Is the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine starting to undergo mission creep? As the retreat from Kiev exposes the brutal conduct of Vladimir Putin’s army, it increasingly looks that way.
The original objective was to cripple the Russian war machine and force Moscow to retreat. And despite a gaping oil-and-gas hole in the sanctions regime tens of billions of dollars wide, it seems to be working.
Putin may yet redouble his efforts to seize the Donbas and secure a land bridge to Crimea. But any prospect of his installing a puppet regime, or even carving out ‘Novorossiya’ by capturing Odessa, seems to be gone.
With peace talks underway, one might have expected to see Western interventions calibrated towards their successful conclusion, namely Russia abandoning its war of aggression and withdrawing at least to the 2014 borders.
But such a strategy creates a moral dilemma, because giving the perpetrators of war crimes an incentive to stop committing them most likely means in the end, failing to hold them to account for those they have already committed.
Muscular language about prosecutions may help deter Russian commanders in the field. But as many have overseen atrocities already, there is a danger if it is too muscular that they adopt an in-for-a-penny mindset and start doing whatever it takes to win or to prop up the Putin regime which is their surest shield against being held to account.
In short, the demands of peace and those of justice may conflict.
Many Western commentators seem increasingly inclined towards justice. There is much talk of seeing Putin and his generals in the Hague, and of the dire consequences for the Western order if we do not. Here, for example, is Lord Hannan:
Let’s have no more talk of face-saving or exit ramps. Putin and his henchmen need to be put on trial. If they are not, the law-based international order constructed since 1945 will be in ruins. https://t.co/I6vTT3YrZe
— Daniel Hannan (@DanielJHannan) April 3, 2022
We might, whilst agreeing wholeheartedly with him about the evils of the Russian regime, take a couple of issues with this stance.
First, on a pedantic but important note, if the specific test of the “law-based international order” is the ability to hold Russian leaders to account then it has simply never existed. We never put any of the great Soviet monsters on trial. Nor will anyone from Xin Jinping’s regime sit in dock at the Hague.
Right from the start in 1945, the idealism of the post-War order has been shot through with cold realism. The Nuremberg trials happened because the Allies conquered Germany. Russia got a seat on the Security Council.
Whatever the virtues and failings of that system, its future does not rest on doing something it has never done.
Second, and more importantly, the talk of face-saving and exit ramps is not for our benefit, nor really for Putin’s, but for Ukraine’s. It is about giving the leadership in Moscow incentives to stop fighting. The price of a prolonged war will be borne by Ukrainians, not western commentators.
That is why Volodymyr Zelensky and his people have to be in the driving seat at the talks. It seems now generally accepted that the West should not pressure Kiev into accepting peace terms; we should also be wary not to force them to keep fighting to satisfy our need to strike moral poses, however noble the reflex.