Putin’s war has reinvigorated the west’s defence of liberty. That unity must not crack now

Andrew Rawnsley

It was an easy mistake for a tyrant to make. When Vladimir Putin launched his savage assault on Ukraine in February last year, he did not just misjudge its valiant people and their determination to fight for freedom. He also misread the western democracies.
You can see why. As Russia’s military was beginning what was intended to be a lightning blitz to crush its neighbour, the UK’s clown car government was being consumed by Partygate. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, had previously despaired that Nato was in the throes of “brain death”. Germany, with its dangerous dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, had a newly elected chancellor in Olaf Scholz, presiding over an untested three-party coalition. America had rattled confidence in its leadership with the ignominious scuttle from Afghanistan. It wasn’t just Putin, it was a growing number of people in the free world who thought the democracies had become too debilitated, decadent and divided to defend their values. The Kremlin’s dictator is not the only one who underestimated the resistance of the Ukrainians and the staying power of their supporters in the west.
The messy, squabbly democracies got their act together to respond with an impressive unity and resolve. Even more remarkably, it has been sustained for 12 months. Western leaders have imposed unprecedentedly tough sanctions on Russia, even when it has meant hurting their own voters. Billions of dollars in military support and economic aid has been funnelled to Ukraine. Finland and Sweden have applied to join a reinvigorated Nato.
This reaction was one part empathy with Ukraine, one part terror of what a victorious Putin would do next, one part guilt about how feebly the west had dealt with his earlier aggressions and one part an epiphany that democracy has to be defended if it is to endure.
The alliance has been strained by tensions between its bet-hedgers and its all-inners and quarrels about the quantity and heft of the arms supplied to Ukraine. The current one is about fighter jets. The previous one was about main battle tanks. This shouldn’t obscure the big point. The democracies have confounded the calculations of Putin by being much more steadfast than he or they anticipated.
In the UK, a government otherwise convulsed by splits and psychodramas has displayed clarity and consistency of purpose about the conflict. Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s visit to Britain last week was tribute to the early role the UK played in galvanising the western response and not unconnected with the fact that we are the second largest donor of military equipment and munitions after the US. That support has been delivered, at a time of domestic austerity, with a lot of public approval and no cavilling from the opposition or the Tory backbenches. Supporters of Boris Johnson tried to save his premiership by arguing that we couldn’t change prime minister without fatally undermining the war effort. Two prime ministers on, we know that not to be true.
There is a broad and deep consensus about supporting Ukraine. It was to be seen in the outpouring of bipartisan warmth and admiration for President Zelenskiy when, clad in his trademark khaki, he made his speech to an enraptured crowd of 2,000 in Westminster Hall. He is an inspirational advocate for his country who knows how to punch the buttons of an audience. When he later visited the European parliament, he spoke about “our Europe” and “taking care of the European way of life”. In front of MPs and peers, he gave them references to Winston Churchill, British “grit and character” and “delicious English tea”. The coup de theatre was pitching his case for fighter jets by presenting the Speaker of the Commons with a pilot’s helmet inscribed with the words: “We have freedom, give us the wings to protect it.” I could see thought-bubbles floating out of the heads of many of the British politicians present: why can’t we find a leader like this?
That occasion was preceded by a highly untypical session of prime minister’s questions in which Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak eschewed the usual name-calling to celebrate British unity in support of Ukraine. Sir Keir called for Putin “and all his cronies” to be brought to The Hague to answer for their war crimes. The prime minister replied that he hoped indictments were coming soon. Almost everyone would like to see Putin on trial, but won’t get to unless Russia’s despot is toppled, arrested and extradited. There is something a bit performative about such exchanges between the party leaders, but it is in a good cause. Given the devastation that has been inflicted on Ukraine, some may say it is in poor taste to assess how the war has reshaped our politics, but this can’t be ignored because the long-term impacts will be significant. One big consequence is for the concept of non-interventionism, which gained popularity after the grim experience of Iraq. Whether of the leftwing pacifist variety or the rightwing isolationist tendency, washing your hands of the world is a less fashionable position now.
It has become much harder to make their case for those who want to spend less on defence and much easier for those who think we must strengthen our depleted armed forces. At a time when money is already tight, the military has become yet another claimant of extra spending. That is an additional pressure on the government that will shortly give its answer by publishing a strategic review. If Sir Keir is the next prime minister, defence spending will become Labour’s challenge. The Labour leader has reaped a domestic political dividend because the war presented him with an opportunity to demonstrate how he has changed his party. “God knows where we would have landed with Corbyn,” a Labour MP remarked to me recently. From the beginning and throughout, Sir Keir has been unequivocal in his denunciations of the Kremlin’s “jackboot of tyranny” and repeatedly restated his commitment to Nato to show that his Labour party knows which side to be on when a despotism attempts to devour a democracy. He has also set his face against any notion that the UK should give up its nuclear weapons.
The war has been very negative for the cause of nuclear disarmament. That’s an argument that falls on much stonier soil when there have been repeated Russian threats to use nukes. Politicians and analysts debate whether that’s a serious menace or bombastic bluffing. Either way, it makes it much harder to sell the idea that the UK should get rid of its deterrent. Throughout the conflict, there has been anxiety in western capitals, and expectation in the Kremlin, that support for Ukraine would become compromised by “war fatigue”. There’s not much sign of that yet. Opinion in most western nations remains firm. One explanation is revulsion at the barbarism of the Russian onslaught. Another is that throttling European gas supplies has not been as potent a weapon as Putin expected. A warmer than usual winter has helped, as have large energy bill subsidies from western governments to their citizens. Pollsters report that majorities continue to favour applying sanctions on Russia and supplying arms to Ukraine. More than half still say that higher energy costs are a sacrifice worth making to defend a sovereign country against attack.
Sustaining that solidarity will be vital as the war enters its second year. Russia still occupies a sixth of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, the peninsula annexed in 2014. Predictions about the course of this conflict have rarely proved to be correct, but it is worth noting that only ultra-optimists think it will be over by the end of 2023. General Mark Milley, chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, recently warned: “For this year it would be very, very difficult to eject the Russian forces from every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it will be very, very difficult.” It is a concern that a substantial minority – an average of 42% across 28 democracies surveyed by one pollster – agree with the statement: “The problems of Ukraine are none of our business and we should not interfere.” Western leaders can never rest from making the argument that the defence of liberty is very much our business and continuing intervention in the cause of freedom is imperative. At the beginning, the democracies surprised the Russian dictator with their unity and resolve. They must carry on shocking him to the end.