Heroic rhetoric has its moment in every conflict. “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it,” cried Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in pleading support from the nations of Europe in Westminster Hall on Wednesday. He faces a renewed battle to drive Russian tanks off his land – all his land – in the spring. His cause is just and it is desperate. He now wants jets.
At such a time, war has all the best tunes. It ridicules argument, honours danger and jeers at caution. Over the past year, the western powers under Nato auspices have struggled to contain the battles in Ukraine from escalating into precisely what cold war theorists most feared. That is a destabilisation of the balance of power in Europe, leading to a widespread and catastrophic conflict.
They have so far succeeded. Russia’s outrageous bid to occupy and conquer all of Ukraine has been resisted. The line of contact with Russian forces has withdrawn into the Donbas region in the east, roughly the territory occupied by Russia with local support in 2014. Escalation has been avoided largely because western weapons have not deliberately been deployed on Russian soil. Nato has enabled Ukraine to put up a valiant resistance. The reason has not been to preserve western security but rather out of respect for its cruelly assaulted sovereignty. It is not a respect the west has always shown, as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
At some stage in any war, interests will diverge. Russia wishes to see western support for Ukraine as a Nato aggression, a view partly validated by the west’s global economic sanctions and fierce ostracism of all things Russian. It sometimes seems as if London and Washington were eager to support Vladimir Putin’s paranoia.
At the same time, Ukraine has an interest in responding in kind. It demands that Russia be seen as a threat to all of Europe and the world. It rejects the danger of nuclear escalation as an idle threat. Emboldened by western weaponry, it now wants Russia driven out of all of Ukraine. Military experts say this would require a long-term and massive western commitment, possibly including manpower on the ground. It would end Nato’s determination to avoid the war leading to any “kinetic conflict” with Russia. It would certainly split the alliance. None of this stops politicians such as Boris Johnson, with agendas of their own, from seeking headlines with much backslapping and Churchillian talk of “total victory”.
Discussing peace at this juncture in a war meets a depressingly familiar response. Compromise is seen as capitulation. When you can bask in the applause of Westminster and Buckingham Palace, why risk humiliation around some Black Sea negotiating table? Both sides feel they can summon more resources, crucially western ones in the case of Kyiv. There is always scope for just “one more push”.
The only sensible way out of this conflict has degenerated to the near unmentionable. It is the re-establishment of some version of the 2021 border arrived at – and accepted by Kyiv and European representatives – under the Minsk agreement after 2014. We know that it proved a dead letter, and was monstrously overridden by Russia’s subsequent invasion. But as in all wars, sooner or later some deal must be reached on the basis of some existing balance of power.
That is what should dominate the debate over Zelenskiy’s request for new planes. Military experts explain that they cannot conceivably be in use by the coming spring, indeed possibly not this year. Ukrainian pilots cannot be trained to fly them, nor ground facilities built to handle them. Jets cannot occupy territory and, as bombers, would be allowed only to bomb forces in Ukraine. They are of limited tactical use. This spring, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences would be far more useful, as should be the arrival of western tanks.
In other words, a supply of jets would be more an escalation of support than of military reinforcement. It might supposedly suggest to Putin that his war is not going to go away and he should sue for peace. Equally it might do the opposite. He, or any harder-liners who would displace him, might respond with a nuclear deployment or a savage air attack on Kyiv. This might escalate to the arrival of western pilots and attacks bases in Russia. Either way it would blatantly risk a lethal escalation without real help to Ukraine on the ground. It would certainly split western governments and people.
That is why the jets gamble cannot be worth it. Better by far to help Zelenskiy gain battlefield advantage in the coming spring as a basis for a sustained effort for peace. So far the west has kept an impressive degree of control over this appalling conflict. It cannot surrender that control at such a critical juncture.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist