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Niall Ferguson. Yalta European Strategy. Photographs provided by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. Photographer: Serhiy Illin.

“This war needs to be won within 12 months,” says Ferguson

A Republican presidential win in 2024 could give Putin an “out of jail free card,” the renowned historian warned, citing the risk of waning US support
“This war needs to be won within 12 months,” says Ferguson

“This war needs to be won within 12 months,” historian Niall Ferguson says, stressing the need for swift support. During the Young Leaders Forum at the 2023 Yalta European Strategy, Ferguson discussed crucial lessons from Cold War deterrence to deal with Russia, China’s balancing act and Zelenskyy’s response, and grave consequences if the war drags on.

Problem with drip-feeding military support

My constant message is time is not on Ukraine’s side. This drip-feeding military support leads to inconclusive offensive operations, needless casualties, and the prolongation of the conflict.

Drip-feeding support for Ukraine ultimately helps Putin. We talk and press and push positive for Washington to come through with support and increase its support. While there is still time, this war needs to be won within 12 months. Let me be clear about that. It must be won within 12 months and ideally sooner.

Ukraine’s victory and US elections

I think the glass is half full. One can be and should be concerned about elements on the Republican right who are ready to abandon Ukraine, but they are still quite marginal. They are almost nonexistent in the US Senate, and they are marginal in the House of Representatives. I think one has to recognize that the situation is better than it might be considering the role of certain broadcasters in feeding Russian propaganda into the US mainstream. So, I think this argument is going better than I had feared it might go.

But we have to recognize that with every passing day, the presidential election in 2024 is getting nearer. And on the present trajectory, I would say it’s likely the ultimate contest is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. And Trump has about a 50% chance. That is the thing that makes it urgent to achieve victory for Ukraine. But that’s the thing that ultimately Putin is hoping for, for him to get an out-of-jail card in a Republican victory, a Trump victory in 2024.

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But I think we still have time and the key arguments going on in Washington, on the military side amongst the president’s advisers, are going in the right direction. I have quite a lot of confidence in the members of [Biden’s] national security team. I have great confidence in Jake Sullivan. I have great confidence in Anthony Blinken’s diplomatic experience. I have great confidence in Bill Burns at the CIA. This is a strong national security team, and they understand what they’re doing.

Colossal failure of deterrence

I’ve been at many conferences in the past year where people have discussed scenarios. And I remember hearing one particularly brilliant presentation where the speaker admitted to an eighth scenario – the scenario that Ukraine loses. He didn’t even discuss the scenario that Russia wins.

The other thing is defeatism – I think it’s realistic to consider that contingency after all; Finland did very well in the winter war in the first year and was defeated in the second year. Ukraine has been defeated before in its history. I always remind people to read the end of Bulgakov’s “The White Guard,” read the final pages, and then imagine that happening again. If you want to focus your mind on how dangerous the situation is, do that.

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I feel we’ve written endlessly about the Ukrainian counteroffensive. What about the Russian offensive that comes next? Russia has substantial air power and other weapons that it has not yet deployed.

So, one of my messages to my military friends and policymakers is: do not underestimate the danger that comes next. How will Ukraine’s air defenses fare under a much larger-scale Russian assault? What about the drone supply – will the Chinese cut off the drone supply? It’s not clear to me that there is a way of supplying Ukrainian homemade drones on a sufficient scale.

We must not talk in a way that implies inevitable victory, that we just have to wait for it to come, that other people will do it for us. I don’t think that’s the way it is. You may have to be South Korea. You may have to reckon with a future where the occupied territories are occupied for longer than anybody who’s realistic would hope. Realism is the basis for good policy. History is the way you get realistic. History tells us how hard it is in a conflict like this for the smaller country to defeat the large one.

Yalta European Strategy. Photograph provided by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. Photographer: Serhiy Illin.

If you’re thinking of South Korea, Russia is Stalin and North Korea is Kim Il-Sung. Well, remember the reason that there is still a divided Korean peninsula is that ultimately the Soviet-backed satellite North Korea has been deterred – 70 years of deterrence have worked.

Russia can be deterred. The Soviet Union was deterred. Deterrence works, it’s the basis of strategic theory. In my view, the events of last year were the result of a colossal failure of deterrence. I believe we are still failing to deter President Putin. That is the single most important lesson that seems not to be learned from the first Cold War.

China’s role in Russo-Ukrainian war

I said from the very outset that the role China would play would be decisive. If China decided to back Russia and treat this as a proxy war against the West, that would be catastrophic for us. But China has a twin-track strategy – it continues to supply Russia with considerable military equipment which keeps the Russian war machine going, while also engaging in diplomacy because the Chinese leadership knows they didn’t fuck up by backing Putin. So they do both.

Zelenskyy is right to engage with China, and he can do so even while the US continues to pursue its policy of economic sanctions against China. I think this is the right strategy, and if Zelenskyy does it well it could deliver some results. It’s a reminder that Ukraine has to be more North Vietnam, not South Vietnam. One of the great North Vietnamese triumphs was to negotiate something very different from what the South did, which was to become a corrupt and weak appendage of American military power. So be Hanoi, don’t be Saigon.

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