Why these men die

Whether and/or when Vladimir Putin will attack Ukraine is the story of the moment. But perhaps it’s better to regard the war as already started: say in Georgia in 2008, or Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.

And despite knowing the most likely ending – namely the termination of the Putin regime – the extent of death and damage and the social and political ramifications are deeply uncertain.

But there is reason to hope that Russia’s dictator (in the Roman sense) has made two significant misjudgments.

The first is in his understanding of Ukrainians. According to his occasionally-scholarly essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, they don’t really exist.  Yet his own actions – particularly the war in the Donbas – have helped solidify a Ukrainian nationalism (including among football hooligans) , mostly friendly to his subjects but deeply hostile to his political ambitions. Since then, once-strong support for overtly pro-Russian political parties has withered.  The Ukrainian state has held together in the face of Putin’s bullying.

The second – yet to be fully tested – may be in his understanding of Russians.  Excluding a thin crust of regime loyalists and a small professional soldiery, are they ready for a potentially long and possibly bloody fraternal war?  One in which it will become increasingly threadbare to argue that the purpose is the protection of threatened Russian minorities.

Some optimism on these points is welcome given the unrelieved pessimism elsewhere.

Putin has a track record of calculated and popular aggression for political profit.  It is restrained by fear and realism.  It would most likely be stopped by a defeat.  Until now, no one has thought it in their interests to risk defeating him.

The outcome of a full-scale Russian invasion is by no means a foregone conclusion.  The logistics are demanding.  Ukrainian forces, with Western intelligence, electronic warfare capability, weaponry and other support, could perform well above expectations.  The examples of Vietnam and Afghanistan show how the militarily stronger power can be worn down in a well-supported bloodletting.  And one has only to look at Poland’s history to see that intervention and a wider conflict could easily develop.

Putin has certainly achieved a spectacular political victory in exposing so ruthlessly the decades-long dissipation of Western unity.  In the cacophony of responses, it’s not clear who still holds to the core values of not letting hostile powers get too strong, and helping the incompetent and ineffectual resist the cruel and violent.

At its best, Western diplomacy has given Putin a menu of choices and warned him the bill might just be unaffordable.  At its worst – in the backdoor dealing of Germany’s new government, for example – some are discerning the stench of Munich.  There is a lingering sense of avoidance; that the overriding priority is preventing unnecessary disruptions.  And, if blood is to be shed, it should be other people’s.

But sometimes it doesn’t work like that. During the Falklands war, the cover of The Economist for the leading article by Deputy Editor Norman Macrae showed HMS Antelope ablaze in the darkness with the stark heading “Why these men die”.  

Similar unwelcome truths may crowd in on us soon (although with rather less immediacy and impact than for Ukrainian soldiers and civilians).

Still, it’s possible that events in the Ukraine will revive an understanding – even as far away as strategically irrelevant and sometimes irresponsible New Zealand – of the requirements of collective security.

The question posed by writer-and-death-camp survivor Primo Levi remains as poignant as ever: “If not now, when?”.

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