As the 450th day of the war in Ukraine approaches, the Russian offensive is failing. President Zelensky is understandably sowing doubts in Russian minds about timing, but the Ukrainian counteroffensive is coming soon.
Its outcome is likely to determine not just the state of the battlefield, but also the wider political landscape, as well as the shape of any eventual settlement. Ukrainian success depends almost totally on Western supplies and support. So this is the moment to go all in; to step up delivery to Ukraine of everything from bullets and shells to tanks, missiles and air defence systems. But the clock is ticking.
We are probably at the moment of peak Western resolve. It is likely to weaken over the next 18 months – for, in an alliance of democracies, the inescapable reality is that there is always an election looming somewhere. In Europe there are upcoming general elections in Greece, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Lithuania, Romania and some German constituent states.
The economic backdrop is ruinous, with high inflation and low economic growth. Every government is struggling. None of them wants to fight an election in such circumstances. All of them want the end to be in sight.
As for the United States, the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine has dwarfed that of other allies, amounting to 90 per cent of military supplies. But this policy does not have complete bipartisan support, with dissent from the top, including the two leading candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Donald Trump – who initially described Vladimir Putin’s invasion as “genius” – has consistently refused to express support for Ukraine, and has promised, if elected, to “end the war in 24 hours”. Ron DeSantis described the war as “a territorial dispute” with “no vital national interest” for the US. And while most mainstream Republican politicians support current US policy, they are under pressure from their grassroots: recent polls find that 54 per cent of Republican voters think the US is giving Ukraine too much support.
Even Joe Biden, Ukraine’s supporter-in-chief, came to office promising an end to “forever wars” and will not want to campaign for re-election while seemingly trapped in an expensive stalemate.
In short, the next six months may be the last, best, chance to deliver the decisive defeat to Vladimir Putin that we all declare to be the objective. If we mean what we say, Nato leaders must now take two decisions.
They must respond to Zelensky’s latest pleas by boosting the flow to Ukraine of what has already been promised, and their industrial capacity to sustain it. And they must overcome their reluctance to supply more potent weapons, especially F16 fighter planes and long-range missiles, such as the US ATACMS tactical missile system. The UK has already made a start by dispatching long-range Storm Shadow missiles, but the offensive will falter unless the Ukrainians can disrupt Russian supply lines with precision attacks on logistics hubs and depots far behind the front line.
Doubling down in this way will inevitably heighten fears of uncontrollable escalation. But the greater risk is that we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; that we cut and run, as we did in Afghanistan, out of a lack of resolve and staying power. We shouldn’t over-estimate Putin’s strength: his position now hangs by the thread of Xi Jinping’s support.
Xi has built his leadership on the proposition that only the Chinese Communist Party led by him can guarantee China’s continued rise. His trade-dependent economy cannot afford a big new global shock. So escalation would be dangerous for him.
He would have little control over events that could be as devastating for China as for the protagonists themselves. He may or may not be able to help bring peace to Ukraine, but he will not want Putin to raise the stakes in the war. His pronouncements against the use of nuclear weapons suggest he would use his leverage.
At this critical moment in the war we must not lose our nerve and sacrifice what has already been achieved. At the end of the Second World War, our grandparents built a new order based on the principle that no aggressor should ever again get away with redrawing the map by force. That has been a foundation for peace and prosperity ever since, including for the deep and dependable markets that have made possible China’s progress.
Putin, with his appalling invasion, with all its human costs, is now trying to force us to abandon that principle. Our success in defending it will hinge on our single-minded and sustained support for Ukraine’s offensive. It is imperative that the next autocrat who might be tempted to follow Putin’s example should be deterred by his unambiguous failure in Ukraine.