ON SUNDAY, the war in Ukraine will be five months old. It is salutary to remember the gloom that fell during those early days in late February, when a Russian victory seemed inevitable. The resistance of the Ukrainian people in the defence of their homeland has been remarkable, as has been the failure of the Russian military enterprise, plagued by incompetent leadership and, when propaganda meets reality, bewildered and reluctant soldiers. The overriding image from the war — perhaps because Western European viewers are spared images of bloodshed — is of shattered and burnt-out homes and accommodation blocks. The wanton destruction that President Putin has inflicted on Ukraine is proof, if any were really needed, of how false was his claim to be “liberating” the Ukrainian people from its leadership.
Looking ahead, we fear that the horizon will need to be further than five months. The Russian presence in Luhansk and Donetsk is now firmly established, and has the support of much of the population that remains there. There are reports that the Russian forces, both men and machines, are exhausted; but holding territory is easier than gaining it. Russia appears to have a continuing supply of ordinance with which to terrorise the Ukrainian public. Its indiscriminate shelling pushes into the indefinite future any prospect of a return home for the five million refugees, largely women and children, scattered through Europe, and the seven million displaced people still in Ukraine.
The prospect of a new Cold War is hard to contemplate. Yet the rules of engagement that the NATO countries have agreed — the supply of military equipment and intelligence, but no fighting forces or aerial engagement — make it almost impossible that Ukraine will be able to reclaim all its lost territory and hold it securely. But, as during the former Cold War, a state of military readiness makes life extremely perilous. Miscalculations and misunderstandings are not to be discounted when combatants possess nuclear weapons; and, were President Putin’s forces to follow up one of the many threats that he has made against the surrounding NATO countries, the escalation of the war would seem probable.
Meanwhile, as long as the war continues, the casualty rate away from Ukraine continues to mount, as the country’s grain is prevented from reaching the hungry nations that have relied on it; energy is priced beyond the pockets of most people outside the wealthier nations and of many people within them; and funds earmarked for social projects and health care are redirected towards defence. President Putin has made the world a poorer and more dangerous place. Notwithstanding the security of his position, shored up by the blanket of lies with which the Russian media have covered the conflict, and by the firm suppression of public protest, the hope must be that he will be deposed. The growing number of Russians who have had a son or a husband killed or injured might yet turn the tide.