The West is unwilling to fight for Ukraine
The Russian invasion of Ukraine took me back to a novel called Winston’s War by Michael Dobbs. Endorsing the novel, the outstanding political journalist, Anthony Howard, described Dobbs as, “an author who can bring historical happenings so vitally back to life, and make all the more impressive by being historically accurate in every respect”.
Dobbs suggests that World War II could have been avoided. He tells the story of Churchill’s eventual victory over Prime Minister (PM) Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax, who was the Viceroy of India, and was by then foreign minister back in London. The King and Chamberlain wanted Halifax to take over as PM after Hitler invaded Poland, going back on the commitment he had made to Chamberlain in Munich.
It was known that Halifax would have negotiated with Hitler whereas Churchill was determined to fight him. In the last chapter of the book, Dobbs quotes a diarist who served as private secretary to Chamberlain and Churchill saying, “Seldom can a Minister have taken office with the Establishment so dubious of the choice.” If Halifax had won, World War II could well have come to a halt before it got underway. A million lives would have been saved, but what would have been the fate of Europe?
Now this same question could be asked of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Did he have to fight Vladimir Putin or could he have negotiated with him? Ukrainians have watched Putin’s brutality in Chechnya, his Georgia campaign, and then his annexation of Crimea, and support for separatists in Donbas. So Zelensky surely had every reason to seek support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) when Putin made further demands on him. But was it wise to sign a charter on strategic partnership with the United States (US) in 2021? The charter says, “A commitment to Ukraine’s implementation of deep and comprehensive reforms necessary for full integration into European and Euro Atlantic institutions.” This was like a red rag to a bull. It confirmed Putin’s worst fears that Ukraine would bring NATO right up to his border. He demanded that Zelensky must commit never to join NATO and made other demands that the Ukrainian leader could not agree to.
NATO leaders were united in warning Putin against invading Ukraine and in condemning the invasion when it came. But was this the right reaction? There was an alternative. Zelensky could have chosen not to challenge Putin, but to negotiate with him. America and the rest of Europe could have watched while the two leaders negotiated. Although Zelensky is a pugnacious leader, a Churchillian, he is now calling on Putin to talk to him. But NATO leaders are opposed to Putin. US President Joe Biden is trying to recover from the drubbing he received for his handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan by putting himself forward as the leader of the anti-Putin army. President Emmanuel Macron of France is playing the Ukraine card and European unity for all it’s worth in his election campaign to return for a second time in office. For Britain’s Boris Johnson, the invasion of Ukraine has saved him from the threat of the Partygate scandal ending his brief career. But last weekend, he again went too far by telling his Conservative Party conference that Ukrainians are like Brexit Britons “because it is their instinct to choose freedom every time.”
By now, Russia has committed appalling atrocities in Ukraine and Putin appears determined to have his way no matter what it costs. The western media is rock solid behind Zelensky, so any suggestion that there might still be a Halifax way of handling this crisis would be drowned by sympathy for the appalling suffering of the people of Ukraine. But what is to be the end of this? How can the Churchillian way win if its leaders are unwilling to fight?
The views expressed are personal