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Ukraine: Putin holds all the cards and can make Europe freeze this winter


MISREPRESENTED by some and misunderstood by others in the West, the war in Ukraine has assumed recognisable contours, although we still do not know how the fighting ends except that President Zelensky has it in his power to call a ceasefire tomorrow and should. 

It is clear now that Vladimir Putin never had the empire-building ambitions that Western governments attributed to him when he invaded Ukraine last February. That was a narrative devised by Nato to rally pacific European publics round its attempts, insufficient in practice, to secure Putin’s defeat. 

Far from being beaten, Putin has achieved his basic war aims. He controls 20 per cent of eastern Ukraine, which is populated by ethnic Russians opposed to the Kiev government. He has spent the last few weeks defending his gains, apparently without trying to extend them. 

Zelensky has no hope of dislodging him without the outside help on the ground that Joe Biden and other Western leaders have made clear he is not going to get. In this scenario, Putin could be open to a ceasefire as soon as Zelensky is ready to play. 

Despite the boasts at the outset that Nato was united as never before against Russian aggression allegedly threatening all of east and central Europe, the actual help given to the Ukrainians has been conspicuously inadequate. No troops on the ground or offensive weaponry. In the absence of decisive results, the war is slipping off the public’s radar, replaced by domestic economic concerns. 

Zelensky’s public relations campaign in the West has veered towards comic opera with the appearance of his wife Olena – a ‘Portrait of Bravery’ on the cover of the October issue of Vogue. The fashion magazine’s last foray into international affairs was its embarrassingly gushing interview with President Assad’s wife, described as the ‘Rose of the Desert’, on the eve of Syria’s civil war. 

If pundits who spread the idea – always ludicrous and confirmed by events – that Putin set out to subjugate all of Ukraine are embarrassed by their error, they are keeping quiet about it. To try to impose Russian rule on the remaining 80 per cent of Ukraine which has patriotically supported Zelensky, Putin would have had to be as mad as the know-it-alls in Nato capitals claimed he was. 

He has however succeeded in wreaking severe damage even with his limited war that has set back Ukraine economically for years, even if the West pays for reconstruction and the Europeans keep their promise to fast-track its EU membership. The longer the war lasts, the harder it will be to set the country right. 

The question has to be asked: If the West has been so wrong in its assessment of, and reaction to, the conflict in Ukraine, how much can it be trusted to get right the threat of conflict with China over Taiwan and deal with nuclearising, anti-Western Iran? 

As it is, the economic sanctions that were supposed to cripple Russia have rebounded on the western Europeans who rely on Russian oil and gas exports. The EU now realises too late that it is hostage to Putin’s ability to make Europeans freeze this winter. 

EU countries are scrambling to reopen coalmines shut down by the green war on fossil fuels. Germany is already dimming unnecessary public lighting to conserve energy, even before EU energy rationing begins this month. In late July, Bloomberg reported the UK briefly paid a record £9,724 per megawatt hour – more than 5,000 per cent higher than the typical price – to import electricity and prevent a blackout that would have been devastating for the Conservative government. 

This is the knife edge Europe is straddling as a result of the sanctions blowback and the drive for Utopian green economies based on renewable energy. Unforgivably, political Europe has been caught completely unawares by the unintended consequences of its elites’ policies. 

Whether the war in Ukraine was entirely preventable is a matter for debate. There had been a civil war for eight years between the Kiev government and the ethnic Russian autonomists whom Putin armed in the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Putin might have made a grab for them at some point anyway. 

But the war might not have happened in 2022 if the two intra-Ukraine sides had been left to settle their own problems and had Biden not ignored demands for talks about Moscow’s security concerns in the region if Ukraine became a Nato member. These will still be unavoidably at the centre of peace talks when they happen. 

This is increasingly urgent. Biden’s attention to Ukraine has been diverted by his domestic woes, Zelensky’s inability to turn the Russians back and by China’s threat of military retaliation if US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi goes ahead with an intended visit to Taiwan during her current Asian tour. The Chinese threat is being taken seriously in Washington because of Taiwan’s critical importance as a world supplier of semiconductors. 

Compared with China, the claim that the war in Ukraine is necessary to sustain the liberal world order looks thinner by the day. The war still has supporters who believe that Russia’s defeat is imperative – but it’s a diminishing issue. On a global scale, Ukraine’s geopolitical fate matters only to Ukrainians. The country is not a domino on the lines of the Kissinger theory in Vietnam. 

The central element of the equation that the pro-defeat lobby leaves out is that Russia is a nuclear power and that Putin cannot be relied on not to escalate as far as it takes to avoid losing. French President Emmanuel Macron said care must be taken not to humiliate Putin, but the Russians have the means to avoid humiliation on their own without any condescension from Western leaders. 

One promising sign for the future is that Putin is apparently keeping his agreement to allow the shipment of grain from the blockaded Black Sea port of Odessa to countries in the Middle East and Africa, where an estimated 150million people face food insecurity because of their reliance on Ukrainian exports. 

Putin gets the kudos for a humanitarian gesture that may make it easier for Zelensky and his Nato supporters to take a more realistic view of the military impasse and open the way, however tentatively, to a ceasefire and peace talks. Significantly, Turkey which is a Nato member, played a key role in the shipping deal. What happens next is up to Zelensky. 

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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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