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Ukraine: Realpolitik may not be pretty, but nor is Armageddon


THE war in Ukraine is sometimes described as an example of an irresistible force (Russian history, culture and perhaps paranoia) meeting an immovable object (Ukrainians’ desire to live in a free, democratic country). This over-simplification ignores the fact that the Russians are in fact advancing and the Ukrainian defence is increasingly dependent upon weaponry and support from the West, mostly through Nato.

As was no doubt discussed at the G7 summit, quite how much support Nato can deliver without undermining the resourcing of its soon to be increased ‘enhanced forward presence’ in the Baltics and Poland is an open question. The British Chief of the General Staff’s refreshingly candid speech to the Royal United Services Institute(RUSI) on Wednesday acknowledged that ‘technology does not eliminate the relevance of combat mass’ – in other words, running out of ammunition or soldiers means losing.  The speech is a tacit admission that previous management has left us with an Army unable to fight, let alone win, in Europe, committed as it is to the tripwire policy that was abandoned in the 1970s

Quite how long it will take for the British Army to get its act together is an open question – certainly fixing it will require significantly more money than the usually free-spending Prime Minister will be comfortable with. ‘Have cake; eat cake’ doesn’t work any better on the battlefield that it does with net zero, levelling up or Brexit. So much for ‘the price of freedom being worth paying’- a fatuous soundbite that is going to cause Mr Johnson problems. 

Russia does combat mass, big time. Those commentators who sneer at the (1970s vintage) T62 tanks equipping the Russian reservists holding the southern coast of Ukraine should note that they’re formidable and abundant. They’re also the tanks the reservists trained on and have been upgraded and, deployed in mass, perfectly capable of holding ground – more so when supported by abundant artillery used by commanders who are content with the inevitable collateral damage.

All of which makes it hard to see how the current Nato policy of providing weaponry and training is one that can win the war. It will increase the casualties (to both sides) but those who hope that Russia will quit – or replace Putin – are at best guilty of wishful thinking. They should learn more about Russia’s view, starting with Dr Gregory Slysz’s article in TCW on Wednesday. That leaves two options: abandon Ukraine or commit Nato forces to the fight – which is a major step down the road to Armageddon.

Nato’s problems don’t end there. The Baltic states, full Nato members, are small and essentially indefensible (even if Nato ground forces were up to the job). Mr Putin has made his intention clear – he wants them back too. Every Nato weapon used in Ukraine makes that military task easier; the only question is whether the US, UK and France would launch nuclear missiles to protect Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian sovereignty. It seems unlikely to me, which means that – as General Sanders notes – Nato’s deterrence is not credible. So what’s the point of Nato and what can we do to protect democracies from Russian resurgence during the several years (minimum) it will take to redevelop the necessary conventional military strength?

I fear neither our Prime Minister nor Foreign Secretary are asking themselves this question as they lead the cheering for Ukraine and seek positive headlines. It’s time for some realpolitik. The reality is that Ukraine is unlikely to win its fight for survival and the Baltics can’t be defended. So we need to do something else.

My suggestion is that Ukraine should become a neutral state, as should the Baltics, who should leave Nato. Finland and Sweden should remain neutral. None of the neutral states should have foreign troops based on their land. All should have their neutrality guaranteed by Nato, Russia and any other country that feels like it. This has the advantages of being achievable, equitable, preserving (in Ukraine’s case restoring) democratic freedom and avoiding Armageddon. Nato’s credibility is restored, while Russia’s fears are allayed. It may not be pretty, but neither is the aftermath of warfare, nor Armageddon.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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