Westminster Hall in London has witnessed, during its 900 years’ history, many famous speakers: Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XVI and Barack Obama to mention a selection of twentieth century prominent leaders; but, today, in a packed Hall, parliamentarians experienced an exceptional address by Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of the Ukraine. He paid tribute to the unwavering moral and practical support of the British Government and the people of these islands. Zelensky, drawing inspiration from Churchill’s indefatigable resistance to Nazi aggression, went on to describe the bravery of Ukraine’s military, and the determination of his government to free his country from Russian occupation. He cited, more than once, what binds Britain and the Ukraine: love of freedom, an uncompromising belief in democratic institutions and a commitment to oppose tyranny. Britain’s experience of opposing “evil” in the Second World War automatically sensitised this country to stand up to aggressive nations. After the formal speeches, Zelensky was taken to meet MPs, and one could see how warmly he responded to Boris Johnson, the man who was first to offer support in Ukraine’s struggle. He was then taken to Buckingham Palace to meet King Charles III who has shown overt support for the Ukrainian people.
President Zelensky’s visit was not just a courtesy call, to offer thanks for the assistance given in the struggle against Russian aggression. He was here to persuade the British government to accelerate provision of essential armaments, particularly Challenger tanks and training for Ukrainian marines and fighter jet pilots. Most military commentators agree Russia is preparing a massive spring offensive, in a last ditch effort to break Ukrainian resistance. It is speculated that Putin is going to mobilise an army of about 500,000 conscripts. In terms of manpower, this would dwarf the number of combatants Ukraine could field, and that is where sophisticated weaponry will help to even the odds. Late spring, early summer could prove to be decisive in this war. If the Russian offensive stalls or is pushed back, then Putin may decide it is time to negotiate. However, predicting Putin’s behaviour is crystal ball gazing; he has fooled the West on previous occasions, so “caution” is the watchword. Assuming the Russian spring push does not force Ukrainian capitulation, then pressure will continue to grow to replace Putin. Even though many commentators have stated Putin will not be ousted in a palace coup, events, vis-à-vis major reversals on the battlefield, may make this scenario more likely.
If this year brings the war to an end, then what will be on the table for negotiation? Given the way Putin has Russified the Crimea and the Donbas region, a form of Slavic ethic cleansing, is it realistic for these territories to be returned to Ukrainian sovereignty? Certainly Zelensky’s rhetoric makes for no compromise: all land occupied by Russia must be ceded. And what role will the international community play in brokering a peace deal? The reality of the possibility of a settlement changes minds and lowers expectations. It is quite conceivable Ukraine will accept Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, but be less willing to accept losing parts of the Donbas. History teaches us both parties in a dispute have to compromise, unless their is unconditional surrender of one protagonist, a highly unlikely outcome in the present conflict. I am sure, behind the scenes, at a diplomatic level, both sides are considering what would be a framework for discussions to end the war, and although relations between the West and Russia are, to put it mildly, tense, there is a role for the West, in particular the USA and Britain, to help facilitate meaningful negotiations.