Winston Churchill was not one for feeble leadership and lack of resolve in the face of tyranny. I suspect he would have found the western world’s approach to our current bout of autocratic muscle flexing around the world frustratingly lacking in moral conviction and clarity.
Churchill knew two things. First, he knew that the greatest strength of dictators lies in their knowledge that peaceful people will always pray that if they show enough gentleness and reasonableness, the dictator will eventually come round to those same qualities. And thus, despots thrive off their languid hopes. The West’s lack of firmness in helping Ukraine and the silent expectation that eventually something will give way and let everyone off the hook has been a catastrophic failure.
To counter the brutality of dictators, one must rise to this challenge with equal material and physical strength. This is the only pushback they understand.
When one does this, of course, the result is usually some measure of success. This is because once physical capabilities are matched, then the matter becomes which side carries forward a morally more persuasive vision of humanity and which side carries a conviction of right over wrong. And Churchill knew that whatever the failings of the West, fundamentally it stood for a good world over a brazenly evil regime.
There is neither moral confusion about what has been unleashed on Ukraine, a sovereign free nation, nor about the horror of what its cities and citizens are enduring.
The second thing that Churchill grasped was that the defense of freedom is no place for those who dither and delay. Over the past two years, US President Joe Biden and other western allies have given a great deal of military and financial support to Ukraine. But the rest is a story of flabby doubt. Russia’s latest attacks on Ukraine are the result of that perceived debility among Ukraine’s allies.
We have seen a dribble of support for Ukraine which has allowed the war to settle into a near-stalemate. Action earlier on would likely have prevented deep defensive lines becoming established like concrete serpents across the Ukrainian countryside. Standing up to the bully would have potentially mitigated much death and destruction.
Churchill had so little time for sloth and indecision that he possessed red labels that he slapped on documents demanding attention – “ACTION THIS DAY.”
The most famed use of this tag was in late 1941, when Bletchley Park, the code-breaking center of the British war effort, directly appealed to the prime minister for more support and staff. They were desperately short of personnel. Testing vital equipment and breaking codes that were pouring in from the Axis powers and the Far East was becoming sluggish and ineffective. People were exhausted. Help was needed.
Four leading crypto analysts, including Alan Turing, wrote to Churchill demanding assistance. The missive went to Downing Street. The letter was a microcosm of Ukraine appealing for help from the West to shore up a relentless war effort and inevitable tiredness.
"Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done" was Churchill’s response, and on it, one of his infamous red stickers.
There is no ambiguity about Action This Day. But what about the new favorite response to Ukraine’s call for help: “We’ll be with you for as long as it takes?”
Prime Minister Winston Churchill Crosses the River Rhine, Germany 1945. Imperial War Museums.
Too little too late
Imagine putting that on the letter from Bletchley Park. What does it mean? “We’ll say nice things about you for as long as this war goes on?” Perhaps it means: “We’ll keep looking to see if we can help you, but we can’t guarantee anything?” Or maybe it means: “We’ll drip feed assistance when we get round to it. But keep going, we think you’re great?”
What the proclamation certainly does contain is a lack of any urgency in ending the problem. “For as long as it takes” is a capitulation to an absence of any possible decisive victory and an abnegation of responsibility for being able to determine when that end will come. In fact, it is an explicit surrender to Russia on the basis that Russia alone will determine that end point which remains mysterious and unknown to the West.
The battle cry of the democratic world, “For as long as it takes,” is about the most fatuous and useless defense of the free world that has ever been heard. Is it possible to dream up a more purposeless promise? Churchill would have been appalled.
Actions needed now
The West needs to get serious. Russia’s unambiguous statements about its attitudes towards its other neighbors, including Finland, make it clear that the war in Ukraine must be fought and concluded as soon as possible. Otherwise, it will spread into Europe and beyond. The cost in lives and money to hold the line will be vastly greater and bloodier. Action this day.
US Republicans need to stop arguing about their border wall, twiddling their thumbs while the free world burns, trying to decide whether they want an incoherent demagogue to run the country again. Get a grip, America. Pick sensible and intelligent presidential candidates. Defend the free world. Action this day.
European countries who remain concerned about providing arms to Ukraine, or whose help has been sporadic and temperamental, need to face the reality of the war. Action this day.
From North Korea to Venezuela and the Middle East, the western world’s febrile response to bellicose threats encourages others to try the same thing. We must step up and provide the world with concrete clarity about our intentions. Action this day.
We must protect Ukraine, including her men, women and above all, her children, from terror, displacement, and brutality. Action this day.
Never give in
While we are thinking about Churchill, perhaps it is worth finishing with a quote from a speech he delivered just eight days after that letter from Bletchley was dispatched to his office. He was speaking to pupils at his (and it happens to be my) alma mater, Harrow School.
Within that speech, in Britain’s most perilous days, when the US was yet to enter the war, he had this to say:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished…Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived.’
So too in 2024, not just for Ukraine, but for all those countries ready to stand up to dictatorship and defend freedom alongside her. For all those people who will not be cowed, do not speak of drearily carrying on endlessly ‘for as long as it takes’.
Action this day.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post
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