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Is there really a military solution to the disaster in Ukraine? Back in March, Tychy didn’t think so and in fact this website had run an article with the heart-stopping headline “Ukraine Should Surrender.” I never delete anything and I have a policy of learning to live with my mistakes, so maybe, with the recent wholesale collapse of the Russian front, it is now a suitable occasion to look again at this article. What did it get so wrong?

There were in fact three articles. The first had been entitled “Should Ukraine Surrender?” and the second had tiptoed up to “Maybe Ukraine Should Surrender” but it was the third that had busted out of all of the equivocation. Despite this, equivocation is the only substantial thing in each of these three pieces. There is a lot of handwringing over both the morality and the practicality of armed resistance to Russia. There is also some ardent genuflection before all of the sensitivities that you would expect. The conclusion to this process is, naturally, an unsatisfactory one:

I am no student of Gandhi, politically, but it looks to me as if the non-violent tactics that were championed by him provide the only practical means of opposing the invaders of Ukraine. A general strike and a campaign of mass civil disobedience would clearly make far more headway than the military genius of throwing Molotov cocktails at fighter jets. And one does not need to look far for a usable historical precedent here, since President Victor Yanukovych had been sent packing in 2014 by just this popular nonviolent resistance.

What certainty I had achieved in this conclusion was unsettled when I later began to meet refugees from Ukraine. Previous wars in my lifetime, such as those in Afghanistan and Syria, have occurred without me ever having encountered the people who had been displaced by them. Now, however, Ukraine refugees were suddenly in my workplace and they were part of my social circle.

I met two ladies from Ukraine; one of them was incredibly young and she would soon leave to become a military translator. When I asked “is there really a military solution to the war in Ukraine?,” it was explained to me that there was simply no practical alternative. These ladies had a genuinely warlike mentality that had startled me and that was quite alien to any social attitude that I had come across before in Edinburgh. To them, a war of extermination had to be fought against Russian troops within Ukraine and anything else was a non-starter.

If Ukraine had quickly lost the war then the stance of these refugees could have been written off as the nationalistic fanaticism that I had initially taken it to be. On both Marxist and Humean grounds I view all nationalism as being essentially irrational – as being little more than tribalism or religious bigotry that has been displaced into secular politics – and I had believed that the Ukrainian resistance had been handicapped by this obvious philosophical mistake. Fortunately, whether the resistance had been right or wrong in sticking to militarism is today an academic question. The Russian army has since melted from a monster to a gesticulating midget.

The Spectator’s Paul Wood has lately described Russia’s army as “just one big Potemkin village.” As per the cinematic cliché, a megalomaniac from the James Bond franchise will threaten the world with a nuclear weapon at the peak of his power, when his triumph is virtually complete. With President Vladimir Putin, his nuclear threats seem to instead confirm his military irrelevance. Two days after Putin had made an open threat to use nuclear weapons, the news headlines in the UK were chiefly about a forthcoming cut to stamp duty. But having been so wrong about Ukraine, I am not going to write that “Putin will never use nuclear weapons” (at least as a headline).

Putin is now simultaneously trying to mobilise fresh troops and threatening a nuclear strike on the region where they are going to be sent. The Russian army no longer has any spectre of a usable narrative and its soldiers are just meant to be poured mindlessly into a nation that their government has otherwise given no intelligible reason for being at war with. In a few short steps, we have crossed from Putin as a spectacular “post-truth” wizard to Putin as a political figure who ever more resembles Tsar Nicholas II just prior to the Russian Revolution. A leader who remains maddeningly distant from the mobilisation under his control, both emotionally and in terms of his active knowledge. It is fruitful to compare Putin here with Leon Trotsky’s account of Nicholas II’s leadership:

Prince Lvov, the future head of the Provisional Government, said of that reception at the time: “I expected to see the sovereign stricken with grief, but instead of that there came out to meet me a jolly sprightly fellow in a raspberry-coloured shirt.” The tzar’s outlook was not broader than that of a minor police official – with this difference, that the latter would have a better knowledge of reality and be less burdened with superstitions.

Perhaps a small bell of recognition is starting to ring here. Of course, the West no more wants Putin’s overthrow than it had ever welcomed the Russian Revolution. Even now its support for Ukraine remains fundamentally noncommittal. It currently looks as if wistful Western policymakers would like to find some way of extending assistance to Putin to make a dignified climbdown and for geopolitics to get “back to normal.”

I was also put in mind of Nicholas II by just how much of a museum piece the conflict in Ukraine has been. I had assumed that in Ukraine there would be more of the twenty-first century’s phenomenally asymmetrical warfare. When I had referred to “the military genius of throwing Molotov cocktails at fighter jets,” I had been thinking of Hamas or of Syria’s wretched opposition. Yet in Ukraine two mass mobilisations have flooded the landscape, with all of the associated problems of moving men, accommodating them and feeding them, and fuelling vehicles. I don’t think that any commentator has foreseen quite how creaky and twentieth-century this war would be. Isn’t a war these days meant to be fought between drones and robotic tripods?   

Even so, a common mistake amongst faraway observers has been to regard the war as a confrontation between two armies. Whilst the Ukrainian army has been fighting the Russian army, the Russian one has been terrorising the Ukrainian population and placing a toll on it that is meant to make it unbearable for Ukraine to continue fighting. The cost of rebuilding Ukraine is so far significantly lower than that of locking down the UK economy for two years during the pandemic. The whole of Ukraine has been nonetheless reduced to a begging bowl.

In a mild, theoretical way, it thus remains an open question as to whether there had been any sensible alternatives to militarism for the Ukrainian resistance. It is certainly still a difficult question. The danger of celebrating Ukraine’s armed resistance is that one might be left brandishing assumptions that are really as outdated and as inadequate as Russia’s own rifles.