Ukraine’s Grim Choice: Why Surrender May be the Honorable Option

Image by Tina Hartung.

In central Singapore there’s a small hill with a locked door in one side.  A guide will open it and take you into the darkness of an underground  passage which leads eventually into a dimly-lit set of twenty-six subterranean rooms.   This was once the bunker which formed the command-and-control centre from which British generals organized the defense of the strategic colony in the weeks after Pearl Harbor.

They expected a naval assault by the Japanese from the open sea but they got it wrong.  Japanese forces came down the Malayan peninsula through jungle terrain which the British thought was impassable.   Triumphantly the Japanese commander called on the startled British to surrender unconditionally.  Churchill ordered Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival to fight to the last man, but Percival defied his orders and on February 15 1942, barely a week since the Japanese established their first beachhead on the island, he capitulated.

Some 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops were taken prisoner.   It was then, and remains to this day, the biggest surrender in British military history. The table round which Percival and his colleagues sat as they discussed the hopelessness of their plight and agonized over what to do remains in the bunker today along with waxwork effigies of the grim-faced British team.

As you reflect on the pathetic scene nothing can lessen its humiliation.   But was it shameful?   There’s a difference between humiliation and shame.   All depends on context and intent.  Had they only been trying to save their own skins, albeit knowing they would be put in prisoner-of-war camps, Percival and his fellow-officers would rightly be condemned as cowards.  But they had an honourable purpose.  By surrendering Percival saved the one million civilians who were living on the island from being caught in the cross-fire of British resistance and massive Japanese bombing and artillery strikes, all of which would have caused widespread destruction and thousands of deaths.

The lesson of Singapore has stayed vividly in my memory since I first saw that forlorn British bunker five years ago.   It has returned to my mind with greater urgency these last few days as I watch the images of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women and children fleeing westwards out of their country.  How can they be spared the horror and desperation of having to leave their comfortable homes and exchange civilised life for the misery and uncertainties of refugee status?

There is worse to come.  The longer the Ukrainian army and its associated militias and citizen volunteers manage to hold Russia’s invading forces back,  the greater the likelihood that Putin will order his generals to cast off any lingering reluctance to increase the loss of civilian life.   Impatient Russian tanks, artillery and aircraft will be let loose to capture ground as quickly as possible even if it means destroying the apartments where hundreds of families live.  It is already happening.  Several smaller towns have been pulverised, as well as parts of Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv.

Kiev and other cities are next in line.  They are in danger of soon resembling the Syrian wasteland of Homs and eastern Aleppo where great swathes of housing lie in ruins.  The only signs of life are the scuttling of rats and the whining of ownerless dogs.  There is nothing for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to return to.

By the same token, what will be left of Ukrainian urban life  when the current fighting stops as one day it must?  Stories of Ukrainian courage and the defiance of brave individuals are inspiring.   The images of untrained people proudly learning how to use automatic rifles arouse admiration.  The manufacture of Molotov cocktails by housewives and eager teenagers invite feelings of sympathy, support and solidarity.  President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has done a brilliant job of rallying his population.  Resistance to the Russian invaders has been tenacious and far more successful than Putin and his generals can have expected.  In some places the Russians have even been forced to retreat.   Morale on the Ukraine side is much higher than it is among the Russian forces with their large contingents of bemused and frightened conscripts.

But the hard fact remains that Ukrainian forces are no match for the numbers, the firepower and the ruthlessness of the Russian invaders.   The Ukrainians can delay but not defeat them.  Victory for Putin’s army and air force will take considerably longer than the Kremlin initially planned, but it is inevitable.  Is the prospect of resisting for an extra few weeks really worth the massive destruction and the huge loss of life and property which are bound to occur until Ukraine eventually submits?

Ukrainians face a grim choice.  Neither option is palatable.   Either they continue on the military path which entails huge numbers of casualties or Zelensky and his colleagues use the talks which have been taking place with the Russians to push for a nationwide ceasefire and agree to Russian demands for Ukraine’s neutrality and demilitarization.

The Russians will have won the immediate battle but they will find it hard to dominate the country or turn it into the kind of police state that Russia has become under Putin.  Whether Zelensky remains in charge or resigns with honour and lets the Russians appoint a puppet government of their choice,  political resistance by Ukrainians at every administrative level  will gradually undermine and soften the Russian occupation.  In the meantime Ukrainian refugees will be able to return to something approaching normal pre-war life.  This will be a better outcome than to go on fighting a costly uphill war only to give up later.

To end today’s overt resistance will certainly be humiliating.  But it will not be a source of shame since the protection of life is its aim.   It’s more important to save people than to save the state.

Jonathan Steele is the former Moscow Bureau Chief for the Guardian.