UKRAINE - A WAKE UP CALL
Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, President of the Cranwellian Association, and Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, writing in Volume 4 of the Defence UK Journal Pro Patria.
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 it is hard not to ascribe a level of aggressive behaviour to the Russian leader that amounts to 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.’
The most recent pronouncements of Western politicians would appear to recognise this; some would say not before time. Yet too many have been complicit in creating the situation in Ukraine; how could you not recognise these activities, coupled with a major build- up of Russian forces, as anything other than hostile to democracies particularly in Europe?
Why would you under these circumstances so tie your national prosperity to Russian oil and gas? And why let your armed forces wither to levels that are close to token?
This is the background to Putin’s “ Special Military Operation” now the war in Ukraine.
That America started to arm and train the military in Ukraine some while ago is much to its credit, although it is likely that the Administration would wish today that it had done more. The UK efforts are not so admirable in this field as some might think: in spite of recommendations by advisors over a number of years, three administrations turned down request for aid to Ukraine before Ben Wallace was able to persuade a Prime Minister to act. With one or two exceptions the rest of NATO was absent on duty with Germany a major culprit.
Despite this, when Putin was shown to be the liar that he is, such that even the European Union could not ignore it, the Ukrainian forces were much better prepared for war than the Russians expected. The Russian tactics bore all the hallmarks of armed forces who had operated against very modest opposition whilst relying on mass and destruction to achieve objectives.
The Ukrainian land forces operating in small, mobile groups exploiting intelligence provided significantly by Western sources and using drones and modern anti- armour weapons, took savage toll of poorly led and trained Russian land forces. The air force not only surprised the Russians with its resilience but showed too that it could teach a much larger but poorly trained force a thing or two.
With weapons now flowing, accurate Intelligence, and inspired by their President and national patriotism, the Ukrainian armed forces both halted and then pushed back Russian land forces. Putin’s “ Special Military Operation” had failed.
A regroup and revisitation of strategy was required. He has now focused on the Eastern Donbas where a rump of Russian speaking minority exists and where ‘little green men’ also are in place; his speech at the 9th May celebrations cited the special military operation as necessary and provoked by the West, and Russian troops in Ukraine were defending the Motherland. His further intentions were not divulged, but his threat that Mother Russia will defend herself with all means at its disposal in the light of the bellicose words emanating from American and UK politicians still stands.
And here is a point to make. Some of the statements by politicians not least our own are a gift to Putin in his continued stream of lies to his people. We would do well to confine our messaging to condemnation of the war and its barbarous nature and get on with supplying the vital weaponry needed. There is also too much baring of breasts in public over failings to act in harmony and in exposing information on the faults of Russian tactics.
This aid to Russian thinking also applies to the airing of debate over restrictions on the use of certain equipments. Our line should remain that Allied forces will not intervene directly in the war but if Ukraine wishes to use its provided equipment to interdict from Ukraine Russian forces poised to advance across the border, there is total justification to do so against an aggressor who has blatantly and consistently broken the rules of war from the outset of an unprovoked invasion.
Where is this war going? It is pretty obvious now that Putin wants to connect the corridor from the East towards the Crimea and onwards to Odessa and beyond. An outcome he could proclaim as Victory. Can Ukrainian land and air forces stop him and can weaponry prevent assault and blockade from the sea?
Given the weapons, and continued logistic support plus the Intelligence, Ukraine could probably prolong the conflict such that the effect on Russia financially and socially will become an increasing problem for Putin. Maintaining the war will depend on his grip of the population. There is clearly a sizeable element currently held down of mainly youth who know that this is Putin’s war and not theirs. But his hold on the media ensures for now that the bulk of the population will continue to see things along patriotic lines.
An elephant in the room is Putin’s threat to ‘use all means’ in the light of western support for Ukraine, and this is seen as the possible employment of nuclear weapons. In a conflict which remember, was ‘A Special Military Operation’ would he really unleash this genie? We do not of course know; horrific though it could be, it would not necessarily involve more physical damage than already wreaked from months of wanton and indiscriminate conventional bombardment. There would though be issues of radioactive fallout.
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. The 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 EC 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 EC 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 Zelenski does. Any invasion of Crimea by Ukraine or the West seems the most likely trigger for Russian resort to nuclear weapons.
Clearly, such action would cross a boundary which was solid during the Cold War and has remained so since it ended. And this highlights an urgent need to revisit our understanding of deterrence and the NATO strategy of Flexible Response. We should be clear; our present theory of deterrence has, in this vital case, failed and may no longer be fit for purpose.
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, 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. Even in the UK it is not clear that we are spending 2% of GDP on genuine defence. Moreover, our GDP is forecast to decline next year and we are facing inflation forecast at 10%. The 2021 IDR, whatever its merits or demerits, is wholly unaffordable on this basis. This is a major weakness apparent to Putin and surely to our own military who are charged with conducting a strategy undermined by years of inattention.
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 tinkling in the West. Our populations will respond with the right leadership and information. Our politicians must act, and act swiftly, to repair the damage inflicted on our armed forces and national resilience. It is the failure to react properly to the years of Russian intransigence that has caused today’s catastrophe; the time to wake up and show some steel is now.