It is bizarre that calls for peace talks pick up every time Kyiv shows its ability to take back territory from the Russians
CHARLES MOORE 18 November 2022 • 9:00pm
The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement is a domestic economic event. The audience understandably listens out for what will happen to our taxes, benefits and public services. It does not think much about the wider world. But this year, the statement had a strong global backdrop.
Jeremy Hunt briefly explained. Inflation had begun largely as a response to Covid-19, he said. Then it had been “worsened by a ‘Made in Russia’ energy crisis”. Because of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, wholesale gas and electricity prices have risen “to eight times their historic average”.
According to the IMF, the Chancellor went on, a third of the world’s economy will therefore be in recession “this year or next”. In response to Russia’s “weaponisation of international gas prices”, the Government was working to ensure energy independence, so that “neither Putin nor anyone else can use energy to blackmail us”.
When it comes to defence spending, then, Britain’s £4.3 billion on Ukraine (more than any other European nation) is not only an act of sympathy for its brave people. It is also a down-payment on future energy security.
So it could be said – though, not surprisingly, Mr Hunt did not say it – that both our recent crises have been caused by totalitarian/authoritarian states.
Possibly through its secret experiments, certainly through its concealment of infection, China unleashed a plague upon the whole world. Through its illegal, unprovoked and grotesquely violent invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia is trying to make not only its direct victim, but also the wider world, so hungry, cold or frightened that it gives Putin what he wants. The “Made in Russia” energy crisis has global political intent.
Putin’s revolting behaviour is highly visible. Every time he loses a region or city – Kherson last week – which he had previously captured, lootings, kidnappings, rape victims, torture chambers, unburied bodies and unmarked graves are discovered. Some attack him for “indiscriminate” bombing, but that is the wrong word (though his bombs often miss). He does discriminate – against civilians and the installations which give them the electric power, or heat or water they need. He wants to break them.
These are all reported with horror, yet I am not sure Putin’s evil individual deeds are sufficiently linked by Western media or leaders with what 19th-century writers would have called his “fell purposes”.
Putin is not doing this just for fun, although one gets the horrible sense that he and his followers are sadists who positively enjoy their work. He is trying to show that the Western civilisation which he hates is too weak to confront him.
To do this, he tries to enlist its enemies. Iran is providing his drones, and now there is talk of it supplying him with ballistic missiles against which Nato’s defence industries have little to offer. If he were proved right about our feebleness, the world balance of power would alter in favour of this Slavic Sauron and of those – notably China, as well as Iran – who wish us ill. Not for nothing do the Ukrainians refer to the Russian soldiers they resist as “Orcs”.
Western news bulletins often manage to combine shocking reports of Russian atrocities with hopeful accounts of “peace moves”, without seeing how the former undermine the latter. Even stranger is the fact that whenever the Ukrainians win a resounding victory – the Russians’ early retreat from the road to Kyiv, their defeat in Kharkiv, now their flight from Kherson – the cry among some Western political or military leaders goes up for Ukraine to come to the table.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US joint chiefs, recently told a Pentagon briefing that Ukraine could not expect to regain the whole of its occupied country: now would be a good time “to negotiate from a position of strength”, because Russia is “on its back”. In a speech the week before in New York, he saw the coming winter as a “window of opportunity” for a negotiated settlement.
On the Continent, President Macron of France still touts his services as peacemaker in the diplomatic marketplace. Here in Britain, retired generals such as Lord Richards, former chief of the defence staff, warn of “General Winter” and say it is “not in anyone’s interest” for the war to continue.
Such views take little account of the Ukrainians. In February, their government could have been decapitated within days by a Russian coup. Instead, President Zelensky famously refused a ride. Backed by American, British and Polish training and kit, his armed forces drove the Russians back. Since then, although the cost in lives and money has been agonising, the Ukrainians have won at every turn, exposing Russian corruption, barbarity and military incompetence.
There seems little reason to defer to the old cliché that the Russians always win in the snow. They have done so when invaded, not as the aggressors they now are. Besides, Ukraine has among its allies some of the greatest winter-war experts: Finland, Sweden, Poland. Judging by the Russian conscripts’ ragged uniforms and downtrodden look, it is they who are literally exposed to the freeze.
In contrast, the Ukrainians have appeared well-trained, well-disciplined, well-informed and with sky-high morale throughout. While the Russians have tried to terrify us by boasting of generals who were “the butcher of Syria” or “General Armageddon”, the Ukrainian military have not paraded vainglorious or brutal hero-leaders. They have professionally, almost anonymously, got on with the job.
After achieving so much, against expectation, Zelensky and his men could not give up now, even if they wanted to. Putin was 100 per cent wrong to invade, and the people whose country he invaded will justifiably insist on his being 100 per cent out of it.
They probably could not achieve this without continued large-scale Western aid. But that is precisely why suggestions about peace “feelers” help Putin. Although his military record has been terrible, he remains resourceful at playing on Western nerves.
At first, many, including General Milley, thought that his mighty show of force would win in a couple of days. Then Putin frightened us badly (and still, to some extent, does) over oil, gas and grain. Then – and simultaneously – he talked darkly of nuclear options. Other threats include cyber-war, an “unshakeable bond” with China, and imported Middle-Eastern killers. The more he sees us looking for a way out because of his threats, the more he will feel emboldened to fight on.
We in the West still have not fully acknowledged how close we came – and might still come – to a geopolitical defeat. If it had not been for Zelensky and his people, we would have continued a process which we first permitted in 2014: the changing of European borders by force. A great European country which, 30 years ago, we helped to liberate, would have been subjugated by the invader’s violence. We would have signalled our impotence to the wider world, with dire global consequences.
Now it feels different. Last week in Bali, a less assertive Xi Jinping seemed to join the US in disapproval of Putin’s nuclear threats, perhaps realising that he had let his country unshakeably bond with a gangster rather than a great power. It does look possible that, with our help, Ukraine can win. Why would we not want that? We should jettison our outdated respect for Russia as an impressively permanent feature of the international order and recognise that, under Putin, it has become a rogue state. We should help Ukraine unstintingly.