Blog: The Current Crisis in Ukraine
By the Editor: The author attempts to look beyond the current realities on the ground in Ukraine and identify some key strategic themes, consequent of Putin’s War against Ukraine, that are pertinent to all beyond Ukraine’s borders – no more so than the rest of Europe and especially the UK.
By the second week of June we will have reached a point that, bar a very few prescient individuals, most of us at the start of 2022 wouldn’t have believed possible. An increasingly protracted state-on-state war on the continent of Europe reminiscent of the worst of the early years of the 20th century and before – wholesale indiscriminate killing and destruction in Ukraine in ways the despots of the Second World War would both recognise and (frighteningly) applaud. Have we progressed so little that our modern international regulating mechanisms and institutions are unable to intervene in any meaningful way?
All forms of media are straining to contain the tomes of opinion and analysis on why we got to where we are now and how Putin’s War is progressing. Honestly, I’m not sure I have much to add to such worthy considerations – and by that I refer only to discussion that is not attempting to distort or confuse or provide entirely fake perspective; falsehoods that has become such a dominant concern surrounding this war.
So instead of second guessing, perhaps I might encourage putting of our minds to what next; the consequence of the last 100 days and the strategic ‘so whats’ that we now need to urgently address. And not kick, as we have a penchant for, such difficult cans down the road, because we tend (certainly in the UK) to be distracted by the more immediate, more introspective issues such as pandemic recovery, addressing the cost-of-living crisis and searching for a post Brexit status quo that begins to deliver promised advantages etc. I’m not underplaying the import of those crises but if we focus too much on the here and now, the tactical, we will miss the strategic imperatives now bearing down on us. And there the oft quoted Sun Tsu maxim – tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat -would seem an apposite warning. We must begin to lift our eyes and our game.
So, what strategic lessons might we have learnt in the last 100 Days? I suspect there are legions of candidates, but I will restrict myself to what I consider to be the top ten strategic take aways requiring our attention (I am of course writing this from a UK perspective):
- Banks don’t beat tanks – Well at least not until a country has been laid waste to. We in the UK have become seduced by the siren calls of ‘soft power’ over the last few decades. Politically it is good news to be able to demonstrate effect with much less risk. But against a determined aggressor such ‘soft’ approaches have proven of marginal effect. Perhaps in the longer run sanctions will impact the likes of Putin or al-Assad, but not until tens of thousands have been exterminated consequent of their twisted sophistry. So, re-establishing a ‘big stick’ policy to foreign affairs, security and defence, I would opine, is the way forward for the UK.[i]
- Pax Americana is under threat – the wholly unnecessary 2021 Afghan rout[ii] and a sustained ‘America First’ policy, irrespective of the administration in power, is leaving erstwhile allies doubting or not entirely trusting of US true intent. Compounding the problems of that diminished leading light is global growth in autocracy;[iii],[iv] regimes increasingly willing to contemplate national ‘progress’ by military adventure and acquisition (irrespective of a common understanding of international norms of behaviour). And a retreat of democracy that the West has not yet developed an answer to. Perhaps the likes of the UK has even further to travel in this regard, as it has subordinated its grand strategy to that of the US for decades and is now only just beginning to feel its way in the world alone outside of any economic bloc.
- Old Europe is in trouble – French quibbling regarding its appetite to arm Ukraine and political showboating when it comes to repeated discussions with Putin (even leading to a new Ukrainian phrase ‘arrête de macroner’)[v] does little to enamour old Europe to the new. Same same, the other half of the European engine, Germany (that has talked much, promised much[vi] but, as yet, delivered little[vii]), is worrying those in the eastern reaches of Europe as to whether the western part of the continent is really committed to collective interests.[viii]
- Respecting ‘face’ must be conditional – With rumours of semi-appeasement in the wind (to save Putin’s ‘face’ and stop the conflict before it impacts further on European economies) by focussing on the Minsk agreement[ix] as the way out[x] leaves the UK with a key strategic decision begging to be answered – does state on state aggression, exemplified by Putin’s Russia, deserve substantive sanction? Given the scale of the invasion, and subsequent horrific actions by his forces and mercenaries, Putin has, I would suggest, passed the moral cut-off point before which his ‘face’ might have warranted ‘saving’.[xi] I would argue the longer term (geo-strategic) credibility of the West demands that Putin is seen to lose. And that means the whole of Ukraine being returned as sovereign territory (i.e. pre-2014 lands being returned to Ukrainian control). The West appeased when it came to the annexation of Crimea – it can’t afford to make the same mistake again, or other dictatorships and autocracies will see this as reaffirming their belief in weakness in Western resolve to defend its own, supposedly, ‘red line’ principles.
- Rules don’t matter (if we don’t act) – perhaps the most shocking outcome of Putin’s War is the scant regard he has paid to international conventions and norms. Driving a coach and horses through the UN Charter he has effectively emasculated the UN, which has now but marginal influence on events in Ukraine. Indeed other ‘safety’ provisions appear equally disregarded; for instance, when it comes to the fourth Geneva Convention on protection of civilians in a time of war.[xii] Of course such explicit flouting of the conventions is not exactly news.[xiii],[xiv] We in the West have just failed to challenge Putin previously. That said, irrespective of Putin and Russia, what perhaps is even more worrying is that international condemnation of Russia’s invasion has been far from universal. Realpolitik and self-interest have persuaded some nations to not follow the West to what it considers to be the moral high ground (especially for any self-respecting democracy).[xv] Thus the moral authority of the West must be considered to be under threat unless action to underpin and reform the rules, and relevant institutions, is taken in relatively short order.
- Narrative not truth is king – Internationally Ukraine has played its hand extremely well when it comes to the narrative. Crucially though, Putin has played his better when it comes to the narrative where it counts for him – in Russia. His grasp on the throat of truth is enabling him to avoid bad news amongst the Russian populous, who anyway appear more resilient when it comes to loss and hardship than their Western counterparts. And his seemingly unassailable control of internal Russia messaging is perhaps beginning to influence beyond his borders.[xvi] As the West, which today seems more interested in short-term more ephemeral concerns, gets ‘bored’ with war (especially as the battle for eastern Ukraine becomes more and more one of slow attrition) there is grave danger of Putin winning back the narrative around the world; no matter how nonsensical his claims of Jewish neo-Nazis plots, supported by aggressive NATO expansion, are.
- The Moral Component[xvii] is crucial (but mass matters) – Russian armed forces’ problems in the field are evident when it comes to addressing the moral component of fighting power. Meanwhile Ukraine has provided a masterclass in the import of this component. The question arises, however, as to how long such an advantage can be held against mass – especially where the one wielding that mass wantonly disregards its own catastrophic casualty rates in pursuit of even the smallest of advances (the leaders of the Russian armed forces are looking more and more like the modern disciples of Pyrrhus). Meanwhile in the West we have emphasised peace dividends since the end of the Cold War and hollowed out (throughout NATO) mass and our reserves. For example, fewer ships at sea, perhaps with better quality weapons but with less of them and certainly with pitifully small war reserves. Worse still we have provided Ukraine with materiel without an obvious effort to declare a replacement plan. Indeed, with Russia having taken itself from competitor status to enemy once more, one has to remember it still, notwithstanding Ukraine, fields substantial forces (particularly in the maritime) well beyond Ukraine and much much closer to home. It is surprising therefore there has been but the briefest of political murmur about reconsidering the breadth and depth of the UK armed forces, and its reserves, given the seismic geo-strategic event Putin’s war represents.
- Deterrence is under threat – By repeated reference to tactical nuclear weapons, Putin has dissuaded more direct military intervention by the West, and in particular NATO, in Ukraine. A counter-deterrence policy is thus missing in NATO. And this starts with an understanding that deterrence isn’t just about nuclear weapons but the spectrum of credible capability through the conventional to nuclear. This obviously ties into the issue of mass touched on above. All of which leads one to ask for how much longer will short term tactical conveniences (consequent of the pressures of cost-of-living crises, post pandemic recovery etc) continue to outweigh the growing strategic necessity of properly resourcing the first duty of any government?[xviii] I strongly suggest national fortunes now depend on stopping what has been, for many years, reactive, short term and popularist policy making. And now focusses more on formulating policy that captures a vision that doesn’t duck hard truths about were the UK finds herself. And such a long look must accept we can no longer draw-off a bank of assumptions regarding our place in the world (care of historic legacy) but one that now contemplates a transactional future where we re-earn our global standing. And that requires, in part, truly credible armed forces formed across the deterrence spectrum and not over-reliance on soft power and on success in new domains such as cyber.
- Presence or poise, is it a binary choice? – Not a new consideration.[xix] The UK’s 2021 Integrated Review[xx] tilted towards presence, forward presence, in the Indo-Asia Pacific region – after all influence has to be earned and can’t be just assumed.[xxi] But that was before an increased threat to the homeland and reignition of the Cold War. Doing both inevitably will require greater resources – and in the maritime this will mean more ships, submarines and aircraft; a shortfall that was identified well before Putin’s latest adventure.[xxii] I should add the PRC gets this and is ‘doubling-down’ on its efforts to learn from emerging lessons ever since the start of invasion of Ukraine. Noting the reaction of the West, from the reinvigoration of NATO to the cohesiveness and depth of sanctions imposed, the PRC is adapting rapidly to the new-found reality. Rest assured they won’t make Putin’s mistakes when it comes to Taiwan.[xxiii]
- Interests (à la Palmerston[xxiv]) trump alliances – NATO, the EU and others have had a wake-up call. There has been a surprisingly unified initial response, but the West’s record, when it comes to staying power (Afghanistan being the most recent example), is not good. Even now national interests risk fracturing unity. For example, Turkey cavilling over Sweden’s and Finland’s entry into NATO,[xxv] or Hungary on the extent of EU hydrocarbon sanctions.[xxvi] We have lived for years with fissures in the alliances in the West that we have been unwilling to do more than paper over. If newly reinvigorated organisations are to be ‘worth their salt’ in years to come, then the time to fix those fissures is now; such that those alliances must become analogous to a complete well-found aircraft in flight, and not a formation of national interest rivets flying in close formation – formations that are much more susceptible to being knocked off course and disconnected by the strengthening geo-strategic winds of the 21st century.
Summarising the ‘so whats’, given the plethora of such lessons needing to be addressed, is pointless. But I suggest there is one central strand. Out of adversity, leadership has been seen to flourish in Ukraine. But one is less inclined to say that that example is mirrored to the same extent elsewhere in Europe (and in this I include the UK). Yes, there has been laudable tactical reaction to support Ukraine and rightly sanction Russia, in particular by the US and UK, but now the hard strategic choices must be made against truly testing world and domestic economic pressures – what is our (the UK’s) grand strategy post this most seismic of world events right on our doorstep? Decisions (or lack of them) made now will set the UK’s place in the world for decades, if not longer, to come. Now is not the time to revert to the ‘comfort blanket’ of navel gazing and unhealthy introspection.
A Naval Review Member
[i] US President Roosevelt first used the aphorism on 25 January 1900. The ‘Big Stick’ policy had five components. 1. possess credible military capability (that then meant a world-class navy and not a large army); 2. act justly toward other nations; 3. never to bluff; 4. strike only when prepared to strike hard; 5. and be magnanimous in victory, allowing the defeated to save face. On the last point I would suggest (as I do above) there is a limit up to which saving face is warranted. Some actions deserve full, unremitting sanction – e.g. with respect to Hitler in WWII.
[vii] “Germany breaks its promise to give Kyiv more heavy weapons” The Times 30 May 2022 p29
[xvii] The Fighting Power of any force is generated by three components: Moral, Physical and Conceptual. The Moral is an individual’s system of beliefs and values which is situated in any armed force’s broader organisational value system based on courage, initiative, respect and teamwork. The Physical Component is the means, the resources, to fight (kit, logistics etc) and Conceptual Component the thought process behind the ability to fight (the doctrine tactics and procedures)
[xviii] https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/home-office (“The first duty of the government is to keep citizens safe and the country secure.”)
[xix] The Naval Review Vol 107/4 Nov 2019 ‘Presence or Poise: Binary Choice or Essential Compromise?’
[xxi] “South pacific nations turn to China ‘because of neglect from the West’. The Times 30 May 2022 p30
[xxiv] “…We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…” Lord Palmerston (former Prime Minister) Speech in House of Commons 1 March 1848