‘Best’ way Ukraine War ends may be most dangerous


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The war in Ukraine looks set to move to the next level. One signal came in a passing reference about tea this week. On Wednesday, in a speech to the UK Parliament, President Zelensky reminisced about his last visit to the Westminster in 2020. On that occasion he said his hosts had given him “delicious English tea.” He continued, “I will be leaving Parliament today, thanking you all in advance for powerful English planes.”

It was a cheeky way to make the request, but as so often Zelensky knew what he was doing. The assembled Parliamentarians strongly applauded his statement. Yesterday Zelensky made a similar request to the European Parliament in Brussels. MEPs also gave him a standing ovation.

But here’s the thing. Only weeks — if not days — ago, providing Ukraine with fighter jets was still one of the no-go’s of the conflict. From the start of the Russian invasion NATO chose — rightly in my view — to help arm Ukraine.

The only other options were to allow Russia to win, swallow up a country and destabilize all of Europe, or to send American and other troops to the conflict. Thankfully, unlike other conflicts America has recently been involved in, the Ukrainians want to liberate themselves and just need the tools. This doesn’t require any American lives to be risked.

Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have intensified in recent weeks.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Still there have been some red-lines for NATO. And what is notable is how they have shifted. For instance, only a few months ago it was thought impossible for the Europeans to provide Ukraine with tanks. Then last month the German government and others finally gave into public and political pressure and agreed to provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Similarly, days ago the provision of planes to Ukraine looked like a step too far. Only for lawmakers in London and Brussels to applaud the idea.

Even the most casual observer of this can see that there is an escalation going on. Not in the conflict itself, which has been bloody from the outset. But in NATO’s commitment to Ukraine.

Everybody from Joe Biden to a clapped out rocker from Pink Floyd have views on how to end the conflict. But this week’s event should remind us there are only four possible end-games.

The first is a slow Russian victory. In terms of men, if almost nothing else, Russia has the ability to make this war grind on. The Kremlin is totally unbothered about loss of human life and will show — as Russian regimes have throughout history — that its own men, let alone their opponents, are just cannon fodder. They are dispensable and almost endlessly replaceable. If Ukraine does not have a weapons advantage then time and numbers will be on Russia’s side for Putin to achieve his hollow victory.

The second option is a fast Russian victory, most likely caused by Putin doing something so appalling — such as using a non-conventional weapon — that the war is terrorized to a stop.

Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the EU Parliament about sending arms.
AFP via Getty Images

Option three is a fast Ukrainian victory. This is something that Zelensky and others obviously dream of. They dream of pushing Russia back to the borders of Ukraine that they invaded last year, perhaps also of taking back Crimea which the Russians seized in 2014. You sometimes hear people saying “Well why don’t we just give the Ukrainians everything they need now.” And there is an answer to that, which is the fourth option: a medium to slow Ukrainian victory. This is what NATO appears to be aiming for.

This is not because NATO wants to prolong the war or needlessly draw out the suffering of the Ukrainian people. It is because in many ways a swift Ukrainian victory could be the most dangerous for the region. Because it is the one most likely to provoke Putin to try for that second, fast, victory himself.

As I said here last year, Vladimir Putin will most likely have to retreat at some point. Like a snake that has tried to eat an ox, Ukraine has proved too much for Russia to digest. It is more of a country — with more of an army — than the Kremlin imagined. Putin may have been able to lie in the sun for eight years digesting Crimea, but everyone can now see that with last year’s invasion he over-ate. Putin will need an off-ramp of some kind and a means of claiming “mission accomplished” to his own people.

A swift crumpling of the Russian forces, let alone a rout, risks Putin doing something unspeakable. He has hinted at such things in calls with world leaders and everybody has their own opinion over the extent to which he is bluffing or serious. Of course we have to treat him seriously. Yet the world cannot be blackmailed into doing nothing because of a man hinting he might do anything.

Nobody wants to find out. But that is why NATO is playing this step-by-step game. If we had given Ukraine everything they needed a year ago perhaps Ukraine could have won by now. But it is also possible this would have triggered Putin’s own red-lines. Not for the first time cool heads and a steady nerve are going to be needed. Let’s hope the supplies of these aren’t as depleted as they sometimes seem.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin has continued his attacks on Ukraine.

The ‘Last’ for me

I know it´s on everyone´s lips, and every billboard in town, but I’ve had enough of “The Last of Us.”

I like a zombie apocalypse movie as much as the next guy, but refuse to be force-fed morally improving lessons in an adaptation of a video-game.

The first warning sign was that a surprising amount of the post-apocalypse society is led by women.  Because strong women have to feature in every film at the moment.

But I just watched episode 3 of HBO’s blockbuster new series and I give up.  Suddenly the whole plot (such as it is) stops and there’s a full hour-long gay love story that has nothing to do with anything.  I know the maker’s thinking.  “We know you horror fans and we think watching this interminable gay love story will be good for you.”  But I don´t think anyone is shocked, or improved.  We´re just bored.

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