The west won’t win in Ukraine without taking risks

They named themselves the Ukraine Defence Consultative Group and vowed to meet monthly until the war is won. A catchier, more accurate title would be the Stop Mad Vlad Coalition.

That’s surely how Russia’s friendless, paranoid president will view the US-led inaugural meeting of 40 Nato and non-Nato countries opposed to Russia’s invasion. Even embarrassed China now steers clear of Moscow’s Beria tribute act.

The group’s launch was one of numerous political, rhetorical and military escalations last week – by both sides – that are rapidly transforming the Ukraine war into a fully fledged, open-ended international conflict. That in turn raises an alarming question: is all this fighting talk, all these threats and brinkmanship leading ineluctably towards nuclear confrontation?

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, purposefully conjured that terrifying prospect when he claimed Nato’s “proxy war” in Ukraine could trigger a third world war.

Like a street corner spiv practising crude blackmail, Lavrov claimed there was a “considerable risk” such a war might go nuclear. Presumably he knows this because Putin is actually considering it.

Liz Truss, Lavrov’s British counterpart, dodged the nuclear question in her Mansion House speech – but went for the jugular. Her bold declaration that total victory, plus the liberation of all occupied Ukrainian territory including Crimea, was a “strategic imperative” for the west may have surprised less gung-ho Nato allies who foolishly didn’t realise she speaks for them.

If Putin won, “we would never feel safe again,” Truss warned. By her reasoning, Putin has to go – preferably before the next Tory leadership contest.

America’s tone has hardened significantly, too. US president Joe Biden says he stands by his vow in March that Putin “cannot remain in power”.

Lloyd Austin, his defence secretary, now says the US wants Russia permanently “weakened”. It should never again have the capability to threaten its neighbours, he said. Does Austin actually expect Putin to disarm? Despite denials, such loose statements sound like a push for regime change, even as Biden seeks a whopping $33bn in extra funding.

Putin has also recklessly raised the stakes, threatening “retaliatory strikes as quick as lightning” against anyone meddling in Ukraine. To make his contemptuous point, he bombed António Guterres, the UN chief, who was visiting Kyiv.

Russia says it may target Nato arms supply convoys. Explosions last week in a disputed region of Moldova are believed to be Russian false flag operations. This shows how easily the war could spread.

In many ways, it already has. Oil depots are ablaze in southern Russia. Poland protested it was under “direct attack” after Moscow blocked gas supplies. The cut-off was denounced as a hostile act against Nato and the EU.

Germany fears it may be next. But Berlin has nevertheless bowed to peer pressure to supply heavy weapons to Kyiv. Additional EU sanctions, including on oil, are imminent. All of this fuels an expanding fire.

Biden has repeatedly insisted the conflict will be contained. “Direct confrontation between Nato and Russia is world war three, something we must strive to prevent,” he said after the invasion began.

But war has its own deathly momentum. Daily acts of escalation point in one direction. Nato is like a patient in denial. The reality, by many measures, is that it’s already at war with Russia.

Perhaps future historians of the Ukraine conflict will map the path to wider conflagration in the same way academic predecessors traced the origins of the first world war.

It’s not hard to discern the developing pattern right now. Grievance, provocation, reaction, escalation, explosion. It’s unravelling in plain sight. Yet unlike in 1914, or during the first cold war, there are no agreed limits or rules in this fight. Worldwide, from Iran to North Korea, counter-proliferation efforts fail. Nuclear arms control treaties lapse. A revived global nuclear arms race accelerates.

Military planners have normalised the use of low-yield tactical (battlefield) nukes. Russian doctrine reserves the right to go nuclear in response to conventional threats, if the state (or leadership) is at risk. Russia’s test last month of the nuclear-capable “Satan II” long-range missile carried a clear warning.

“Given the setbacks they [Russia] have faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons,” CIA director William Burns warned.

It’s clear the west cannot abandon Ukraine simply out of fear over how far manic Putin might go. Such a collapse would wreck the global order, the UN, and Europe’s security. Yet the longer the war rages, the bigger the risk of a different kind of cataclysmic, world-changing event.

So here’s the choice, as the northern English say: piss or get off the pot. Either the western allies act decisively, right now, to halt this war by demanding an immediate ceasefire and threatening and, if necessary, launching direct military intervention to secure it – as previously urged in this space.

Or, alternatively, Truss, Austin and other hawks stop stoking the fire and setting unrealistic goals, and instead advise Kyiv to accept a negotiated settlement that, regrettably, will inevitably reward Putin’s aggression.

Many find both choices disturbing. At present, forceful Nato intervention to “stop Mad Vlad” remains unlikely because Biden, principally, believes it’s too risky – even though he dearly wants shot of him.

No one in Kyiv favours a “peace” deal at any price, as Guterres discovered. Nor will Putin give ground. On the contrary, he wants more.

Thus, in all probability, this war will grind on, murderously, chaotically, ruinously, amid the ever-present risk that uncontrolled escalation may produce a nuclear catastrophe.

As Lenin famously asked: what is to be done?

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