Observations of an expat: Happy Birthday

Fans of our foreign editor, Tom Arms, will be delighted to hear that he has started a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

Happy Birthday Ukraine, the Russian people, Europe, America and all the rest of the world.

The Ukraine War is one year old. An estimated 300,000 lives have been lost so far – and that is only the soldiers.

More than 5.2 million refugees have fled the fighting, mainly women and children who have left fathers, sons and husbands behind. Those who remain in Ukraine live in daily fear of Russian missile attacks. Many are without water, electricity or heating.

The ripple effects of the Ukraine War have encompassed the world. A trillion dollars’ worth of damage has been inflicted on Ukraine and the war has so far cost Europe and America an estimated $215 billion and this is only the beginning.

The Ukraine War has closed key gas and oil pipelines from Russia to Europe and forced Europeans to seek alternative supplies from America and Middle East. This in turn has pushed energy prices to crisis levels.

Inflation has been fuelled by energy problems and food shortages as Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are major suppliers of grain, sunflower oil and fertilisers.

The war has also produced tectonic diplomatic shifts. It has united Ukrainians and provided them with a clear national identity reinforced by a charismatic leader. Yes, Putin is right when he says Ukraine’s history is closely linked with that of Russia. But its future is not.

The war has also re-united Europe and NATO. For years America has complained about low levels of European defense spending, especially in Germany. Donald Trump even threatened to withdraw from the alliance. That has ended. Europeans are spending more and sending aid to Ukraine. The EU financial aid is actually $5 billion more than America’s $45 billion. But America’s total commitment of humanitarian, financial and military -dwarves the contributions of all the other countries combined.

Putin claims that his invasion is a reaction to NATO enlargement. If so, the war has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as Sweden and Finland have reversed their long-standing commitments to neutrality to apply for NATO membership and Ukraine is now a de facto member of the Western Alliance, but still outside the ultimate protection of Article Five.

Vladimir Putin’s repeated threats – veiled and unveiled – to use nuclear weapons has also revived the fear of a nuclear war. As has his announcement this week that he is suspending Russia’s in arms reduction talk, formally ending inspections of nuclear weapons sites and increasing Moscow’s nuclear arsenal.

On the ground, both sides are literally dug in with trenches crisscrossing in a general north-south gash across the Eastern part of Ukraine. Russia is believed to be on the verge of throwing another 200,000 conscripts against the Ukrainian frontline. The Ukrainian, for their part are hoping that poorly-led Russian troops will exhaust themselves against their defensive wall and fall to a Ukrainian counter offensive in the spring.

China could play a crucial role either in supporting its fellow autocratic government in Moscow or abandoning it. Instead it walks a diplomatic tightrope; supporting Russia by buying its oil and gas but refusing to supply weapons – so far. This week it produced a “Global Policy Document” with the contradictory goals of protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and recognising Russia’s national security concerns.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has increased its defense spending and America its commitment. Their concern is that China will take advantage of Washington’s increased commitment and focus on Europe to invade Taiwan. Or alternatively, Russia will succeed and embolden Beijing to take the military option.

The Ukraine War is a battle between two value systems. On the one side are structures that rely on established international law, respect for national sovereignty, territorial integrity, individual freedoms and democratic values. On the other is a belief in strongman leadership, might is right, nationalism and loathing for the current structures of the international order.

These values determine every aspect of life on both sides of the divide. For this reason neither side is likely to give up easily. The result? Many more birthdays to come.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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5 Comments

  • Mel Borthwaite 25th Feb '23 - 10:44am

    A very good summary, as always, though I would this point…
    In my view, China may potentially be the real winner from this conflict. While it claims a formal alliance with Russia, it may well be perfectly happy to watch the collective West and Russia degrade and exhaust each other’s military capability while it stands back quietly strengthening. It may well choose to supply Russia with military hardware and ammunition if failure to do so would result in a Russian defeat, but it may choose not to if the war is a stalemate.

  • It is an interesting point Tom Makes “Putin claims that his invasion is a reaction to NATO enlargement. If so, the war has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as Sweden and Finland have reversed their long-standing commitments to neutrality to apply for NATO membership and Ukraine is now a de facto member of the Western Alliance, but still outside the ultimate protection of Article Five”.
    US and European commitment to Nato was on the wane during the Trump presidency and with Macron in France declaring the alliance “Brain Dead”. It could well have declined to the point of breaking-up if Putin had not threatened the peace of Europe with his full scale invasion of Ukraine.
    As well as Sweden and Finland, even long-standing neutral countries like Switzerland and Austria are realising that they are part of the European family of liberal democracies. This is a fight between systems, the one that we are in, and the autocratic, kleptocratic system of Putin.

  • Peter Hirst 26th Feb '23 - 1:26pm

    Human rights need to be the defining issue of this conflict. The UN needs a mechanism for expelling from the Security Council any country that consistently and barbarically commits human rights violations against civilians. Once this war is over agreeing on such a mechanism needs to be a priority for the global community.

  • I am a fan of Tom Arms but I remain confused by his claim that “The Ukraine War is a battle between two value systems. On the one side are structures that rely on established international law, respect for national sovereignty, territorial integrity, individual freedoms and democratic values. On the other is a belief in strongman leadership, might is right, nationalism and loathing for the current structures of the international order.” I can’t work out which side in this the US stands on. I am erring to the latter but dobt that was what Tom Arms had in mind?

  • John,

    I think it was the late P J O’Rourke who as Rolling Stones foreign-affairs desk chief wrote “Each American embassy comes with two permanent features – a giant anti-American demonstration and a giant line for American visas. Most demonstrators spend half their time burning Old Glory and the other half waiting for green cards.”

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