Is the battle in Ukraine just a “special military operation”? That remains its official Russian description. Or is it, to use the words this week of Vladimir Solovyov, the Russian state television presenter (and therefore propagandist), “a war against Europe and the world”?
The answer is the latter. Of course Vladimir Putin does want to gain full control of Ukraine because he deludedly believes it is part of his country, but he also sees it as the righting of a much wider wrong – the victory of a Western world which somehow manages to be hideously powerful and hopelessly decadent at the same time.
His leading sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev, wrote earlier this month that “Ukraine has mentally become a second Third Reich and will suffer the same fate”. Words like that are too big for the suppression of a mother nationalist revolt. They hark back to what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. They describe total victory in a global struggle.
If Putin wins this war, he will have defeated the West. The consequence will be a massive shift of global power towards autocrats and dictators, led by Russia and China, with a new international economic and political order (or disorder) shaped accordingly.
Even if Putin manages no more than the conquest of the Donbas region, he will present any advance on his pre-invasion position as a victory and use any deal or ceasefire as his means for further advances. The fight will continue, on terms less favorable to us than before. The West will have failed.
Ukrainians have been clear about this from the beginning, which is why they are so strong. They were tortured, starved, shot or deported in their millions by Stalin, first in the enforced famine and then in the Great Terror of the 1930s. Later, Hitler did much the same to them.
Today, they face a comparable threat – fewer murders, so far, but equal subjugation. Addressing our Houses of Parliament in early March, President Zelensky deployed the most famous words of Shakespeare: for his country, it is a question of “To be, or not to be”.
Does the West have the same clarity about the threat it faces? The good news is that Nato responded unitedly to the invasion, though with uneven vigour. (I believe tiny Estonia has spent more absolutely, let alone proportionally, on active military aid to Ukraine than has mighty Germany.)
This has produced positive results. Ukraine won the first stage of this war. The Ukrainians believe they could not have achieved this without kit, training and intelligence which come overwhelmingly from the United States and Britain.
In the current joke, the photograph of Boris Johnson and Zelensky shaking hands in Kyiv gives them a shared speech bubble: “Thank you for rescuing me.”
This help grows. In the second stage of the war, much store is put on small, loitering munitions, such as the American “Switchblade”, which are hard to detect as they cruise over enemy locations, seeking out prime targets for their Javelin anti-tank warhead.
A month ago, Air Marshal Edward Stringer, now a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, declared that the Russian armed forces had reached their “elastic limit”.
He does not think their situation has improved since: Russia has regrouped, but is trying to fight on three military borders without co-ordinated command and control, adequately trained troops or a proper logistical train. He calls the Russian bear “threadbare”.
The less good news is that many in the West still do not grasp how much is at stake. For sure, most people detest Putin and love the Ukrainian fightback. In villages like mine, the spring-like blue and yellow flag flutters on greens and private houses. But does the West fully accept the point first formulated by Mr Johnson at the Munich security conference back in February: “Russia must be defeated and must be seen to be defeated”?
In a new essay, well entitled “The Fear of Victory”, the security expert, James Sherr, sees most Western allies as “locked inside a crisis management paradigm” rather than prosecuting a war. They have slogans like “Stop the fighting” or “support for Ukraine”, but no collective war aims, no “definition of success”. Even atrocities like Bucha, or the unfolding horror of Mariupol, tend to be seen not so much as examples of the evil we must defeat as “humanitarian” situations where both sides must stand aside for settlements which, in effect, favor the aggressor.
Theirs is also a mentality too subject to fear, as if the meaning of deterrence – such a powerful concept in the Cold War – has been forgotten. Putin has only to hint at nuclear threat for the West to tremble. As Sherr puts it: “If escalation, the risk of which resides in war itself, becomes a phobia, the adversary will set the rules of the conflict. It is he who will determine us.”
If the wrong mentality persists, the West will be merely reactive. Only a little Russian success will be needed for there to be renewed talk of peace plans, giving gains which Putin will pocket. Countries such as Germany, already laggard for fear of losing oil and gas, will feel encouraged to delay turning off the taps.
So far, this week, Russian advances in its two main areas of attack, central Donbas and along the Black Sea coast, have been unimpressive, but still, they are moves in the wrong direction for their victims. How long before the Russian jaws start to tighten on the Ukrainian forces they outnumber? The West has it in its power to avert such a disaster, but will it?
One of the joys of living in freedom is that you do not live forever in fear. The disadvantage is that you lose your instinct for danger and feel those who point out perils. As a result, public debate in free countries tends to avoid the big subjects and throw its energy into second-order ones.
Hence the vituperation towards the Prime Minister over his lockdown parties and whether he knowingly broke the rules. It is not that the issue does not reflect badly on him: it does. It is that such righteous rage, on such a subject, at such a time, is disproportionate – deliberately so, I would say.
On Easter Day, the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a sermon which attacked the Government’s policy of sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda. I have taken the radical step of reading it.
Contrary to Archbishop Welby’s critics, the sermon does also lament the fate of Ukraine – and deals with Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, too. But what is notable is his order of priorities. On the most holy day of the Church’s year, he singles out the Rwandan policy as the great wrong, the only subject mentioned which “is the opposite of the nature of God”.
The Archbishop hurled no such anathema against President Putin, who has brought about the death (in many cases, murder) of thousands, bombing, torture, hostage-taking, rape, looting, impoverishment, the flight of millions from their homes and the attempted destruction of a free country. I think that’s a bit worse than Priti Patel’s plans to process asylum-seekers in Africa, don’t you?
Germans have an expressive word Schwerpunkt, often applied in military affairs. It means the center of gravity, the main thrust of what you decide to do. The Schwerpunkt of Vladimir Putin is conquest by aggressive war. Our Schwerpunkt must surely be to beat him.