Ukrainian President Zelensky’s open signalling to the world that Ukraine would never become a NATO member signals the beginning of the end of Russia’s war in that country.
Until a formalised ceasefire, probably only a few days away, this statement has effectively won the war for Russia, a war that President Putin should have lost along with his presidency. When the historians pour over this period, many will marvel at the tactical victories that nimble Ukrainian Army units delivered to a plodding, ill-conceived and poorly commanded Russian invasion force. But ultimately, if Putin gets his way – a weak, ruined, neutral Ukraine with Crimea and the Donbas safely in the folds of Mother Russia – this is how this war will be remembered.
Also remembered will be NATO’s defensive defence posture.
So long as Russia did not stray too far into dangerous territory triggering a war with NATO, Moscow effectively carried out its war aims in non-NATO Ukraine. World War III was averted, and the human cost was limited to the targeted country only. This outcome will be considered a ‘good’ in and of itself by many. Furthermore, so long as NATO does not overtly antagonise Russia by establishing No-fly Zones, providing heavy weapons or boots on the ground, with the pall of nuclear war hanging over the conflict in Ukraine courtesy of Putin, NATO was robbed of using direct combat assistance as a deterrent to Russian action in Ukraine. All NATO would do was to provide light weapons, intelligence and training to Ukrainian forces. Knowing that NATO would do nothing beyond these actions sadly left Zelensky and Ukraine ‘hung out to dry.’
A protracted war in Ukraine or an eventual series of major tactical defeats on Russian forces might well have put so much pressure on the Putin regime that it could have cracked. A palace coup could have taken place in the Kremlin, seeing Putin dethroned. But this scenario brings with it some unpredictable outcomes. Who would replace Putin? Would the Kremlin launch into a series of internecine factional brawls with Russia lurching into social, political, and economic chaos? How would this affect the interlinked global economy? It wouldn’t just affect the bottom line of Russian oligarchs. And then, without a strong centre, Moscow might temporarily lose control of its nuclear arsenal. All very concerning points, however, if we can’t take the fight to the Russians and we are not wedded to the idea of a victorious Ukraine with a free choice to join either NATO or the European Union, what was Ukrainian resistance all about? From an objective, rational perspective, it would have been far better to have avoided the casualties, the displacements, the refugee flows and property damage in the first place by leaving Zelensky and the Ukrainians to themselves. Under those circumstances, Kyiv would have quickly folded and become part of Putin’s greater Russia. NATO would have hidden its strength behind its easternmost flank, safe in the knowledge that Putin would never step over the line to challenge it. Energy and agricultural goods and services would not have been disrupted to the degree they have been.
The question then has to be asked, was there an actual Western plan to counter Putin, not written on the back of a napkin at a boozy dinner in some European capital? If so, was it to test the vaunted Russian military by pitting the national spirit of Ukraine against it? This would have been the height of cynicism. Was it to bleed Putin of his status in Europe, not enough to foment a palace coup, but enough to weaken him in the eyes of his inner circle and the world?
Russia now stumbles to victory like a drunk prizefighter at a bar after the other guy got a few good shots in. Could there have been a different outcome to this war? No. NATO was not interested in pushing Russia to the point where it could have unleashed its WMDs. Putin’s calculation that he could outlast and outstare Brussels was true. As a result, there will be no trial of Vladimir Putin or his General Staff for war crimes in The Hague. Perhaps in absentia, but where is the justice in that? There will be minimal to no post-war reparations for Ukraine either. And to add insult to injury, we will all be quite happy to go back to business as usual as quickly as possible since the sanctions placed on Russia have also had negative consequences for the entire international community.
So, what was the point of this futile struggle? Zelensky will say words to the effect that the brave Ukrainian fighters fought to retain the sovereignty of Ukraine. And that is true. But what was the reward for this heroism? What he won’t say is that Kyiv will be effectively at the mercy of Russian military power whenever he or a future Ukrainian president dare resist Russian geopolitical objectives. The way that NATO played it, its defensive defence posture, is no deterrence to Putin. He knew that NATO had no stomach for a fight, especially an existential one where the use of nuclear weapons is threatened. The schoolyard bully will dominate the schoolyard if left unchallenged. It is simple tried and tested psychology. However, when confronted by superior force, the bully recalculates, backs down or is defeated and humiliated. Putin was not confronted by a superior force in NATO, Ukrainian fighters brave and skilled as they are, would never be able to overcome the mass of the Russian Army ranged against it.
There will be those who claim that a dignified Ukrainian defeat, in the guise of a negotiated settlement, was the best possible outcome since the stakes involved regarding escalation were too great, and no one wanted to fight World War III or see the collapse of Russia. However, a credible deterrence is all about being prepared and fighting an opponent, no matter the cost. This posture is how the West won the Cold War. A balance of power was created by being prepared to unleash hell, whereby only the desperate or insane would contemplate confrontation. The current war shows that NATO has minimal deterrence. That it can be intimidated to stay out of Putin’s way. This is a lesson that will have far-reaching consequences from Warsaw to Helsinki and from Brussels to Taipei. If the ‘Arc of Autocracy‘ cannot be countered proportionately, then it might be best to give it its bloodless victories and stop pretending that we care about democracy’s survival in out of the way places. The previous generations who fought wars for noble ends and who were prepared to sacrifice their blood and treasure are no more. The advent of nuclear weapons has certainly made policymakers more circumspect when confronting similarly armed countries and maybe that is a good thing. But for those countries which will use their nuclear status in innovative ways, the wars of the future will be deeply destabilising if left unchecked.