9 June 2022
Keeping a balance.
By Robert Kilconner
War is always a confusing business and the current conflict in the Ukraine is more complex than most. Originally a straightforward attempt by Russia to take over its neighbour, it is now a strange form of proxy battle with the Ukrainian forces facing the Russians armed by the West, trained by the West but not supported by British and American troops on the ground. It is everything short of a ground war between NATO and Russia with that “short of” representing the limitations which stop the struggle spilling into something more general. So far “no nukes” seems to be one of the limitations. Restricting the intervention by the West to the provision of arms and equipment and training seems to be another. Then there are deals about who can supply energy to whom in return for which currency and limitations on the use of long range artillery now being provided to the Ukraine by the UK and the US. “Only for use in the Ukraine”, “do not fire into Russia”; those are the messages on the packet and undertakings to that effect have been received from Zelensky’s team.
They are odd messages when you come to think about it. Normally firing missiles into the enemy’s territory is just the sort of thing which you would expect a belligerent to do. After all, the Russians are using their artillery within Ukraine. Why shouldn’t the Ukraine reciprocate against Russia? There is no moral reason to be sure. It is just a precaution which it is hoped will prevent the war from escalating into something deadlier. Perhaps the Western leaders really believe that the war will be settled by agreement and think that the destruction of Russian cities would make this impossible to achieve. Perhaps they are concerned that if war spills into Russia we might all end up trading nukes. Maybe it is a bit of both.
The other thing which is odd about the messages is that they will only be obeyed while Ukraine stands a good chance of victory. As long as Western help gives Ukraine the prospect of pushing the Russians back, Kiev will be reluctant to break the rules set by its sponsors. If, however, defeat stares Ukraine in the face, niceties will go out the window and the missiles, their packages relabelled “to Russia with love”, might be sent zinging over the border. What would happen then is anyone’s guess. No doubt the Western powers would be quick to point out that they were not party to breaking the condition, but a Russian regime presiding over the ruins of one of its cities might not be very rational. And so another risk is added to those which represent possible pathways to Armageddon.
Amongst this pile of risks it is what the loser may do which is truly frightening. Zelensky with his back to the wall or Putin in a mess which threatens to destroy him personally. That is when the constraints might really come off, where madness may really get the upper hand. Picture Hitler in his bunker facing oblivion. Now imagine that he had nuclear weapons. Would he have used them or would he have said “Nein, that is really going too far”? You know the answer to that as well as I do. Better men in the madness and desperation of defeat could answer the question the same way. That is why Macron pushes on with his search for a compromise. It may not be fair. It may give the impression that the West is weak but some sort of a deal would at least restrict the tendency to extremes which Clausewitz identifies as a feature of warfare. Let either side win the conflict and God knows what horrors the loser will let loose.
That doesn’t mean that the West should let up in its support for Ukraine. Compromises are driven by necessity and Putin will only agree to one if his military approach is no longer tenable. But it is clearly sensible that alongside the drive to arm the Ukrainians the work of the diplomats to turn “war, war” into “jaw, jaw” should continue and that the hard-nosed approach of the US and the UK should be paralleled by something less confrontational from France. “Good cop, bad cop” as they say down at the Lubyanka.