What is now happening to innocent civilians, women and children who are neither politicians nor in the military, is both heart rending and unforgiveable. The brightest part of this whole Ukraine disaster is the astonishing numbers of ordinary people across Europe and beyond, extending welcome, warmth, food and shelter to what amounts to millions in a desperate flight west. This is a stunning connection between human beings, caught in turmoil not of their making, to confront need with compassion and support, free of politics, red lines and dogma. The whole free world is now bathed in blue and yellow.
But we must also ask, who has the responsibility for this catastrophe? The answer, uncomfortably, is not just Putin. It is is all of us.
The West was wrong to exhibit an arrogant triumphalism at the fall of the Soviet Union. I argued then that Russia was a European power and should be brought into both the EU and NATO. Or NATO should have been disbanded. Instead the alliance engaged in a string a nation building wars which failed, leaving millions surviving in ungoverned space. To its credit, NATO did not invade Iraq, that was the Anglo-American blunder to neutralise non- existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But critically, in my view unforgivably, NATO expanded eastward, drawing into membership most of the Warsaw Pact, but leaving Russia out. Versailles 1919 repeated. It was only a matter of time before a restored Russia would feel excluded and resentful. We forget its history of repeated invasions from western Europe, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler. Tens of millions of Russians dead. No wonder they are nervous and do not trust NATO.
The various post 2014 governments of Ukraine could and should have resolved their problems with the ethnic Russian regions. The Minsk agreements offered a framework for doing this. But Kiev judged it could needle Russia and provoke the West into letting it join NATO, when in reality this was never in prospect. What was in prospect was that an authoritarian post soviet Russia, lacking respect and engagement from the West, would lose patience. First the Donbas and Crimea, and as that did not gain attention as to why and what was Russia’s problem, the current all out invasion. This time Russia will not back down, at least not with its current government. And thoughts of coups are unlikely to happen .
So a deal must be struck to stop the killing. Ukraine will have to accept some form of neutrality. It has already given up any idea of joining NATO. It can win battles, but it cannot defeat Russia. Certainly the Ukrainian armed forces, equipped with portable anti-tank and ant-aircraft missiles have unperformed expectations by a mile and taken everyone by surprise. Russian invading forces, equipped with mostly soviet era systems, have had a hard time. But Russia will now resort to new and frightening bombardments, launched from Russian territory involving hypersonic missiles and possibly tactical nuclear shells. If not nuclear, warheads of conventional explosive delivered at such speed can generate 2kt force, which is locally devastating. If they have to turn Ukraine into a rubble heap to get their way, the Russians will.
The West will not start World War Three to help Ukraine. Killing millions and ending modern civilisation is not the answer. Maybe Ukraine could come into the EU when it meets the criteria for membership. Russia will have to accept that the price of its special military operation is a beefed up NATO and a revitalised West. But spheres of influence could be recognised and red lines drawn, so that in the end we are back to the predictable order of a kind of Cold War Two. But the anguished people of Ukraine would be able to return to their lives in the country they love.
There comes a time in every war when continued fighting can achieve only a mounting death toll. When that point is reached, sacrificing lives to an ideal becomes not battle but murder. That time is surely now reached in Ukraine. Meanwhile the West, having made Putin into a hate figure akin to Hitler, must row back on it demonisation of Russia and its people. History teaches us that that no war is without root cause and that root is so often planted in ignorance by the ‘good’ side, which then begets a reaction, which becomes a threat, which leads to carnage. Nazi Germany is the modern example. The Western expansion of NATO is on the verge of becoming another. This has to stop. We need a realistic compromise of the kind politicians hate, but which gives priority to life and the living.