NATO is already over-extended and US commitment to Europe will not last forever, writes Sir David Logan.
You do not usually start a war that you do not think you are going to win. One important factor, of course, is the military resources of your opponent. But another is his likely resolve and commitment. Totalitarian societies, like today’s Russian and China, believe that their political systems are superior. They can determine and implement policies over extended periods because these are not vulnerable to the vicissitudes and demands of democratic process. They do not have to take account of popular pressures and demands or win elections. So they can pursue their aims with a singlemindedness of purpose of which we are deprived. That was part of Putin’s calculation when he invaded.
In the UK political uncertainty occupies the headlines. For many Western countries, including the UK, the cost-of-living crisis is an increasingly important concern. Energy price hikes are an important part of that. Climate change is complex. Economic downturn means that emissions fall, but action to slow it down are at odds with measures intended to mitigate rising prices. The cause of these deep concerns is in part rightly attributed to the war in Ukraine.
However, recognition that there is a connection between Putin’s war and economic crisis does not necessarily bring with it faltering resolve to support Ukraine. Eastern members of the EU and of NATO have no doubts that Russia must be repelled. In an extraordinary departure from tradition, Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO.
In the UK, recognition of the economic impact of the war has scarcely led to calls for reductions in the high level of British material support for Ukraine. French policy has been opportunist, but national sentiment remains supportive. The position of the new German government has sometimes seemed ambivalent. More sophisticated military hardware has been promised than has been delivered. But the extraordinary increase in the defence budget signals a transformation in Germany’s commitment to NATO.
The United States matters most, because it is by far the largest supplier of equipment and provider of training for Ukrainian soldiers. There have been some signs of rethinking on the Democrat side, while Republicans have been influenced by Trump’s malign support for Putin. But so far at least, this has not translated into a reduction of American support.
So was Putin right or wrong to think the West is too divided, self-interested and short-termist to prevail? Of course, there are other factors than those I have mentioned which affect Western attitudes. Without the extraordinary professionalism and valour of the Ukrainians, we might have thought differently. But at present it is incorrect to say that Western political institutions are incapable of sustained commitment to a cause such as this because they represent the views of peoples who are selfish and inconstant.
Putin was clearly wrong to judge that bigger Russian military resources, greater professionalism and complete popular support for his ‘special military operation’ would win the day. Should we be surprised? Russian materiel is generally very good. But they are using multiple generations of systems simultaneously which makes which maintenance difficult. Russia lacks an advanced microelectronics industry and must therefore import critical components for precision weapons. Russian military leadership, education and training are defective. The leadership culture is dictatorial and enforced by fear, so that soldiers will doggedly implement orders even when they no longer make sense. In the absence of strong leadership, troops are largely unmotivated and are unwilling to risk their lives for one another.
On the Ukrainian side, many in the east of the country, now partly occupied by Russians and their proxies, have been divided in their loyalties. There have been cases of traitors working for the Russians But in a poll conducted in July, 85% of Ukrainians identified themselves first and foremost as citizens of Ukraine.
This contrasts with 64.4% only six months earlier. By now, the figure is probably even higher. Now, more than 84% of Ukrainians reject any territorial concessions to Russia. The figure is high even for the population in the south and the east. The idea that there is no such thing as the Ukrainian nation was crucial to Russian propaganda. But as things have turned out, nothing could have had such a unifying effect on Ukrainians as Putin’s war.
Will Ukrainians continue to exhibit their extraordinary level of resistance through the hard winter ahead? A Gallup poll found that 70% of Ukrainians want to continue the war with Russia until they achieve victory. The poll was conducted in September when a Ukrainian counter-offensive had regained large swathes of territory in the nation’s east. But progress has recently been slower and costly, and Russia has retaliated with a devastating series of rocket and drone attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure across Ukraine. It is too early to predict what impact the Russian bombardment might have had on public attitudes.
Besides the major failures in Putin’s conduct of the war, another major flaw has been his weaponization of hydrocarbon supply. Russia’s economy is primitive, and heavily dependent on the export of oil and gas. Prices are impacted both by the Russian tactic of disruption of these and by the impact of Western sanctions, which are increasingly effective. Exports are set to decline by as much as 1 million barrels a day.
Of course, the rise in energy prices has severely affected us all. But efforts to economise on its use of in both public and private sectors in the west have already significantly reduced consumption. The EU now has a common policy to cap prices and reduce consumption. The spot price of LNG has fallen to little more than $5 per million BTU from above $10 three months ago. Energy prices are of course the product of a range of factors. So the future may not be entirely rosy for us, but it is certainly unrosy for Putin.
What comes next?
The future course of the war is hard to predict. Putin has no interest in ending it without being able to claim some sort of victory. Besides, he probably thinks his own position is safer as long as the war continues. But how safe? Two of his most notorious lieutenants, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the commander of the Wagner mercenary force, and the Chechen leader Kadyrov have openly declared war against Shoigu, the defence minister. That kind of public spat is important and unprecedented and of course amounts to criticism of Putin himself. So Putin’s downfall is not impossible.
Ukraine for its part is dependent on continuing western support. But western military supplies are not well coordinated and are not always what the Ukrainians need. The west will not supply long range weapons able to reach key military targets in Russia. Although Putin has miscalculated the strength of Western support, it is unlikely to last for ever. And after military aid, Ukraine will need to be reconstructed, with international assistance. In any event, the end of the war is likely to be untidy, with ceasefires made and broken before a lasting peace is achieved.
The revitalisation of NATO has been one unexpected consequence of the Russian invasion. The renewed commitment of the United States, the change in German defence policy and the accession of Finland and Sweden are very important. But the current crisis will end. American commitment to Europe will not last for ever. The Asia Pacific region, and the threat represented by China, will matter more to the United States.
So in the long term, the prosperous Europeans will have to do more to defend themselves. European defence structures exist, but capabilities are limited. European leaders increasingly recognise the problem, and the Russian war should give impetus to the development of real European defence. And in spite of, or even because of Brexit, the UK cannot stand aside from this.
Where does Ukraine fit into this picture? First, it should not become a NATO member. This would be needlessly provocative to all Russians, not just Putin. In any case, NATO could not defend Ukraine. From a military point of view, NATO is already over-extended. But an important reason why Putin felt he could achieve an easy victory was the failure by the West to help Ukraine to resist Russian aggression in 2014. This time, there will need for a Western security guarantee to Ukraine which will demonstrate that it would not be left to Russia’s mercy again.
The Ukrainian armed forces will themselves be important in this. They will rank high in organisation, training and professionalism. They will be battle-hardened and will have unique experience of operating modern weaponry in warfare, including the challenge of defeating cheap but effective Third World weaponry with expensive Western defences.
Finally, there will be a need for a new Western security structure to take account of shifting geopolitical tectonics, in which the Russian war on Ukraine has been an important factor. Other factors include the American tilt to the East; the development of European defence capabilities which I have mentioned; the need for a reset of Turkey’s defence relationship with the West because of its semi-detached membership of NATO; and perhaps the protection of Georgia. We do not know what form this structure would take. But Macron’s recent idea of a ‘European Political Union’ shows that this is a time for new ideas. And the structure would certainly include Ukraine.
Sir David Logan is Vice President of the British Institute at Ankara and was British Ambassador to Turkey between 1997 and 2001