Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 24 February 2023. © Richard Kemp
When I first said we should send tanks and planes to Ukraine, I was told I was mad. Eventually, after much indecision and delay, Nato finally agreed to send tanks. But a year after the war began they’re still not there, and we’re now seeing the same heel-dragging over whether or not to supply jets. If we had seized the day months ago Ukraine would be in a totally different situation, likely taking fewer casualties and perhaps even in a position to have pre-empted Russia’s offensive rather than being forced into a very costly defence.
When this war started Western leaders made the same mistake as Putin, expecting that Ukraine would be defeated in short order. Many therefore calculated that big talk accompanied by modest action would be enough to show that they were on the right side. When Putin inevitably won, it would simply have been an unfortunate fact that Kyiv had been unable to withstand Russian might; the West had done all it could, and now it was time for the negotiations and concessions that its leaders were much more at home with.
Unfortunately for them, the Ukrainians had other ideas. But Russia’s unexpected battlefield failures led to another reason for procrastinating: fear of a cornered Putin lashing out with nuclear weapons, stoked of course by the Kremlin’s sabre-rattling threats. Added to that was the concern over Russia’s stranglehold on energy supplies. This was particularly pronounced in Berlin, which just weeks ago tried to excuse its hesitancy with nonsensical excuses about the history of sending tanks to the east.
Now, as we hit the first anniversary of the start of this terrible war, it seems clear that many leaders have still not learnt from the consequences of their reluctance to switch to war time thinking – something that really does require a significant step-change from the consensus, compromise and risk-aversion that has so dominated European politics since the end of the Cold War.
We see that in Macron’s comment only a few days ago, saying he didn’t want to see Russia crushed. Previously seeking an ‘off-ramp’ for Putin to avoid his humiliation, the French president still clings to the unrealistic prospect of a negotiated peace without a decision on the battlefield. What kind of message is he sending? One of European weakness.
We hear also shameful talk of Nato making security guarantees to Moscow as a precursor to negotiations, when all talk should be about demands to Moscow, such as Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov’s recent suggestion of a post-war demilitarised zone adjacent to Kyiv’s border with Russia. On top of all this we are still seeing European governments quivering over the prospect of sending jets to Ukraine, in case they provoke Putin.
It is time for our leaders to remember US president Andrew Jackson’s advice: ‘Never take counsel of your fears.’ If we really mean for Ukraine to win this war, every word spoken by Nato and its members should be about the defeat of Russia in Ukraine and every action should be calibrated to achieve nothing less. We cannot know whether that will happen, but we can be sure that without such a mentality there is little prospect of victory.
If we are serious we need to ramp up and speed up the supply of tanks and artillery shells, rather than give advice about ammunition conservation. Long-range missiles should be provided in a much shorter time frame than the promised nine months. Finally, we need to take an immediate decision to send planes and then rapidly make it happen.
All of this will require a wartime mindset, putting industry on a war footing to produce munitions at high speed and in large numbers despite the costs, and telling military chiefs not to give all the reasons it takes three years to train pilots but instead to find a way of doing it at much greater speed.
That is what is happening on the other side of the hill, with Putin pulling out all the stops to stoke his war machine, manufacturing shells, missiles and combat vehicles at a rate unimaginable in the West. Even that may not be enough to achieve the scale of slaughter and destruction that he needs to win, and so he is also looking elsewhere. Having imported large numbers of Iranian drones, significant stocks of shells are now on their way from Tehran.
Then there is China. Despite Xi’s talk of tabling a peace plan, it looks likely that Beijing is actually planning to join Putin’s supply chain, which could be a game changer given their huge stockpiles and manufacturing capabilities — greater than Russia’s and NATO’s combined.
President Biden’s stout words in Kiev this week about denying Russia victory need to be backed up much more effectively by both him and his allies because one thing is clear: neither Putin nor Xi intends to let Russia fail.