From the moment the first bullets were fired in the Ukraine conflict, Western support for Kyiv has been constrained by needless concerns about the impact it might have on Russia.
Rather than doing everything in our power to ensure a Ukrainian victory, there has been a marked reluctance to provide the equipment they need to achieve supremacy on the battlefield. From tanks to warplanes, long-range missiles to replenishing basic ammunition stocks, Western allies have all-too-often looked for reasons not to act.
And when it looks, as it did towards the end of last year, as though the Ukrainian forces are on the brink of achieving a major breakthrough, Kyiv has been warned not to be over-ambitious in its war aims, especially in terms of its ultimate objective of liberating Crimea from Russian occupation.
Concerns have even been raised about the fate that might befall Moscow in the event of Ukraine winning an outright victory, with British luminaries such as the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, pleading that Russia must not be crushed like Weimar Germany in any future peace deal.
Such reservations are not only misplaced: they entirely fail to grasp how important it is for the survival of the free world that Russia suffers a catastrophic defeat – one from which it should take decades to recover.
By launching his unprovoked invasion last year, Vladimir Putin laid down a deliberate challenge to the international system established at the end of the Second World War, which upholds the sovereign integrity of the nation state. In addition, he and his nationalist acolytes have committed war crimes on an industrial scale, a fact now recognised by the International Criminal Court which recently issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president.
If, due to the irrational equivocation of Kyiv’s Western allies, Putin actually succeeded in achieving his war aims, just imagine the encouragement this would lend to other hostile states, such as China, Iran and North Korea, to pursue their own aggressive agendas.
Moreover, at a moment when many non-aligned countries are openly questioning whether they are witnessing the collapse of Western hegemony, anything that resembles success for the invaders in Ukraine would confirm their suspicions that the West no longer has the appetite or strength to protect its interests.
Still, one of the many fears expressed by Western analysts in recent months is that, if Moscow suffered a devastating defeat, it might lead to the collapse of Russia itself, with Putin’s dream of re-establishing the Russian Empire replaced by the country’s fragmentation into a mosaic of ethnic enclaves. It is currently a federation that could indeed be much more fragile than it looks.
Russia’s disintegration would certainly benefit China which, for all the bonhomie exhibited by Xi Jinping during his state visit to Moscow this week, casts covetous eyes on the 600,000sq km of formerly Chinese territory around the port of Vladivostok – annexed by Russia in 1860 at the end of the Second Opium War.
Xi and Putin might boast in public about the “no limits” strategic partnership they agreed prior to the invasion of Ukraine, but the body language visible at their joint public appearances made it clear that Xi is the dominant partner in the relationship, to the extent that Putin meekly conceded to his guest, “We envy you a little bit.”
Beijing, while giving the appearance of supporting Putin’s disastrous war, understands that its real interest is to exploit Russian weakness for its own advantage, whether by securing discounted oil supplies or territorial concessions. In future, this exploitation will be encouraged by the knowledge that, thanks to the heroism of Ukraine’s military forces, a depleted Moscow no longer has the ability to defend itself.
So rather than fretting about the potential consequences of a Russian defeat, Western leaders should adopt a similarly hard-nosed approach and ramp up their support for Ukraine, even if it ultimately results in the collapse of the Russian state. It was not that long ago, after all, that the West had to deal with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which reduced Moscow to impotence and penury.
Furthermore, given the malign intent Putin has consistently displayed towards the West, from meddling in American presidential elections to assassinating defectors on British soil, no one should mourn the demise of the Russian leader himself, even if it creates a new set of security challenges for the Western alliance.
If Russia could rebuild itself after experiencing the trauma of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, it can do so again after suffering defeat in Ukraine. And in the meantime, the West will have had ample opportunity to prepare to deal with any fallout that ensues from the implosion of Putin’s police state.
These or any other consequences of a Russian defeat do not mean we should dilute our support for Ukraine. On the contrary, it is time we recognised that a defeated and demoralised Russia would help to reassert Western standing in world affairs.