as a non-Nato member. Backbench Tory calls to give Ukraine air support have no support in Nato.

Instead the west will test Russia’s resolve through tough sanctions and by some countries providing arms if there is a resistance.

The coordinated sanctions in Washington, London, Berlin and Brussels being announced on Thursday are billed as massive, but Putin sits on a $600bn (£450bn) war chest and will benefit from oil prices soaring past $100 a barrel. That makes him less dependent on the west to raise capital than five years ago, and such is his dominance of the Russian media that the chances of internal protests pressurising, let alone toppling, the 69-year-old president look minimal. The oligarchs may complain if sanctions are placed on them, but Putin is in too deep to retreat.

One London-based diplomat said this week after viewing Russia’s televised and cowed national security meeting: “We used to talk about Putin’s inner circle. There is no inner circle. There is only Putin.” Another said: “The only thing that will change Russian public opinion is the mothers of Russia seeing the bodybags.”

Nikolai Petrov from the Chatham House thinktank warned “all infrastructure of political opponents and opposition has been destroyed, making it much easier for the Kremlin to to mobilise public opinion”.

Dire predictions by the British of Putin being mired in a battlefield quagmire will now be tested. Many Ukrainians appear on western media to attest that Putin has underestimated Ukraine’s will to fight. They insist they will not tolerate a puppet government loyal to Moscow. But the long queues of traffic fleeing Kyiv in the westward direction speaks to another story. It is as likely that Ukraine’s prisons will be filled with dissidents.

In the short term there will be a debate, including in Germany, about whether to arm the resistance, with some Green party and CDU leaders already advocating this.

The German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, at the weekend said this was not the moment for Germany to make a 180-degree turn on such a strategic policy. Yet the debate is live. The former German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said: “I’m so angry at us for historically failing. After Georgia, Crimea and Donbas, we have not prepared anything that would have really deterred Putin.”

Keir Giles, also from Chatham House, urged the west to be cautious. “Looking at Russia’s 100% success record on suppressing resistance movements in territories it has occupied – often using medieval levels of savagery and inflicting terror on the civilian population – we ask what would aid to a resistance achieve and would it make the situation better worse or better.” The images of destruction in Aleppo, Grozny and Afghanistan show how merciless the Russian military can be.

Stoltenberg has said that it is a matter for individual nations to decide the help they provide to any resistance. But the risks are high. In his speech announcing the invasion, Putin warned outsiders tempted to interfere that there would be “consequences you have never encountered in your history” – a chilling veiled reference to nuclear war.

Russia-Ukraine crisis: Putin orders military operation in Ukraine – video
Russia-Ukraine crisis: Putin orders military operation in Ukraine – video

There is also a danger that an insurgency would exacerbate a refugee crisis likely to be triggered across central Europe.

Plans are in infancy in the EU’s Frontex border agency to prepare for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Some diplomats are optimistic that, unlike with Syria in 2015, there will not be a political backlash, pointing out many Ukrainians have already been welcomed to Europe. As many as 15,000 Ukrainians already live in Berlin. But autocrats have learned that refugees are weapons of war.

The British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has clearly indicated that there is a serious risk that Putin, judging by his words, will not stop at Ukraine, but wants to restore Russia’s empire, and remove western forces from all former Warsaw pact countries.

Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said Putin had gone “full tonto”, and almost every western politician who returned from Moscow was disturbed by his demeanour and inability to focus on realistic solutions to the crisis.

It means once Ukraine is swallowed by Putin, Russia will be able to station forces – land, air and missile – in bases in western Ukraine as well as Belarus, which has effectively lost independence.

He may not invade the Baltic states, but he is in a better strategic position to demand a retreat by Nato to Warsaw pact boundaries and a land corridor through Poland to link Kaliningrad, the headquarters of the Russian Baltic fleet.

It will mean high defence spending, less dependence on Russian energy and more troops on Nato’s frontiers. Finland and Sweden may seek to join Nato. If Putin wanted less Nato, he may get more.

Finally, the west has to confront questions about the validity of the whole postwar diplomatic security architecture.

On Wednesday night UN diplomats gathered to condemn Russia at an emergency meeting, one chaired by Russia, this month’s presidents of the UN security council. It symbolised the degree to which the UN has become utterly compromised. But there may have been one diplomatic voice in New York that will disturb the west most – that of the Chinese envoy. In his brief remarks he remained studiously on the fence, refusing to condemn Russia and knowing the west’s anguish may provide it with nothing but opportunities ahead.

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