To waver in our support now would be tantamount to saying that this war is not our business
September 26, 2023
“Please don’t forget us,” said Lida, a Ukrainian grandmother, as she said goodbye to me in Kherson. As winter approaches and the war in Ukraine grinds on, that is the fear I encountered most often during a memorable week spent criss-crossing this immense country. The fear is that the West will turn its back on the people of Ukraine, Russia will finally pulverise its way across the Dnieper, a brutal regime will take possession of towns and cities, and democracy will fall.
What struck me most forcibly was this: Ukraine, unlike Russia, looks and feels like a European country, one that would be immediately familiar to all of us. Language apart, I felt at home on its streets and in its cafés, overflowing with people. Walking through the wide avenues of Lviv, Kyiv and Odesa, I found myself thinking, time and again, that this could be London or Edinburgh, and I wondered how we would react to the missiles that can still break through their air defences and smash their apartment buildings, killing the people inside. “I believe we are fighting your war for you,” one Ukrainian MP said, and she had a point. As Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the former Nato secretary-general, said in a House of Lords debate last week: “We need to remember this — the Ukrainians are not fighting for themselves alone. They are fighting for us as well.”
What he meant was that President Putin, by attacking the independence of Ukraine, has posed a threat to us, both as members of a western alliance and as holders of liberal values, including our right to live in a world of safety and security. I was able to see for myself what happens when a Russian army invades. It is not only sovereignty that suffers — decency too is destroyed. Over the past 18 months of relentless fighting, Ukraine has experienced horrors inflicted by an army that knows no pity. In Bucha, where Russian soldiers killed more than 500 people, and destroyed their houses, I was shown a video by a young Ukrainian, who witnessed the mayhem left by Russian tanks and artillery after they had retreated. All I could see on the film were blackened ruins, smoke rising from the wreckage of houses, bodies still lying on the street.
We found the exact spot where all that happened in March last year. The place has been entirely rebuilt. Work began as soon as the Russians left. Neat houses now line the roadside, gardens have been replanted. It looks for all the world like the leafy suburb of a douce Scottish town. If ever there was a symbol of Ukraine’s determination to ensure not only victory over the enemy but the restoration of its civilised standards, that street in Bucha was it.
We have to help them. To waver now, as a second winter of war approaches, is tantamount to saying this is not our business, and that if Ukraine cannot win it should sue for peace. Time and again I asked Ukrainians what they felt about negotiating with Putin. The universal answer was, “Don’t even think about it”. Their words were eloquent. A soldier whose legs had been blown
off by a Russian shell, whom we met in a military hospital, said: “These Russians, they are non-human. They left nothing behind. How can you negotiate with people like that?” A young girl in Kyiv said: “Even if a peace were negotiated, the Russians would still be back again in three or four years.” And an MP said: “This should be the last war for independence. I want this for my two children. If we don’t deal with this now it will be left to them.”
But how committed are we to the defence of Ukraine? For the time being, the British are held in high regard. We were first to announce our support for Ukraine and here, at any rate, Boris Johnson — the first western leader to visit — is a hero. British soldiers have been at the forefront in training the Ukraine army. I was startled at a dinner in Kyiv to be embraced by an enormous Ukrainian liaison officer, who said: “Thank you — the UK has been our best friend.”
The aid we have sent sounds impressive: anti-tank weapons, mine-clearing equipment, sophisticated missiles, training support, armoured cars and tanks, amounting in total to more than £2 billion of military aid, more than any other nation except the US.
It is not enough. As Robertson pointed out, Russia is producing 200 tanks and two million artillery shells a year – twice as many as before the war, exceeding the West by a factor of seven. The Ukrainian army does not have enough artillery shells to maintain the momentum of its advance, and though it never announces its casualty numbers, everyone knows how much this war is costing in terms of human lives. As an MP with close links to the army put it: “The men are exhausted, they have a deep and existential tiredness after fighting relentlessly on the front. They need air support. They need training, they need long-range missiles desperately, and they need to be trained to use them.”
If Britain is to close the gap in armaments, it needs to put its industry on a war footing. As a Ukrainian defence source put it: “Armies win battles, but it is industry that wins wars.” If this was our war, we would be expanding our munitions factories, upgrading our weaponry, increasing the production of arms and ammunition, as if the enemy were at our door. The truth is that the enemy is at our door, and that door is uncomfortably close.
Magnus Linklater is the former Scotland editor of The Times and has been a writer and editor for The Times in Scotland for the past 29 years. He was the editor of The Scotsman newspaper from 1988 to 1994, and the editor of The London Daily News from 1986 to 1987. He won a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Scottish Daily Newspaper Society. Magnus is the author of several books, and has honorary degrees from the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. He’s the former chairman of the Scottish Arts Council and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was appointed CBE in 2013.