Western unity will be sorely tested if the conflict turns into a war of attrition with no side claiming victory
DOUGLAS MURRAY. 23 May 2022 •
quarter of a year has now passed since Vladimir Putin sent his tanks into Ukraine. And the first drafts of history have already been written. Their rough conclusions seem to go along the following lines.
First, to add to Talleyrand’s famous phrase, Putin has committed both a crime and a blunder. The Russian military has shown itself to be corrupt and inefficient. The Ukrainians have shown themselves to be quite astonishingly stalwart defenders of their homeland. And the West has shown itself to be unpredictably united.
Of course, the problem with first drafts of history is that, while they may be finished with history, history is not finished with them. The conflict in Ukraine could still go in any number of directions. And while a Russian victory now looks unlikely, it is not obvious that Ukraine will emerge with its territory intact. Putin himself may yet act as dictators can when cornered. And while much of the world moves on, it is perfectly possible that the invasion of Ukraine becomes a conflict of attrition which goes on for a long time to come.
Yet it is on the question of the West that I am particularly uncertain about the first drafts currently circulating.
In some ways it is true that the Western alliances – especially Nato – have never looked stronger or more united. For 30 years, we had discussions of “whither Nato”. I took part in many of them myself. Well, the answer is the one that was staring us in the face all along. Any and all questions about the point of Nato fell apart the moment the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. The applications for membership from Sweden and other countries are a fine reminder of that fact. The swiftness with which the Western banking system and political sanction systems snapped into place was likewise a rather impressive moment of unity.
And yet, for all the talk of the West acting in concert, when it comes to responding to Putin’s aggression, the picture is far more fractious – and becoming more so. As far as I can see, there are three or four factions within what we might still call the Western alliance, and their various positions appear to be diverging as the war drags on.
First are those countries, including the UK, which foresaw Russia’s aggression and acted swiftly to support and arm our Ukrainian allies. It is this part of the Western alliance which is presenting the world with a vision of a united front. It is also this part that is most clear in its view that Putin must be seen to fail because, as President Zelenskyput it yesterday, brute force must not be allowed to rule the world.
But other camps remain. They have not fallen into line behind the likes of the UK, as some had expected. There are those who are indebted, not to say compromised, by their recent arrangements with Russia. Despite its promises of change, the most important country in Europe – Germany – is still severely compromised, from the top of its politics down, by decades-long cosying up to Putin. For energy reasons, and much more, there is still a strong strain of thought in Berlin which disdains what the British are doing in Ukraine.
They would like to go back to the status quo ante, to be able to import Russian energy cheaply and pass those gains on to German taxpayers, the better to grandstand about green energy and much more. Their promises of rearmament have so far come to little. The prolongation of the conflict has not encouraged them to shift faster away from their prior approach, but to drag their heels and hope that the old world can be restored. Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, has hesitated while others have acted.
Then there is the camp of the Elysée and the president there who believes that, if he keeps a line open with Putin, he might in some way solve the conflict. It is understandable that President Zelensky and others have lost patience with President Macron. For the French leader has done more than act as a middleman and he has done more than play both sides. He has dared to give advice to the Ukrainians such as (in a speech earlier this month) warning them not to give in to “temptation of humiliation or of the spirit of revenge”.
It is easy to sit in Paris and tell Ukrainians not to feel vengeful towards Russia. The Russians tanks did not roll into the French capital. Russian troops have not been committing war crimes in French towns and cities. Nevertheless, Macron seems to be limbering up to play the negotiating middleman – the person willing to offer up a portion of another nation’s territory, in a deal which he would never accept were the territory his own.
What makes all this much more difficult now is that there is a definite sense – most especially in Washington – that an opportunity has arisen to tie down Russia. This is the final camp. These are people who seem to see Putin’s slip-up as the perfect moment to not just encourage a Russian defeat but to enable a Kremlin catastrophe, perhaps by miring its forces in a conflict that they can never win.
A weakened Putin would undeniably have certain advantages. It would be good if he is no threat for some decades to come. But this theory forgets. firstly. that a prolonged conflict is easy to wish on people from thousands of miles away, less agreeable for the citizens of the Donbas and other regions. It also ignores the other consequences of this war continuing, including the impact of Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian food exports.
And if the point of this strategy is to somehow push Putin from office, that is simply not in the West’s power, even if it was agreed to be a desirable objective. Russian history suggests that palace coups do not always end bloodlessly. The US has a plan for how to get the nukes out of Pakistan if the Islamists ever take over that country. Does anyone have a plan for how to secure Russia’s nuclear sites if there is a putsch and internecine war at the top of Russian politics? The people urging regime change in Moscow ought to hope there is such a plan.
So the Western alliance is not as cohesive as we might like to think. Yes, we have been shocked by Putin this year. Yes we have been appalled by his actions. But about the question of what to do? That remains deeply unclear. The West is united in horror. But we are divided over what to do in its face.
Douglas Murray’s latest book is ‘The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason’