The West must hold firm in its war of will with Vladimir Putin’s crumbling empire

My family brought me up on a late-Victorian book called An ABC for Baby Patriots. Its comic rhymes and pictures were a gentle satire of Britain’s imperial pretensions.

The entry for N said: “N is the Navy we keep at Spithead. /It’s a sight which makes foreigners wish they were dead.” The illustration showed French and German generals shaking like jellies as they surveyed the line of grey British battleships stretching to the horizon.

Such conspicuous displays of power matter to empires, embodying the might which maintains them. Right now, it helps to remember that Russia is an empire, particularly so in the mind of Vladimir Putin. Indeed, his own justification for the war which he began in 2014 and took to new intensity six months ago, is an imperial one. Ukraine is Russian, he says. If you disagree, he claims the right to kill you.

Killing people is something Putin’s armies enjoy. Ukraine admits to more than 9,000 soldiers dead. Informed guesses suggest that more than 50,000 Ukrainian civilians have died from Russian shelling and shooting.

But how is the great Russian Empire doing? Its love of torture and murder has not got it very far. It was quickly defeated in its primary aim – the occupation of Kyiv and removal of President Zelensky. Its action was based on a misjudgment, not only of tactics, but also of the democratic, independence-loving nature of its victim – an error typical of arrogant but declining empires.

Since then, Russia has edged forward, but oh so slowly. Since May, the Ukrainians estimate, it has conquered only 1 per cent of the 20 per cent of Ukraine which it occupies – a hundredth of a fifth. They also calculate that this indecisive conflict has killed about 45,000 Russian troops. That second figure could be an overestimate, but the trend is clear. The Russians traditionally overwhelm by weight of numbers. This time, those numbers have not overwhelmed their opponents.

Where are the conspicuous displays of Russian power? The Black Sea fleet was supposed to make the Ukrainian top brass wish they were dead, but it is Ukraine, with its early sinking of the cruiser Moskva and its later recapture of Snake Island, which is winning the naval “optics”. This month, US-supplied Himars rocket launchers (and possibly special forces operations) have destroyed vital Crimean supply depots. Where is the exciting amphibious operation that was supposed to conquer Odesa? The Russian fleet skulks in Sevastopol.

Where are the innovations that great powers usually produce in war – new Russian bombs, submarines, guns, jets, radar, cyber methods? Where are the crack regiments and the inspiring generals? Quite often, they are dead. The elite Russian paratroopers who attacked Hostomel airport near Kyiv were beaten back in their key first assault.

What about hearts and minds? Russian governments never forget the decisive role of First World War conscription in fomenting the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. They dread its repetition. In February, a “special military operation” to squash “neo-Nazi” separatists seemed acceptable to many Russians, but it is something else to mobilise the entire nation. Putin is being forced to edge towards this.

The Moscow area produces few army recruits. The cannon fodder are drawn from poor countries within the empire, such as Dagestan. This supply is running low. It is not much fun living in a Russian satrapy these days. How long will Belarus remain in that condition if its Kremlin-backed dictator Lukashenko falls? Russian satellites like Kazakhstan have proved notably unenthusiastic about the war.

There have not been many Russian diplomatic victories either. Just before things got going, Xi Jinping foolishly declared that China’s friendship with Russia “knows no limits”, but he quickly found plenty.

Those Western experts, such as ex-general Sir Simon Mayall or former air marshal Edward Stringer, who claimed early on that Russia was losing the war, are being vindicated. The Stringer comparison was with the Battle of Britain. No territory changed hands during that fight, he pointed out, but British resilience persuaded the Germans they could not win. Endurance brought victory.

No such expert declares Ukrainian victory yet, however, remarkable though Ukraine’s achievements are. As James Sherr, of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, says, Putin is “determined to subordinate Ukraine or wreck it”. If the former fails, the latter could still succeed.

John Gerson, professor at the Policy Institute of King’s College London, with a Foreign Office background, fears Russia might resemble a drunken lout falling on a kitten in his bed: “The kitten scratches and bites him ferociously, but he is too drunk to feel pain, and when he wakes up in the morning, the kitten is dead.”

The biggest worry, though, remains the attitude of the West. Terrible though this war is, it has awoken many of us. One of Putin’s many miscalculations – probably one of Xi’s too – has been to think we are too weak to resist. He was nearly right – the most extreme example being the Germany that Angela Merkel left prostrate before Russian gas, the most recent being President Biden’s shaming scuttle from Afghanistan.

Not for the first time, however, dictators underestimated democracies. It was American and British intelligence that pre-empted Putin’s invasion plans by revealing them. British training, going back several years, was crucial to Ukrainian readiness when the dreadful day came. Germany, despite its historic aversion to confronting Russia, is changing. Nato and even the EU have been galvanised. Money and weapons – though never enough – have reached Ukraine just in time.

Will it last, though? Of the Nato allies which do not border Russia, only Britain under Boris Johnson – and, coming soon, Liz Truss – seems fully to understand that Ukraine needs our total backing, not just out of pity for its plight, but for European and global security. Elements in the US administration, led by Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, seem content with “stability”, which implies a deal with Putin, rather than “security”, which requires his defeat.

In Putin’s imperial doctrine, what he calls “anti-Russia” – his equivalent of the anti-Christ – has two aspects. One is Ukraine itself; the other is the West as a whole. Ukraine is no more his last territorial demand than was the Sudetenland when Hitler promised it would be. For Putin, the post-Cold War European settlement has to be overturned, the Western-dominated world order upended. So the wider world is watching this contest, and will side with the victor.

Putin fights this global battle by weakening the West’s will. In this, his energy threats are more potent than his menacing nuclear mutterings. Most of Europe feels dependent on Putin’s mercy – a quality he does not possess. Elected governments now face political crises because of the cost of both heating and eating. As winter approaches, the test of will becomes sharper.

Face him down, however, and new vistas open. Despite the depth of the present crisis, energy supplies never dry up for long. By next year, a Europe no longer dependent on Russian energy will be a continent liberated. Russia will be correspondingly impoverished.

At this moment, the greatest danger to the West is the school of thought that considers itself “realist”. Russia is a perennial power, it says. It is entitled to its interests. Let’s talk to Putin and make Ukraine accept a “sensible” deal. Far from being realistic, such an approach ignores reality – what Putin is already (quite horribly) doing, and why he is doing it. We must not prop up the perennial power of this crumbling empire. We must support its defeat.

Leave a Comment