The military historian Antony Beevor joins Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, on Spectator TV this week to talk about the war in Ukraine. This is an edited transcript of their discussion.
ANTONY BEEVOR: I’m alarmed by the latest developments. The encirclement or imminent encirclement of Severodonetsk could cut off a large number of Ukrainian troops, leaving them in an impossible position. It’s a move that suggests Russia’s real attempt at the moment is to seize Severodonetsk and the area around it, and to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea entirely. This is deeply worrying because it means that Putin could then say, right, we will negotiate on this basis – and Ukraine will be totally vulnerable. It could be attacked at any point in the future. So I don’t see a truce, let alone a peace, based on that sort of situation.
SERHIL PLOKHY: There is a real danger that one of the major cities in the east of Ukraine, Donetsk, could be completely surrounded, and then we could potentially see the replay of the Mariupol story, which is an awful one. If Ukraine manages to avoid the encirclement and withstand that pressure, the most likely scenario is a stalemate – not only in the east, in the Luhansk and Donetsk areas, but also in the south. After that, it’s most likely there will be a month or two of preparation for the resumption of the military actions. Ukraine is waiting for heavy armaments coming from the western allies. The decision has been made politically, financially and otherwise, but it takes time to deliver those weapons. It also takes time to train officers and soldiers. At this point, Ukraine is outgunned and probably outnumbered. The artillery it has can’t reach as far as the Russian artillery can, and so in this encounter, between their artillery and batteries, Ukrainians are ill-equipped to win.
AB: I remember hearing from various experts here, particularly in the Ministry of Defence, that there was severe concern that the Russians would adopt a much more aggressive strategy and attempt to encircle and cut off the main Ukrainian forces in the east. And we’re starting to see this now. So I don’t think it was totally unpredictable. But it’s true there was a certain amount of optimism. There was the shock of seeing the Russian army starting almost to disintegrate: the bad morale, the refusal of troops sometimes to accept orders, and even withdrawals which had not been prepared. Also their inability to use their own equipment very effectively did certainly boost the idea that there was a real chance of a Ukrainian victory. Now, I think that reality has shown itself. It is going to be a very, very tough struggle indeed. Until the Ukrainians can really have an equality in firepower, particularly in artillery which the Russians have always relied on in a major way, both in recent wars – whether in Chechnya or in Syria – as well, of course, as during the second world war, where the Soviet Union referred to its artillery as the god of war. Until the Ukrainians can really match that, there’s a long way to go before we start to see any real improvement.
SP: The help that’s being provided, in weapons, in other military equipment and in finances, is essential for Ukraine being able to fight. That said, the money doesn’t amount to even half of Russia’s yearly budget. What comes to my mind are scenes from your books on the second world war. I agree that how the Russian army fights its wars doesn’t change much, and that artillery is an extremely important part of the story: a story that includes the destruction of Aleppo, Mariupol and Grozny. And now we have this battle in the east of Ukraine. So it can be really, really very costly in every possible way, but mostly in terms of lost lives and completely destroyed infrastructure. So the sooner Ukraine can get the equipment it needs, the less suffering there will be.
Moreover, when it comes to rebuilding or reinvesting in Ukraine, if the low-intensity war continues, how safe will these investments and this rebuilding effort be? It looks as if there are no very clear answers at this point, though there are very practical steps that Ukrainians and their allies can take and are taking.
As we speak, there are more Ukrainians leaving Poland to go back home than Ukrainians leaving Ukraine for central Europe, which tells you a lot about the sentiment in Ukraine. Western embassies, including the UK embassy, left Ukraine before the invasion. Of course the decision was absolutely correct, but in terms of the morale it was terrible for the Ukrainian people. Now, those embassies – and the UK embassy in particular – are back, sending a very positive signal to Ukraine and to the world. So at this point, there are some signs of normalisation in terms of political life, economic life and Ukrainian society as the world is adjusting to the conditions of the war. No one believes any more, as they did at the start, that Ukraine will fall. The Ukrainian armed forces have showed their ability to hold the line and possibly go on the offensive at some point.
AB: A friend of mine is now fighting as a rifleman medic with the 10th battalion of the territorial defence and a lot of us have been crowdfunding equipment for them: night-vision stuff and things like that. And I think that the more we can do, the better. It’s not just a question of governments providing artillery. Any crowdfunding – buying vehicles and so forth – is a tremendous help. Everybody should do what they what they can in those circumstances, especially as we’re seeing a repetition of the atrocities committed, particularly in, say, 1945, by the Red Army.
There’s been an increasing debate about where all of this brutality comes from – this casual savagery. The Russian soldiers are treated rather as the Red Army was often treated by its own commanders in the second world war – with contempt and also with a total lack of feeling. One can’t generalise because obviously there is no DNA of national character but, at the same time, there is a question of national self-image. And I do feel that a lot of this goes back a very long way, perhaps to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century: a belief in the frightfulness of war, and with it a belief that cruelty and savagery are legitimate or natural war weapons. Certainly the crimes that have been committed – of which more and more have become evident in just the last couple of weeks – show that things haven’t changed very much in that particular way. There is an attitude that brutality is a form of strength, a sort of Russian Kremlin view of strength.
SP: We should be worried. I really didn’t imagine when the invasion started that the nuclear theme would re-emerge – not just in the sense of the use of nuclear weapons, but also in the sense that the war would come to the nuclear power sites. On the first day, Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms took over Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history. A few days later, there was a military attack, with shelling, on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – and one of the buildings caught fire. The Ukrainian National Guard was overpowered, three of them lost their lives, and the plant’s personnel were held hostage. So this is a recipe for disaster, a recipe for another accident.
And this, of course, is a concern not just for Ukraine, but for the entire world. We are facing a new reality. There are some 440 nuclear reactors in the world, and none of them was designed with an eye on their ability to withstand shelling or the possibility that they might be the object of a military takeover. We don’t even know where to start thinking about that.
You were talking about the Russian national character and I want to add that there are institutions and there are certain institutional traditions. What we have seen in the last few months is that the Russian army really is in many ways an unreformed Red Army, a Soviet army of the 1940s, 1950s and 1980s. The commanders in charge today started their careers in the Soviet Union – something that is not part of the strength of the Russian armed forces, but part of their weakness.
AB: We are seeing a recklessness that is terrifying with the attacks on, as you say, the nuclear power stations, but also in the general conduct of the war. Whether or not Putin is seriously ill, close to death or whatever, the recklessness does prompt the idea that he may be prepared to go to the very limits. This is partly, I suppose, to have his own legacy as the man who tried to restore not so much the Soviet Union, but the Russian empire. Yet the very fact of his anger, the humiliation of failing to achieve the quick victory he’d expected, is deeply worrying.
What’s very striking, too, is the way that Putin is now trying to micromanage the war, rather as Hitler did during the most disastrous moments of the last part of the second world war. Ironically, it was Stalin – a terrible leader to begin with – who learned, in late 1942, that he had to give the generals their head so that they could control matters. He then became quite an effective war leader. But here we’re seeing Putin following the Hitler pattern of meddling. His generals are therefore in a very difficult position. They’re in deep and unable, obviously, to control him. So this is another reason why the situation is so dangerous.
SP: President Zelensky has emerged as a very effective war leader, something that no one really expected. In my opinion he consciously or unconsciously emulates Churchill, at least in the way he mobilises the masses with his speeches. He doesn’t emulate Churchill in the sense that he leaves the war to the generals, which was a very smart choice. In my opinion, his political talent is about understanding what the people want and amplifying that.
Even at the worst, the most dangerous moments of the war – including during the first days of the invasion – the number of Ukrainians who believed in victory was never lower than 70 per cent. So the people of Ukraine are really not prepared to trade territory for peace.
This was also President Zelensky’s position when he was elected in 2019, and at the very start of the war – and it continues to be his position today. Ukrainian recognition of any annexation whatsoever, including of the Crimea, is off the table. So the actual borders will probably be decided on the battlefield.
On the other hand, Zelensky sent a signal very early on that there can be all sorts of different arrangements, not just Nato membership. What he is interested in, and what the Ukrainians are interested in, is a peace that can stand with real guarantees, not merely assurances of the kind they have received before. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which took the nuclear weapons out of Ukraine, created a security vacuum which was replaced with nothing. The only way peace can come is if Ukraine becomes part of a very serious, solid security arrangement. I just don’t see how the war would end otherwise. It would not end with armistice if there were not strong security guarantees for Ukraine.
AB: Absolutely. But surely the only guarantee for Ukraine would be to become a member of Nato, because it cannot trust Putin’s word for a moment. As Napoleon found, the Russians sometimes withdraw in order to be able to jump forward more effectively. So the war will drag on unless there is some sort of cast-iron guarantee, like membership of Nato, that Russia will not invade or attack or threaten, in an existential way, the sovereignty of Ukraine. And I think that Zelensky is absolutely right. We do not want to see the West trying to force Ukraine into a compromise which will be similar to what happened to Czechoslovakia at Munich.