Tuesday 10 October 2023

Ukraine just lost the war


When Ukraine was invaded in 2022, I expected Russia to win quickly. Ukraine has put up a much better fight than most people expected. Let’s be clear. Russia has absolutely no justification either for its attacks in 2014 or in 2022.

The history of the region is complex and disputed. But when the Soviet Union broke up a sovereign nation state was created from the Ukrainian SSSR with its present internationally recognised borders.

But since the breakup of the Soviet Union there have been numerous territorial conquests and wars the latest in Nagorno Karabakh.

One of the major differences between Eastern Europe and Western Europe is that peoples are mixed and many borders are recent and created arbitrarily. At some point during the Soviet Union the border between the Azerbaijan SSR and the Armenian SSR was created. But no one at the time thought that it would ever be an international border and so it didn’t matter much who lived in Nagorno Karabakh and who didn’t.

The territorial evolution of what is now Ukraine is primarily due to the Russian Empire’s expansion southwards and westwards. For example, Peter the Great gained Kyiv from Poland in 1686. Catherine the Great gained Yedisan (now part of southern Ukraine) in 1792 and the Crimean Khanate in 1793.

Much of western Ukraine (Galicia) was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then part of Poland and finally annexed by the Soviet Union when it invaded Poland in 1939.

It is true that some Ukrainians fought for the Nazis in the Second World War. They also used this conflict to massacre Poles living in what had become Ukrainian territory.

But the 14th SS Division (Galicia) is not unusual. Many people from a variety of countries fought for the SS including Russians, Belarussians, Estonians, Latvians, French, Dutch and Scandinavians. Some people fought because they hoped a German victory would give their country independence. Some fought because they hated the Soviet Union or Communism. Some fought because they were in a prisoner of war camp and thought it was fight for the SS or die. 

Nearly everyone who fought for the SS and also for the Wehrmacht generally witnessed, cooperated with or committed atrocities in World War Two. But the Soviet Union likewise murdered its own people, murdered Polish officers at Katyn, sent both its own people and those that it conquered into exile or to the Gulag and imprisoned much of Eastern Europe for fifty years.  People caught in the middle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union faced dreadful choices.

Nowadays there are no more Nazis in Ukraine than in any other European country and rather fewer than in Russia.

Because of its complex history Ukraine is a mix of people. Historically there was a continuum of language. In the countryside and in Galicia people tended to speak Ukrainian. In the cities and in the East people tended to speak Russian. Some people spoke a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, but nearly everyone understood Russian as nearly everyone still does.

It is partly for this reason that the Russian Federation felt that it had a right to respond to the Euromaidan protests and the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych by annexing Crimea and parts of the Donbas.

Of course, Russia had no such right. Ukrainians had the right to revolt against their president if they wanted, though with hindsight it might have been wiser to have removed him by election.

There was no threat to Russian speakers in Crimea or the Donbas. Whatever policies Ukraine might have had about the Russian language are none of Russia’s business. It might however have been wiser to have given Ukrainian and Russian equal status in Ukraine.

It doesn’t matter if the majority of people living in Crimea, or the Donbas want to join Russia or who owned what when. There is in international law no right to secede from a sovereign nation state.

Unfortunately, while the West has generally upheld this view and has supported Ukraine’s right to territorial integrity it has not upheld it consistently. The EU for example supports Ireland’s right to annex Northern Ireland and was sympathetic to Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to use Brexit to help Scotland secede from the UK.

You either believe in the territorial integrity of the nation state everywhere or you undermine Ukraine’s fight to maintain its own territorial integrity.

Ukraine has been fighting heroically since February 2022 and really since 2014. It has been given Western support, but not enough to win.

The European Union in 2014 preferred business as usual with Russia and has remained divided since 2022. Germany and France have made it clear that they would prefer peace with Russia at Ukraine’s expense. Hungary and Slovakia support Russia. Poland initially made heroic efforts to help Ukrainian refugees but is now beginning to count the cost. The UK has provided weaponry, but is not the military power that it once was and can do little more without spending more on defence. The USA might like to defeat Russia, but is concerned above all with not provoking a wider conflict.

Ukraine has been subject to a drip drip of military aid and training, but has never been given enough modern weaponry or aircraft to decisively defeat Russia in the field. I think this may be deliberate. The Americans are scared of what would happen if Ukraine did defeat Russia.

The conflict in Israel unfortunately changes everything. Israel is strategically much more important to the West than Ukraine. The attention given to the war in Ukraine has already lessened and will lessen still further.

The Americans are more worried about their strategic rivalry with China than they are with Eastern Europe. Russia has already shown that it is no longer a strategic threat. If it cannot beat Ukraine, then Europeans ought to be able to defend their own continent. This is a reasonable assessment.

In June the Wagner Group was able in one day to get closer to Moscow than the German Wehrmacht in six months in 1941. It made Russia look inept.

The American priority may now be to make peace with Russia in order to tempt the Russians away from their alliance with China. Much will depend on the next presidential election. There is little sympathy with Ukraine among the Republicans.

If Ukraine cannot defeat Russia in the field and after a summer of little progress this has to be at least a possibility, then there are two ways forward. Either there is another frozen conflict where Crimea and the Donbas remain de jure part of Ukraine, but de facto part of Russia or there is a peace treaty, which will recognise the annexation. The West will push for a peace treaty when it accepts that the conflict cannot be ended militarily.

So long as there is a frozen conflict Ukraine will have little hope of joining either the EU or NATO. If there were a peace treaty, there would be more hope of that happening, but not much so long as Ukraine remains in Russia’s sphere of influence. NATO will not want to risk a border conflict with Russia. The EU would need a large part of its whole budget in Ukraine.

The cost to Ukraine has been enormous. Many of its cities and much of its infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. Many of its soldiers have been killed and maimed. But perhaps worst of all much of its population has fled. Ukraine’s population has declined from 43.5 million in 2021 to 36.7 million today. But Ukraine is bigger than both France and Spain. It desperately needs its people to return when it is safe to do so.

I believed there was a once in a century chance to defeat Russia decisively, but I fear the chance has been missed, perhaps deliberately. As the world looks elsewhere and looks to normalise relations with Russia the chance won’t come again for another hundred years.

Russia is responsible for much of the cruelty and suffering in Eastern Europe since 1917. We may have missed the chance to stop it doing so ever again.

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