Reflections on the invasion of Ukraine, twelve months on.

President Putin sent his tanks into Ukraine in what he called a "Special Military Operation" but was really a full scale invasion twelve months ago tomorrow, on 24th February 2022.

However, the illegal invasion  of Ukraine by Russia began, not a year ago, but in 2014 when Putin seized Crimea and stirred up rebellions and insurrections in the East of the country.

Since Ukraine is very far from being a perfect democracy (though it is far closer to being one than Putin's Russia is) and the pre-2014 borders of Ukraine were set by Stalin in one or his more cynical actions, some people occasionally ask why this should matter to us. There are two very good reasons why it does.

The first is that we guaranteed them as part of the group of 1994 international treaties which are often called the Budapest Memorandum.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved, the fate of it's huge nuclear arsenal was a gigantic global security headache, and it was very important to ensure that none of the former Soviet nuclear weapons on the territory of four successor nations fell into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. It was entirely the right thing to do that all the world's recognised nuclear powers and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council sat down with the four successor states to the Soviet Union to ensure that this didn't happen.

The agreed solution which every permanent member of the UN security council including Russia, and including Britain, signed up to was that three of the successor states,  Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, gave up all the nuclear weapons they had inherited in exchange for security guarantees from the world's great powers. 

Ukraine held by far the most significant ex-Soviet nuclear stockpiles outside Russia, totaling approximately 1,700 nuclear warheads. 

Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all agreed to surrender or destroy these nuclear weapons: by giving up these weapons Ukraine carried out the largest act of nuclear disarmament in history.

In exchange for giving up these weapons, Russia, the USA and Britain agreed to respect and defend the 1994 borders of those countries, never to use nuclear blackmail against them, and not to invade them.

France and China also gave "security assurances" to Ukraine and the other two powers which surrendered their nuclear weapons.

The "Budapest memorandum" includes the following security assurances to Ukraine (and Belarus, and Kazakhstan) from the USA, the Russian Federation, and the UK:

"The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine."

The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations."

"The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used."

"The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm, in the case of Ukraine, their commitment not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an attack on themselves, their territories or dependent territories, their armed forces, or their allies, by such a State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State."

Obviously, the theft of Crimea, in 2014, and even more so Russia's full scale invasion in 2022, are clear, categorial and serious breaches of this agreement.

Britain, the USA, and many other countries protested in the strongest terms in 2014 that Russia was breaking it's treaty obligations, to which Putin took no notice. The very fact that the 2022 invasion took place is the clearest possible evidence that the protests and sanctions which the West and Russia applied at that time were not strong enough.

The first reason that Britain, America, China and France should honour the assurances we gave in the Budapest memorandum and use all reasonable means to press Russia to do likewise is not just a matter of keeping our word. It is also that if Russia succeeds in dismembering a country which had given up 1,700 nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances from all the leading powers in the United Nations that nothing of the kind would be allowed to happen, then any hopes of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons will be as dead as the tens of thousands of people who have been killed in the current war in Ukraine. No country which isn't run by terminally credulous idiots will ever have the tiniest iota of faith in such assurances ever again,

The second reason why Ukraine's borders should matter to us in Britain is that if Putin's invasion is seen to succeed it will not just be Putin's regime, but that of every authoritarian despot in the world, who will be emboldened. No country whose territory is coveted by a powerful and ruthless neighbour will be safe - and the number of people likely to be killed in the wars which will almost inevitably follow will be far higher.

Fortunately, Putin's invasion has so far not been seen to succeed. He thought he could overrun Ukraine in a few days. A year later, the war continues, and a very substantial proportion of the territory Russia overran in the early months of the war has been recaptured. Due to the enormous courage and resilience of the people of Ukraine, Russia has failed to achieve a decisive military breakthrough and has paid a terrible price in lives and treasure for starting the war. 

Russia's military has proven more incompetent than anyone imagined: Ukraine's has proven increasingly effective. There is clearly a strong wish among the people of Ukraine to defend what has become far more of a nation since Putin attacked them. 

There is no way that Russia has the power or will to subjugate a nation of forty million people who are now proud and fiercely independent - a nation in which every man, woman and child has good reason to hate Russia, and where any hope even for friendship between Ukraine and Russia becomes more and more impossible with every day that Putin's illegal war drags on.

But until a just and fair peace is signed which provides Ukraine with genuine security, which is not in any way dependent on the nonexistent goodwill of the Kremlin, the danger will remain. And this leads to the most difficult question: what does a fair and just peace look like, and how can it be achieved?

Most of Putin's former sycophants in the West have had the sense to keep their heads down, or have even turned on him. Only Russian bots, left-wing or right-wing extremists, and a few utter cretins question that the West is right to support Ukraine.

However, there is a different narrative questioning the extent to which we should support Ukraine, which is all the more dangerous because not all the points in that narrative are wholly invalid.

That narrative usually begins by pointing out the need to avoid the kind of escalation which could ultimately lead to a nuclear exchange. It should be evident that even the most hawkish supporters of Ukraine in Western capitals are well aware of this: it is one of the reasons why a "no fly zone" was a non-starter and why NATO countries have been very careful to avoid anything which would put NATO units in direct collision with Russian ones.  

It is often then pointed out that no Ukrainian or NATO leader in their right mind wants to actually invade Russia: if the history of the last 250 years teaches us anything, it is that invading Russia is always a really bad idea. Again, I don't think anyone can argue with this.

So, if Russia cannot conquer Ukraine - and I no longer think it can - and neither Ukraine or NATO want to invade Russia ,(not counting the territory Putin has illegally annexed) then how does the war end?

It has to end when Russia stops fighting. And how do we make that happen?

At this point those who might think of themselves as "realists" make a fatal mistake. They argue that for the war to end, there has to be a compromise. The implication - rarely voiced explicitly - is that this means expecting the Ukrainians to trade territory for peace. It is also frequently suggested that the compromise made for peace might include allowing Putin to save face.

The most common answer to this is to ask, "If Putin had invaded Britain, how much British territory would we trade to him for peace?"

It's a good question, but I believe that there is an even more pertinent response. It is almost certainly already the case that most Russians, including Putin would now like to get out of the war, but at the moment, the Russian president and his regime are not willing to offer the sort of peace terms which could possibly be acceptable to the people of Ukraine. I don't believe that anything other than defeat on the battlefield can depress Russia's expectations to the point at which something resembling a just peace can be achieved.

Furthermore, it is not in the interests of Ukraine, the West, or any peace-loving person to allow Putin to save face. If there is a result which leaves Putin, or even appears to leave him, in a stronger position than he was a year ago, there will be nothing to stop him from using any peace to rebuild and re-train his armed forces, replace his ammunition supplies, establish a better logistics base, and then attack Ukraine again.

Putin is clinging to the hope that Western resolve and unity will crack. Those voices in the West who call for compromise are taking the risk that Russian observers will hear them and that their arguments will sustain Russian hope of a Western climb-down. If that happens, those who want peace will have prolonged the war.

The Chinese general and military thinker Sun Tzu is sometimes alleged to have written a maxim which is often quoted by the "realists" - he is supposed to have written, "Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across."

Actually, those words do not appear in "The Art of War" or any of Sun Tzu's other writings. He did indeed suggest that it may be a good idea to leave an enemy army what appears to be a safe line of retreat in the direction you wish them to go. 

However, Sun Tzu was not suggesting what the "realists" who repeat the "golden bridge" misquote in the context of the current Ukraine war appear to think he meant. He was not suggesting that by leaving the enemy a line of retreat, you can negotiate peace with him and allow him to save face.

Sun Tzu was suggesting that by leaving an enemy a line of retreat, an "avenue to life," a cunning strategist can lead the enemy into a false sense of security or encourage the enemy to retreat in the direction he wants.

Sun Tzu concludes "After that, you may crush him."

And for the Ukrainians to crush on the battlefield any hope the Russians may have that they may gain anything from continuing the invasion is, I'm afraid, our only hope for peace. 


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