Playing liar’s poker with Ukraine

Glyn Ford on dangerous echoes of Korea and proxy war

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24th February was a criminal act of folly that destroyed in an instant his dream of a Russian Empire reborn. In a long deeply divided country – where, as little as a short decade ago, Viktor Yanukovych fled office after nationalists and liberals violently protested against his corruption, brutality and, most of all, his pro-Moscow leanings in a short insurrectionary civil war – the clock of history had moved on. How the West has won. What Putin had failed to see was its sweeping victory over the Russian Empire in the cultural wars amongst the post-Soviet generations. The old were dying and the young coming of age. They – like Syrians and Afghanis – saw futures written in the West, not the East. The invasion immediately crystallised the support of oligarchs and public behind the previously unloved populist president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, while millions fled into exile – most through fear, but many through hope. 

The war itself will be fought in the coming months to its mutual culminating points of failure as neither Kyiv nor Moscow proves capable of breaking a stalemate, both too exhausted to meaningfully continue. Then, war should turn to jaw as Beijing – or an alternative power – brokers peace. But here lies danger. Ukraine’s embrace by the West threatens their conflict turning proxy for others’ wars, as the West feeds the mouth and mind of war with increasingly sophisticated weapons and goads Kyiv on with false hopes and expectations. 

The initial demands on Moscow were for the restoration of the status quo ante, almost immediately bargained upwards with objective steal and creep. It was no longer sufficient for the West that Putin abrogated present gains. Now, those parts of the country under the control of pro-Moscow forces with Russian collusion were to be ‘liberated’ along with Crimea, Khrushchev’s capricious gift to Kyiv in 1954. There is precious little evidence to show either want liberating. Yet why stop there? Some of those around Biden and Johnson – Brussels is more torn – want to ensure that Moscow is so devastatingly beaten that it will be incapable of future military adventurism. 

The world has been there before with Washington. The evidence of where such ambition leads is seared across the waist of Korea and cemeteries. In 1950, the US – and UK – sent an expeditionary force again to restore the status quo ante as Pyongyang formalised the peninsula’s civil war. When on the verge of delivering the UN’s war aim, the arrogance of General MacArthur and the gullibility of President Truman saw ambition raised to demand total victory as the US military marched north across the 38th Parallel. The prospect of American troops on the Yalu River precipitated Mao into a bloody war that lasted two long more years, killed millions of soldiers and civilians on both sides and left the peninsula divided, dangerous and unstable 70 years on. 

Total victory is a big ask in any military conflict, but effectively asking for a nuclear power to be fought to the point of virtual surrender is psychosis. Yet there are those in and around NATO who want, at that point of stalemate, to rearm Ukraine and provide a fresh echelon of weaponry and support to continue the war at Ukraine’s cost. Yet, if successful, this will take the world treacherously close to Dmitry Medvedev’s threshold when he stated on 26th March that Moscow would consider the first use of nuclear weapons “when an act of aggression is committed against Russia that threatens the existence of the country itself”. Cornering Putin with no escape path is the high road to disaster not only for Ukraine, but for the world as a whole. 

None of this serves the people of the Ukraine well, even when they are bribed with the idea of membership of NATO and the European Union. For Kyiv to join NATO is to drive a permanent hostile wedge between Russia and Ukraine. Yet worse is to pretend that early membership of the EU is in any way feasible. The problem is not its heroic people, but its rulers and the oligarchs who pull their strings.  Transparency International’s corruption index places Ukraine 122nd out of 180, below Zambia and Egypt. Russia weighs in at 136th. It’s equally difficult to empathise with or echo any enthusiasm for today’s national cry of “slava Ukraini” (“glory to Ukraine”) as it resonates down time as the same hollered during the massacre of 100,000 Jews a century ago by Ukrainian nationalists, and again bawled a generation later by the far-right collaborators with Nazi war crimes. Arming Ukraine’s people to help them to fight their own battles is one thing, but using them as unsung mercenaries in a proxy war by Washington as it gears up to fight to maintain its global dominance is another.

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