THE war in Ukraine is not about Boris Johnson. It just seems that way because his voice is the most loudly hawkish in Nato after Joe Biden’s, though not necessarily the most helpful.
He assured his G7 colleagues at the weekend that the West was ‘making the sacrifice’ in the rising price of food and energy that was politically embarrassing but worth paying for freedom.
The West is certainly in trouble in part because of the backfiring of the sanctions it imposed on Russia, but mainly because of domestic inflation and an entirely self-inflicted scarcity of reliable energy. But sacrifice when compared with what Ukraine is suffering? The equation sounds contemptible.
No Russian missiles are falling on Tunbridge Wells. No refugees are fleeing Newcastle. This was Johnson in sub-Churchillian mode, mugging for the media with infuriatingly crass belligerence.
‘The consequences of what’s happening for the world are tough, but the price of backing down, the price of allowing Putin to succeed, to hack off huge parts of Ukraine, to continue with his programme of conquest, that price will be far, far higher and everybody here understands that,’ Johnson said.
He told Canada’s Justin Trudeau that ‘Ukraine is on a knife-edge and we need to tip the balance of the war in their favour’, a phrasing which could easily be construed as a back-to-front admission that the Ukrainians were losing despite all.
In case anyone got the impression that Nato was ready to boost Ukraine’s ability to take the fight to the Russians, Johnson explained he meant ‘providing Ukraine with defensive capabilities, training and intelligence they need to repel the Russian advance’. In short, doing more of what hasn’t worked.
Putin has captured 20 per cent of Ukraine in the east and sealed off its Black Sea trading ports. These account for 70 per cent of its overall exports and 98 per cent of its grain exports which feed much of the Middle East and Africa. The World Bank estimates that the Ukrainian economy will shrink 50 per cent this year. The country has suffered damage worth $100billion. Its government needs $5billion a month in aid. World Bank President David Malpass has forecast a global food catastrophe that could kill millions if the war continues and Ukraine’s vital exports remain blocked.
Johnson spoke to buoy European leaders and publics against the inevitable war weariness that ensues in any conflict when domestic considerations dull support for fighting whose purpose is no longer clear. When the cause in this case seems lost, his words sound futile. The cynical ‘joke’ about the West being ready to fight to the last Ukrainian looks increasingly true.
The unavoidable fact is that the Ukrainians at this stage have lost their unequal war and a lot of territory for good unless the Americans decide to change Nato’s arms-length strategy and fight the Russians in Ukraine themselves. This they will not do because of the risk of nuclear retaliation by Vladimir Putin.
The United States counted on sanctions and defensive weapons supplied to the US-trained Ukrainian army to defeat the Russians. Ukrainian forces have slowed the invasion to a mile by mile, city by city crawl. But the self-protective loopholes in sanctions, which allowed Russian oil and gas exports to western Europe to flow unimpeded, have negated their impact.
If the Ukrainians are in the jaws of a plight that can only get worse, why doesn’t President Zelensky seek a ceasefire and negotiate the best deal he can get from the Kremlin? The answer according to international relations specialist John Mearsheimer of Chicago University is that the United States and Ukrainian nationalist hardliners – Putin’s famous Nazi elements – will not let him.
Mearsheimer is a long-standing critic of Nato’s 2008 invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance which is at the origin of the war. He quoted CIA chief William Burns when he was US ambassador to Moscow at the time as warning that ‘Ukrainian entry into Nato is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).’ With the war now in progress, history has caught up with both East and West.
For Mearsheimer, speaking at the European University Institute in Florence on June 16, ‘the United States is principally responsible for the causing the Ukraine crisis’.
He blamed ‘America’s obsession with bringing Ukraine into Nato and making it a Western bulwark on Russia’s border’ and added that he did not believe the US was ‘seriously interested in finding a diplomatic solution’.
In fact, according to Mearsheimer, ‘the United States is deeply committed to making sure that Russia loses. The Biden administration has invested so much in the Ukraine war – both materially and rhetorically – that a Russian victory would represent a devastating defeat for Washington.’
The conundrum is how to beat the Russians, who are equally determined to win, without risking an uncontrollable escalation that could include the use of nuclear weapons.
Boris Johnson apart, the western European countries, for all their protestations to the contrary, have no interest in seeing Putin defeated if a way can be found to extricate Ukraine from the war in a way that guarantees its future security. They are going to co-exist with Russia permanently and be dependent its energy exports for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps Biden’s disastrous overnight desertion of Afghanistan last year is reinforcing his determination to prevail in this war where US forces are deliberately doing no fighting. This self-imposed constraint is the potentially fatal weakness in Nato’s strategy.
Mearsheimer may be overestimating US resolve. Zelensky should be aware that the US has a history of pulling out of lost causes, Vietnam and Iraq as well as Afghanistan. Biden is capable of changing his mind and insisting that Zelensky talk terms to get Washington off a hook of its own making. Nato is divided and anxious and the Europeans who hate war have more at stake than the militaristic US.
In 1999, at the instigation of President Clinton, Nato air forces bombed Serbia to make Slobodan Milosevic disgorge Kosovo. After 78 days, Milosevic surrendered not knowing that Nato was on the brink of ending the assault because of its apparent lack of success. Zelensky cannot be sure how long Nato can be relied on to keep his deadlocked war going. Could they leave him in the lurch?