Opinion

Tom Collins: Ukrainian fightback is the story of the week

A Ukrainian soldier stands on a tank in the freed territory of the Kharkiv region on Monday (AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov).
A Ukrainian soldier stands on a tank in the freed territory of the Kharkiv region on Monday (AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov).

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war – something veterans of the Troubles here will attest to.

Misinformation was, and is, the order of the day. It is worth bearing that in mind when trying to analyse what is happening in Ukraine right now.

The conflict has been going on so long, that it has fallen off the radar. It is inevitable that weariness creeps in. Yet what is happening on our doorsteps is one of the most consequential events of our age – with all due to respect to those mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth.

In the UK we have seen the smooth transition of power from one head of state to another – so smooth in fact that there is no gap between the end of the reign of one monarch and the beginning of the next. But in Ukraine there is a battle for power of almost medieval proportions – hand-to-hand combat between soldiers of a proud nation and the conscripts of a would-be oppressor.

What happens there matters – not just to the people of Ukraine, who have demonstrated enormous courage in the face of aggression, but to all of us who value freedom and democracy.

This is not a war in a far-flung field with no consequences here. We are already dealing with its impact as fuel prices rise; inflation erodes living standards; and an economy, already faltering because of Brexit, goes into freefall.

We have skin in the game. President Volodymyr Zelensky has reluctantly assumed the mantle of champion of the free world. There is no other leader today who has demonstrated his courage and tenacity.

The success or failure of his fight against Russia will have ramifications long after the reign of Charles III has morphed into that of William V.

You would not have known it from the coverage in the UK media this past week, but there has been a dramatic shift in the dynamic of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

We have to take claims of victories with a dose of salt, but even allowing for Ukrainian propagandists’ desire to inflate the harm done to Russia’s war effort, the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the north east has seen a remarkable collapse in Russian fortunes. Zelensky’s troops have reclaimed some 8,000 square kilometres of land lost to Russia.

While this phase in the conflict is not the endgame, it twists the knife. Russia has been forced into another undignified withdrawal, with some commanders dead or in captivity, and the army in retreat. Once more Putin has been shown up.

His invasion was a strategic disaster, and exposed the inadequacies of the Russian military for all to see. This latest setback suggests the Kremlin has learned nothing – other than the fact that Ukrainians are more determined to save their country than the red army is to conquer it.

There is evidence that the facade in Russia is beginning to crumble. Whether there is enough dissent to topple Putin is another question. His grip on power appears to be firmer than his critics might hope.

There is no certainty that his demise would change things. Whoever comes after him might feel duty bound to continue prosecuting the war. Russian pride is stubborn.

We must also be conscious that, with its back to the wall, Russia might contemplate a nuclear approach to resolving the conflict in its favour.

Yet the west’s cautious approach to the conflict has not stopped Putin painting this as a battle between Russia and Nato.

Ukraine has benefited from weapons, intelligence and expertise. But this support must be enhanced further.

It is of critical importance to our futures, and the futures of our children and grandchildren, that Russian aggression is stopped in its tracks.

The west miscalculated when it acquiesced in the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. It must not do so again. History tells us that aggressors are never satisfied.

Whenever this conflict draws to a close, as it must, Ukraine must be given long-term guarantees of its future security. Those guarantees must be genuine and underwritten by the global community. Ukraine has been betrayed before.

It was assured that its sovereignty would be respected when it gave up nuclear weapons on the fall of the Soviet Union, then Crimea happened.

World powers – including China, which has been at best ambivalent about Ukraine, and which has its eye on Taiwan - must uphold the sovereignty of independent nations.