Just as Britain has positioned itself as the most munificent provider of weaponry to Ukraine, so it has adopted the most uncompromising of approaches to the terms for a final peace settlement with Russia. Judging by the near existential tone of the foreign secretary Liz Truss’s speech on Wednesday evening, the UK is self-consciously now on the provisional wing of the small group of allies that are privately discussing the terms of how the war might end.
Not all of it is in the public domain, but in her speech Truss made clear that Russia would be required to leave the whole of Ukraine, and so no longer retain its foothold in the Donbas in the east and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. In this view she gained the support of the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, on Thursday. She also agrees with the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, that Russia must end the war so weakened militarily that it cannot repeat its threats not only to Ukraine but to Moldova and the Baltic states.
For good measure there would have to be reparations – a payment to Ukraine for the damage Moscow had inflicted – in an echo of the principles followed by allied forces against Germany in 1919: punishment, payment and prevention.
These terms may not end up as humiliating as the notorious Versailles peace treaty of that year, but they would leave little room for doubt that Putin had lost. The UK has long said that not only must Putin fail in his war, he must also be seen to fail.
Discussions on how to define failure in any peace settlement are at an early stage in the cell of diplomats from “the Quad” – the US, UK, France and Germany – discussing the issue. The discussions will evolve as the battlefield evolves. But it is possible that some of what Truss is canvassing is no more than an attempt to counterbalance what the UK fears will be the German or French proclivity to slip back into old dialogue patterns with Moscow. It may also be that Truss sees little political downside in being the coldest of cold war warriors inside the cabinet.
But it is not all political calculation. The British position also stems from a thoroughgoing analysis set out in the speech of what it sees as being at stake in Ukraine, and how this must lead to a new security order in which Russia is marginalised.
Truss sees this as a moment when the age of authoritarians ends, and in this sense Ukraine is fighting not just for its homeland but for the security of the west. By the same token, the speech was peppered with warnings to China that access to western markets is conditional.
She also sent a message to Berlin, telling them the Wandel durch Handel – the assumption that economic integration and trade can drive political change – had been proven false. In dismissing this tenet she not only rejected the Ostpolitik of Germany’s Social Democrats, but also the assumptions of successive German chancellors. Trading with Russia did not lure Moscow towards democracy, she said. Instead, Putin “took the money from oil and gas and used it to consolidate power and gain leverage abroad”.
It is mildly ironic that the German politician with whom Truss allies herself most in saying this is the Green foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock – not her natural political soul sister. But wars create novel alliances.
Truss argues that this new approach melds hard security and economic security. Just as China should never have been given access to UK infrastructure or its telecoms network, so Germany should not have handed its ability to keep the lights on to Gazprom.
Critics of Truss will say her rhetoric, including the promise to keep arming Ukraine, serves only to inflame Moscow and risks dangerous escalation. The UK’s endorsement of Ukraine using its weapons to hit targets inside Russia, for instance, makes it more likely that Moscow will regard Nato forces outside Ukraine or Nato trainers inside Ukraine as proxies and legitimate targets. It encourages Putin’s growing tendency to present his “special military operation” not as a limited liberation of the Donbas, but as a systemic struggle with Nato in which Ukraine merely becomes the first military battlefield.
Truss seemed prepared to answer that critique on Wednesday when she described the British as “risk takers” with a history of standing up to bullies. Her allies point out that Putin has previously threatened but not carried through on a nuclear response to the crossing of Russia’s red lines.
She also seems optimistic that China ultimately will draw back from supporting Putin since it will not want to be on the losing side. India, too, if given modern western arms rather than old Soviet weapons, could end its hedging. With heavier weapons being delivered at a faster rate, Truss no longer thinks the war will last as long as five years – a view she held privately some months back.
Yet that optimism does not reduce the risk in her calculus. In her speech Truss portrayed Putin as unpredictable and therefore qualitatively different from Soviet leaders for whom international reputation mattered, and with whom at least the Cuban missile crisis could be averted.
But if Putin is the rogue Truss describes, and feels the only peace terms on offer are humiliation, he has little motive to sue for peace. If cornered, he may make good his threat to escalate by using nuclear weapons or lightning strikes on his true adversary, Nato. The more the stakes are raised, the more there is to lose.
As the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau remarked in the context of 1918, sometimes “it is easier to make war than peace”.