“Why are we in Ukraine?”: the cover of the June issue of Harper’s Magazine was dominated by this question. It was a nod, of course, to Norman Mailer’s 1967 novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?. The accompanying article, by Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne, was an undistinguished exercise in by-the-numbers Nato-bashing, with every conceivable excuse made for Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion in February 2022 of a sovereign state.
Still, the question is always worth asking – especially in the wake of the extraordinary drama that played out in Russia over the weekend. Since the first missiles rained down on Ukraine as Putin’s “special military operation” was launched, it has been orthodox to allege that the Russian leader is implacable, unbreakable, and would happily deploy nuclear weapons before accepting defeat.
Parts of that psychological portrait may still be true. But after his ignominious deal on Saturday with Yevgeny Prigozhin, only a few hours after he had sworn to visit a terrible vengeance upon the mercenary warlord and his supporters, we must significantly amend its core assumption about Putin’s limitations.
Yes, Prigozhin blinked, halting his “March of Justice” 125 miles outside Moscow. And let’s face it: you would not take bets on his longevity: he will need a Geiger counter every time he orders a cup of coffee.
But Putin blinked too, allowing the leader of the Wagner Group (or at least part of it) to go into exile in Belarus, conspicuously declining to crush his former-ally-turned-traitor – perhaps because he could not. An open attack on the rule of the capo di tutti capi has been made by a rival gangster family. The big boss has survived. But the mere fact of the assault – and the negligible popular support for Putin – has left him seriously debilitated.
What does this mean for Volodymyr Zelensky, the people of Ukraine and their allies around the world? Perhaps a very great deal. In Western foreign policy circles, there has been much talk in the past six months of the “unwinnability” of the war, and the need for an armistice modelled upon the 1953 Korean agreement. But, to borrow the metaphor used by Tony Blair after 9/11, “the kaleidoscope has been shaken”. Even after the failed mutiny, Putin remains capricious, paranoid, vindictive. But – as strongmen leaders go – he also looks, quite suddenly, on the weak side.
Those in Westminster and Whitehall I have spoken to in the past 48 hours are understandably preoccupied by the alarming prospect of what passes for the Russian state simply imploding. “Prigozhin got as close to the capital as Birmingham is to London,” says one official engaged in defence strategy. “Imagine the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world falling into the hands of a vicious gangster who used to sell hotdogs. Let’s just say it focuses the mind. What the fuck comes next?”
All the same: nobody denies that the crisis in Russia and the war in Ukraine are intimately connected. How could it be otherwise? For a start, the disaggregation of the Wagner Group has robbed Putin of one of his most reliably brutal forces in the conflict; a force that was primarily responsible (for example) for the fall of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine last month.
In a broader sense, the geopolitical psychodrama played out over the weekend strengthens the case for a rapid acceleration of the Ukrainian counter-offensive and a redoubling of Western military aid – a matter that will be front and centre at the Nato summit in Vilnius on July 11 and 12.
Now, more than ever, it is necessary to remind ourselves why the conflict matters far beyond the borders of Ukraine, as it has since February 24, 2022. If Putin is facing his endgame – however protracted – it is of the greatest importance to focus on why we have been assisting Ukraine from the very start.
Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and the UK’s support for Zelensky has been a consistent decency of the otherwise dismal Johnson-Truss-Sunak era. As a proportion of GDP, our aid commitments have outstripped those made by the US. When asked by YouGov in February what position best matched their own opinions, 53 percent of Britons answered: “to support Ukraine in its efforts against Russia until such a time that Russia withdraws from the country, even if this means the war and its effects last longer”.
Yet the support for military interventions of Western publics – even when their own forces are not in immediate harm’s way – has been notoriously volatile, especially since the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As far back as 1947, Truong Chinh, the secretary general of the Vietnamese Communist Party recognised the phenomenon that was not yet called attention deficit. “The war,” he said, “must be prolonged, and we must have time. Time is on our side – time will be our best strategist”.
In the US, support for Ukraine is much more imperilled than it is in the UK. On the Republican side, the leading presidential contenders do not disguise their enthusiasm to disentangle America from the conflict. Ron DeSantis calls, euphemistically, for a “truce” (he means an end to the conflict, even if it involves selling out Ukraine). In a radio interview with Sean Hannity in March, Donald Trump was more candid about his readiness to betray the Ukrainian cause: “I could have negotiated. At worst, I could’ve made a deal to take over something, there are certain areas that are Russian-speaking areas, frankly, but you could’ve worked a deal” (my italics).
On the liberal side, Joe Biden’s challenger for the Democratic nomination, Robert F Kennedy Jr, slavishly follows the script written by Moscow’s influencers: namely that it is all Nato’s fault and that we should be more sympathetic to the embattled Russians. So, too, does the venerable voice of the US Left, Noam Chomsky.
Not all American political trends survive the journey over the Atlantic. But many do. It is not inconceivable the British public – worn down by soaring inflation, interest rates and taxes – may finally lose patience with what Chamberlain would have called a “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. So it as well to be ready with rebuttals in hand, at a moment when the resistance to Russia’s aggression will certainly be entering a new and crucial phase.
Above all else, we are committed to Ukraine because we promised to be. In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the UK undertook (along with the US and Russia) to respect its territorial integrity, in return for its handing over of the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile. Putin has dishonoured this agreement repeatedly – most egregiously in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Time and again, the West appeased him; and he acted accordingly. But the invasion of Ukraine was (if sovereign borders are to mean anything in the 21 st Century) a step too far.
This specific argument leads to a much more general zone of contestation. Do we still believe in the international rules-based order or not? In Ukraine, its most basic principles – international law, national sovereignty, liberal democracy, and the impermissibility of crimes against humanity – are being tested in real time, every day.
If you haven’t already, do read Christina Lamb’s gruelling account in the Sunday Times of June 17 of the Russians’ routine use of castration both as a means of torturing captive Ukrainian soldiers and a form of ritual mutilation. Remember the systematic rape of Ukrainian civilian women, the abduction of their children, the daily My Lai massacres in cities such as Bucha and Mariupol. Then consider the Responsibility to Protect (or R2P), enshrined by the United Nations in 2005.
According to the UN’s general secretary at the time, Kofi Annan, the world had taken “collective responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. Eighteen years later, we are morally obliged to show that he was right – unless we choose to make that supposedly historic commitment null and void and render meaningless the notion of an “international community”.
It was the former US vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, who said that “foreign policy is really domestic policy with its hat on.” In our hyper-modern world of interconnectedness and interdependence, the two are (or should be) all but indistinguishable. Ukraine is – or was – “the food basket of the world”, supplying wheat, corn and sunflowers all over the planet. Putin’s invasion has not only upended the global energy market. It has imperilled food security within and far beyond Ukraine.
The flipside of our age – the nativist, nationalist hemisphere of the collective human brain – recoils from such supranational realities. The notion of national autarchy, or self-sufficiency, has made an absurd comeback. There is an isolationist strand to contemporary foreign policy, encapsulated most grotesquely in the retreat from Kabul in August 2021, that resists all commitments to foreign countries or causes.
In this country, the bovine platitudes of Brexit now haunt all discussion of global military, diplomatic or development strategy. But such platitudes should be resisted fiercely. Whether or not the autocrats and populists like it, the nations of the world are knitted together in mutual dependence and commonality of interest. “Let us remember that the test of this moment is the test of all time”: so said Biden last March in Warsaw, in one of the finest speeches of his political career. The conflict in Ukraine, the US president said, was the front line in the battle between democracy and autocracy, between international rules and local anarchy, between reality and post-truth.
And these are more than abstractions. In the past few days, we have seen what a failed superpower looks like as its institutions are replaced by murderous cults of personality and conspiracy theories; as the rule of law is swept away by permanent battle between gangster armies; as might displaces right absolutely and at every level of society. Is that a future in which we want to be complicit?
As Robert T Kagan argues in his indispensable 2018 guide to contemporary geopolitics, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperilled World, it is simply not a credible option to avert our gaze or bury our heads in the sand: “The liberal order is as precarious as it is precious. It is a garden that needs constant tending less the jungle grow back and engulf us all”.
That is why we are engaged in Ukraine. That is why the conflict is even more important than it was only a few days ago. That is why we must do whatever it takes to ensure that Zelensky and the people of Ukraine prevail.