War with Russia?
Ukraine is just a prop in Britain’s domestic political theatre
15th February 2022
The British government ought to cease talking up a new, unnecessary, expensive, and distracting Cold War with Russia.
‘Forty-Five Minutes to Attack!’, screamed the headline of the Evening Standard on 24 September 2002 reporting on Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’. The foreword to that document claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction capable of being readied for use in as little as that time, potentially against British targets. It was a high point in the low and dishonest form of politics often now called ‘strategic communications’, not soon to be repeated, it was to be hoped, let alone exceeded. Now is not the time to tally up the cost of the wars that resulted from it because it will be many years yet before the price in blood, treasure, and prestige is even fully known. Suffice to say the cost to Britain of its elite’s strategic folly and self-deception has been very large.
What are we to make of the current brewing confrontation with Russia over Ukraine? Should we hope that the government now understands that for its strategies to be good they should be aimed at the achievement of plausible objectives at proportionate cost? That they should be commensurate with the furthering of actual national values (i.e., popularly held ones not just those of the metropolitan elite)? That it is competent to judge the intent and capabilities of its supposed enemies? That it is capable of honest self-assessment of its own strengths, weaknesses, and mid- and long-term interests?
The answer is no. The country’s politicians have an undiminished appetite for strategic hyperbole. They are not inclined or trained or, one now suspects, even capable of thinking and acting in the national interest. They have incredibly poor judgment when it comes to the intent and capabilities of serious competitors, to judge from the comparatively torporific response to China which has been welcomed to take a huge stake in our national communications and energy systems, major industries, and universities. They are resistant to the contemplation of home truths. Worst of all they act as though war is, first and foremost, a prop in domestic political theatre. Britain is a rich country, but this must stop because we are not so rich that we can continue so stupidly.
‘This is our Cuban Missile crisis’, writes Tobias Ellwood MP, chair of the parliamentary defence committee, in the Mail on Sunday; Britain ought to lead a NATO division into Ukraine to ‘make Putin think twice’ about invading. It would be nice if Britain’s politicians thought once for a change. How is the situation at all like the Cuban Missile Crisis? Is there really a mortal threat to the existence of the UK? Is the world really on the brink of nuclear Armageddon? If the situation is like those famous 13 days in October 1962, then what role is Britain in? In fact, it’s strategic flummery—dumb rhetoric that would be worth a laugh if it were not dangerous.
The big lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that nuclear powers should not go to war with each other because nobody could figure out how to contain the obvious risk of escalation to levels of destruction that would make nonsense of any possible political instrumentality. It is still a valid point: indeed, it is basically lesson one of first year undergraduate strategic studies. Possibly Ellwood meant to invoke the Munich Crisis of 1938, the lesson of which as everyone knows is not to appease fascist dictators but realised that trope suffers from overuse. It’s been 80 years since Nazism was blown to smithereens but somehow another Hitler seems perennially on the frontier. Normal people are sensitised to this political communications gambit by now.
Likewise, what is a normally intelligent person, just an average follower of national affairs, to make of this line from the beginning of his essay: ‘All dictators need an enemy to distract from domestic woes, to justify their aggression and demonstrate strength. And so, it is withVladimir Putin.’ This is either po-faced lack of self-reflection or massive condescension and possibly both. Though Putin is indeed some kind of dictator, and quite popular, Russia is best described as a ‘managed democracy’, which is to say that it has some of the outward forms of democratic process but that they don’t really matter. The media is complicit in Kremlin politics, parliament is effectively neutered, individual freedoms are curtailed—does none of this seem just a bit familiar? Are people supposed to forget, moreover, that our own Prime Minister is a man with ‘domestic woes’ up the wazoo and desperately in need of his own distraction?
The point is not to pick on Ellwood exactly, for he is quite typical. It is, rather, that for the words which follow to land with the required force on the politico-bureaucratic ‘blob’ that we must call ‘British government’ they must be shot directly at someone’s face. There is a good reason that the famous American radical activist Saul Alinsky advised people who wanted to make big changes in policy to ‘Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.’ Whitehall is a squirming, responsibility-avoiding, buck-passing machine, populated up to the very top level by incompetents—a point made diamond-edged clear with the recent revelation that the head of the Diplomatic Service (along with nearly all, it seems, of our new ‘work-from-home bureaucracy) holidayed throughout last August’s calamitous Afghan withdrawal.
It’s time for the buck to stop because everyone is fed up.
The armed forces exist to defend the country and to advance its interests not to burnish the internationalist credentials of ambitious prime ministers like Tony Blair, let alone lesser politicos, nor to deflect media attention from scandal ridden ones like Boris Johnson. Lord Palmerston, who dominated British foreign policy at the height of empire is reputed to have said, ‘whenever I hear the words “something must be done” I know something stupid is about to happen.’ When it comes down to it, since the 1990s ‘well, something had to be done’ has been the answer to the implicit ‘why?’ of nearly all our wars. ‘We meant well’ is not an enviable epitaph for any nation’s foreign policy, let alone one as historically globally vital as Britain. Our current hyperactive naivete, undignified lack of gravitas, and cheap superficiality is all the more striking for its contrast with the not-so-distant past.
To get back to Russia, however, it is not that we weren’t warned long ago about the reaction that Western triumphalism, strategic hubris, and elite political high-handedness was liable to cause in the long term. The late great American strategist George Kennan, author of the Cold War containment strategy for handling the Soviet Union, was blunt in his observation that the expansion of NATO would be the most ‘fateful error’ of policy in the entire post-Cold War era:
Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.
And so, it came to be—more or less, exactly. Kennan was correct then on the eve of the first expansion of NATO which subsequently, with the full support of Britain, has doubled down on a very bad bet twice more again. He was of a breed of public official sadly now in serious lack of supply, which is to say possessed of competence, reasonable foresight, and sensible humanity. Britons ought to have been more attentive to the message. It was after all our own Winston Churchill who famously advised ‘In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Good Will.’
We now seem to exemplify the opposite. In war: pusillanimity. In defeat: petulance. In victory: pettiness. In peace? It really is past time to wake up because if we don’t there won’t be any.
At the time of the first expansion of NATO in the late 1990s, there was little Russia could do about it because its economy was a ruin, its army was a shambles reeling from defeat in Chechnya, and its president was a seemingly permanent inebriate. It is hard to exaggerate how bad the situation in Russia was on the eve of Putin’s rise to power. To those who visited it frequently it seemed often to be like a Slavic version of W.B. Yeats’ Second Coming: the best people were in despair, everything and everyone was for sale, while the worst were filling their boots with loot. Mark Ames, founder and editor of the infamously vulgar but often very-on-point Moscow English-language paper The Exile, had a front row seat on it: ‘We were in the middle of total devastation, one of the worst, most horrible fucking tragedies of modern times.’
Perhaps when Putin says that the collapse of the USSR was a tragedy it is this feeling, rather than a hankering for communism, that he is expressing? Along with many tens of millions of other Russians, and Ukrainians for that matter. At any rate, now, the Russian economy for all its relatively poor productivity is well placed for economic conflict. Its debt to GDP ratio is 18%, less than a quarter of the UK’s 85%, let alone the USA’s 133%. Russia and China’s economies complement each other and the two are working quickly to establish an alternative to existing global financial transfer systems.
Moreover, European, especially German, dependency on Russian energy exports is an established and in the near to mid-term incontrovertible fact. In other words, Russia is not especially vulnerable to sanctions anymore and is able, for e.g., through the restriction of the supply of gas and also fertilisers, to lash out in kind. The EU which has made much of its ability to shape the security landscape through its economic soft power should not be surprised at this development.
The Russian military is far from possessing the sort of strength once possessed by the USSR; in fact, many of its existing ‘cutting edge’ weapons and equipment are variants and upgrades of late 1980s Soviet military technology. A great deal too much has also been made of the novelty and effectiveness of Russian ‘hybrid’ warfare which is neither novel, the same techniques featured in Crimea in 2014 were evident in much the same form in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, nor particularly effective.
Secure behind their Kaliningrad bastion, however, and equipped with niche capabilities in long range hypersonic missiles and, possibly, cyber it is quite capable of effective deterrence. In Vladimir Putin, furthermore, as opposed to Boris Yeltsin, Russia has an experienced and ruthless leader who has no significant domestic opposition to his foreign policy, the full support of the security establishment, a track record of strategic competence—and every incentive not to back down.
There are further reasons, though, why it is ridiculous for the UK to rattle the sabre at Russia at this time.
NATO is a ‘rotting corpse’ that is virtually impossible to revive. It is ‘dominated by jealousies and small, vicious political battles’ and suffers a ‘lack of cohesion, clarity and professionalism.’ Those are the words not of a Russian spokesperson but of the former Canadian Chief of Defence Gen. Rick Hillier in his memoirs published in 2009. What if anything has occurred since to alter this grim diagnosis? The transatlantic rift widened obviously under President Trump and was torn further still by the disastrously incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In 2015, a WIN/Gallup survey of 64 countries asked, ‘would you fight for your country?’ The responses bear more serious contemplation. In the UK, the percent of approximately 1,000 respondents answering in the affirmative was 27%, which is a startling number but better than Germany’s 18% or the Netherlands’ 15%, and about on par with France’s 29%. Article 5 of the NATO Charter is its cornerstone; it says in effect that an attack on one ally is an attack on them all. How meaningful is that considering the mood indicated by the Win/Gallup survey? More to the point, how meaningful are undertakings made to non-treaty allies?
The British government is naïve and foolish to make promises that it cannot keep and to bluff so transparently as it has been doing recently. The NATO division of which Mr Ellwood dreams does not currently exist and there are higher priorities for UK defence spending than recreating a budget version of the old British Army of the Rhine but stationing it on the Dnieper. For one thing, bolstering the Royal Navy which protects the environment which above all others affects national security and prosperity directly.
In the long-term, the prospects for an independent Ukraine which is at the heart of the current confrontation with Russia are not promising. Its independence prior to the collapse of the USSR was trivially short in comparison to more than a thousand years of co-evolution with Russia to which it is bound by history, geography, and in the clear view of the latter, at least, by legitimate security interests. On top of that there is an economic logic which is frankly ineluctable: Ukraine is a cold country that heats itself and runs its industries on Russian gas which, thanks to decisions taken about energy in Western countries long ago that will be painfully difficult to reverse, Putin will soon be able to switch off.
In short, Ukraine is historically in Russia’s sphere of influence and is very likely on a trajectory deeper in that direction. There is little reason for Russia to push things faster militarily and many reasons to play a long game. An obvious risk to Russia is of creating for itself another Chechnya, just much larger and better armed. It is far from obvious that Russia’s intention is to reabsorb Ukraine. Ultimately, though, even if Russia invaded tomorrow, UK politicians have made no good argument why it matters greatly to Britain’s national security or prosperity one way or the other. Between Kiev and London there are 1,325 miles, a space occupied entirely by the European Union, a political empire of which we are no longer a part, and which should defend itself, if it needs to do so.
The British government ought to cease talking up a new, unnecessary, expensive, and distracting Cold War with Russia. We have a lot to be getting on with already and no obvious stake in Ukraine. Plausible threats from Russia to Britain including traditional ones such as incursion into our maritime and air space as well as novel ones such as cyberattack on infrastructure do not need to be defeated on the Dnieper. Indeed, the credibility of deterrence is better maintained the closer it is to home. Although existing obligations under Article 5 to NATO allies, in the Baltics especially, should be strenuously affirmed.
David Betz is Professor of War in the Modern World at King’s College London.