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Geopolitics & Security

The Immediate Challenge in Ukraine: Maximum Pressure Combined With Structured Negotiation

Commentary15th March 2022

Putin has badly miscalculated. The parallel from Russian history he should have drawn is Russian defence of their homeland from the invasions first of Napoleon and then Hitler.

The Ukrainians are now fighting for their homeland with a bravery, determination and skill which has rightly fired the imagination of a large part of the world.

The West, after a hesitant start, has impressively united to assemble a vast arsenal of sanctions which will over time collapse the Russian economy.

Even if Putin succeeds in subjugating Ukraine by brute force, which is not at this point clear, such subjugation cannot be sustained.

I am confident that in the end Ukraine will emerge as a strong independent nation.

And in the end, this aggression may well herald the downfall of Putin.

Those Russians with no access to information other than through the state propaganda machine may support his action, but many younger and better informed Russians will regard it as a complete disaster, making the country “a stench in the nostrils” of the world, to use the old Biblical words, and destroying what was left of their ambitions to become properly connected to the global economy.  

But the operative phrase is “in the end”.

The question is: how long lasts the agony, how widely stretches the arena of conflict, how much of the world does he pull down around him, as he descends into the abyss.

The danger is that we are witnessing the third incarnation of Putin: first he was the Western-oriented leader I met more than two decades ago, in St Petersburg, wanting to reform Russia; second he became the autocrat, accumulating personal wealth and unfettered power, a Russian nationalist intent on rebuilding the Russian sphere of influence – but though cold-blooded, still calculating.

The anxiety is a third incarnation, Putin detached from reality, and with no one around him prepared to tell him the truth.

I have visited Ukraine at least once a year since 2007, and the Institute has a longstanding project there. Anyone who knows Ukrainians, particularly the young Europe-oriented cadres who represent the country’s future and who are increasingly forming the backbone of its government, knows the idea of them wanting to live under the heel of Putin’s Russia is an absurdity.

They say they will fight to the last drop of blood and they mean it.

The question to which no one knows the answer is: to what extent does Putin retain some ability to conduct policy rationally?

Is there method in what to many seems madness? Has he launched this war to extract concessions, in respect of Ukraine’s future or its territory, or does he seriously believe he can govern a nation of 45 million people against their will, when even in Kharkiv he has faced bitter resistance, and has lost in four weeks a third to a quarter of the troops the Soviet Union lost in the ten years of occupying Afghanistan?

Comparisons with the second world war are easy to make. Put the television pictures in black and white and they could be from the 1940s.

But the differences are more important. Hitler led a Europe-wide fascist movement. Putin’s war is a one-man mission. More significant, Britain and the USA committed armed force to destroy Hitler. We have not made that commitment in respect of Putin. Indeed, we have gone out of our way to eschew it. The fighting will be done by Ukrainians.

And if the Russian army – for sure underperforming and as it turns out badly trained – uses its full military might, it will be tough for Ukraine to prevail in the short term, at least without terrible loss of life.

The West therefore needs a two-pronged strategy: ratchet up maximum pressure; and, at the same time, push for negotiation.

The pressure should be stated and clear. We knew for months this aggression was being planned. I favoured before the invasion a NATO conference held in person in Eastern Europe led by the president of the United States, which would have detailed all the different measures we would take if the invasion happened. It may be that nothing would have deterred Putin, but the toughest measures came after the invasion, and therefore had a punitive but not deterrent effect.

We should lay out now the further measures we will take in the event of escalation, and these should include:

  • Further economic sanctions and complete ostracisation from the international financial community.

  • An adjustment in our energy mix, which allows us credibly to relieve Europe of dependence on Russian gas and oil faster, and to allow us to ban or levy a punitive tax on Russian exports. We will need changes in European and American policy around fossil-fuel extraction, nuclear and even the temporary use of coal.

  • A warning to Belarus, whose people do not support Putin’s actions, that it will pay a heavy price if it enters the war.

  • Above all, the supply of weapons to Ukraine – particularly an uplift in surface-to-air missile (SAM) capacity and a commitment that arming Ukraine will be ongoing and will cover the full range of its needed capabilities.

I understand and accept that there is not political support for any direct military engagement by NATO of Russia. But we should be clear-eyed about what Putin is doing. He is using our correct desire not to provoke escalation alongside his willingness to escalate as a bargaining chip against us. When he is threatening NATO, even stoking fears of nuclear conflict, in pursuit of his attempt to topple by force a peaceful nation’s democratically elected president and wage war on its people, there is something incongruous about our repeated reassurance to him that we will not react with force.

I accept the reasoning behind our stance. But suppose he uses chemical weapons or a tactical nuclear weapon, or tries to destroy Kyiv as he did Aleppo in Syria, without any regard to the loss of civilian life – is it sensible to tell him in advance that whatever he does militarily, we will rule out any form of military response? Maybe that is our position and maybe that is the right position, but continually signalling it, and removing doubt in his mind, is a strange tactic.

This posture underlines the importance of the other prong of the strategy: a concerted and structured push for a negotiated settlement.

There will be those who say, rightly, that Putin deserves nothing but total defeat.

But the burden of this struggle is being borne by Ukrainians, not by us.

And the long-term punishment for Putin will rest not only on sanctions, but on the voluntary dissociation from Russia – country and corporate – which will not end until the end of his rule.

The next two weeks may be the last chance to achieve a negotiated settlement before the assault on Kyiv becomes worse, the Ukrainian people become hostile to any negotiation, or Putin faces a binary choice between “double down” or retreat.

And we should not underestimate the real economic price the world will pay for continued conflict with steep rises in fuel prices, food prices, global trade and inflation, as ever hitting the poorest in our society the worst.     

The representatives of Ukraine and Russia are meeting. Israel and Turkey have been trying to mediate. The United States and China are in discussion. Chancellor Scholz and President Macron have directly engaged Putin.

But it appears quite ad hoc.

The president of Ukraine has rightly kept open a negotiated agreement. For the people of Ukraine that is the only alternative to a bitter, bloody and protracted guerrilla war.

We know Putin’s stated issues:

  • NATO vs neutrality

  • The stationing of offensive Western weapons systems in Ukraine

  • Crimea

  • The eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk

On the first two a deal is conceivable, though Ukraine would require binding guarantees from the West to contemplate giving up on NATO membership, and it will not yield on potential EU membership.

On the second two it may be possible to construct a process by which eventually their status will be decided, provided Putin doesn’t add a demand to keep the territory he is currently taking with considerable brutality in the corridor between Rostov and Odessa, a demand Ukraine could never accede to.

The final decision in any negotiation rests with Ukraine.

And we must not let this slip into another frozen conflict open to exploitation by Putin, as happened after 2014.

Ukraine will also need a Marshall Plan-type reconstruction.

All the various initiatives for peace need to be aligned, with Europe and the United States standing behind Ukraine in a structured negotiation which continues until agreement is reached or is clearly unreachable.

Ultimately, Europe and the United States will need to think through new security arrangements for Europe, the region and with Russia, as we had with the Soviet Union.

But this should be part of a much wider recalibration of Western policy.


Lessons for the West: The Future

Putin has indeed miscalculated. We need to analyse our role in his miscalculation.

Those opposed to our way of life – based on liberal democracy – have for well over a decade seen us as weak, divided and in a literal sense decadent, decaying.

In respect of Putin, we have seen:

Georgia – where, after the invasion, the United States actively pushed Russia back to the status quo ante, but where the frozen conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains.

Syria – where despite the use of chemical weapons and the promise to act if they were used, we did not act.

Crimea – where sanctions were limited, and until this latest event, most of the West accepted as a fait accompli.

Afghanistan (and to a degree in Iraq) – where in contrast to Putin in Syria, we did the hard military part in getting to some form of stability, only for fatigue with our commitment to lead to us removing our presence.

The Sahel – where terrorism has been allowed to grow, Western engagement fitful, and we see burgeoning Russian influence including from the Wagner Group.

Russian internet activity – where despite clear evidence of interference with Western countries’ democratic processes, little has been done to expose, counter or punish it.

China is very different from Russia and we should be careful of a glib read across. Our relationship with China will define 21st-century geopolitics and we cannot afford disengagement.

But they too have smelled weakness and uncertainty which has led President Xi confidently to proclaim to the Chinese people the superiority of his system over ours, a claim never made by previous Chinese leaders.

One Belt One Road and the strong promotion of Chinese companies – both state-owned and private – has given China a foothold over large swaths of the world, operating at speed and with the minimum of bureaucracy while the West has been lacklustre and bureaucratic.

For sure, the interests of China and Russia at certain points diverge. And China will not want to be dragged into a confrontation with the West other than on an issue and time of their choosing.

The last week has seen the limits to China’s support of what they must see as a misadventure, but the personal relationship between Putin and Xi is strong and the two nations work closely together.

More practically, China is aiming for technological superiority, in an era where technology will define economic progress.

Though the United States still has easily the world’s highest military spending, over the past ten years China and Russia have been rapidly building their military capability.

The West has reacted to the attack on Ukraine with a resolve which has surprised many. The traditional transatlantic alliance has been revived. NATO has a new sense of purpose. Germany has cast off the shackles self-imposed after the second world war. President Biden has come together with European and UK leadership to real effect.

Nonetheless, the crisis must be the starting point for the wholesale rebuilding of Western strength and unity.

Defence force capability must be put on a different footing, finding ways through cooperation to multiply effectiveness, including combat capability.

This will require increases in defence spending.

The US/Europe transatlantic alliance must be revived in full vigour. The UK should create the means, despite Brexit, of European cooperation on defence and foreign policy.

There should be a tough and overwhelming response to cyber-attacks and other interference with our political process.

This alliance should embrace other democratic nations; India, to a degree despite and to a degree because of its close ties with Russia, will require special focus.

In the Middle East and elsewhere we need to take a strategically intelligent view towards protecting our own interests in supporting countries who are allies and deterring those who aren’t.

There should be an agreed Western strategy for supporting Africa, whose population will likely double in the next 30 years to over 2 billion people.

Soft power should be used with the maximum effect and minimum bureaucracy unashamedly to bolster Western interests and counter the influence of countries hostile to us. The private sector should play a major part.

Finally, however, resetting Western policy starts from an understanding that its dysfunction has been caused by the dysfunction in Western politics.

A strong centre ground where, at least on foreign and defence policy, politics tended to follow a reasonable path of consensus most of the time has collapsed and given way to rampant populism of left and right.

It is no coincidence that the two most prominent UK voices attempting to pin responsibility on NATO for Putin’s aggression were Farage and Corbyn. Fifteen years ago, both were fringe figures. But after that time Farage managed to turn the Conservative Party into a Brexit party, and the far left under Corbyn took control of Labour.

Similar elements are at play in the US politics, and the result has been an American policy which has been inconsistent, unpredictable, disconcerting for allies and encouraging for opponents.

The same is true for much of Europe.

Many populists openly espoused admiration for Putin and “strongman” rule.

All of them drove a simplistic narrative of people betrayed by elites; of easy solutions to complex problems; of exploiting grievances like immigration rather than dealing with them; of isolationist nationalism on the right and anti-Western rhetoric on the left.

This has been exacerbated by social media and the fragmentation of the conventional media, now in two camps with little common ground.

I don’t believe the West will fully regain its confidence until its politics does.

Across the political spectrum, politicians should come together, as to his credit Keir Starmer is doing in the UK, so that Western policy pursues a consistent, clear and realistic path; where engagement with the world is seen as enlightened self-interest, and not globalist idealism.

We must rediscover conviction in our democratic values and the way of life they represent. Stop demonising either our own institutions or our own history. Accept our shortcomings and correct them, but don’t let them be used to suggest that there is no difference between the values we represent and those of hostile dictatorships.

The tragedy of Ukraine is our wake-up call. We are awake. Now we must act.

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