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Ian Proud - Blog - The Kremlin
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why the west must choose between war and peace with russia

Below a copy of an article I recently placed on the Brave New Europe website.

Diplomats should be remembered for preventing or ending wars.  Victoria Nuland will be remembered for her role in starting a war in Ukraine.  Nuland’s early retirement from the US Foreign Service allows us to reflect on how badly off-track western diplomacy with Russia has drifted over the past decade.


At best, Nuland was guilty of cutting across EU efforts towards a peaceful resolution to the Maidan protests which started in late 2013, plotting the removal of Russia-leaning President Yanukovych, and choosing who should govern Ukraine after he was gone.  Russia believes she, and the machinery of the US state arrayed behind her, directly orchestrated Yanukovych’s ouster on 22 February, which to this day they describe as an illegal coup d’etat. 


However you interpret her involvement, Nuland epitomised the contradiction in western diplomacy towards Russia which prompted the eight-year slide towards eventual war in 2022; she neither wanted western powers to go to war with Russia nor did she want to live at peace with Russia.  Between these two points of duplicity, a mire of twisted tanks and grey-faced legions of the dead, upon which Ukraine now lays broken and betrayed. 

Ukraine has no chance of escape from this devastation until western powers choose between War and Peace.  Ukraine’s current leadership is set on war and western leaders have urged them on in this endeavour. 


But the west itself has never wanted a war with Russia over Ukraine.  It didn’t in 2014 and it doesn’t now.   Right from the start of the Ukraine crisis, western policy makers whispered behind closed doors, including in London, that the annexation of Crimea by Russia was irreversible and that we would not deploy NATO troops to seize it back. I’m not saying that’s right, but that was the prevailing Realpolitik at the time (and that position has not changed). The Donbass insurgency was put in a diplomatic pending tray, with Germany and France mediating with Russia and Ukraine on a resolution using the Minsk II agreement as the foundation. But these efforts ultimately collapsed, in part because western powers were unwilling to urge Ukraine to meet its obligations on some form of decentralisation. 


After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, NATO leaders held up their hands and were sorry that they could not close the skies over Ukraine as Russian troops bore down on Kyiv.  One of the first announcements made by the UK Government – which was the most ardent in urging Ukraine to bear up to Russia - was to ban serving British military personnel from joining the fight. Emmanuel Macron’s recent bid to secure consensus for the ‘declared’ deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine met with a collective sucking of teeth, in the ethereal corridors of the Elysee Palace. It’s easy to talk a good fight from a distance of 2000 kilometres, while Russian and Ukraine troops are locked in bitter face to face combat.  Easier still to send weapons and wash our hands of the fighting.


So why the reluctance to fight? In a conventional war, NATO would arrive at the battlefield with an overwhelming military advantage over Russia in manpower, equipment and reserves. Even though I believe NATO would prevail over Russia in a conventional war, no plan survives contact with the enemy.  With Russia undoubtedly moving to a full mobilisation, we can’t assume that any war would result in a quick victory. War would mean heavy NATO, including UK, casualties. While I was posted to Helmand Province in 2010, working alongside the British Army and the US Marine Corps, the UK was losing 4-5 service personnel each week. People who remember the dignified return of the British fallen through Royal Wootton Bassett, should expect to see a far higher coffin count in any war with Russia.   

Arguably, the time for NATO to intervene and restore Ukraine’s territorial boundaries was in 2014.  Russia’s annexation of the four oblasts in southern Ukraine in September 2022 served in part to give the Kremlin a legally trumped-up pretext to deploy tactical nuclear weapons should NATO push into what they (wrongly) now consider sovereign Russian territory.  So a hard fought, high casualty NATO battle with Russia might at best serve to solidify a line of contact in Ukraine that exists today. 


I also judge it highly unlikely that a conventional war wouldn’t result in Russian missiles targeting European cities in some way.   While from the comfort of our homes, we have been shocked by scenes of devastation in Ukrainian cities, European public support for war would crumple as soon as European citizens were killed by stray missiles.  Because people would ask why we are not suing for peace? And in the UK, at least, no one in Whitehall would have an answer.


So, while I am pleased that we have stayed out of a direct conflict with Russia, the question remains why we haven’t pursued a path to peace in Ukraine since 2014?  The UK abandoned efforts to search for peace with Russia in 2014 when Phillip Hammond became Foreign Secretary and cut all high-level dialogue with Russia. That position hardened when Theresa May became Prime Minister in 2016 and remains practically unchanged to this day.

Events in Crimea and the Donbass were considered an affront to the newly labelled Rules Based International Order, and engagement with Moscow would imply endorsement. “No return to business as usual!” became the propaganda slogan of choice. We’d do our talking via strategic communications campaigns, virtue signaling to a generally receptive, overwhelmingly hawkish, UK media audience.  We’d apply pressure via sanctions and the politicisation of everything to exclude Russia from international sport, Eurovision and many other things besides.  We’d talk about Russia, rather than talking to Russia.  Not talking is now the prevailing tenet of British diplomacy and our Embassy in Moscow is a Potemkin House with a cardboard cutout Ambassador.  


Post-Brexit, we took back control of our foreign and security policy from Brussels and immediately handed the keys to decision makers in Washington DC.   Before Trump was elected President and Nuland was shoved to one side for four years, London colleagues regularly gushed about the latest Russia read-out they’d received from ‘Toria’ (Nuland) and Dan (Fried) another hard-boiled neo-con who set up the Russia Sanctions taskforce at the start if the Ukraine crisis. In the same way that Nuland’s toxic clique was pulling the strings in Kyiv, they were doing so in Whitehall and undoubtedly in other European capitals too.  And the lines were simple. It’s not up to Russia to decide which countries join NATO and Russia has no right to raise its concerns about the expansion of the world’s biggest military alliance into its back yard.  If they don’t like it, then “Fuck E-you!” 


Refusing to engage substantively with Russian concerns over NATO was not only bad statecraft, but it was incredibly foolish, given events that happened in Georgia in 2008.  Everything that Russia has done in Ukraine was predictable, signalled for years before the war started and therefore avoidable. However, after Biden was elected US President, Nuland was quickly reinstated and another member of her clique, Jake Sullivan – now National Security Adviser – wrapped their warm hands around the unattractive hairy balls of America’s Russia policy once more.  Open war between Ukraine and Russia became inevitable as soon as the Forty-Sixth President laid his frail and forgetful hand on the bible on Capitol Hill in January 2021.  And it was clear that theUK would blindly follow any hair-brained US approach to Ukraine, come what may.  Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and Liz Truss as Foreign Secretary actively discouraged Ukraine from settling for a peace deal in March/April 2022. The likes of Johnson and Truss, like Nuland, now sit in the indignant comfort of their ivory towers watching the muzzle flashes and fighting in Ukraine from afar. 


Ukraine is expected to beat Russia on the battlefield with insufficient men (and women) and materiel, before the NATO military alliance considers offering their shattered country Article 5 protection at an unspecified later date. But anyone who believes Ukraine can beat Russia on its own is deluded and not looking at the evidence.  All the fraternal hugs, (clearly, now, disingenuous) offers of support for ‘as long as it takes’, and big-screen appearances at Glastonbury by Zelensky have brought their country no closer to NATO membership. Jens Stoltenburg pontificates that Ukraine is nevertheless a member of the NATO family.  But when I was growing up, my older siblings would step in if I was getting beaten up by a bigger kid.  


To save Ukraine from complete destruction, the West must now get off the fence and choose between War and Peace and consult their citizens on which approach to take.

Choosing peace means a difficult conversation with Zelensky in which western leaders are clear that his country won’t receive further aid unless it meets Russia at the negotiating table to agree a ceasefire and start a long and painful process of peace talks.    This will be difficult. The US and UK in particular have spent so many years telling Ukraine that their posture towards Russia is right and just, that its leaders no longer listen to anyone (including the Pope) who points to looming disaster and suggests a change of tack. 


Choosing war means an honest discussion with citizens about the direct consequences for large numbers of NATO personnel who may make the ultimate sacrifice and the feeling of safety in western cities for a mission that may deliver, at best, only marginal gains.  There would also be another, I assess more grinding, global economic shock which cast more Europeans into poverty.


If western politicians are finally honest with their citizens about the stark choices available, it’s my belief that most people would insist on peace.


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jasonpwright
24 mar

"But when I was growing up, my older siblings would step in if I was getting beaten up by a bigger kid."


Perhaps I misunderstand your analogy, but NATO members and Ukraine are not siblings. Russia and Ukraine are siblings. This is the tragic irony of the war. NATO seems to want to pursue an enforced adoption process by body snatching Ukraine away from its real family.


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