Political column – February 25

The Cincinnati Kid, Steve McQueen v Edward G Robinson, and the chips are going down.

It's a game of high stakes. And then comes the big play. Raise, raise, and raise again. Until neither can afford to lose. It's all or nothing.

I won't give away the ending, in case you haven't seen the movie. But I don't think I am spoiling it if I say that both cannot win. Which means somebody is going to lose, and lose big.

This week has seen the first anniversary of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Ever since his tanks rolled in the West has been putting down more and more chips.

Only a few at first, but they were winning chips. Anti-armour weapons supplied by Britain may have made all the difference in the Russians' initial disastrous push to take Kiev.

Since then there has been artillery, HIMARs rocket launchers, tech and intelligence help that we can only guess at and now, modern battle tanks, with fighter jets next on the wish list.

Deeper and deeper then. This has been an investment which has become so extensive that should Ukraine be defeated the damage to the reputation and credibility of Nato and the West would be far reaching and lead to recrimination, soul searching, and division that would last a generation.

Naturally that would bring additional delight to Vlad the Invader and be to Russia's long term strategic advantage.

A year ago the expectation was that Ukraine would be overrun in days with the West looking on and wringing its hands helplessly.

Its courageous stand has won the admiration of the free world, but the upshot is that it has evolved into an ever clearer confrontation between the West and Russia, and we are, like in that movie, in a poker game in which neither side can afford to lose.

Hopes that Putin might be pushed under a Moscow trolley bus have faded and on the basis of his address to his nation this week he is in it for a long and bloody haul.

On the battlefield it has become an attritional struggle which has been compared to the Great War, although there is a significant difference as the Ukrainian war is all about territory and who holds it, so every yard and mile gained by the defenders really is a little incremental victory in reclaiming their land from the invaders.

From a historical point of view, we are now at the 80th anniversary of a massive Russian defeat in the Ukraine, when in February and March 1943 a surprise attack sent the Soviet Army reeling and led to the recapture of Kharkiv. That was by the Germans, just weeks after their surrender at Stalingrad – but the lesson is that it does show that a smaller army can defeat a bigger army.

As the chips keep going down, with Putin in no mood to talk, that is what the West is now betting on – a Ukrainian victory so complete that it will make Moscow accept defeat.

Nobody knows how all this is going to turn out, but in a poker game you can be sure that it doesn't end well for somebody – and in this case, maybe everybody.


Jeremy Corbyn's Labour went into the last general election with lots of ambitious plans. The one I particularly remember is that Labour would plant thousands of trees a day.

Now we have seen his successor Sir Keir Starmer's vision as he has outlined his mission as leader. It is Peace, Love, Prosperity... and Power.

More specifically, he wants growth, growth, growth, like Liz Truss, and to make Britain a clean energy superpower, just like Boris Johnson. He wants a government of sound money. Rishi Sunak does too.

I'm not sure what inspiration Sir Keir has taken from Theresa May. Probably something to do with making Brexit work.

His missions statement seems to be an idea nicked from Tony Blair, who did something similar in 1997, as he went into the election in which he won a landslide victory.

But what position does Sir Keir hold on planting trees? He isn't risking sticking his neck out yet, but no doubt he'll let us know.

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