Simon Tisdall

Sun 5 Jun 2022

The Guardian

It seems odd, to put it mildly, that Joe Biden is happy to supply Ukraine with advanced rockets as long as it does not fire them at Russia. Vladimir Putin can aim missiles at Ukrainians from across the border whenever he wants – but Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s troops can’t shoot back at their tormentors.

Strange, too, that the UN is seeking Russia’s agreement for convoys to escort grain from Odesa and other Ukrainian ports. It’s Putin who is preventing 22 million tonnes of grain reaching the Middle East and Africa, where millions face famine. Don’t ask permission. Send a multinational force to smash his illegal blockade.

The US and UK have made a big fuss in the past about preserving freedom of navigation in international waters, including the Black Sea. Puzzlingly, they in effect ceded these waters on 24 February to Russia, whose navy bombards and besieges Ukraine’s cities and ports at will.

Wise heads point to Turkey’s guardianship of an obscure 1936 convention restricting wartime passage through the Bosphorus. A fig for that! Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should help his western partners. It’s high time Turkey’s ageing bully minded his responsibilities, which include welcoming Nato applicants Finland and Sweden.

Nato’s reluctance to seize the initiative, rather than passively reacting to Russian actions, is unfathomable, too. Proposals for a no-fly zone and safe havens in western Ukraine are repeatedly rejected as too risky. So dare to try something else! Nato has the muscle and means. It could do much more to stop the systematic killing of civilians and push Russia back, as previously argued here.

Left to fight alone, Zelenskiy pleads for heavy weapons but his pleas still often go unmet or responses are delayed. “We need to get serious about supplying [Ukraine’s] army so that it can do what the world is asking it to do: fight a world superpower alone on the battlefield,” says US Gen Philip Breedlove, formerly Nato commander in Europe. He’s right.

It’s no good relying on sanctions, as the EU proved again last week. Its decision to let Hungary’s mini-Putin, Viktor Orbán, water down an oil embargo was weird. Yet Germany’s Olaf Scholz and fellow euro-wobblers are content. Duty done on oil, they will now more stubbornly resist what their bankers and businessmen most fear: sanctions on gas.

Hardest of all to understand, perhaps, is why some western governments persist in attempting business as usual with Putin, who they know, for certain, is overseeing atrocities and war crimes.

Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron hold regular phone chats with him. It’s said they are realists seeking peace. No. They are dupes, normalising mass murder.

Sophisticated diplomats explain that it’s necessary to maintain channels of communication. Fearful of a destabilising Russian meltdown, they want to give Putin a “way out”. But they don’t get it. “Messianic” Putin’s just not listening.

Another puzzle: why is Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s shameless spewing of disinformation tolerated around the world? Why do Russia’s ambassadors get free airtime to spin their lies? It’s time they were all sent packing, western envoys in Moscow recalled, and $300bn in frozen Russian central bank assets repurposed to rebuild Ukraine.

One reason such impunity endures is that China and India, though sworn to uphold the UN charter and international law, prefer instead to profit from Ukraine’s agony by buying cut-price Russian energy. Developing countries, meanwhile, cast themselves as innocent victims of a far-off conflict that has nothing to do with them.

A global consensus on Ukraine is sadly lacking. But, ultimately, it’s the western allies’ own policy contradictions and timidity that most undermine Kyiv at a critical moment, 100 days into the war. Half-measures are their default position. They won’t go the whole hog.

Intimidated by Putin’s nuclear hints, fearful of escalation, and alarmed at rising domestic costs, western leaders are scared, deep down, that Ukraine may win. At the same time, they are committed – politically, morally, rhetorically – to ensuring it does not lose.

Where does it leave the west? Afraid, in equal measure, of victory and defeat, and hoping for some form of shabby compromise

The resulting confusion, representing the worst of both worlds, is personified by Biden. Ostensibly clarifying US war aims last week, he insisted Russia must “pay a heavy price”. If it went unpunished, it would “open the door to aggression elsewhere, with catastrophic consequences the world over”.

Yet even as he raised the stakes, Biden avoided any mention of Ukrainian victory. There was nothing about winning. Instead, he spoke vaguely of future negotiations while offering personal assurances to Putin. The US did not seek his overthrow, he said. Nor would Nato attack unless attacked.

Contradicting recent Pentagon statements, Biden insisted: “We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.” He ignored hawkish UK foreign secretary Liz Truss’s maximalist demand for a full Russian retreat from Crimea and all of Donbas.

Biden’s too-modest war aims are a manifesto for the muddled middle. Where does this leave Ukraine? Still solitary, still lacking essential modern weapons, and still fighting for its life with one hand tied behind its back – by its closest friends.

And where does it leave the west? Afraid, in equal measure, of victory and defeat, and hoping, fingers crossed, for some form of shabby compromise – if Ukraine can avoid capitulation and if Putin ultimately condescends to accept territory and immunity in return for halting the horror.

This weak-kneed approach guarantees only one thing: the war will run and run. Diplomacy is stalled. Sanctions are having limited effect and, in terms of energy prices, are harming Europe more than Russia. Only increased direct and indirect Nato military pressure can shift this dynamic.

Campaigning in 2020, Biden pledged an end to what he called America’s “forever wars”. Now, tremulously pulling their punches, he and other western leaders condemn Ukrainians to exactly that.