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Andrew Potter: Finally, the West goes all-in on Ukraine
A Ukrainian defeat is now unthinkable, because it would be our defeat, the defeat of the West against the forces of barbarism.
By: Andrew Potter
“Ukraine Stands Alone” pronounced the Globe and Mail’s A1 on February 25 2022. Over at the National Post the editors went with the more direct “Ukraine Alone”, in a type size that occupied the entire front page above the fold.
Ukraine is no longer alone. After a year spent desperately trying to have it both ways on the intensified Russian invasion of Ukraine — support the Ukrainians, while keeping the door open for a return to normal relations with the Kremlin — Western leadership has finally, irrevocably, staked everything on a Ukrainian victory.
The turning point was right before Christmas, when Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a difficult and dangerous trip to Washington, D.C. to effectively beg for his country’s survival. It was an opportunity for Zelenskyy to make his case directly to Congress, in the face of rising concern over food and energy prices in part generated by sanctions on Moscow, and growing resistance from the MAGA crowd to giving the Ukrainians a blank cheque.
That visit seemed to unclog a lot of points of resistance to increasing support. In late January, after exhausting all possible excuses, Germany’s leadership finally bowed to intense pressure from NATO allies and agreed to approve sending battle tanks, especially German Leopards, to Ukraine. A week later, Zelenskyy made another surprise overseas visit, this time to London, where he was given a hero’s welcome even as he pleaded no longer for tanks, but for fighter jets.
Things have moved quickly since then. Last week, the Munich security conference was dominated by talk of the Russian invasion, with Zelenskyy appearing by video conference to plead with the allies to speed up the delivery of all promised aid. Jets might soon be coming now. But it was last Monday, when Joe Biden suddenly showed up in Kyiv, that the fires to burn the boats were well and truly lit. The 80-year-old U.S. president made an unprecedented 10-hour train trip from Poland to Kyiv into a war zone, where he walked the streets with Zelenskyy, and in a speech at Mariinsky Palace, he nailed America’s colours to the Ukrainian mast: “Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you.”
What this means is that, incrementally but now undeniably, the West has gone all-in on Ukraine. It is not enough now that Russia “not win”, nor that Ukraine “not lose”; it is now clear that nothing less than a clear, undeniable victory of Ukraine is acceptable, on terms Ukraine itself has set.
There are holdouts and wafflers of course. NATO-member (for now) Hungary remains on Russia’s side, while the French president Emmanuel Macron continues to say incredibly naive and dangerous things about cutting Russia some slack. But where it matters — serious people leading serious countries in Washington, London, Berlin, Warsaw, even Rome, as well as in the Baltic and Scandinavian capitals — support for Ukraine is stronger and more unified than it has been since the full invasion a year ago.
It remains an open question why it took so long for us to get to this point. After the stomach-churning horrors of Bucha, the flat criminality at Kramatorsk, the obscenity of the bombing of the Mariupol drama theatre, by the early weeks of the invasion a few things were already dead obvious.
The first was that Putin had either directed, or was at least encouraging, his army and its mercenary affiliates to engage in unrestricted barbarism. As they tore through Ukraine, the Russians made no effort to distinguish military targets versus innocent civilians, they allowed no concessions to the rules of war, gave no acknowledgment of the basic requirements of civilized behaviour.
This was in part a consequence of the second obvious fact of the invasion, which is that Putin had, and still has, no clear and acceptable political goals for his “special military operation”, in the Clausewitzian sense. Putin lives in a propaganda-fuelled dreamscape of historical fantasies, existential paranoia and twisted psychological grievances, but nothing that could be reasonably subject to rational disagreement, let alone negotiation.
So what took us long to clue in to what we are up against? Why, after a year of constant war, after the atrocities of Bucha and Kramatorsk and Mariupol have been repeated in town after town, has the West been so slow to open its hearts, its treasury, and its armouries?
Some, most obviously Germany but also France and others, simply didn’t want to cut off the possibility of a return to business as usual with Russia, out of self-interest, cravenness, or worse. Others, such as Canada, are just not serious countries and don’t really know what it would mean to take something like this seriously (and don’t think people haven’t noticed).
The most charitable interpretation of the West’s behaviour over the past year is that the slow drip of aid, the lethargic pace of the delivery of arms sufficient to do nothing more than prolong Ukraine’s agony, was a deliberate strategy to avoid crossing any obvious red lines and giving Putin a clear reason to go, literally, nuclear. By taking it slow, every incremental increase in aid could be seen, and plausibly presented, as no big change in policy.
If it was a strategy, it has come at an absolutely horrific cost to Ukrainians. As the country has pleaded not just for help, but for inclusion, to be treated as a proper part of civilized Europe, the response for too long has been hesitant, condescending, even contemptuous. For 12 months now we’ve essentially put them through a monstrous, year-long hazing ritual, where they had to prove their seriousness and their commitment, measured to our satisfaction in numbers of dead civilians, of destroyed cities, of kidnapped children.
On Monday in Kyiv, Joe Biden finally said enough. We’re all in.
It appears that Putin realizes this. His own speech on Tuesday, a two-hour address to the Russian parliament, was as bizarre, fearful, paranoid and delusional as you might expect. But if Biden’s speech sent the message that the West was no longer interested in any sort of compromise with Russia, Putin’s response was, in essence, that he isn’t offering one.
How this goes is anyone’s guess. The future is always uncertain, war all the more so. Russia’s anticipated spring offensive in the Donbas seems to have already begun, and Ukraine is clearly setting the table for its own counterpunch further south. We should know by early summer how the war will ultimately end, and it is difficult to see a scenario now where it doesn’t end very badly for Russia. A Ukrainian defeat is now unthinkable, because it would be our defeat, the defeat of the West against the forces of barbarism. The only real question now is how many more people have to die first.
The good news is that whatever happens, however things turns out, Ukraine is no longer alone. May they forgive us for taking so long.
Andrew Potter is the author of On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever.
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