Moscow isn’t about to agree to a reasonable peace deal with Ukraine. The Kremlin is under pressure to hit Kyiv even harder
JULIET SAMUEL 3 June 2022 • 8:00pm
“We’ve passed peak Western unity.” That was the bleak assessment from a senior Government source earlier this week. The EU just about managed to agree oil sanctions and the US, after a wobble, decided to send long-range rockets to Kyiv, but there is a constant sense of instability and effort about it all.
The cost of sanctions is spiralling and military stocks are running low. Some Western leaders seem to want to wind down Ukraine’s war effort. France’s Emmanuel Macron warned this week against the “humiliation” of a great power if Ukraine wins and Germany’s Olaf Scholz is still unable to say if he actually wants Ukraine to win. Worse, there is a sense of slowing momentum in the White House, with talk of further sanctions put off until the G7 amid the idea that Russia has suffered enough.
It is as if a band of Western politicians has decided they’d rather skip the war part and fast-forward to the bit where the combatants, exhausted and at a stalemate, are ready to compromise. The whole war, after all, is a terrible thing and, by the way, very, very expensive for Western voters, so can’t we just short-circuit it?
Just imagine if the world’s statesmen had followed this sort of advice before the war broke out, when Russia’s chief apologists claimed that Vladimir Putin wasn’t even going to march on Kyiv and when the experts said that, if he did, his army would quickly crush Ukraine’s and install a puppet regime. As the UK’s former Air Marshall Edward Stringer puts it: “The battlefield is not where wars are decided. It is where relative national power is revealed.” Ukraine’s commitment to nationhood has been revealed for all to see. Combined with Western firepower, it is a combination more potent than anyone had imagined.
Why, then, do so many European leaders seem determined to force Ukraine to the table? Why do they talk so loudly about territorial concessions? What makes them so convinced that there is a lasting peace to be had by giving ground now to a Russian regime that has revealed itself to be both weak and utterly committed to an expansionist, imperial ideology?
The would-be peaceniks present themselves both as humanitarians and realists, who think that the neuroses of “great powers” must be pandered to. The West, they say, is just setting up Ukraine for more suffering by pouring weapons into a territory that we all know is really Russia’s buffer zone. We’re told simultaneously that Ukraine is the weaker party, which can never truly defeat Russia, and that Russia is so brittle that if Kyiv is allowed its way, it will destabilise all of Eurasia.
Likewise, Russia’s most ardent imperialists argue both that Russia is the natural homeland of the “little Russians” we call Ukrainians, whose lands must be “gathered” together and united, and that if Moscow fails in this endeavour, the whole Russian project will fall apart. It would be interesting to hear these Russian chauvinists explain how exactly a territorial unit that is such a natural and obvious homeland for its peoples can possibly be so fragile. Their answer, no doubt, would be that it is somehow the West’s fault.
As for the risk of “humiliating” Russia, I cannot be the only one perplexed by the dilemma. Before the war, we were told that Russia had been “humiliated” by the expansion of Nato and the very existence of Ukraine. Indeed, just days into the war, Russian state media accidentally published and then hastily unpublished an article hailing Putin’s easy victory – the one they had expected – as an act that had put an end to “national humiliation – when the Russian house… lost part of its foundation [Kyiv]”.
Now that the war is going so abominably for Putin and the prospect of his regaining Kyiv has faded, we are told that Russia is being “humiliated” by its failure and the West’s power. So answer me this: if these proud Russians feel “humiliated” by the historic loss of Ukraine and then feel “humiliated” by Russia’s attempt to regain Ukraine, who is responsible for this lamentable sense of low self-esteem? It ought to be abundantly clear that if anyone is, in fact, “humiliating” Russia, it is the country’s own venal, incompetent and belligerent government.
Rather than indulging this imperial psychodrama, we ought to notice a more telling pattern in the Putin regime’s behaviour, which is that whenever he senses weakness or a lack of resolve on the part of his enemies, it emboldens him. That is why all this spineless chat from Mr Macron and Mr Scholz is so damaging. Have they learned nothing from Georgia and Crimea, or from Litvinenko and Skripal? Have they not noticed that, whenever the West prevaricates or sells out, Mr Putin’s ambitions only expand? It can hardly be a coincidence that all the countries Moscow has attacked since 1990 are non-Nato members, whereas the Nato members, despite many having been “historically Russia” as Mr Putin put it, have been left alone.
This dynamic is sadly lost on Germany. Mr Scholz is playing a cynical game with his Ukraine policy, boasting one day of the weaponry Berlin supplies, and the next day claiming to have sent kit that its recipients say they never received. Let’s hope the missiles he promised this week actually arrive, unlike the tanks Poland was promised. He appears to see it as Germany’s constitutional role in Nato to undermine its credibility, like a captain brandishing a sword in one hand and a feather duster in the other. Attack and who knows which one you’ll get? Far from de-escalating and “avoiding World War Three”, as the Germans like to see it, Berlin’s mixed signals are almost an invitation for Russia to keep going, in the hope Western resolve will crumble.
The problem is that, despite its thrashing at the hands of the smaller Ukrainian forces, Moscow is trapped in its own ideological prism. It has shrunk down its war aims for the moment out of sheer necessity, but Putin remains under pressure to broaden them out again when the opportunity arises.
The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, on which he relies for much of his legitimacy, will never let go of its schismatic cousin in Ukraine. And on Monday, a former Russian Federal Security Service officer who has played a major role in Moscow’s Ukrainian incursions since 2014, accused the Kremlin of “appeasement” for switching its focus away from full conquest of Ukraine. The Institute for War Studies reports that “the Kremlin is increasingly facing discontent not from Russians opposed to the war as a whole, but military and nationalist figures”. So long as Putin is beholden to the logic of imperial “greatness”, there is little to negotiate.
One of the greatest rationales for Moscow’s war was that the West was in terminal decline and had no stomach for a fight. So for any lasting peace to emerge, the West and its allies must win and be seen to win. This does not mean imposing some sort of punitive Treaty of Versailles on Russia, but it does mean that Ukraine’s right to exist must be accepted. If, in the process, Putin’s empire is revealed for the basket-case it is, he has no one to blame but himself.