THE horrific destruction under way in Ukraine may have unfolded more slowly than President Putin intended, but it continues inexorably, and, lately, with a rising intensity of shelling on civilians which may reflect his growing frustration.
Sadly, this follows a strategy that Russia has used before, from Chechnya to Syria; so we should not really be surprised
The West has responded with a degree of unity and depth far exceeding what President Putin expected. In one week, he has effected a strategic realignment of generational significance. Germany has totally changed course. He has united all of Europe (beyond the EU and NATO), as well as the wider “West” as far as Australia. Russia stands condemned by 141 states in the United Nations.
Economic sanctions of unprecedented scale have been enacted which will eventually devastate Russia. Yet they may be too gradual to stop Russia’s military campaign now. They will also affect most the Russian people rather than their government, a people kept in ignorance of the facts by the state media. These sanctions may at first, therefore, increase support for Putin, who will try to use them as evidence of his fiction that Russia is under attack.
But, as of now, there is both a strategic and moral difficulty for the West which seems too little discussed.
FIRST, in so far as the West has stated unequivocally that it will not engage militarily in Ukraine, either with “boots on the ground” or a no-fly zone, it has ceded a significant strategic advantage to Mr Putin.
This relates directly to his potential use of tactical nuclear weapons. While the West has rhetorically linked non-interventionism to Ukraine’s not being a member of NATO (whereby an attack on one is an attack on all), the underlying reason is that Mr Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons if NATO intervenes. (NATO has, after all, intervened outside its borders before where that threat did not apply, as in 1992, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, when it imposed a no-fly zone over central Bosnia and Herzegovina.)
This implies that Mr Putin has merely to hint at the nuclear option for the West to hold back. But, if this be granted, why should he not seek to expand the protection this gives for further operations?
Suppose that he seizes all or part of Ukraine, or even simply wants a diversion, he could just announce that one or another secessionist part of a Baltic republic, or Georgia, has asked for his help, and send in the tanks. He could then warn that any interference by the West would “Get such a response as you have never seen before,” which is code for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
To allow it to be established that merely to hint at such a response can freeze all possibility of Western military intervention is a recipe for progressive erosion of the capacity to resist force by any means other than the merely economic.
This will not be lost on China, which might say next, “You must allow us to seize Taiwan or else” — or, indeed, any other state that has or may soon have nuclear weapons. What would stop Iran, when it has such weapons, from declaring that all shipping passing through the straits of Hormuz must seek its approval, or that unless Lebanon be rendered a client state it could use such a weapon?
All this turns, first, on any move away from the doctrine that froze all possibility of military conflict in Europe during the Cold War: the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction”, which made any use of nuclear weapons rationally unthinkable.
President Putin knows that there would be an overwhelming military response should he put one foot across the borders of NATO. But he is now employing the threat of an unpredictable use of tactical nuclear weapons to create an unfettered space for him to destroy Ukraine. Unless untold lives are to be lost, this is a freedom that he must be denied by the West’s creating significant uncertainty about its non-nuclear response and the scale of its support and supplies to Ukraine.
BUT, second, there is a growing moral dilemma, in so far as the West is unambiguous in saying that it will not intervene militarily in support of the Ukraine, no matter how high the cost in lives and destruction. How can we rightly continue to urge the Ukrainians to fight on, while our own intelligence assessments all predict that it to be only a matter of time before they are defeated, and that, during that time, thousands will be killed?
The bravery of the Ukrainian resistance has been unsurpassed, and their success has been astonishing. The West’s existing dispatch of weapons has clearly been effective, but it must now make a hard choice. Either it finds overt or clandestine ways to offer such support as will entail Ukraine being able to hold back the Russian onslaught, or it should urge that they lay down their arms now, and simply trust that, over time, the economic sanctions will force a Russian withdrawal.
Standing ovations, the holding of many minutes of silence, and no doubt the construction of deeply moving future memorials will never make up for deciding, for now, only to oppose President Putin down to the last Ukrainian.
Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff is Priest Assisting at St George’s, Hanover Square, in London, and is currently at All Saints’ Cathedral, Cairo.