December 1, 2023


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine -and Ukraine’s determined resistance- have led to dramatic policy changes in European capitals. But Political Editor Nick Powell argues that it’s not enough to react to events and it’s time to decide what outcome the EU and NATO are seeking from the conflict.

A military cliché much used since Russia attacked Ukraine in February is that in war, plans don’t survive contact with the enemy. It’s an obvious truth on the battlefield but it’s also true for policymakers trying to decide their objectives.

In the case of President Zelenskyy and his government, the experience of being able to thwart the Russian army, combined with the unforgivable suffering inflicted in occupied areas, has ended talk of seeking an early ceasefire, and negotiations and compromise.

Now the objective is to liberate the entire country, inflict a defeat so humiliating that President Putin probably won’t survive in office and then create ‘Fortress Ukraine’, a European Israel that doesn’t expect a permanent peace with all its neighbours but is confident in its ability to defend itself.

Such war aims are only realistic if Ukraine’s allies are signed up to them. Downing Street has briefed that Prime Minister Johnson is trying to win President Biden’s support for the ‘Fortress Ukraine’ strategy. It would mean upping both the quantity and quality of arms shipments and drastically tightening sanctions on Russia.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has urged member states not to limit the categories of weapons they supply. “Ukraine has to get whatever it needs to defend it needs to defend itself and what it can handle”, she said.

The next EU sanctions package is likely to target the Russian banks that facilitate member states’ payments for oil and gas. Von der Leyen has warned of the danger of simply driving up the global price of oil, to the Kremlin’s benefit.

In the case of gas, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has said the solution is to cap the price that EU members are willing to pay Russia, on the basis that Europe is too big a customer for Gazprom to simply turn off the taps.

We are heading for a crucial European Council at the end of May. The pressure is on Germany, both from its former defence minister von der Leyen and its fellow Russian gas-guzzler in Italy. Chancellor Scholz is being urged to accept that more decisive action on both sanctions and arms shipments will actually mean less of the long term economic pain that a protracted war would bring.

Less of the infinitely greater pain being suffered by the Ukrainian people, it’s also hoped. The facts on the ground by mid-May will matter greatly. If President Putin claims ‘mission accomplished’ with whatever Ukrainian territory Russia controls by the annual Victory Day parade on May 9, he would blame further fighting on Ukrainian intransigence.

After all that has happened since February -and all the vows to learn the lessons of the past appeasement of Putin- the EU and NATO will be expected by Ukraine to respond by doubling down on both sanctions and arms supplies. The failure of their pre-war strategy of trying to deter Putin has understandably left our leaders in reactive mode as they respond to the fortunes of war in Ukraine.

But soon they must agree on new strategic objectives. President Zelenskyy is asking for their support until he’s the one to declare victory -and further support afterwards as well. Beyond his powerful rhetoric about Ukraine’s right to choose its own western-facing path, his argument is a simple one, that the only way to deter Putin is to defeat him.


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