From the President
Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon GCB, CBE
Introduction by Air Marshal Sir Christopher Coville
Dear Fellow Cranwellians,
I know you will find the paper below of great interest in these challenging times.
I am grateful to our President, Sir Michael Graydon, for allowing us to publish his article on our website.
Sir Christopher Coville
CONSERVATIVE VOICE - UKRAINE
We would be wise to remind ourselves of Churchill’s comment on Russia in 1939. Russia, he said is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Certainly, the host of articles, commentaries arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented a wide spectrum of views and a range of attempts to analyse Putin, his strategies, his support both in Russia and externally, Western response, and so on. Nowhere is this more problematic than in his threat to use nuclear weapons. I will return to this.
Thus, we would be wise to found our thinking where we can on facts and not speculation. Keep Churchill’s words in mind which may not be pertinent to today but equally could be. The eternal enigma problem.
My experience in dealing with the Russians is certainly much out of date, but let me share a few thoughts from the time of the Cold War and the first 7 years of post Cold War. My appointment to the post of ACOS Policy at SHAPE in 1986 was an amazing opportunity to see at first hand the most extraordinary changes in East- West relations. The policy division at SHAPE was the most influential in the HQ. Direct and regular access to SACEUR, attendance with him at major international conferences, such as NATO High Level Group on nuclear matters. The Division encompassed, nuclear policy, arms control, Infrastructure and Inspection of national plans and capabilities in meeting NATO requirements. All this at a time when we still glared across the divide between NATO and the WP, were installing Intermediate range nuclear weapons, GLCMs and Pershing in response to the Soviet SS-20.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the strategy which then served us well. Flexible Response MC 14/3. Its credibility in Cold War times rested on Allied ability to respond to attack from the Soviet Union at a variety of levels, from a strong foundation of conventional capability. Key to its success was a demonstrable means to match the aggression and where necessary escalate. It included nuclear capabilities at modest level of Artillery Fired Atomic Projectiles, air delivered nuclear bombs. through Intermediate Range and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Much thought was given to the conduct of a conflict involving attack from the Soviet Union which was examined regularly by NATO Governments and supporting military staff in carefully conducted exercises. Today, NATO’S conventional capabilities do not provide that range of options to its members, a consequence of European Defence Budgets being closer to 1% of GDP than the 3% deemed a minimum previously. It is a major weakness apparent to Putin.
In 1987,I visited Vienna where a number of my international staff had rather comfortably been engaged in what was called Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks with the Warsaw Pact. Very much Russian led. The talks had been going on for years with a stately dance of proposals proffered by one side, reviewed over a week, rejected at the next meeting with a counter proposal. So predictable was its lack of progress that I was the first senior officer from SHAPE to visit in years which caused some fluttering on both sides, NATO team on whether this nice little number was to continue, the WP on whether something was brewing. At the reception on the first day, I was approached by 6 Russian officers all in strict order of rank, all who asked exactly the same questions and all who had a number of gold teeth which caused me to wonder if they were awarded for longevity in the talks. A splendid example of unimaginative Russian bureaucracy. It brought to mind a conversation I had once some years before with The Head of the Lufwaffe, General Gunther Rall. He was credited with some 370 kills in WW2. 370. Unbelievable. How and why I asked him, Russian front he said. The Russian aircraft attacked every day at the same time, same height and same direction. We sat up above their line of attack and took them out one by one. I saw a copy of his log book which showed on a number of sorties he had shot down 5 Russian ac in a 45 minute flight. And this day after day. Worth remembering when we look at how Russian forces have performed in Ukraine, and it would seem the leadership’s ability to absorb or more likely ignore massive casualties. The problem then was the dominance of the Russian Army in strategic thinking. I will come back to that later.
The contrast in just 18 months when Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher reached an accord could not have been more striking. In a short time my Division was up to its neck in analysis of nuclear disarmament. I also instituted with the SHAPE Technical Centre, examination of how a balanced, mutual conventional disarmament might be achieved. This latter work prompted a phone call from an irate US general in the Pentagon. ‘ What the hell are you doing with conventional arms reductions, I absolutely forbid it.’ General I said, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to look seriously at something which has concerned us for decades, but if you have a problem with that, I suggest you call SACEUR. I don’t take orders from nations, I work for him,’
By 1993, as CAS I visited my counterpart at the head of the Russian Air Force, a survivor from the cuts to the Soviet Air Force with two changes of uniform in the process. Our early meetings were somewhat strained, difficult. What I wondered was the problem, and then one day after a very boozy lunch he was muttering to himself in the car and I realised that he felt humiliated, that he was a proud man, formerly head of a huge air force and that the triumphalism in some parts of the west in over the Soviet Union collapse was a bitter pill. He wanted respect. That was not difficult to provide and thereafter we became both colleagues and friends meeting in UK and around the world at various events. These experiences have stayed with me and in viewing Ukraine and the Russian issue I try to remember this contrast and the lessons from it which might apply today. The Russian enigma again.
Now to facts.
When Putin brushed off Ukrainian concerns about the presence of large numbers of Russian forces on its border in 2021, suggesting it was purely exercises with Belarus, why would anyone believe him?
He has consistently lied about Russian involvement in hostile acts for years. The list covers invasions of independent countries in what he sees as his sphere of influence, state sponsored assassinations, the shooting down of a civilian airliner, and infiltration of nations with Russian speaking minorities by forces with clear links to the Kremlin. Add to this, the regular intrusions into Finnish and Swedish air and sea space, plus state linked cyber attacks across the democratic world, and the wholesale abandonment of the truth in Ukraine, the latest sham referendums and it is hard not to ascribe a level of aggressive behaviour to the Russian leader that is clearly not a special military operation but a war.
Indeed Christopher Donnelly, a long time advisor to Governments and NATO on Central and Eastern Europe has for many years made clear that ‘We are at war but we don’t know it.’
American colleagues have echoed our thinking that even allowing for the Kyiv source and the over claiming characteristic of both sides, Russian vehicle/equipment losses have been shocking and substantial, reflecting many failures in the post-Soviet military. This adds fuel to my earlier thoughts on WW2.
These include in particular: failure to create an Air Force that can seize control of the air despite facing old missile defenses and early generation fighter aircraft; failing to train recruits to become self-reliant and team-focused soldiers; the absence of a disciplined and effective Western-style NCO corps; the lack of well-trained and well-exercised field and company-grade officer cadres; failure to appreciate how revolutionary and innovative technologies are changing traditional war; and failure to build reliable and robust logistical combat chains that are not limited to linear road and rail based travel.
A chapter of failure, of equipment losses offers a tremendous opportunity for intel exploitation and development of counters. The compromise of Russian battlefield C3/I systems is a very serious development. The recovery of a recent-generation jamming pod off a Super Flanker—if true—is a particularly serious loss and ECM/ECCM/EW systems/capabilities may now be laid bare for Western analysis. Only now are we possibly seeing a more thoughtful employment of air power against Ukraine’s infrastructure. I suspect that prior to this the Air Force was once again operating under the Army mantle and its flawed policy- to destroy Ukraine’s morale and will to fight by indiscriminate attacks on buildings and population. Syria has shown the brutality of this operational thinking. But if the latest attacks were on supporting enablers such as electricity, oil storage, transport nodes, then properly conducted Ukraine’s ability to prosecute the war would be damaged in due course. Indiscriminate attacks only strengthen the public will to fight.
Back to speculation but geared to history, we might remind ourselves, as my US friend Dick Hallion has done, that this is all very reminiscent of what happened to Russia when it went to war against Finland in 1939-1940, and when the Finns captured vast quantities of Soviet equipment that they then turned to their own use.
Dick points out, that whilst Finland had to reach a settlement in 1940 when Stalin overwhelmed the defensive Mannerheim Line because of the vast disparity of bodies and artillery that the Red Army possessed over Marshal Carl Mannerheim’s defending Finns Russia soon found, its Pyrrhic victory had given it little more than (as one Soviet officer remarked) “enough land to bury our dead.”
And the implications about Russian combat performance then—as now—went far, beyond mere numbers and types of equipment lost, and the compromise and exploitation of that equipment.
To Germany, then linked cynically to Russia by a non- aggression pact, this weakness was encouraging. Their invasion, Operation Barbarossa, came in June 1941, and came very close to destroying the Soviet regime, leading to the death of millions.
Today, Russia and China are linked in a similar pact, which (likely has secret clauses covering aggression by both parties against bordering states—think Russia vs the Baltic states and Ukraine, and China vs Taiwan.
Yet traditionally China and Russia have detested each other. In the 1960s China and Russia fought a series of bitter border clashes along the Usurri River region, reflecting the Sino-Soviet split that lasted through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. China has not forgotten this nor how Russia muscled it over the last two centuries to get control of territory including much of Siberia.
Watching Russia performing so abysmally in the Ukraine, might not Xi and his generals see opportunities in the Asdian territories perhaps not now but in due course. The Chinese after all play it long.
And what of the Central Asian cockpit (Chechnya, Georgia, and the “-stans”) that have centuries of ethnic, religious, and nationalist enmity towards Russia? As Russia shows its growing weakness, might not these always-restless peoples seek to exert their own historic claims?
Dick’s conclusion, the bottom line: the geo-strategic stakes for Russia in this conflict are far broader than just Russia’s relationship with the NATO alliance and its European neighbors, or Putin’s own personal future…Indeed, Putin’s ill-considered aggression has created a risk for the entire Russian state on all its borders. We should keep these matters in mind
Back to facts rather than speculation in the equation of uncertainty over Russian future actions and obstacles to a balanced negotiation.
My friend V. Adm Jeremy Blackham makes the point powerfully, that in this the status of Crimea raises a point of huge importance. Crimea was annexed by Russia in 1783 and was ceded to the Ukraine SSR in 1954 by Nikita Krushchev (whose recovery from WW2 he led). At this time, of course there was no suggestion that Ukraine should ever cease to be part of the USSR. Crimea gave Russia access to the Black Sea and provided Russia with her only naval base guaranteed to be ice free all year round. It is therefore a vital key strategic national interest for Russia. In the post-USSR settlement, Russia was guaranteed continuing use of the Sevastopol naval base.
When the European Union and NATO began to woo Ukraine, this was inevitably seen as a serious threat to Russia, prompting the re-annexation of Crimea in 2014. Obviously,
the idea of a key Russian base lying in a country that might become a member of NATO and the EU was a dark red line. It is likely that, in the absence of a genuinely stable settlement of Europe, it always will be – and we should understand that. It is
clear from some of his remarks that President Zelenskyy does. Any invasion of Crimea by Ukraine or the West seems the most likely trigger for a Russian resort to nuclear
weapons. And indeed we now have the sham referendums for Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhya further large chunks of Ukraine giving Putin the excuse that these areas are now part of Russa and will be defended with all means at his disposal.
How likely is this resort to nuclear weapons? The Russian General Staff in Cold War times understood the cataclysmic step that would be involved. It is surely the case that today’s General staff at the very least understand that crossing the nuclear threshold would do the greatest possible damage to Russia’s national interests. Such is the view of many commentators including Chris Donnelly.
More facts. Putin’s upbringing as a KGB man would have given him little understanding of military strategy and nuclear theology; his life was one of deception, and distrust. His experience of western triumphalism in the 90s and its ill-fated ventures in the middle east and Afghanistan have generated a hatred of the West and a belief that democracy is a failed culture.
He has a massive problem in Ukraine where his military operation is close to failure with all that means for his survival, and whilst he can still probably count on a number of the Generals who have much to lose too, and on the support of the brain washed, ill-informed peasant community, the intelligent youth of Russia is leaving in droves and its voice is increasingly heard. Is it in his nature to compromise, to look for negotiations which will enable him to claim a form of success?
Are there negotiations which could take place that would allow the Russian Fleet use of Sevastopol? Donnelly believes that we must demonstrate that we are not intimidated by and are prepared for Russian use of nuclear weapons. That their use will not bring victory and we have a robust and realistic response. He in fact believes that talk of negotiation without clarification of baseline demands sends the wrong message. My problem is that I am not sure what our response should be. There are a number of conventional force moves we could make against Russian infrastructure but against a Ukrainian landscape perhaps dotted with strikes by tactical nuclear missile strikes and resultant radioactivity, would that be enough? And our use of similar weapons - where? Russian territory and what targets? This whole dilemma seems to me to demand a rethink of that Cold War nuclear strategy, on which I was brought up and attention to the conventional capabilities which underwrote it.
Will Putin survive? We can only speculate, I fear. His problems it appears are rather greater than ours. Is a negotiation possible? It is generally believed that total humiliation of an enemy is to be avoided if peace is to be long lasting. But the brutality and crimes against humanity clearly evident by Russian forces end in his In Tray. Not a comfortable basis for a negotiated peace. And the appalling damage to Ukraine surely demands some form of international aid to repair. A Marshall plan?
I am sure that unified western financial clout can outlast that of Russia and it must. The very future of democracy is at stake. It will require sacrifice of many sacred cows and a resounding response to the wake- up call currently only tinkling in some parts of the West. I believe that our populations will respond with the right leadership and information. But we must act swiftly, to repair the damage inflicted on our armed forces and national resilience. We made mistakes in the 1990s but it is the failure to react properly to the more recent years of Russian intransigence that has been largely responsible for today’s catastrophe; the time to wake up and show some steel is now.