I loved Overreach, a brilliant summary of the Ukraine war by Owen Matthews .  

His conclusion that no side can win outright military victory, and that the end will be via a negotiated peace, seems compelling.   The possibility that large parts of the Ukraine would like independence from both Kiev and Moscow is also interesting, as is the reminder that the pro Russian sentiment in Crimea would be rather less overwhelming had the Tartars not been exiled from the peninsula by Stalin (or, if, on the collapse of the USSR, the Kiev government had restored to the Tartar families the land stolen by Stalin).

Owen also makes a good point about Zelensky’s March 2022 offer to Putin, involving direct negotiations and suggesting a referendum to determine the future of the disputed territories.  The offer seemed to give Putin something he could claim as a victory, and which met most of his stated aims.  The rejection may have been foolish hubris, as the book suggests, but I wonder if there could be more to it.

The book was written before Merkel’s December 2022 admission that the Minsk agreements were to ‘give Ukraine time’, a tacit admission that Germany did not intend them to be the foundation for long term peace, or to be honoured beyond the point at which the Kiev government’s strength had been built up.  Merkel’s approach turns the west into a faithless interlocutor.   Putin is far worse on that front, but that is hardly the point.  His record on killing & imprisoning journalists is worse than our persecution of Assange.  He is harsher on  whistleblowers than we have been on Manning & Snowden.  Dissenting views in the media are criminalised by Putin, while the west ‘merely’ tries to deplatform, demonetise & sack those going against the official narrative.   But the battle for civilisation is already lost the moment we begin to pat ourselves on the back for being ‘better than Putin’

Sooner or later, we need to accept that being ‘the good guys’ is not an ex officio position, but one that we need to earn by not doing bad things.  The problem is seldom that we set out on a fundamentally evil objective, rather that we persuade ourselves that the goodness of the objective/intentions justifies bad things.  Like the Church persuading itself that burning heretics alive was a way to ‘save souls’, the most dreadful things are done when we are overly confident about our own virtue.

What does ‘being the good guys’ look like here?  Our experience of fighting Hitler & Napoleon creates an inclination to think in terms of vanquishing evil.  But that looks uncomfortably like ‘fighting Putin to the last Ukrainian’.  A better parallel may be the situation in Northern Ireland, where vocal and violent elements long obscured the fact that most of the population wanted to get on with their lives rather than send their children into battle.  If we are going to have a negotiated cease fire, then the war is mostly about expending blood to strengthen a negotiating hand, which is not quite  Horatius at the bridge territory.  This time in 2022 Zelensky’s position seemed like a sincere attempt at peace, a year of NATO’s support later and he now refuses to negotiate with Putin, and rejects self determination for Donbas & Crimea.  We are sending young men to die to strengthen a negotiating hand, and then not bothering to negotiate.  I suppose some may hope that, if denied victory for long enough, Putin will be toppled by his own people, or Russia will implode.  Thirty five years ago, I might have assumed that there was a cunning plan, or a pending Century House wet op, behind the scenes.  A few decades of experience now prompts “Its almost always cock-up, not conspiracy”.  I hope I am wrong, doubly so, as, on my current analysis, President Macron seems to be right.

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