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Putin is now profiting from new Western splits – by Con Coughlin for The Telegraph – 19.01.23

While NATO allies squabble over tanks, the Russian president is rebuilding his international alliances.


One of Vladimir Putin’s key calculations when he launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year was that the Western powers were too divided and conflict-averse to mount any meaningful opposition to Russian aggression.


After the fiasco of the US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, when the Biden administration effectively abandoned the country to the dark ages of Taliban rule, Putin had good reason to believe that Western leaders could no longer have the ability to summon the resolve to confront tyrannical regimes.


The widespread demonstration of support Ukraine has received from the West, especially the provision of sophisticated weaponry, will therefore have taken Putin by surprise, one of many miscalculations he has made during the course of the conflict.


And yet, with the war set to continue for another year, the Russian leader’s judgment that Western politicians lack the commitment to maintain their support may not be that wide of the mark after all.


In the US, whose military support has been crucial to the Ukrainian forces’ success on the battlefield, there are worrying signs that enthusiasm is on the wane, especially now that the Republicans have taken charge of the House of Representatives.


An influential faction of Republican politicians has questioned the Biden administration’s “blank cheque” policy of supporting Ukraine, which may result in Congress limiting future military aid to Kyiv.


This week’s visit to Washington by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was aimed at encouraging the US to go “further and faster” in supporting the Ukrainian cause, rather than cutting its losses.


It was made on the back of the Government’s decision to send a squadron of 14 Challenger II tanks to Kyiv which, while reaffirming British commitment, is unlikely to make a decisive impact on the war.


Apart from providing Ukraine with heavy armour, sending the Challengers – the first time a Nato state has provided main battle tanks – is intended to encourage other allies to follow suit.


The US has already offered its own contribution by providing 50 Bradley Armoured Fighting Vehicles, but has stopped short of providing the M1 Abrams, the main battle tank of the US Army and Marine Corps, because of the Pentagon’s concerns over exporting sensitive technology.


Washington’s preferred option is for its European allies to provide such military hardware, and Poland has been at the forefront of efforts to supply Ukraine with German-made Leopard II tanks. So far the initiative has foundered on the reluctance of the German chancellor, Olaf Sholz, to approve the move, with Berlin indicating that it will only do so if Washington agrees to send its own Abrams tanks first.


The issue is likely to dominate tomorrow’s meeting of Ukrainian and Western defence officials in Germany to discuss future weapons shipments, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace supporting counterparts from Poland and the Baltic states to pressure Germany into authorising the deal.


Western hesitation about providing Kyiv with the weaponry it needs to prevail on the battlefield is mainly based on fears that it could provoke a further escalation with Moscow. But this is not a legitimate concern because, despite Putin’s bluster about using nuclear weapons, these have been shown to be nothing more than empty threats.


The unseemly squabbling among Kyiv’s allies, though, over the calibre of weapons they are prepared to supply to Ukraine will certainly help to improve Putin’s mood, strengthening his belief that the Western alliance was always going to struggle to maintain a united front.


It comes at a time, moreover, when, having secured a number of important territorial gains towards the end of last year, the Ukrainians are struggling to defend themselves against a renewed onslaught by Russian forces and Wagner mercenaries in the Bakhmut region. If Ukraine is going to win these battles, it must receive the appropriate military hardware.


Any suggestion, though, that Western military support for Kyiv is softening will encourage Putin that he can still achieve his ultimate goal of conquest. The Russian leader will also have been buoyed by the tacit support he is receiving from other parts of the world which do not share the West’s view that a Russian defeat will enhance global security.


South Africa’s decision to conduct naval exercises with Russian and Chinese warships, which are due to take place a year after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, shows there are many countries who do not view Russia as a pariah state, and are keen to develop ties with Moscow.


Meanwhile, Brazil’s newly elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has previously accused the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, of responsibility for provoking the conflict in the first place, is leading international calls for Moscow and Kyiv “to find common ground to end the conflict”.


In such circumstances it is vital that Western leaders maintain their commitment to the Ukrainian cause and ensure that Putin does not manage to steal victory from the jaws of certain defeat. They risk being lulled into a false sense of victory.



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British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week in Washington DC Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP


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