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Emotion won’t halt the war in Ukraine

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THE citizens of the West, stirred by politicians and the media, are outraged by the death and destruction inflicted on Ukraine by Russia.

It’s cathartic to let off moral steam in empathy with the victims but it means ignoring what we should have understood from the start, that all wars have their origin in the failure of geopolitics.

Vladimir Putin, who began the war, is the main villain. But the West’s own leaders, now posing as Ukraine’s white knights, bear their share of responsibility because Russia saw their east European strategy as an ‘existential threat’.

Every day brings fresh reporting, supported by video and photographs, about killings, sieges and missile attacks that seem incomprehensible in 21st century Europe. It’s horrifying but fundamentally, as in all wars, the human suffering is an inevitable if not essential component of the process.

Death is what war is about and Ukraine is no different from any other conflict during which our attention is unavoidably drawn to the shedding of blood. The killing of civilians diverts attention from our understanding why fighting began and the mistakes that brought it about.

In what way is the West responsible? Principally because Nato leaders played a geopolitical game against Putin by expanding the alliance to Russia’s borders. The war in Ukraine confirms they went too far, as Putin had warned incessantly since 2008 when Ukraine, with its long Russian frontier, was invited to join Nato. Both France and UK demurred from that decision but were overridden by the United States.

Regardless of what happens on the battlefield – where a Ukrainian victory is all but impossible – the fighting will stop only when the same politicians who oversaw its start judge the moment is opportune. Whether it comes tomorrow or in six months, this moment will be the dispositive factor.

Ukrainian President Zelensky could offer Putin a ceasefire at any time but still puts his faith in the West, hoping it will step up its intervention beyond the supply of weapons. This is not going to happen because it would risk a wider and less controllable war, which is what President Obama worked out in 2014 when he accepted Putin’s seizure of Crimea.

Crucially, what Obama missed was the opportunity to withdraw the invitation to Ukraine to join Nato which would have reduced Putin’s justification for the present war.

For Putin, the time to stop fighting would mean reaching his territorial goals, probably taking more than he needs since surrendering captured territory will give him leverage over an eventual peace agreement. For all we know, he could be willing to stop fighting now if Ukraine and its Nato backers took the initiative. At the same time, he has no overwhelming reason to stop.

Part of Putin’s price would be a comprehensive East-West security settlement. This underlying aim of Russia’s attack on Ukraine is precisely what Nato does not want to cede. That became obvious when alliance leaders ignored the months-long build-up of Putin’s army on the Ukrainian border in the belief that he was bluffing.

The course of the war has shown that claims he wanted to capture all of Ukraine, not just its predominantly Russian-speaking regions in the east, were always unrealistic for any other purpose than to demonise the Russians more than they have been. There is no sign he ever intended to annex the entire country which would have been undigestible.

Where does this leave the West? The US defence secretary Lloyd Austin says Nato’s aim in Ukraine is to weaken Russia.

In other words, the US is willing to prolong the war in Ukraine long enough to ensure that Putin is not in a position to dictate a settlement that would entail the removal of Nato forward forces from central and eastern Europe as the Russians demand. Nato wants to stay put even if Ukraine doesn’t join.

This means that the fighting shown on television that so distresses the US and European public is unlikely to end soon. What we are witnessing is not a stalemate but a stand-off between a determined Ukrainian defence and a slowly-paced, perhaps deliberately sluggish, Russian offensive against the targets they want.

Without direct Nato intervention, the Ukrainians at some point are going to be forced to give in or see their country methodically flattened around them. For this to happen Zelensky must accept that Nato has ulterior motives beyond Ukraine’s territorial integrity to keep the war going. 

The Russians will probably bargain over their territorial gains but land will be lost whatever Ben Wallace says about driving Putin back to his 2014 borders.

Russia will remain a nuclear superpower whatever happens in Ukraine. It also has vital resources on which it and the West are mutually dependent in exchanging meaning that its predicted pariah status will not probably long outlast the war’s end.

The idea that Vladimir Putin will ever face a war crimes tribunal, as some in the West, want is pure fantasy. It is long past time, for Ukraine’s sake, that emotional responses and hypocritical geopolitical ambitions in the West were discarded in favour of realism.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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