Sunday 27 February 2022

Predicting the unprecedented

A French soldier carrying a Swedish-made AT-4 anti-tank weapon, via Wikipedia

Some thoughts on the events of recent days:
  • I do not blame ordinary observers of events for not predicting the all-out Russian attack on Ukraine. I suppose people with full access to intelligence such Bruno Kahl, head of the German BND, who was apparently caught by surprise by the attack, might have known better, but the ordinary observer cannot be blamed for not believing that Vladimir Putin would ultimately do something so morally reprehensible and strategically unsound. 
  • I was and am shocked and appalled by the outbreak or war even though I had thought an all-out invasion likely since late January based on the movement of nearly all of Russia's amphibious landing ships to the Black Sea. This belief became a certainty on 22 February when it came out that the Russian National Guard had been moved into Belarus. I don't think this required any great insight, just my natural scepticism and pessimism about the goals of dictators.
  • I would not have predicted Sweden, of all countries, making the single biggest public donation of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, with 5000 of Sweden's AT-4 rockets (pictured) supposedly now headed for Ukraine from Sweden for use by the Ukrainian armed forces against the Russian attack. This dwarfs even the UK's donation of 2000 NLAWs before the war. This is an intervention by this long-neutral country unprecedented since at least the 1939-40 Winter War. More should be forthcoming from everyone, but this is a good start.
  • The speech by the German chancellor today is a major reversal of long-standing policy and an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation. It speaks to the galvanising effect of the naked aggression by Putin, when in so many cases in the past even the most flimsy disguise for Putin's actions (e.g., in Donbas and Crimea in 2013-15, in Syria in 2015, and in Salisbury in 2018) gave the international community the excuse to ultimately do nothing. 
  • There is a Brexit angle to this, there is a Boris Johnson angle to this, there is a Trump angle, there is a François Fillon angle, there is a COVID angle to this, there are many angles for the partisans of various Western squabbles, but right now I think they are deeply tiresome and pointless. I don't find painting one side or the other of these disputes as tools of Putin gets us anywhere, except in those cases where people are actively justifying Putin's attack on Ukraine which is a different matter.
  • It is still very possible for Ukraine to lose this war relatively quickly. More than around 20% of Ukraine is now occupied to some extent - the smallness of the the invading force compared to the size of the country means we should not simply assume that everywhere Russia's armies have been is now occupied, but if you draw a map of everywhere they've been you get something like that. The Russians appear stalled in places due to poor logistics, but this can be fixed. They appear to have poor morale due to having no understanding of the reasons for their attack, but again this is not an unsolvable problem. The Russians have weapons they have not used, and plentiful reserves. 
  • To prevent this in the short term we should give them every bit of military aid they need. The German, French, American, UK, Polish etc. donations of arms are all good news for this but we should look to see how long it takes for the Panzerfausts released from Dutch and  German stocks yesterday to reach Ukrainian hands as this will indicate how long it take for these donations to arrive. The EU's declaration that they will make funds available to manufacture and supply weapons to Ukraine is a simply breathtaking step, though the reality is that this will take a substantial amount of time to make an impact within Ukraine.
  • In the long term it seems likely that, if Putin persists with this invasion, NATO soldiers will eventually fight Russian ones. Pretending that we are not directly involved whilst we bankroll and arm one side of the conflict is unlikely to convince anyone. Committing to supplying Ukraine is pointless if those supplies cannot arrive, and the Russians have the option of trying to cut off Ukraine from re-supply and/or attacking the Ukrainian supply lines. A deployment, either open or covert, therefore seems likely. We, the NATO powers, also have to ask whether we are really willing to accept a Ukrainian defeat, whether we really would be willing to accept a Ukrainian defeat after investing likely billions of Euros, Dollars, Pounds, and Złoty in arming them.
  • The French official who stated that Putin needed to be reminded that NATO is also a nuclear power had it absolutely correct. We should not blithely risk nuclear war, but at the same time we should not give into nuclear blackmail. Allowing the conquest of Ukraine through nuclear threats can only lead to the same threats being made later on over Poland and the Baltics. Ultimately, we have to believe that Putin too is not willing to start a nuclear war over a peripheral interest, which is what Ukraine is. 

Thursday 24 February 2022

A Crime

Like most followers of world affairs today, today was a difficult day to concentrate, to focus, on anything. Instead a numbing feeling of sadness, disbelief, and anger crept over everything as the news of Vladimir Putin's criminal, ruthless, and unprovoked attack on an innocent people emerged. The weapons, faces, and flags are different but the nature of what Putin is doing to Ukraine differs in no real respect to that which was unleashed on Poland on 1 September 1939. Putin's explanation that the invasion was a "special military operation" aimed at the "de-Nazification" and "de-militarisation" of Ukraine is as Orwellian as it is absurd. 

I had no idea how to explain what was happening to my children. For a while I thought that I would say nothing. No explanation I could think of could be put into the terms that a six-year-old would understand without coming off as indoctrination. In the end I decided simply to tell them the truth as I saw it, with the hope that when they grew up they would understand I was speaking my mind: that evil exists in the world and has been unleashed on Ukraine, a blameless country. My son repeatedly asked me if what I was talking about was really happening today (he had heard about such things happening in history, a long time ago) - a confusion that I myself share. 

There will be no peace so there is no point hoping for it now, but we can still hope for an Ukrainian victory even if it seems unlikely. Large countries typically defeat smaller ones quickly, but the lesson of 1920 in Poland, and 1939-40 in Finland shows that this is not always the case. Indeed, whilst the war is still in its first day there have already been signs that the Russian military is less than entirely invincible, including the unconfirmed reports from official Ukrainian sources that the airport of Hostomel outside Kiev, which fell to Russian paratroopers earlier today, is now back in Ukrainian hands. 

The Ukrainians need more than just our hopes, though. They need the strictest regime of sanctions to be brought against the aggressor regimes in Minsk and Moscow. They also need anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles in much greater quantities than have already been provided. They also need humanitarian assistance and help for refugees - I have donated to the British Red Cross's Ukraine appeal and the Ukrainian Red Cross and urge anyone reading this to consider doing the same. 

This war is a crime, it will lead to the terrible deaths of countless innocent people. More than anything this should be held in mind, and one day those responsible for it made to pay.