This is a decisive year for Ukraine, and whether the West can show Russia, China and Iran the strength of its resolve
By Ambassador John Bolton
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on January 3rd, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.
President Volodomyr Zelensky’s December 21 Washington address to both houses of Congress was a dramatic reminder of how critical Europe’s biggest land war since 1945 is for the US, the UK and the Nato alliance. Summing up the 10 months of relentless combat since the Kremlin’s February 24 invasion, thanking the West and (being a savvy politician) especially Congress for its assistance, Zelensky made it clear that more was needed. He closed by saying, “Happy Victorious New Year!”
Let’s hope Zelensky’s wish comes true, because 2023 is likely to be Ukraine’s year of decision. If Washington and London don’t get Ukraine right over the next 12 months, the negative consequences will be felt far beyond the present battleground. It will be all downhill in dealing with China, Iran, North Korea and others who will see anything less than an unambiguous victory for Kyiv as evidencing Western weakness, which they will not hesitate to exploit. While the nuclear ambitions of Tehran and Pyongyang are massively threatening, and while resisting China’s existential threat will be the West’s major endeavour in this century, the urgency of Ukraine’s fate cannot be ignored.
This is no time to pat ourselves on the back. Despite significant advantages, including the fighting spirit of Ukraine’s population; substantial weapons and intelligence assistance, especially by London, Washington, and Eastern Europe’s stalwarts; and the appallingly poor performance by Russia’s forces – land, air, and sea – the war is now at a stalemate. Economic sanctions have impaired Russia’s economy, but Ukraine’s economy is in worse shape, with substantial portions of its physical capital literally being ground into dust. Finland and Sweden have made the stunning decision to join Nato, but Russia’s commercial and military partners have not yet deserted it in its hour of need, sadly including Turkey, whose Nato membership should be at issue in 2023 if president Erdogan is (probably through fraud) re-elected.
The real issue is Western unity and resolve. Neither is guaranteed. Start with Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a Zeitenwende (“sea change”) in Berlin’s foreign policy shortly after Russia’s invasion. He announced that Germany, in 2023, would more than meet Nato’s 2014 Cardiff commitment for members to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence matters; created a 100 billion euro fund for weapons procurement; and committed to spend 30 billion of those euros to purchase 35 nuclear-capable F-35s to replace Germany’s ageing Tornadoes.
However, little has actually happened, and the pledges are in doubt. Germany’s regular 2023 defence budget will be smaller than 2022. The 2 per cent target is now a target for 2025, maybe, which is little better than what Angela Merkel promised when she was chancellor. None of the 100 billion euros has been contracted, and the F-35 purchase appears stalled by bureaucratic infighting. Good thing there’s not a war going on in Europe.
By comparison, Japan recently announced that it will more than double its defence budget in the next five years to achieve Nato’s 2 per cent target, and in so doing will become the world’s third largest military, after the US and China. It’s the kind of performance that reinforces former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar’s proposal, made over 15 years ago, to take Nato global, starting by admitting countries like Japan, Australia, Singapore and Israel.
Then there’s France. Zelensky and Emmanuel Macron have clashed about what to “give” Russia to reach a diplomatic resolution. As recently as December 4, Macron said, “one of the essential points we must address, as President Putin has always said, is the fear that Nato comes right up to its doors,” which has long been a Kremlin talking point. There is, of course, no evidence that Ukraine ever constituted a threat to Russian security, or that Nato has ever been anything but a defensive alliance. Worse, however, Macron also said, “we need to prepare… how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table”. The aggressor deserves no security guarantees merely for showing up to discuss reversing its aggression, rather than actually doing something concrete, like withdrawing its forces to Russian territory.
The United States also has problems. Since the American media enjoys critiquing internal political splits among Republicans more than those among Democrats, its reporting has highlighted signs of opposition to Washington’s continued assistance to Ukraine from a small number of isolationists on the Right, ignoring the much-graver threat from Leftist “progressives”.
A few Republicans, reflecting their disdain for serious geostrategic work, did indeed skip Zelensky’s address. Progressives, however, have groused at length on Ukraine, most recently in an October 24, 2022 letter to President Biden. Thirty House Democrats urged him “to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push”. Their suggested conditionality was music to Moscow’s ears, although the resulting firestorm led to the letter’s quick withdrawal. The co-signatories, however, apologised only for making a timing error in the letter’s release (because of the approaching mid-term elections). They made no criticism of the letter’s substance. With the new Congress convening today, expect to hear more from the progressives. Fortunately, neither Russia nor Ukraine shows any desire to negotiate.
From Moscow’s side, there is continuing disturbing news about Belarus. Since the invasion, Putin has engaged his counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, in intense personal diplomacy, meeting, for example, twice within a week at year’s end, in Minsk and then St Petersburg. Public readouts of the meetings did not mention Ukraine, but there is little doubt it was a principal subject of discussion. Belarus recently complained about a stray Ukrainian missile hitting its territory, a classic pretext for later military action.
Russia’s abysmal military performance may continue in 2023, Putin’s political position may be weaker, and economic constraints may grow. But every day that passes without the withdrawal of Moscow’s forces from Ukraine risks adding to strains within the West. US and UK leaders still need a strategy to give the Ukrainian people that “Happy Victorious New Year!”