By Nick Eriksen
Let’s briefly begin by travelling back in time. Today’s Ukrainian crisis started in November 2013, with massive demonstrations in the main square in Kiev. The trigger for the protests was the decision by President Yanukovich (elected in 2010) to change government policy and reject a closer relationship with the EU and instead join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. Months of unremitting protests, effectively an uprising, led to him being toppled in February 2014 and fleeing to Russia. But Isaac Newton’s third law of motion stipulates that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the same is often true in politics. So it was that while the western part of Ukraine – in both the geographic and cultural/political sense – was happy, the eastern and more ethnically Russian part (known as the Donbas) was not. Also while they celebrated in Kiev, they began fighting in Donbas and Crimea, the other pro-Russian stronghold. This gave Putin the excuse and opportunity to enter these areas (to ‘provide humanitarian aid’) and take control of them – either in whole (as in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia) or in part (as in Donbas).
All this was reported in detail on the nightly news on our televisions, and you probably remember it, but what happened when the media, suffering as they always do from attention-deficit disorder, got bored and went away? We were assured that a peace agreement had been signed – the Minsk accord, giving limited self-rule to the separatist-controlled regions – and therefore all would be well. But far from it. The Minsk agreement was never honoured by either side, fighting in the Donbas continued, albeit sporadically, while Crimea had their water supply cut off by Ukraine, causing them severe and increasing hardship. Clearly this continuing conflict had to be resolved for the sake of the local inhabitants, but Putin’s decision to launch a general invasion, at this particular time, is not just baffling but clearly very, very wrong in every respect. So what was going through his head?
Was it NATO? Putin has bitterly objected to the notion of Ukraine joining NATO. It is certainly true that Ukraine has asked to join, NATO agreed in 2008 that they should do so, they have signed a Charter to develop closer cooperation, and as partners Ukraine has taken part in NATO-led missions. So while this is the plan, it’s definitely not going to happen any time soon. NATO have not even begun formal discussions to take this forward, and there is no way they will allow a country with an ongoing conflict to join. So this is obviously not a pressing concern to the Kremlin. NATO countries say it shouldn’t be a concern at all, given that they are purely defensive and would never attack Russia, but the US response to Castro’s Cuba proves that they would not be happy if the roles were reversed, so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
A solution worth considering therefore is surely for Ukraine to adopt the Austrian solution: a state treaty and declaration of permanent neutrality. My Ukrainian friends might baulk at this, claiming it would reward Russian aggression, but this is an emotional response. Looking at this logically, the purpose of NATO membership – a guarantee of freedom – would be equally achieved by neutrality, and at a lower cost too. Neutrality is not weakness, and Austria is nobody’s puppet. Austrians are very happy with their situation and I suspect Ukrainians would be too. An offer of neutrality would also reveal the truth: is this really Putin’s motivation?
If he were to refuse this offer it would expose his duplicity and prove that the reason for this invasion is simply what many have claimed: Putin views himself as a new Tsar and wants to recreate the greater Russia of the past. He has stated that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that large parts of Ukraine are historically Russian territory which was arbitrarily given away by communist leaders during the Soviet period. But Nicholas II was related to the British royal family and he was friendly towards us, whereas Putin certainly is not. His attacks on Russian dissidents and exiles in Britain have recklessly endangered British lives and shown a complete disregard and contempt for our country, and his military forces constantly approach our borders to test our defences. In reality, however, Putin’s desire to reintegrate Ukraine into the Russian empire is probably just as much tactical as emotional. Just under a year ago, with admirable foresight, a leading US think tank published an article stating that “the Black Sea could emerge as the world’s next great energy battleground”.
The fact is that vast gas reserves have been discovered under the Black Sea, and all the littoral states – Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and, of course, Ukraine – are rushing to extract this. While the British government, in an idiotic and treacherous act of self-harm, ignores our natural gas and oil reserves under the North Sea, these countries are not so stupid and intend to benefit from the wealth that nature has provided them. Russia is a country almost entirely dependent on mineral and hydrocarbon resources and exports, and Putin would not want a rival like Ukraine to eat his lunch by exporting gas to the EU. The annexation of Crimea has already gained him a large slice of the Black Sea, and his current military operations make it obvious that he now wants to occupy the rest of Ukraine’s coastal area.
So I do not believe that Putin is a danger to other neighbouring countries – such as Poland or the Baltic states – as not only are these NATO members but they do not offer any material benefit to Russia. Besides, the one good thing to come out of Putin’s disastrous misadventure in Ukraine is that it has exposed how weak the Russian military truly is. Their soldiers are poorly trained and unwilling to fight, throwing down their weapons and surrendering or walking away at the first opportunity. The generals are grossly incompetent, failing to properly plan the operation, leaving troops without food, vehicles without fuel and missing all their targets. Russia’s weapons and hardware are more reminiscent of second world war relics than modern fighting machines. Ukraine’s soldiers, armed with British shoulder-launched rockets, have been having a field day, destroying tanks and helicopters at will and bringing Russian attacks to a standstill. Other modern weaponry, such as drones, has also made mincemeat of Russia’s army of lumbering antiques. Ukraine’s main problem is logistics: getting the weapons to the front line.
So, what is the future? What can we do and what can we expect to happen next? While we in Britain have nothing to fear from Russia’s bumbling army, Ukrainians are dying and their suffering is going to intensify. Russia’s military is likely to become more vicious and start attacking civilian targets, food and medical supplies in the cities will run out very soon, and gas and electricity may well be cut off, which in winter means that conditions will become intolerable. A ceasefire must be encouraged, but is this even possible? Ukraine could propose neutrality, as I have already suggested, but if this is rejected what else could they offer? Should they offer anything at all? Unless Kiev is willing to relinquish Crimea and the Donbas to Russia their best option is likely to be to form a government-in-exile and continue a campaign of hit-and-run attacks on Russian soldiers to make their occupation as painful as possible. Ukraine is approximately 200,000 square miles in size; the number of Russian troops available equates to fewer than one soldier per square mile. How can they possibly keep the country under control?
Putin has badly miscalculated. Whether this is due to his own arrogance or the poor advice of his inept generals, there is no doubt that he expected a swift conquest and quick Ukrainian surrender. This has not happened and now he has to either come to a early deal with the Ukraine’s President Zelensky, or he will have to go all in for a long and bitter conflict. If he chooses the latter I believe he will be finished. Although most Russians currently believe the ridiculous Kremlin narrative that this is an operation to liberate Ukraine, this will not last long. The cost, both financial and in lives, will soon become apparent, and Russians have no tolerance for national humiliation resulting from military failure. Putin’s imperious domination of Russian politics has depended on his image of strength and competence. Once these are lost then so is he. I started with a short recent history so let me end by looking back a little further: After Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 there was an uprising which almost overthrew the Tsar. Although he just about managed to survive that, Russia’s succession of military defeats in the First World War led to the more successful revolution in 1917 which saw him overthrown and executed. Moscow’s humiliation in the Cuban missile crisis led directly to the Kremlin palace coup that brought down soviet leader Khrushchev in 1964. Furthermore, Russia’s bloody struggles in Afghanistan, from which they had to ignominiously withdraw in 1989, led directly to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
So a slow and painful failure in Ukraine will bring down Putin, either in a coup or through popular revolt. Unless he is either too deluded or too stupid to see this he will surely be willing to come to an early agreement with Kiev and then withdraw. The alternative is many more deaths and much more human suffering. While moral indignation may mean that Zelensky and the West in general are reluctant to do a deal with Putin now, it would probably be best for the people of Ukraine. At this stage there is no ideal outcome – we just have to hope for the least bad.