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Fintan O’Toole: Every reason to fear Putin’s war on Ukraine could outlive him

The nature of war has changed. It is fought now primarily against civilians

The sieges and the barbarism seem medieval. The columns of Russian tanks and the floods of refugees look like colourised film from the second World War.

But don’t be fooled. This is not the Middle Ages or the 1940s. The nature of war has changed in two crucial ways.

It is fought now primarily against civilians. And it can drag on for a very long time without reaching a decisive conclusion.

What has transformed warfare is that armies have become very good at taking care of themselves. In the early 20th century, the ratio of deaths in wars was roughly eight soldiers to every civilian. By the end of the 20th century, this was reversed: one soldier died for every eight civilians.

In the US and British invasion of Iraq, the western allies lost just 4,815 soldiers – probably fewer than Russia has already lost in Ukraine. The mid-range estimate for civilian deaths is about 500,000 people.

We must reverse the meaning of that horrible American euphemism, collateral damage. It is dead and injured soldiers who are now the collateral damage of war. Civilian casualties are the main event.

The biggest reason for this shift is that, for a soldier, herded into rough quarters with bad food and no proper sanitation, infection, even from minor wounds, and disease (dysentery, typhus, flu) used to be the deadliest enemies.

But very few soldiers now die of infection or disease or indeed of dehydration, thirst or malnutrition. Those fates are mostly reserved for children and old people, for the sick and the vulnerable.

It is dead and injured soldiers who are now the collateral damage of war. Civilian casualties are the main event

The destruction of hospitals, the collapse of healthcare services, the smashing of sewerage, the contamination of water and air, the cutting off of food supplies, the exposure of refugees to extreme weather – these threats are even more lethal than bombs, rockets, shells and bullets.

Worse still, this horror can go on and on. The quick, decisive war is increasingly a fantasy of megalomaniacs. The US neo-cons thought they would be in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan in no time. Putin apparently thought he could bring Ukraine to heel with a blitzkrieg.

Nuclear war

Yet, as the historian Christopher Clark puts it in his recent book, Prisoners of Time, “the problem may not be warfare as such, but the fact that even the most skilful and determined applications of military force, rather than definitively resolving disputes, inaugurate processes of escalation or disintegration that exact a much higher human toll than the military intervention itself”.

We know what escalation of the Ukraine conflict looks like: nuclear war. But the consequences of disintegration are also familiar – from Yugoslavia to Yemen, from Sudan to Syria.

There is every reason to fear that Putin’s war on Ukraine could potentially outlive him. Even if he “wins”, he will merely – in the words of the Roman historian Tacitus – “create a desert and call it peace”.

It is even possible that the eventual reactions to the full-blown tyranny that Putin now has to maintain at home will tear apart Russia itself. History is replete with examples of empires embarking on wars of expansion that lead only to self-destruction.

There is every reason to fear that Putin's war on Ukraine could potentially outlive him

The implosion of states creates a vacuum that sucks in official and unofficial warriors – rival states, insurgents, militias, mercenaries. All of them, whatever their intentions, are carriers of the plague of war that does more harm to innocent civilians than it does to young men under arms.

National annihilation

This reality, alas, transcends the justice of any cause. Rage at the 9/11 attacks on the US was entirely proper. But the 9/11 wars have so far snuffed out about 900,000 lives directly (and millions indirectly), displaced 38 million people and cost the US alone $8 trillion (with another $2 trillion to come in care for veterans).

Ukraine, of course, did not choose Putin’s war – and neither did the western democracies as a whole. There is no viable immediate response to the violence unleashed by Putin that does not include the counter-violence of Ukrainians resisting the annihilation of their country.

But there is also an imperative to try to stop the war before it reaches the junction where there is only escalation in one direction or disintegration in the other – either nuclear war or the creation of a European Afghanistan.

These are hellish places where no sane person should want to go. Putin may no longer come into that category but the leaders of the democracies must continue to do so.

The preservation of sanity requires them to resist the macho glamour of high-tech weaponry – Javelins and Stingers and Bayraktar TB2 drones – and remember that this war will mostly be about babies expiring quietly of dehydration and old people succumbing to cold and malnutrition.

The thrill of blowing up Russian tanks cannot outweigh the moral necessity to try to stop this happening.

The thought of negotiating with Putin makes the gorge rise. But talks will happen sooner or later – and later everything will be much, much worse. If it’s sickening to engage with Russia now, imagine what it will be like after further months or years of atrocity.

It may be that there is no acceptable deal to be made with an increasingly nihilistic Putin. But the consequences of not trying cannot be accepted either.