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Maybe it would be better for Ukraine to just not lose the war rather than actually win it

Paul Gillespie: It is essential to consider the war in the context of increasing demands by big countries for a multipolar world, instead of one dominated by the US

“Ukraine should not lose the war and Russia should not win it.” This sober characterisation of German policy before its decision to supply Leopard tanks to Ukraine remains sensible and salient in judging the war’s potential military and diplomatic outcomes.

Arguably the tanks in themselves are not a decisive strategic factor compared to the continuing Ukrainian heroism and resilience in resisting Russia’s invasion, given delayed and smaller numbers than they hoped for. Rather do they signal a political shift towards long-term Western support, alongside an equivalent signal on supplying tanks from Washington, without which the Germans refused to move.

The further demands from the Ukrainian government for fighter planes alongside the tanks, together with its calls for European Union membership within two years at yesterday’s summit in Kyiv, underline the geopolitical stakes in play.

Opinion among its allies is now sharply divided between those who say Ukraine should not lose the war and those who want it to win. Whether and when these tanks plus other supports tilt that balance remains to be seen. Russia’s objective superiority in scale and power gives it a long-term advantage which Western aid given so far just mitigates. Ensuring Ukraine does not lose requires greater support in the face of Russia’s remobilised spring offensive.


Those who want Ukraine to win and Russia to lose include the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists embedded in the Biden administration whose long-term objective is decisive US military and political hegemony over Russia and China. With allies in Poland, the Baltic States, Finland, Sweden and most of the other near neighbours of Russia they have successfully transformed this into a rhetorical and real proxy war between Russia and Nato, nested within the Ukraine-Russia one.

Yet the struggle over US tank support had to win over Biden himself, who remains worried about the escalatory logic involved in such a qualitative shift. It may risk the eventual use of nuclear weapons. Such warnings are regularly made now by the most senior Russian figures such as the foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and former president Dmitry Medvedev.

In his speech last September justifying the referendums in occupied territories Vladimir Putin launched a strong counter-narrative, accusing the West of a campaign to colonise and break up Russia, hypocritically using universal language and United Nations norms. He invoked instead a more fair and equal multipolar world as an alternative to the US-dominated unipolar one.

Multipolarity, a world with many more centres of power, has emerged as a compelling case for global reform among political leaderships in China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other large states. It attracts much more expert and political discussion in and between them. That includes debates on left-right lines between democratic and authoritarian variants of multipolarity; and similarly between those who want to temper the raw power of emerging poles with a rules-based regionalism and those indifferent to that.

A similar distinction to Ukraine lose-win scenarios applies among Russia’s international partners on whether it too should win or lose. Globally it is noteworthy that many of these large states favouring a more multipolar world have refused to align themselves against (or with) Russia and resist any new Cold War logic arising from the war – including with China. They notice similar divisions within the EU on China and transatlantic tensions on trade and investment.

They also notice more worldwide competition between US, EU, Chinese and Russian leaderships for global support, both bilaterally and multilaterally. Alternative plans for infrastructure and climate investment, a growing debate on debt relief, and a developing one on the benefits of regional and currency integration are emanating from the richer northern world to the global south. Critical voices like that of President Higgins in his address to the African Union summit in Senegal last week register the shifts.

This is an essential context in which to judge the Ukraine war. It cannot be reduced to a simple democratic-authoritarian frame. The rest of the world has a vital interest in avoiding any escalation towards more all-out war and will so judge those directly involved.

That gives continuing relevance to the search for a deal in which neither side loses or wins. A lose-lose outcome capable of being presented by both sides as a victory may not be achievable. But conditions must be set – by Biden and the EU – on when and how Ukraine should deal for peace, and China and others should do similar with regard to Russia.