War is a brutal ugly business that should never be undertaken lightly. Old men like me should therefore take great care before encouraging anyone to start using weapons that will cost the lives of people a long distance away.
That is one of the many reasons why I opposed Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war. It is also why I opposed sending British forces to fight in Afghanistan. I predicted from the start that it would result in much loss of life before ending in a failure that would put back women’s rights for decades. I do, however, think that there is no realistic alternative other than to resist Vladimir Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine and to do so with strength of purpose.
War in Ukraine
A year ago, Putin was giving his own people and the rest of the world solemn assurances that he would not launch an attack on Ukraine. Days later he did exactly that. Then he told everyone that he was not actually starting a war. He was merely undertaking limited special operations.
It is a strange kind of special operation that involves a long column of tanks and conscripts trying to capture the capital city of a neighbouring country. It is an even stranger one that requires cities to be bombed into rubble. Or involves ordering drone attacks on the entire power system of a neighbouring country in the middle of a bitter winter. To most neutral observers that is the definition of all out war that involves deliberate harm to non-combatant civilians.
No one should therefore be in any doubt that Putin is capable of increasing the stakes in this war once again. His threats that there will be Europe-wide consequences if Britain, the EU and the US supply effective weapons to the Ukrainian army have to be taken seriously. It is entirely possible that he will use dirty nuclear bombs to make territory he can’t control unavailable to anyone else. He is also sufficiently ruthless to press the button on all out nuclear war.
This war must be won
But here’s the thing. Sometimes the only alternatives are to give in and let a dictator take control over more people’s lives or to take serious risks and make sure he can’t win.
That doesn’t mean that we have to agree to every war aim of the most extreme Ukrainian nationalist. It means that we have to define our aims very clearly and set about achieving those aims with determination in the full awareness that the costs and the risks won’t be small.
The only moral objective of this war is national self-determination. That should be our objective. People should be free to make an unforced choice about what nation they wish to belong to and which language or languages they wish to speak. It is for bodies like the UN to conduct elections which decide that kind of issue, not for self-appointed national saviours sat behind a long black desk in Moscow.
There is however a lot less moral clarity about claims that every inch of territory in the Crimea and every single part of the Donbass must always fly a particular flag. It would be a huge mistake for the UN, the EU, the US or the UK to assume that beating Putin and defending the Ukraine can only be achieved by adopting closed minds about where every inch of the border line will be when the war ultimately ends.
Putin’s aggression is not Russia’s aggression
It is an even more serious mistake to define this conflict as a war between Russia and Ukraine. It isn’t. It is a war between the Putin regime and his victims. There are already a lot of people in Russia who want nothing to do with the war. Hundreds of thousands of young men have dodged the draft and many brave young Russian women have been arrested and beaten for going out onto the streets and making their opposition clear.
As the war progresses and more and more conscripts come back in body bags that opposition is likely to grow much stronger. Characterising an entire nation as war mongers simply plays into Putin’s hands and helps him to rally more people behind his flag.
The biggest mistake of all is to believe that Putin cannot win. At the start of this war most people thought the Russian armed forces would be much too strong for the Ukrainian’s to be able to resist. It turned out that badly managed troops sent into battle with confused orders in the mistaken conviction that they would be welcomed by the local population could be beaten relatively quickly. But winning one battle is unfortunately not the end of the war.
Putin’s defeats outside Kiev and on the West bank of the Dnieper should not be taken to mean that he does not have huge resources at his disposal and that the momentum of the war cannot turn the other way. Even reluctant conscripts with poor-quality equipment make a difference when there are sufficient numbers of them and there are battles of attrition in trenches. Even the bravest soldier can lose heart under constant bombardment from artillery and drones.
Vladimir Putin can pour more resources into bloody battles than the Ukrainians can. If he can continue to launch missiles and drones without risking retaliation, then he can destroy much of the infrastructure that fuels and supports Ukrainian battle equipment.
We must commit to ensure Ukraine wins this war
Sooner or later the war is therefore likely to be lost unless new types of weapons are sent to the Ukraine by countries like Britain. Sooner or later the Ukrainians are going to decide that they need to use those weapons to attack targets inside Russia. Does anyone seriously think it is reasonable to expect Ukrainian people to sit under bombardment for night after night and then tell them that they must never use British weapons to attack launch sites inside Russia?
There is therefore every prospect that this war is going to get worse and more risky before it gets better.
Either we back the supply of the weapons that are necessary and the war is won, or we don’t and it is lost. Victory shouldn’t be defined by the territorial ambitions of the most extreme Ukrainian nationalist. Yet it can’t be achieved without taking the huge risk of ensuring that Ukrainian troops have the weapons they need to win.
The hard-headed choice that has to be made is how much weaponry to supply to clear the vast bulk of Ukraine of invaders and prevent further bombardments without supplying so much that the Ukrainian army develops its own territorial ambitions and becomes a genuine threat to ordinary Russian people.
If there is one thing worse than starting a bad war it is losing a just one. No war is ever won without being clear about what it is realistic to set out to achieve. It remains to be seen how long it will take and how great the cost will be before world leaders arrive at sufficient clarity over that.