Ukraine; are we absolutely sure we want a wider war?

In war it is good to remember two bits of age-old wisdom, if unnecessary deaths are to be avoided; ‘know your enemy’ and ‘don’t believe your own propaganda’.

Ignoring these two adages led to the West’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, and Western-led conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Saharan Africa and Yemen, which have all been catastrophic for Western interests.

We now have a parallel in Ukraine.

As I wrote in LDV on 11th Feb 2023:

In April Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine’ and ‘Ukraine clearly believes that it can win, and so does everyone here’. At the end of the previous month the US President called for the removal of President Putin from power.

During most of 2023 the Western narrative was still that Ukraine would win, and that Russia was militarily and administratively weak; ‘Why Ukraine will win the war’, Washington Post 20/02/23, ‘Ukraine can absolutely win against Russia – Blinken’ BBC 05/03/23 and ‘Ukraine is winning’ Politico, 21/06/23. But by Nov 2023 it was really only the Ukrainian authorities telling the media that they would win; ‘Why Ukraine Can and Will Win’ Kiev Post, 26/11/23.

By the end of 2023 the tone in the Western media began to shift, for example, ‘Ukraine’s hopes for victory fade in the face of waning Western support and Putin’s relentless war machine’ CNN 29/12/23

But in February 2024 there were still influential narratives explaining that with more Western weapons and ‘support’, Ukraine could still win. The influential US General David Petraeus (Rtd) explained on CNN on 23/02/24 ‘Ukraine can still hold its own in fighting off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion if it gets the support it needs from the United States’.

However by March 2024 the ‘Ukraine could still win’ narratives were scarce.

That is not all that had changed.

In March 2024 a new narrative emerged from some institutions in Western governments; that it was never believed that Ukraine could win, but an ill-equipped Ukraine had been surprisingly effective since early 2022 in fighting a much stronger Russia to a stalemate.

Other institutions began asserting in March 2024 however that Russia was now intent on annexing all of Ukraine, and would then go on to invade EU countries, using nuclear weapons if necessary. Some European countries explained that they were preparing for a major pan-European war, and would be sending troops to Ukraine, preparing nuclear weapons, and likely introducing conscription. This implied that there was no such stalemate.

Russia in a thuggish mafia-ised authoritarian state, with a resource-based economy spending vast sums on military capacity; both factors which put overwhelming power in the hands of the Presidency. Mission creep towards a nuclear war in Europe might well ensue. Who can stop this?

These are all symptoms of not knowing your enemy and believing one’s own propaganda. As was amply demonstrated in Afghanistan and Syria, realism is not the same as appeasement.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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23 Comments

  • Paul Reynolds 8th Apr '24 - 6:18pm

    LDV readers might like to click the link and read the 11th Feb 2023 article and my detailed comments, before making postings here. Best wishes to all.

  • There is significant evidence that Russia will not stop at just Ukraine. Early on in the conflict, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko posed in front of a map showing a planned invasion of Moldova. More recently senior Russian politicians have stated that Kazakhstan will be invaded next.

    https://thehill.com/policy/international/596409-belarus-president-stands-in-front-of-battle-map-indicating-moldova/

    https://defence-blog.com/leaked-audio-reveals-russian-plan-to-occupy-kazakhstan-territory/

    I guess the question should be, are Lib Dems willing to support what is the morally right thing to do or take the coward’s path and allow Russia to invade country after country. You can be sure that allowing Russia free reign to invade whoever they like will embolden China to invade Taiwan.

  • Not quite sure what point is being made here. If fears that Putin wants to start a wider war are true then it’s not in our power to stop him from starting one. Currently the discussion is around rearming in the hopes that it will deter an attack on NATO and this seems to be the only thing one can do given that the many previous attempts to offer Putin an off ramp and go back to business as usual after 2008 and 2014 resulted in the opposite happening.

  • David Allen 8th Apr '24 - 8:33pm

    “If fears that Putin wants to start a wider war are true then it’s not in our power to stop him from starting one.”

    So, it’s not even worth bothering to think about this question? A bit intellectually lazy – and a bit irresponsible, perhaps?

    That is not to say that the best option is to try to buy Putin off. On the contrary, appeasement could well merely feed the fantasies of our modern-day “Peter the Great”. But aggressive rearmament and bellicose talk of winning back the whole of Ukraine might equally play into Putin’s hands. Putin wants to paint the West as the warmongers who must be defeated. We must not help him paint that picture.

    Boring attritional war, and an eventual offer of stalemate, may be the best option we can think of. Nobody in the West or in Ukraine will achieve hero status that way. But nor will Putin.

  • The russo Ukrainian war is totally different from the west’s recent wars in Iraq/Afghanistan etc. The west didn’t provoke russia. If we don’t help ukraine defend itself who will Putin/russia attack next?

  • Chris Moore 8th Apr '24 - 10:47pm

    “Bellicose talk of winning back the whole of Ukraine…..”

    Dismaying how many Ukrainians would love to have their whole country back. How can they be so “bellicose”?

  • I believe the article is not correct when it refers to Afghanistan, and Western-led conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Saharan Africa and Yemen. In Iraq our failure was a failure to plan properly for the peace, not a failure to win the war. Afghanistan was a variety of reasons including our tolerance of corruption over many years plus Trump’s atrocious pulling out. It’s simply not true to claim the conflicts in Syria, Saharan Africa and Yemen are ‘Western-led’. And in Libya and Syria you could argue that our failure was that we chose NOT to provide military support to the democratic forces.

  • @SimonR. The more obvious mistake in Iraq was to enter in the first place. Biden was president when America withdrew

  • Mick Taylor 9th Apr '24 - 8:53am

    The truth is that there is no military solution in Ukraine that would be satisfactory to both sides. Continued fighting ensures only one thing, more death and destruction.
    Given that, surely the aim must be to get a ceasefire and then peace talks? Unless Russia gains total victory (followed by years of guerrilla warfare) then whether we like it or not some unsatisfactory solution is maybe the best that can be hoped for.
    Of course the million dollar question is whether Putin will be satisfied with anything less than total victory. We won’t know unless we try.
    Oh, and the world should apply full sanctions on Russia, not just the half hearted efforts of today.

  • David Franks 9th Apr '24 - 9:41am

    The Appeaser is the one who gets eaten by the dragon LAST.

  • Mick Taylor 9th Apr '24 - 11:26am

    The word appeasement is bandied around far too often. Seeking a ceasefire and peace talks isn’t appeasement, it’s an attempt to prevent further deaths and further destruction. No-one seriously believes that Ukraine can defeat Russia and it seems likely that an uneasy but continuous attrition will continue until one side or the other decides they’ve had enough. By that time how much of Ukraine will be left standing and how many more lives lost?
    Western Governments are not going to put boots on the ground for fear of future action by Russia and it seems highly unlikely now that sufficient weapons will be supplied to Ukraine to make a difference.
    Time to stop and make peace

  • David Franks 9th Apr '24 - 11:35am

    Those who want to make peace should tell us which country Putin should invade next. Anyone who thinks this power mad idiot will stop at just Ukraine needs to be reminded of 20th century European history.

  • Paul Barker 9th Apr '24 - 11:36am

    I see no evidence of anyone on “Our Side” wanting a wider conflict, we just want Russia (ie the Russian State) to lose & withdraw from Ukraine, We can’t decide “Russian” policy, only prepare for further madness on their part & that means more potential for killing in the short run. The alternative would probably mean a lot more killing in the long run.

    Would The West rather fight in Ukraine or Poland ?

  • @Mick. Letting putin keep crimea and the donbas would be my exact definition of appeasement. The russo Ukraine war highlights the issues that come from fighting a country that has nuclear weapons but while ukraine is willing to continue fighting putin the least we can do is give them the weapons they need. Isn’t that what we promised in 1994 when we encouraged ukraine to give up their nukes?

  • David Allen 9th Apr '24 - 1:55pm

    Chris Moore,

    Of course Ukrainians would like to regain all the territory they once had. No doubt Spain would like Gibraltar back, the Finns would like to regain the region of Karelia seized by Russia a century ago, the Palestinians would like all their territory back, etcetera etcetera. The question for the West is whether it makes sense to support maximalist Ukrainian ambitions – even when these look increasingly unrealistic.

    Paul Barker,

    You say “we just want Russia to lose and withdraw from Ukraine”, but the word “just” is being badly misused in that comment. “Just lose” means “Vladimir, just accept humiliation, just take the massive risk of being ousted from power in Russia, just accept that you may then come to a sticky end”. Putin won’t “just lose”. Faced with that choice, he is likely to escalate. Do we want him to do that? Wouldn’t stalemate, or else a strictly limited small face-saving concession, be a less bad outcome?

  • Peter Chambers 9th Apr '24 - 1:56pm

    Know Your Enemy is good advice.

    There is just one problem for the UK. We are tied to the US policy, and there is a pattern is Washington of officials testifying that All is Well – right up to the moment when it becomes obvious All is Not. Anyone not believing our dependency should watch the excellent Channel 4 documentary Evacuation. We left Kabul when Mr Biden decided we should, and in haste.

    In all the places mentioned various US generals talked a good game, excepting Stanley McChrystal, who was sacked by Obama for speaking out of turn.

    We the public have no reliable, official source of advice regarding these enemies. It would be useful to democracy if that could be corrected.

  • Matthew Radmore 9th Apr '24 - 2:18pm

    We don’t want any war, let alone a wider war.
    But Ukraine has not had a reasonable choice: remain a vassal state of Russia denying the democratic hopes of its citizens or be invaded and extensively bombed.
    Our choice is allow Ukraine to be overrun, allowing Russian to strengthen its position in Eastern Europe gaining resources and the opportunity for further aggression (which has been on-going since 2008 – although Chechnya might have something to say about that) or to supply Ukraine with everything that in needs to at least hold the line for the next decade, better to push back quickly but that hope seems to have faded.
    Selfishly, it is better for us to keep Russia bogged down in Ukraine than to have a direct conflict between NATO and Russia. If Ukraine have the will to fight, it would be foolish not to support them.

  • This is all a bit breathless. Ukraine wants our help defending itself from an aggressive neighbour and we should give that help. The war is going nowhere right now because the supply of arms has been limited, but the West could provide ample from our own stocks and could easily outproduce Russia if we put our backs into it. This is a quantity question not a question of hand wringing over the end of history.

    If Russia is successful in Ukraine, my bet is Georgia would be next followed by Moldova, after a few years of rebuilding and rearming, but who knows.

    The cold war was made up of dozens of hot wars between a superpower on one side and a country armed by the other superpower on the other side. The superpowers often lost. None of them led to nuclear war, and Putin is only talking about it now to test our understanding of history. Don’t indulge him.

  • Mick Taylor 9th Apr '24 - 4:55pm

    @russell. Nowhere in any piece I have written on this war have I tried to suggest what a peace deal might look like, only that a ceasefire and peace talks are a better option than continuing death and destruction.
    In my view, neither side can gain outright victory, and so to continue this war is both futile and stupid. What shape any peace deal might look like I have no idea, but zi suspect neither side can get all they want. So it is with all wars and peace treaties, which is why I oppose all wars.
    Leaders always continue wars because they fear loss of face if they do not. Is such vanity worth so many wasted lives?

  • David Allen 9th Apr '24 - 7:28pm

    “Are Lib Dems willing to support what is the morally right thing to do or take the coward’s path and allow Russia to invade country after country?”

    This is knocking down a straw man. Nobody on this thread has advocated abandoning Ukraine and letting Putin march into Kiev. The advocates of a prolonged and intensified war are not entitled to treat with contempt those who disagree with them. They are blustering, in part to bolster their own confidence, in part to conceal the weakness of their position. Ukraine is not winning back territory, and to suggest that all that is needed is a bit more Western resolve is to delude oneself.

  • Peter Hirst 19th Apr '24 - 2:10pm

    The issue is that politics interferes with military strategy. Democracies at least have to justify their actions to public opinion. The art of warfare has become minimising the effect of political consideratins in determining actions as long as those responsible can justify them to themselves and their superiors.

  • Elizabeth Pears 26th Apr '24 - 11:33am

    I can’t imagine any scenario in which peace talks with Putin would be at all helpful.
    He would not agree to pull out of Ukraine altogether.
    Even if Ukraine conceded some territory, it is almost certain that Putin would not abide by any agreement reached.
    The Ukrainians know this, and so they keep fighting.
    If Putin’s armed forces weren’t busy trying to conquer Ukraine, they would no doubt be doing something equally destructive elsewhere.
    We should do everything we can to help Ukraine.

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