‘A man who starts a war enters a dark room.’ I sent out this quote in a tweet a few weeks before the start of the full-scale Russia–Ukraine War. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I pointed out that though the words were those of Adolf Hitler whom I would normally quote only to condemn, he had nonetheless established an impressive reputation as an expert on war. I added: ‘Vladimir Putin, take note.’ Then I turned to other topics.
Moscow, Washington, Brussels, 17 December 2021
Russia sent a diplomatic note to the US and NATO, setting out its terms for establishing a new security structure in Central and Eastern Europe (or what used to be the Soviet Bloc). They were an extremely unpleasant surprise, calling as they did, inter alia, for NATO to remove troops and weapons from countries that joined the alliance after 1997, namely almost all of Eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states. These claims go well beyond the dispute over the status of Ukraine and amount to reversing the outcome of the Cold War and then limiting the ability of NATO to assist its former members—by placing limitations on how and where their troops and weapons can be placed, even when far from Russian territory. Their spirit is an expression of Great Russian neo-imperialism that most observers thought had ended along with the Cold War, but that Putin has revived.
The diplomatic note implied a threat that if Russia’s demands were neither accepted nor rewarded with satisfactory concessions, then Russia would invade Ukraine. That had weight because Russian forces were assembling in force on the Ukrainian border. And several articles by Vladimir Putin had made a similar threat.
But the reaction from the West was mild. For instance, one expert said the following to me: ‘Why on earth did Putin put all this stuff in a public document? Now, it will be embarrassing for him when he has to withdraw the more unrealistic demands.’
The problem with Putin, however, is that in the immortal words of Mick Jagger: ‘He don’t embarrass easy.’
Budapest, Danube Institute, 31 January–1 February
The idea that there might be a major crisis brewing was starting to get around. My colleague Tamás Orbán (no relation to the Hungarian prime minister) and I were commissioned by the US magazine National Review to write a panoramic piece about the Ukraine crisis. A panoramic view of Ukraine is that it is a Rubik’s Cube of a crisis. We came up with an equally complicated solution which suggested a series of steps—in which all ‘stakeholders’, including Russia, would be involved—leading to a democratic referendum in which Ukrainians would choose between NATO membership and neutrality.
A neutral Ukraine might have benefits for all sides in future, but it would achieve an urgent goal right now: avoiding the outbreak of an all-out war between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow could present itself as victorious because Ukraine’s NATO membership would have been postponed for a few years—a success for the Russian policy of keeping the West from the territories it sees as its ‘near abroad’. On the other hand, Russia would in return have to explicitly abandon its demand for the disarming of Central Europe. And the final decision would be taken by the Ukrainians democratically.
In the long term, either solution would be preferable to war and annexation. Austrian neutrality worked well for everyone after 1955: the Soviets withdrew, and afterwards found a neutral Austria useful for diplomatic purposes. Austria soon became a Western country in every respect except militarily, joined the EU, and prospered mightily. A neutral but democratic Ukraine would probably move in much the same direction, perhaps becoming the headquarters of the OSCE, and prospering as Finland did during the Cold War.
But both sides were retreating behind their respective barricades, and the sense that a war would happen began to spread.
Munich Security Conference, 18–20 February
We all watched the Munich conference, surprised by our own sudden trepidation, half expecting Russia to invade Ukraine. Even those who did not believe such a war was certain, let alone imminent, found the prospect hard to dismiss, because major governments, including the Biden and Johnson administrations, were warning of it with apparent certainty and genuine anxiety. Leaders of NATO governments therefore vied with one another to deliver warnings to President Putin that he was risking catastrophe for Russia if he went ahead with an intervention.
It was Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who gave the most impressive speech. Not enough attention had to that point been directed to Zelensky’s personal story. (That has since been corrected.) An actor who played a Ukrainian president on an immensely popular television programme (not unlike the Brits’ Yes, Prime Minister) so well that it catapulted him into high office, he delivered a powerful rebuke to almost all those countries represented there. Russia’s acute threat to Ukraine was the outcome, he argued, of the repeated appeasement of Putin by the West since he launched the first invasion of his country in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Ukraine still had not been given a clear response to its request to join NATO—or to any other request to be a part of Europe’s security architecture.
Zelensky received a standing ovation from the audience he had just rebuked. But what did that represent? Support for Ukraine? Or was it a substitute for support? How much weight could be placed on the standing ovation? Was it sympathetic applause for a man and a nation we were about to let down?
The cloud of gloom overhanging Munich was explained by that guilt. NATO and all its member-states, including the US and UK, had long made it clear that they would not intervene militarily in any Russia–Ukraine conflict until Ukraine was an ally in NATO. And when would that be? This year, next year, sometime, never? NATO’s deliberate hesitation took the single biggest deterrent to Putin’s aggression off the table. It made Russia’s invasion much more likely.
What could NATO governments offer as support for Ukraine if NATO would not actually fight? UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a serious effort to answer this question, promising three Western responses. They were the expected threat of economic sanctions, a long-term military build-up by NATO—and what he called ‘strategic endurance’: reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Johnson directed that last solution at Germany’s new chancellor, reputedly a pro-Russian Social Democrat, Olaf Scholz, also at Munich: ‘I understand the costs and complexities of this effort and the fact this is easier said than done, so I am grateful for Chancellor Scholz’s assurances about Nord Stream 2, but the lessons of the last few years, and of Gazprom’s obvious manipulation of European gas supply, cannot be ignored.’
Scholz had delivered his own speech before Johnson, and the prime minister’s welcome for his ‘assurances about Nord Stream 2’ seemed to exaggerate their importance. Scholz’s speech—which stressed dealing with climate change and promoting European integration—could almost have been made before Putin ratcheted up the Ukraine crisis. Its business-as-usual tone did not quite match the sombre mood of the conference, or Johnson’s insistence that ‘Putin must lose and be seen to lose’, or Zelensky’s pessimistic patriotism.
At that point I would have placed a modest bet that NATO and the West would swallow a Russian invasion of Ukraine after a year or two’s delay and a suitable display of moral indignation.
Budapest to London, 24 February
Apparently, my influence does not extend to the upper reaches of the Kremlin. On 24 February Putin rejected my warning, launched his invasion of Ukraine, and entered a much darker room than either he or his enemies had expected. He is thought to have expected a lightning advance on Kyiv that would last three days, a warm welcome by the Ukrainian population (garlands, confetti, kisses, etc.), and a culminating victory parade for which Russian soldiers had allegedly already packed their dress uniforms. Most Western experts forecast a longer campaign and a less welcoming victory—but a victory nonetheless.
I knew nothing of these matters on the morning of 24 February, when I learned about the Russian invasion at terminal 2B of Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc Airport, from which flights to destinations outside the Schengen Area depart. It was eerily empty. By contrast, the BA flight to London was almost full. Given that the announcement of Vladimir Putin’s address occurred overnight, some passengers would have been unaware of it. But the atmosphere of the departure lounge lacked its usual blend of commercial and vacation high spirits. Enough people knew that Europe now had a war raging on its territory, and that it would likely be a brutal, modern, high-tech conflict resulting in destroyed cities, dead soldiers, massacres of civilians, and streams of refugees in what had since the end of the Yugoslav Wars in 1999 been a largely peaceful Europe.
Not many single events transform how we feel about the world around us. But a major war is one of them. Not only does it increase everyone’s sense of insecurity, but it also makes us look more realistically at our own strengths and weaknesses, and those of our enemy—yes, enemy at that point, not rival or competitor. At the moment when Putin invaded Ukraine, we looked at the West’s seeming inability to do much about it, at his careful accumulation of military power and financial preparation, and at our own fecklessness—and the conclusion looked unavoidable: we had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
24 February (Continued)
That was true, albeit temporarily, but it was also a warning against being swept away by the emotion of the moment. Only three weeks before, in our National Review article, my colleague Tamás Orbán and I had come up with a more realistic and, as it turned out, more accurate prediction of how the West would respond to such an event. We thought the West had more cards up its sleeve than Russia. Europe could respond effectively to Russia’s energy weapon by diversifying its supplies—it was not a weapon you could use twice. And though Russia would probably win a military victory over Ukraine, maybe quickly, all the post-victory scenarios looked like Pyrrhic ones, including an endless guerrilla war that drained Russia of wealth and manpower until it withdrew as in Afghanistan.
And we added a further consideration: ‘Our view is that almost all discussions today underestimate the impact of even a short or limited war—with its casualties, inevitable atrocities, and massive destruction of modern cities—on popular, political, and business opinion in the West and the wider world. Russia’s Western friends would not be able to prevent the imposition of still more punitive economic sanctions.’
And not only in the West? We looked at consequences beyond Europe and NATO: ‘In its cold alliance with China, Russia would be forced into an even more subservient position. It would be a diplomatic pariah for quite a long period in all the institutions of globalism. And the important gains it hopes to win from its forward policy—dividing the United States from Europe, building a new European security structure, reversing the post-Cold War settlement—would be postponed for a considerable time.’
24 February to 21 March
Almost three weeks into a war expected to last five days, those predictions look pretty good, and Putin’s expectations seem like optimistic self-deception. Estimates of deaths, refugees, and destruction of property (gleaned from several sources) in the war are roughly 6,000–12,000 Russian soldiers killed, 4,000–6,000 Ukrainians killed, 3 million refugees, and $119 billion worth of property damage.
Putin’s blitzkrieg having failed, he changed his strategy to a more traditional Russian one of pulverizing Ukraine’s cities and their civilian inhabitants, as much as their defence forces, through heavy missile and artillery bombardment. Deaths, casualties, and destruction are therefore rising fast, and are likely to get far worse.
And yet, in mid-March, Putin was still far from ending the war, let alone being able to claim a victory. Indeed, when commentators write that Putin has already lost, what they mean is that even if he eventually conquers Ukraine by bulldozer tactics, he has lost most of the strategic aims he hoped to achieve at the outset. He may still hope to improve Russia’s geo-strategic position around the Black Sea and gradually make Ukraine a landlocked and failed state. But even those objectives are uncertain.
Otherwise, NATO and the EU have both unified around policies of increasing defence spending, reducing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy, defending democracy, and in general seeking to revive the reality of ‘the West’. Germany has reversed the Merkel-era policies that benefited Russia, notably starving defence of resources and relying on cheap Russian energy. Countries that had been almost frightened to think of joining NATO, such as Sweden, Finland, and Moldova have now been frightened into declaring that they will apply to do so (and getting hostile Russian reactions). Even the Biden administration has committed itself to re-constructing a strong Atlantic alliance—as is wise to do in a world in which an increasingly powerful China wonders whether its friendship with Moscow was mistaken as well as ill-timed.
Does China benefit more by having a weakened Russia as its junior partner in geopolitics than it loses by taking its side against a reviving Western alliance that has shown its formidable financial power in sanctions policy? That is an unhappy choice for Beijing. And a cheering question for everyone else—unless, of course, you happen to be Vladimir Putin.
Washington, 24 February to March
Opposition to US support for Ukraine comes oddly from conservatives who might be expected to favour a small nation struggling to remain free from an empire striving to regain it. They argue that the US has no strategic interest in Ukraine and see no reason why they or America should fight to protect Ukrainian independence.
But what the US has an interest in defending is not necessarily Ukraine’s entry into NATO but the post-Cold War settlement that established a stable group of independent states which are also American allies in a crucially important part of the world, standing against the revanchism of a revisionist Russia. A friendly and peaceful Europe under the NATO umbrella is a vital American interest, and we should defend it against attack and subversion. America is fundamentally a status quo power in the modern world—most talk of its being a revolutionary one is dangerous hot air—and it is at the apex of several international security organizations. In addition to defending our interests in Europe, Washington also needs to show that it is a reliable ally in other contexts, too—especially after America’s scuttle from Afghanistan.
These considerations are all conservative by any standard. And they gain persuasiveness from the two plainest facts about the war so far. First, the Ukrainians have proved well-trained and better equipped than the Russians expected, encouraged by both their political leaders and the civilian population, and as a result are brave and effective in fighting. Second the Russians have been slow-footed, damaged by low morale, seemingly either ignorant or misled about their mission, and unable to attain their overall objectives in a timely fashion or at all.
We are therefore less frightened of Russia’s conventional armed forces than we were before 24 February. Our logic is that if Ukraine’s forces can hold them at bay so well, NATO’s larger and more sophisticated forces have little to fear from them.
It is likely that Putin thinks so as well. If so, he must also be nervous that cities like Kyiv might not fall to Russia’s pulverizing tactics without the kind of losses—100,000 to 160,000 Soviet troops—that the Red Army sustained in urban warfare during the 1944–1945 Siege of Budapest. For he does not appear to have the reserves of manpower needed to replace such losses in fighting such a war. That is why he is calling in all manner of revolutionary and jihadist riff-raff from around the world, to employ in Kyiv the tactics they have made famous in Syria, Libya, and Chechnya.
His image as a conservative and Christian defender of Europe’s traditional religious values has taken quite a knock as a result. One wonders what penance his Russian Orthodox priest will give him in confession.
Moscow, Washington, Kyiv
President Zelensky has been touring Western capitals by video, begging for the West to give Ukraine more military assistance, notably either by imposing a ‘no fly zone’ or by transferring war planes to his army. But President Biden, NATO, and most Western governments have decided that this would risk nuclear war. We cannot go beyond supplying military equipment and training to help Ukraine. If that decision is sustained, it means that the West must re-think deterrence.
Our old doctrine was that a country with nuclear weapons could not be attacked because that might lead to a nuclear war. Our current stance is that a country with nuclear weapons cannot be resisted if it attacks others because that might lead to a nuclear war. Unless we alter that stance, we will make the world safe for conventional armed aggression of the kind Putin has just launched.
Re-thinking the doctrine of nuclear deterrence needs to happen. Until then, however, NATO countries—especially those member states next to Russia, as well as potential new applicants such as Sweden—will have to greatly strengthen their conventional armed forces and their alliance cooperation in order to deter Russia solely by conventional weapons.
That is likely to prove expensive, and to require firm public support across NATO. And that is hard to achieve. Thanks to the evidence that this war has given us of Russia’s real military capacities, however, it is a more realistic policy than it might have seemed a month ago.
Berlin, 18 March
In only one of his speeches to Western legislatures was Zelensky given a cool reception—namely at the Bundestag, where he frankly criticized Germany’s long-standing policy of Economy Über Alles. In principle his criticism has already been met by Chancellor Scholz’s dramatic reversal of those policies. But how permanent is that likely to be—especially if, as the latest news suggests, China is for the moment sticking with Russia—remains to be seen. As Dominic Lawson pointed out in the London Sunday Times this weekend: ‘One in two Volkswagens worldwide are sold and manufactured in the People’s Republic.’
The Russia–Ukraine War is not yet over. Two questions must be answered before we can glimpse its final consequences. First, will Russia succeed in brutally conquering and dividing Ukraine? And if so, at what cost? Second, will Germany—and thus Europe—remain firmly attached to the new policy of reviving defence, NATO unity, and the West? As a biographer of Merkel, Ralph Bollmann, told the BBC this week: ‘We are in a deep crisis of the German economic model that is not yet in the minds of many Germans: our model depends on exporting to China especially and importing cheap gas from Russia.’
Until we know the answers to those questions, we are still in a dark room.