The controversy over whether Volodymyr Zelensky should be allowed to address the television audience at the Eurovision Song Contest is part grim reality and part silly season distraction. For Zelensky there is a lot at stake, since his potential global audience would amount to 160 million people.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) is technically correct in insisting such a political intrusion would breach the rules. But the Eurovision contest, throughout its 67-year history, has always had political connotations: the Soviet Union launched a rival Intervision competition; Georgia was banned in 2009 for submitting a song entitled “We Don’t Wanna Put In”, deemed offensive to the Russian leader; judges from crony countries routinely voted for one another; while last year’s banning of Russia and the Ukrainian victory in the contest were political events.

There is an argument that Zelensky’s exclusion is not necessarily disadvantageous to him. The initial surge of support for Ukraine, in a mass communications culture with an increasingly short attention span, has waned. There could even have been resentment at the intrusion of the grim realities of war into the most unashamedly escapist event of the year.

In fact, Ukraine’s leadership is currently concerned by the danger of its Western allies singing a different song, if it does not soon justify their expensive military aid by gaining ground. This is an unfair situation and there is a danger of Ukraine launching its counter-offensive prematurely, in response to prodding from Washington, anxious to prove to Joe Public in Main Street, Peoria that his tax dollars are being effectively spent.

What are the prospects for Ukraine’s offensive? The details are under strict security wraps, but it appears around 40,000 troops will be deployed. That seems a low number to challenge Russia’s manpower, but the Ukrainians have a successful track record of employing limited resources creatively. The Ukrainian advance into Bakhmut is probably a probing exercise, aided by the hostility between the Wagner forces and the Russian regular army.

The flight (in Russian propagandist terms “regrouping”), on the southern flank, of Russia’s 72nd Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade exposed the low quality of some Russian forces. Granted that the 72nd was regarded as an unreliable, cobbled-together unit, why was it in a key frontline position? The Ukrainians are military pragmatists: if this probe results only in regaining a firmer foothold in the city that has become the Verdun/Stalingrad of this war, they will be pleased enough; but if the Russian defence were to weaken further, they would pour reinforcements into the gap, in the hope of precipitating a Kharkhiv-style rout.

But the West must not underestimate Russia. Russian military strategy has always depended on long-term objectives and prodigal expenditure of manpower. Western satirists seized upon the solitary World War II tank featured in the recent Russian Victory Day parade, concluding that Russia had run out of armour and was on the verge of collapse. An intelligent person will ask: were we intended to think that?

A credible interpretation of the situation is that Russia is prepared to cede valueless ground before a Ukrainian counter-attack, drawing the Ukrainian forces forward to suffer the heavy casualties inseparable from offensive operations, exhaust them and then retaliate with a hammer blow from troops held in reserve. Does Russia have such resources? We simply do not know, though the heavy churn of generals suggests that Russia’s army is hardly a well-oiled military machine.

Ukraine’s greatest weakness is its reliance, as the client state of Western powers, on external military support. If it does not soon make significant military gains, its allies may drive it to the conference table. The White House recognised the danger signals from Donald Trump’s intriguing performance at the recent CNN Town Hall, when he pledged to end the Ukraine war. If Trump taps the isolationist instincts of American voters, Joe Biden cannot afford to be seen as the prolonger of hostilities.

That points to future (but pre-election) American insistence on a negotiated peace. Negotiations would open many possibilities, such as the cession of Crimea to Russia, uniformly unfavourable to Volodymyr Zelensky. Also at stake are wider geopolitical considerations, such as the effects of the outcome in Ukraine on Chinese policy, vis-à-vis both Taiwan and Russia.

Seldom has the global security situation appeared more difficult to read. But it is essential that Western countries should inform themselves about the issues involved, with a view to taking all necessary measures in defence of freedom. In that context, Reaction is proud to be hosting, in collaboration with King’s College London School of Security Studies, the London Defence Conference, at Bush House in London, on 23-24 May.

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