Monday 6 February 2023

How will the Ukrainian war and new cold war end?

I am trying to avoid the news and insightful articles about the war in Ukraine. As King Solomon almost said, of making many articles there is no end. But I did happen tonight on what I thought was a very interesting discussion about the war in the Spectator 'This Week in 60 minutes' podcast.

Owen Matthews, who is half Russian, thinks the war will end in a Ukrainian victory or a stalemate. 

I can't see how a Ukrainian victory is possible or what it would mean. 

He thinks that Russia is much stronger than people think (this is certainly true) and that pushing Russia out of the Crimea and the Donbass is fraught with dangers, not least because those territories have large Russian or pro-Russian majorities. 

This is partly because the people who did not want Russian rule mostly fled.

Talking to him is a fascinating ex-KGB man called Dmitri Trenin, who explains the objectives of the invasion. 

He's the sort of pro-Kremlin voice that the mainstream press normally suppresses, but the Spectator is a maverick. 

He says he was told that the plan was for some Ukrainian politicians and part of the Ukrainian army to take over Ukraine.

This is not a new idea and I suppose Ukrainian generals had been suborned. 

It is all a terrible mess that Putin has got himself and the world into. 

It reminds me that most wars happen because of terrible miscalculation. Think of Bismarck's wars (the Franco-Austrian, Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars), the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and the two world wars. And almost all the others.

I knew that Russia intended to instal a puppet government and had a Ukrainian leader ready.  I am sure Mr Trenin is well informed but I have doubts about whether the small number of people in the Kremlin planning this knew what they were doing.

The New York Times, in a fascinating pull-out in December that I blogged about -you can read in full here - interviewed the man whom Putin would have made Ukrainian president about it.

Before the invasion, American intelligence agencies identified Oleg Tsaryov as a puppet leader the Kremlin could install once it took over Ukraine. His faith in the war has since slipped away.

“I was there. I participated” in the invasion, Mr. Tsaryov told The Times during a phone interview. But, he said, he was never told the final details and “the Russian Army didn’t understand” the Ukrainians would fight back, thinking “everything would be easy.”

Now, Mr. Tsaryov, a businessman from Ukraine, says he will be happy if the fighting simply ends along the current battle lines — with Russia having failed to capture and keep hold of a single regional capital since the invasion began.

Mr Trenin thinks that, whatever happens in the war in Ukraine, "the wider war, the hybrid war" between Russia and the West is likely to continue for ten or twenty years.

Perhaps the fighting war in the Ukraine will too.

If so, how very  much better a ceasefire now would be, like the one which has frozen the Korean war since 1953. 

President Zelensky's acting skills have made him in many ways a very successful leader, to the surprise of most Ukrainians and of the Kremlin, but his behaviour before the war began is an important part of the reason Russia invaded. 

He was ready in the spring to offer peace terms that Owen Matthews says Putin was foolish not to have accepted. 

Now, because of American backing, he seems to want not just to return to the status quo a year ago but to recapture the lands lost in 2014. 

That outcome  would be just, but holding out for it would be very, even wickedly foolish.

Meanwhile Ukraine has little future. Six million Ukrainians have fled westwards and the ones remaining are not having children. 


  1. Owen Matthews in the latest edition of the Spectator.
    'In the early days of the war, as well as during several rounds of failed negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv that were brokered by the Turks in March and April, Zelensky broadly hinted that both full Nato membership and the status of Crimea and Donbas were negotiable, subject to internationally supervised plebiscites after a withdrawal of Russian troops to pre-24 February borders (which would entail leaving Crimea and rebel areas of Donbas under at least temporary Russian control).

    'In retrospect, that was a deal that Putin should have taken. But the talks broke down because of Russian arrogance and intransigence, because Ukraine was starting to win tactical victories on the battlefield, and, perhaps most importantly, because the West’s groundswell of military support allowed Zelensky to abandon his early pragmatism – born of weakness – and shift to a maximalist position that was morally clearer but politically and militarily riskier.

    '...The tragedy of this war is that there is no equitable or safe solution. To formally cede control of parts of Donbas and Crimea to Putin would reward aggression and create a massive moral hazard. It would leave Ukraine with no natural or defensible border, and would leave a Kremlin regime in power that remains a clear danger to Kyiv and its neighbours. Conversely, supporting Ukraine’s advance to its 1991 borders would entail backing what the local population would see as a coercive war of conquest. More seriously, the loss of the Donbas and Crimea would – certainly if Russian history is anything to go by – be as fatal to the Putin regime as the defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, the first world war and Afghanistan were to the Tsars and to the USSR. Many Ukrainians, for painfully obvious reasons, would welcome exactly that, as would many of Kyiv’s supporters in the West. But a cornered, collapsing, nuclear-armed Russia would risk precisely the Armageddon scenario which the US has been at such pains to avoid.'

  2. Too good to end for a decade or two, deprecating much of the political vocabulary, constructing a wide no-man's land.