Ukraine Russia war: The good, the bad and the ugly of the conflict so far – Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Behind the uplifting scenes of Ukrainian resistance there are some troubling questions as Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression continues to get increasingly brutal.

Ukraine has been a revelation. Its blue and yellow flag can be seen everywhere; flying from church towers, in shop windows and at sporting events. Its president is a modern-day hero, its army has shown remarkable courage and the refugees extraordinary dignity. Small British villages have sent van-loads of clothes, food and medicines.

In an age where nothing seems clear-cut, it is wonderful to have a hero and an even clearer villain. Putin is the new Hitler, an obsessive maniac with no respect for human life. The Ukrainians, by contrast, remind us of our parents and grandparents and their pluck during the Second World War, when Britain stood alone.

But, of course, nothing is ever quite so simple. So, at this stage in the war, what is the balance of the good, the bad and the ugly?

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The Good

Ukraine’s military performance. Some military analysts expected Ukraine to put up a good fight but nobody thought they could actually defeat the Russian army, as they have north of Kyiv. The deft combination of conventional and irregular forces owes something to British training since 2014 and the campaign provides many lessons for our own future military thinking.

Nato unity. It was only in 2019 that French President Emmanuel Macron described Nato as “brain-dead” and US President Donald Trump was constantly undermining its cohesion. But, against most expectations, Nato and the wider Western alliance seems more unified than at any time since the Cold War. A new-found German robustness has been the biggest revelation and it seems likely that Sweden and Finland will join the alliance before too long.

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Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by the Ukrainian forces in the Lugansk region (Picture: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Western weapons. These have transformed the battlefield. The US Stinger and British Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles have made Russian pilots reticent about entering Ukraine’s air-space. The Javelin anti-tank missile has been supplemented by the Anglo-Swedish NLAW. And drones, including the now-famous Turkish Bayraktar TB-2, have devastated Russian armoured and logistics columns.

Russian incompetence. To our surprise, the Putin regime has been shown to be dysfunctional. The public humiliation on TV of the head of the foreign intelligence agency (SVR) provided an early clue that his top military and intelligence chiefs live in fear of their leader; and doubtless tell him only what he wants to hear.

Tough sanctions. These have been harsher and more extensive than Putin would have expected. Above all, the freezing of Russia’ foreign exchange reserves (which Putin had deliberately amassed for such an eventuality) has severely restricted his options.

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The Baltic States. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are now safer because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia has weakened itself both militarily and economically for a decade or more. And Nato has bolstered its presence in all three countries.

The Bad

Russian resilience. Russia has a tradition of putting its army and population through appalling hardships for long periods. Putin still expects to win in eastern Ukraine and possibly in the south too.

Western indecision. It was the West’s indecision and ineptitude which landed Ukraine in this mess. A combination of stating (at Bucharest in 2008) that Ukraine will join Nato and then not delivering membership left the Ukrainians in the worst of all worlds; vulnerable to Putin but with no Article Five guarantee of support.

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Assurances not honoured. The US and Britain reneged on the spirit of their assurances (in the deeply flawed Budapest Memorandum of 1994) to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty. And Biden won Nato unity at the start of the campaign only by refusing to intervene militarily. This may have been a good decision to prevent a wider war but it placed Ukraine at Putin’s mercy.

Gaps in global support. Whilst rightly applauding the 141 countries which voted in the United Nations against Putin’s invasion, it is a matter of concern that several important nations are still unwilling to support the western approach. China, India, Russia and Pakistan together comprise 40 per cent of the global population. Saudi Arabia and UAE are still important for the global energy mix but have been alienated in recent years, partly because of the West’s continuing courtship of Iran.

Energy dependency. The way in which Europe allowed itself to become dependent on Russian oil and gas, in spite of the glaring warning of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, is little short of scandalous. Russian gas continues to flow enabling Putin to sustain the war.

Economic stress. Coming so soon after the Covid pandemic this war could lead to a decade of economic hardship. Big increases in commodity prices; particularly for energy and wheat could spark political instability worldwide and lead to more populist leaders, more bad policy and more wars.

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The Ugly

The problem of Putin. What Biden said in Warsaw – Putin “cannot remain in power” – was unwise but true. Any peace treaty with Putin still in power will just be a pause while he regroups before trying again. And which powers can credibly guarantee Ukrainian independence having failed in 2014 and again in 2022?

War crimes. There is nothing more dangerous than a conscript army which is frightened and waging a war it does not comprehend. It appears that on occasions Russian officers have been shot by their men and discipline may have broken down. The addition of Chechens, Syrians and the Wagner Group will hardly help. It will also be hard to control the Ukrainian response to the appalling scenes they have witnessed.

Weapons of mass destruction. For as long as he has these capabilities Putin retains the option of using them. He could use chlorine gas in a Ukrainian city. Even the use of one battlefield nuclear weapon over Ukraine would produce a massive global shock, a trauma that would rekindle our worst Cold War nightmares about global extinction.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey is visiting professor at King’s College London and a former senior UK diplomat

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