One year later

It’s just on one year since our world was upended by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I was going to try to summarise what we’ve learnt in that time, but Matthew Sussex has already done the job in the Conversation. He covers the key points very well; I’d urge you to go and read it.

Like most analysts, he thinks that the tide of war is running in Ukraine’s favor, but not (yet) sufficiently strongly to promise an early victory:

At present, Ukraine continues to have the upper hand, even if Russia’s armed forces have lately wrested back some momentum. But in the coming months, Kyiv will face two key challenges.

First it will need to absorb Russian attacks while conducting its own offensive operations, which will require Western heavy armour, longer-range strike capabilities, and possibly air power.

Second, Ukraine will require continued international aid and assistance to ensure its social order doesn’t break down as a result of economic collapse, and to be able to mitigate further damage to its critical infrastructure.

I think that’s true, and one of the most encouraging things from the last year is the way that western governments and their voters seem to have come to understand the way in which their own interests are bound up with continued support for Ukraine. But war is always unpredictable, and a series of battlefield reverses – however unlikely that seems at the moment – could easily fracture that consensus.

The idea of a long war is not new, but its likely contours have changed. A year ago, the expectation was that Russia would be able to occupy the greater part of Ukraine’s territory before effective resistance could be organised, and that the war would then take the shape of a guerrilla operation something like Afghanistan. Even on that basis, Russia’s prospects did not look good. As I said at the time, “if the Ukrainians are determined enough … they can bleed an occupier white. Ukraine is a big country, with a long western border through which aid can come, and its neighbors are rich as well as supportive.”

But it turned out, from Vladimir Putin’s point of view, much worse than that. The assault on Kyiv failed, and Russia’s war aims contracted in practice if not in theory. That changed the nature of the war. As I put it last April:

With that resistance, Ukraine’s future was decided. … It will never again be a Russian satellite: it will orient westward for good. It will join the European Union and it will be an ally of NATO. It may one day be friends with Russia as well, but Russia will have to change.

Subsequent events have confirmed that and have dramatically underlined Russia’s impotence. In September, Ukraine broke the Russian lines in front of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city; in November its forces liberated Kherson, in the south. For the last three months there has been little movement, but eventually that will change: trench warfare may be mostly static, but it does not stay static forever.

Provided western resolve remains strong, Putin cannot win a war of attrition; the economic resources of his opponents are enormously greater than those of Russia and its few allies. And to break that resolve he needs military victory – the very thing he has shown himself incapable of over the last twelve months. Sussex’s summary is to the point:

Ultimately, those predicting a swift end to Russia’s war in Ukraine are likely to be as disappointed in 2023, as they were 12 months earlier. The past year has taught us much: about how the weak can resist the powerful; about the dangers of peace at any price; and about the hubris of believing autocrats can be bought off with inducements.

When the invasion started, I said on Facebook that “I can’t see how it ends except with either Putin’s overthrow or the collapse of civilisation.” Both options are still on the card, and no third alternative has yet presented itself.


2 thoughts on “One year later

  1. This is why the Washington Post is, IMHO, the best newspaper in the English-speaking world. Clear thinking, based on sound moral principle, lucidly expressed.

    There are only two ways in which the Ukraine war can end: in victory or defeat for Putin. Putin can gain victory either by conquering Ukraine, or by a “peace deal” which leaves him in possession of all or some of the gains made through his invasion.

    A victory of either kind for Putin would be a defeat not only for Ukraine, but also (and more importantly) for Europe, for the Western alliance, for the democratic world as a whole., including Australia. That of course is why anti-democrats of both the far right and far left are working to help Putin win. All talk of peace deals and negotiations is doing Putin’s work for him.

    A victory for Putin would also be a victory for Xi Jinping, Iran, North Korea and every other dictator and would-be aggressor in the world. It would show that the West is too weak and divided to defeat even the most blatant aggression. By emboldening the Chinese communist regime in its hegemonic ambitions, it would put Australia’s security directly at risk.

    Conversely, the defeat of Putin – which must mean his withdrawal from every hectare of Ukrainian territory – would be a historic defeat for dictators and anti-democratic forces everywhere.
    But Ukraine cannot defeat Putin on its own, even with the level of military and economic support it is currently receiving. That is why, as the Post editorial argues, the West must give Ukraine the military means, not to just to stave off defeat, but to gain a decisive victory.


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