We’re just ten days into Russia’s assault on Ukraine and the western world has painted itself in Ukraine’s colours. Cities and towns have hung out Ukrainian flags and lit their public buildings in blue and gold. The BBC has changed the pronunciation of the Ukrainian capital from Kiev to Kyiv. Tesco is driving the supermarkets’ charge to rename chicken Kiev.
And leading the cheers for Ukraine’s heroes have been the legislatures, from London to Brussels to Washington DC. MEPs watched a video message from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in respectful silence before erupting in applause and tears. The US Congress gave the blue-and-gold clad Ukrainian ambassador a prolonged standing ovation at Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. At Westminster, the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, gave his blessing to the deafening applause, normally forbidden, that greeted Ukraine’s ambassador to the Court of St James.
All the cheering for Ukraine is as commendable as it is understandable, and it is hard not to be swept up in the fervour. After all, here is a David with a fierce sense of nationhood that has been subject to an unprovoked attack by its Goliath neighbour. President Zelensky has risen magnificently to the task, remaining in Kyiv and rallying his people as few other national leaders in recent memory. Ukrainians, for their part, have volunteered in their legions to fight.
So far, so inspirational. As one parliament after another cheered Zelensky and his compatriots to the rafters, however – and Boris Johnson started signing off his speeches with ‘slava Ukraini’ (glory to Ukraine) – I started to feel more than a little unease.
Here we all were, Britons, Europeans, Americans and their elected representatives expressing support as fervently as possible, in the belief perhaps that we were boosting Ukraine’s morale and their chances of withstanding the firepower of mighty Russia. But we have not the slightest intention of putting ourselves in any danger to join them. We’ve given cheers, sent equipment, up to and including defensive weapons, helped refugees (once they escape from Ukraine under their own steam, of course). But any intervention that might spur a direct confrontation between Nato and Russia – absolutely not. That is our ‘red line’. Now, our new hero, Zelensky has rightly denounced us, or rather Nato, for cowardice.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that this ‘red line’ is wrong, that ‘our boys (and girls)’ should be sent to fight for Ukraine, or that the West should risk world war three. What I am questioning is the morality of urging Ukrainians into the fight, while standing back and watching them die. Might we not have done better to counsel caution and now, rather than cheering, to be lamenting the resort to arms?
Of course, Ukrainians would probably have fought anyway. They are defending their land and their future. They have a fierce loyalty to their nation. But this is suddenly war, real war, and Ukrainians are going to their deaths, their cities are being destroyed, and we are standing on the sidelines shouting ‘Well done, we salute you (oh, and we’ll send you some more weapons when we can)’. No wonder Zelensky is upset with the West.
If this conflict continues as it has begun, with minimal give or take on either side, Ukraine will eventually lie in ashes and the casualties could be in the hundreds of thousands. At what point should the West stop its cheerleading for valiant Ukraine and urge instead that its leaders cut their losses and sue for peace, to save their country and themselves?
I heard one retired American veteran say at the outset that Ukraine would be well advised to surrender on day one and focus on maximising its position at the talks that would have to follow. Such defeatism, as it might be seen, would have flown in the face of the patriotic defiance of Ukrainians, but, in the cold hard light of day, might have been a preferable course. There is a time for heroics; but is there also a time when the heroics should stop?
As Zelensky may be concluding with his attack on Nato for hanging back, there is a sense in which the West is at least partly responsible for where Ukraine finds itself today. It supplied advisers, and training and weapons, all to Nato specification – then all the foreigners fled when Russia responded.
Even as the US warned of Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, President Biden said that if Russia advanced only as far as the Donbass, the West might find it hard to agree on a response. Then, less than three weeks before the invasion, the Nato Secretary General, UK ministers and others set out with crystal clarity that they would under no circumstances fight. Nato beefed up the defences of its members and pledged their troth once again to Article 5, but Ukraine was not a member – so, tough. Might everyone have been wiser, perhaps, to leave just a sliver of ambiguity, or were they banking, even at this late stage, on assuaging Russian fears?
The latest calls, from Ukraine and some of its western supporters, for Ukraine to be protected by a no-fly zone were roundly rejected by Nato foreign ministers at their latest meeting. So western governments will dispatch more weapons, pass on more intelligence, and marvel at Ukraine’s courage from afar. There will be no Nato planes over Ukraine and no boots on the ground. Ukraine fights alone.
An argument can perhaps be made that Ukraine’s stout resistance has gained something. The talks in Belarus have produced a joint agreement on the creation of ‘humanitarian corridors’ and, if Ukrainian reports are correct, Russia has dropped its insistence on ‘demilitarisation’ and ‘de-Nazification’ as conditions for ending hostilities. Without the war, though, there would have been no need for humanitarian corridors.
Before the war, Ukraine’s Nato ambitions were described by Kyiv, its western neighbours, and by Nato itself as non-negotiable. They will probably have to be negotiable now.
What will be left for Ukraine when hostilities cease will be a new story of Ukrainian valour and a new icon in Voldymyr Zelensky that will together reinforce Ukraine’s already compelling national idea. But this will not instantly rebuild Ukraine’s wrecked cities; it will not mend the millions of shattered lives, and it will not bring back the dead.