WHEN war broke out in Yugoslavia, the West blamed Serbia but the reality was not remotely so simple. To Nato and the western media, Russia plays Serbia’s black-sheep role in the Ukraine conflict but that’s not so simple either.
The Slav fratricide in Ukraine is essentially about Nato, which Russia regards as an existential threat. Theoretically all countries have the same rights under international law. But the theory is subject to geopolitical imperatives when, as in Ukraine, they have bigger and ruthless neighbours such as Russia.
For 15 years, the view from Moscow has been that Nato’s invitation to Ukraine to join turned the country into a Trojan horse for the Western alliance which would allow the US to deploy its forces and missiles at a weak point on Russia’s western border.
Foreign policy realists warned that this would always be intolerable to Russia. It became the proximate cause of Vladimir Putin’s invasion after President Biden pointedly ignored his demands for negotiations. This despite the fact that there is no ambiguity whatsoever in the meaning of the words ‘existential threat’.
Senator Tom Cotton inadvertently put the Russian case perfectly last week, before the Senate agreed by 95-1 to admit Finland and Sweden to Nato in response to the war.
‘Aside from their military strength and economic power, Finland and Sweden also allow us to turn the Baltic into a Nato lake, bottle up Russia’s Baltic Fleet, cut off its isolated military base at Kaliningrad, and expose Russia itself to much greater risk in the event of a conflict,’ he told colleagues.
Putin himself couldn’t have put Russia’s fears more clearly. Nato claims to be a defensive alliance but in fact there is no difference between defensive and offensive forces when they are pointed at a potential target, which Russia unarguably is. Given the ineradicable distrust between East and West, the Russians have no reason to believe that Nato would never strike first if a moment of weakness in the Kremlin permitted it.
The alliance was able to expand into central and eastern Europe in the first place only because Russia was in turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it reserves the right to recruit any country it chooses, as it did when Ukraine and Georgia were invited to join.
If this kind of diplomatic aggression was the path towards war in Ukraine, the path out would logically be not to increase the encirclement of Russia, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and to seek a durable modus vivendi which takes account of Moscow’s historic concerns.
The West’s support for Ukraine is partly moral – the upholding of national sovereignty against aggression – but also partly a self-interested desire to weaken Russia as a world player, even if nothing that happens in Ukraine diminishes its nuclear clout.
For all our high-mindedness, we don’t have the same stake in Ukraine that we have in Taiwan, which is a genuine democracy threatened by China and which, through its semiconductor industry, is key to the West’s electronics-reliant economies. Economists estimate that the loss of Taiwanese chips if China attacked the island would set back Western economies, already struggling with unachievable net zero targets, by up to 10 per cent.
If President Zelensky thought Nato would step in to win the war for him he was mistaken, since Biden decided from the outset that alliance forces would not fight on the ground and what weapons the West has supplied have not prevented Putin taking control of 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory which he is unlikely to give up.
With the war lost in all but name and Europe in the grip of an energy crisis caused by a retaliatory reduction in Putin’s oil and gas exports, the realist case appears to be gaining ground in the US.
One sign is a reported rift between Biden and Zelensky. This was relayed by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wrote (paywalled) that ‘there is deep distrust between the White House and President Zelensky of Ukraine – considerably more than has been reported’.
Officially the administration remains committed to helping defeat Putin. But the leak to Friedman is a familiar tactic used by Democratic administrations to slip out significant information via trusted journalists. If true, it could mean that Biden and his advisers want the war to end while there is still time to mitigate the economic disruption in the EU and other countries which rely on Ukrainian grain exports.
Having picked up the baby in Ukraine, Nato countries have obligations to Zelensky to which he might try to hold them. But they could now prefer to cut him loose rather than continue supporting a war damaging to themselves and which, under the current rules of engagement, is unwinnable.
If the administration turns on him – perhaps citing the corruption endemic in Ukraine – Zelensky’s media cheerleaders will probably follow suit. It’s what they do. Biden’s leverage would be to threaten to cut off the billions of dollars and weapons that Zelensky needs to keep fighting.
The conservative National Review speculated that the leak to Friedman could mean the administration is ‘laying the groundwork to argue, we did everything we could to help the Ukrainians defend themselves but in the end they were too incompetent, too corrupt, and too beset by infighting’.
Amnesty International meanwhile dealt a blow to Zelensky by alleging his forces broke international law by launching attacks on the Russians from inside civilian areas, exposing their inhabitants to counter-attacks, while accusing the Russians of war crimes.