A high-stakes game of snakes and ladders

Russia’s war on Ukraine is a last stand for the international rules-based order. The West will need to rally fierce and unwavering support for the defender and global freedoms to prevail.

Ukraine, Russia, war
A destroyed and burned-out local bazaar on June 13, 2022, after Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city with a prewar population of 1.4 million people, 50 kilometers from the Russian border. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Most factors point to a long and grueling war ahead with no clear winner
  • Western unity and resolve in supporting freedom will be repeatedly tested
  • Russia’s invasion has forced democracies to reexamine global priorities

It is still too soon to name the ultimate winners and losers in Russia’s war on Ukraine. But the four months of fighting are stark reminders of the horror and unpredictability of combat and that wars are easier to begin than to end.

The jury remains out on whether this will be a war of attrition, a stalemate, a frozen conflict, a war without end or a war decided by weapons of mass destruction. Or might a decisive victory offer a new opportunity for a rules-based order and, in Europe, a chance to return to the unfinished business of 1945 and 1989?

Scenarios that assume that outright victors and vanquished will emerge do not cut the mustard.

Russia’s decision to abandon its attempts to capture the entirety of Ukraine, and to concentrate its offensive in Donbas, is finally reaping dividends. The capture of the Luhansk Oblast city of Severodonetsk, 730 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, enables Moscow to dominate supply lines into the region. Although this hardly smacks of victory, it also does not suggest defeat. A bigger bridgehead in the east will represent a pause, not an end, and pave the way for future offensives. All the euphoric and complacent talk about outright Ukrainian victory needs to be tempered by realism. Russian President Vladimir Putin does not care about the shocking losses of personnel and equipment.

Unkept promises and self-interest

And we should also be realistic about fatigue and sustained sacrifice.

Despite all the pledges to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, many of the promised armaments have not reached the war front. Ukraine says the West is providing only 10 percent of what Kyiv has requested. Self-interest may get the better of domestic politics in Western countries facing rampant inflation and rocketing energy prices. Elsewhere in the world, Russia is getting more for the gas, oil and raw materials it sells, replenishing its war chest. If Mr. Putin’s blockade of grain supplies to poorer nations is not broken, it will demonstrate his ability to inflict great pain.

President Putin shows little sign of wanting an agreement – and will not do so until the pain of sanctions or internal dissent starts to really bite. He is heartened by foolish defeatist cackle from Western elites telling brave Ukrainians they should surrender sovereign territory to buy off the Russian leader. These factors point to a long and grinding conflict stretching over years.

Not according to plan

But in this lethal game of snakes and ladders, in which the fortunes of combatants fluctuate up and down, the war has clearly not gone according to plan for Russia.

In July 2021, in a 5,000-word essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Mr. Putin set out his ambitions.

Mercifully shorter than the 153,000 words in “Mein Kampf” – in which Hitler outlined his pernicious anti-Semitic Aryan ideology – it is the Kremlin leader’s own-brand mixture of nationalistic bombast, racist superiority, and mystical religiosity, based on an almost biblical insistence that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are descendants of ancient Kyivan Rus.

Recall that Hitler, too, never disguised his ambition that all German-speaking nations in Europe should be a part of Germany. And in the same vein, President Putin repeatedly insists that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” He refutes the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders and sovereign status, positions himself with the imperial princes and tsars, and whips up paranoia around anti-Russian conspiracies and foreign plots. I was struck that the existence of NATO appears as barely more than a footnote.

Mr. Putin’s risible declaration that “Russia has never been and will never be ‘anti-Ukraine,’ and what Ukraine will be – it is up to its citizens to decide,” is about as believable as Hitler’s promises at Munich to Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, in response to which they gave away Czechoslovakia to buy themselves peace. We can surely draw parallels between Crimea and Donbas and today’s politicians lecturing brave Ukrainians fighting for their lives and their country about giving away sovereign territory to secure a five-minute phony peace deal.

Since 2014, even before the depredations of Mariupol, Bucha and the rest, some 14,000 Ukrainians had already been killed, with the illegal occupation of Crimea and Donbas merely a curtain-raiser.

The incremental encroachments and annexations could not have been clearer writing on the wall. The terrible body count attests to that. The Moscow-based newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets rightly portrayed Mr. Putin’s essay as his “final ultimatum to Ukraine.” The invasion should have not come as a surprise.

Russia’s diminished standing

Since February, the Kremlin’s rhetoric has morphed from the pretext of “protecting” Russian speakers to portraying their “special operation” as existential – with Russia’s enemies hell-bent on its destruction.

Reports on Russian fatalities vary between 15,000 and 35,000 soldiers dead – including a reported 12 Russian generals. Whatever the number, military and political leaders must surely be recalling that mothers and wives turned public opinion against the Russian wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Russia is now a diminished power – and undoubtedly humbled – but it would be absurd to underestimate its ability to dig in for a protracted conflict or to learn from why it failed to achieve its objectives.

Of course, this was a very different outcome from the one which President Putin appeared to believe would happen.

There was no lightning campaign, no swift occupation of Kyiv and no flowers laid in the streets by jubilant cheering crowds lining the streets to welcome Russian heroes liberating their Ukrainian towns and cities.

As the Kremlin has slithered down the snakes and Kyiv climbed the ladders, it has done Russia profound damage and radically altered the world’s view of both countries.

Russia is now a diminished power – and undoubtedly humbled – but it would be absurd to underestimate its ability to dig in for a protracted conflict or to learn from why it failed to achieve its objectives.

The regrouping of Russia’s forces in eastern Ukraine under the command of General Alexander Dvornikov suggests that one lesson has been learned – the need for a more unified command. If Russia is undefeated, it will reinforce and persist with heavy shelling and demoralizing missile attacks, perhaps for years and decades to come.

A key question must surely be whether discontent among Russian military and political leaders could lead to President Putin’s removal. Mr. Putin believes he and Russia – which he increasingly sees as synonymous – are too big to fall. But we have seen such mistaken hubris before. Good Russian soldiers may have already seen the signs of self-deification and be considering what to do about it.

If the Russian military does not remove Mr. Putin and remains wedded to the war, they will have to brace themselves for a long and grueling fight. Things may have gone badly for the Russians – but it is where the battle goes next that will count.

Saving Odesa and the Black Sea

For Ukraine and its allies to be decisive, there will need to be a new focus on the defense of Odesa and a strategy for the Black Sea, ensuring that Russian naval superiority (notwithstanding the sinking on April 14 of the Moskva, the flagship, or Russia’s Black Sea Fleet) does not lead to a landlocked rump state.

Nor should we forget what President Putin has done before. Chechnya and Syria: the use of local proxies, the bombardment and pounding into the ground of whole cities and towns with overwhelming military force. Think of Aleppo. Think of Grozny – which became a city of cellars inhabited by the elderly led by a compliant puppet government.

Then think of the barbaric onslaught of Mariupol and the siege of the Azovstal steel plant where besieged Ukrainian soldiers and civilians endured weeks in its catacombs. Mr. Putin has thought nothing about the criminality of unleashing wave after wave of death, destruction, and damage – including attacks on 400 hospitals and medical centers – killing civilians in railway stations and children in schools – mining fields and slaughtering animals.

Mr. Putin’s barbaric allies

You can tell a lot about people by the company they keep: Mr. Putin has enjoyed the support of a clutch of dubious cheerleaders in North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria.

President Putin’s allies in Syria have thought nothing of leaving an estimated half a million people dead – and 3.6 million refugees. The Kremlin has been content to line up with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and to collaborate with Mr. Assad’s forces – accused by the United Nations’ Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And now Mr. Putin’s infamous mercenaries, the Wagner Group, which has been deployed in operations across at least half a dozen African nations, have found their way to Ukraine.

All of which begs questions of whether President Putin facing defeat will resort to weapons of mass destruction.

Along with access to chemical weapons and toxic, lethal poisons (some of which have been deployed by his agents against his opponents and in countries like the United Kingdom), he has a serious nuclear capability.

But so did his Soviet predecessors.

There is no shortage of conventional weapons already deployed in Ukraine with phenomenal ability to inflict great harm and a horrendous depletion of weapons that will be a limiting factor for both sides.

Both need to replenish hardware and manpower. That will surely lead to further snakes and ladders, gains and losses.

Mr. Putin has managed to unite the United States economy and industrial base with the European Union (the EU has a combined gross domestic product of around $17 trillion) and achieved the rare feat of uniting Democrats and many Republicans in the U.S. Congress who have authorized President Joe Biden’s $40 billion aid package for Kyiv.

Just a year ago this would have been unthinkable.

U.S., UK lead Western response

As President Putin has slithered down the board, others have been climbing up.

After the ignominy and incompetence of President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr. Putin has breathed new life into the current U.S. administration – with the UK’s battered Boris Johnson getting his own response to Ukraine right and, even more so, Ben Wallace, his excellent defense secretary.

And heaping irony on irony, President Putin has also provided a ladder for NATO.

The war has forced the U.S. to recalibrate its support for NATO in Europe and transformed public opinion in Finland and Sweden with popular majorities supporting applications to join NATO’s 30 alliance partners.

Simultaneously, even the Kremlin has been forced to admit that economic snakes have replaced the ladders with an economy predicted to shrink by 12 percent this year as Western sanctions bite – wiping out a decade of economic growth. Well done, Mr. Putin.

As prices rise and jobs disappear the war will have many other unintended consequences.

A food war on the poor

The poorest of the poor – from the Levant to the Maghreb – are deeply dependent on Ukraine for food. Unplanted crops and slaughtered animals will mean empty plates, higher prices for scarce supplies, and hungry people. The Kremlin leader has invested time and treasure in the Global South and nonaligned nations. They need to know that his war has consequences for them too.

Russia’s war has forced us to reexamine our priorities – everything from how we hold those responsible for war crimes to account, to what proportion of our wealth we spend on defense.

And, as if more than 80 million displaced people and refugees worldwide, were not enough, President Putin has internally displaced 7.7 million Ukrainians (around 17.5 percent of the entire population) while the United Nations says more than 5 million have fled the country.

I recently visited the center in Vilnius, where around 1,000 Ukrainians were arriving each day.

Lithuania, along with its Baltic and Polish neighbors, has demonstrated characteristic generosity in helping evacuees, while their personal accounts of atrocities and war crimes ranging from systematic rape to executions have reawakened a common resolve to defend our democracies and way of life. Part of that is the rule of law and the collection of witness statements from refugees and the archiving of evidence by the International Criminal Court, which one day must lead to those responsible for these war crimes being arraigned before the courts in the Hague.

Ukraine, Russia, war
The Ukrainian president meets with leaders of four European Union nations. From left, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Italian President Mario Draghi, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz give a press conference in Kyiv on June 16, 2022. © Getty Images

Learning the lessons

Russia’s war has forced us to reexamine our priorities – everything from how we hold those responsible for war crimes to account, to what proportion of our wealth we spend on defense. Germany’s decision to meet its 2 percent NATO commitment is a recognition that the U.S. should not have to massively subsidize European defense.

The heat of battle has also forced a reassessment of what works – like the role of small drones and anti-tank arms, like Javelins. It has also forced us to reconsider both the intelligence successes and failures.

Our intelligence has clearly overestimated Russia’s military prowess – it is more of a paper tiger than we imagined – but underestimated its fervent nationalism.

But we also massively underestimated the extraordinary heroism of Ukraine – the huge support for its sovereignty, the right to democratic self-determination and we especially underestimated President Zelenskiy, its courageous leader.

Even grudging opponents have been won over by Mr. Zelenskiy and all of us privileged to hear him address both houses of the British Parliament on a link from Kyiv that saw a man risking his own life in the service of his nation. His Jewish ancestors, including relatives executed by the Nazis, make President Putin’s caricature of Mr. Zelenskiy’s government as Nazis particularly offensive and open to ridicule.

In countries like the UK, where citizens are weary and pessimistic about their futures, we note that more than 90 percent of Ukrainians polled say they back President Zelenskiy, while 40 percent have volunteered to fight for the country. Instructively, a majority are hopeful for Ukraine’s future. Mr. Zelenskiy has risen to the role of leading a nation at war.

In 2014, Ukraine only had 6,000 battle-ready troops. President Zelenskiy’s team transformed that – with an officer structure modeled on NATO best practices – and they have been agile and fleet of foot. Their armed forces have increased their competence through training and the battle-hardening experiences in the east with limitations in weapons and funding now far less of an impediment.

Many analysts said it would all be over in a rout with a Belarus-style puppet government installed within three to four days.

This, too, wholly underestimated the ordinary citizens, filling their milk bottles with petrol and bracing themselves to defend their freedoms.

A new era of fundamental change

The Holocaust and World War II led to millions of deaths. It fundamentally changed the world.

It led to a rules-based international order, multilateral institutions, the UN, the Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, in Western Europe, to renewed democracies, the European Coal and Steel Community, the U.S.-led Marshall Plan and more social justice.

Then, in 1989, mercifully without a war, we again saw dramatic change.

We saw new democracies emerge from decades of oppression, the reunification of Germany and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. We learned the stories of Stalin’s cruelty, the Siberian gulags, the secret police and the methods of the totalitarian regimes.

And we honored the courageous uprisings against Soviet totalitarianism, which had paved the way for that change: we celebrated those who had stood against the tanks in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, with Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s and across Eastern and Central Europe in 1989.

In that same year, during a visit to Lviv, as brave Ukrainians protested in favor of democracy, I had a glimpse of the courage of these remarkable people and now stand in complete awe of their bravery and love of the freedoms and liberties that we have taken too much for granted.

Their heroism has given us a clear view of the barbarians once more at our gates. Russia’s war gives a sharper definition to the threat posed to our way of life by a growing number of authoritarians and their ideologies.

In supporting our Ukrainian friends, we must do more than throw dice in the hope they will find a ladder rather than the snake.

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