Thursday Jaw (10 March 2022) – Ukraine Invasion

Thursday Jaw (10 March 2022) – Ukraine Invasion

Once a month members of the Naval Review convene a virtual on-line forum on key issues of the moment. A précis of those discussions to promote further conversation is promulgated a few days later.

On 10 March a panel, consisting of the Editor, international legal experts and academics, led the discussion that aimed to highlight consequences or fallout from the invasion of Ukraine.  In sum, all accepted President Putin had initiated a deliberate, and what would have hitherto been considered irrational, hostile act against the sovereign nation of Ukraine.  But the Thursday Jaw attempted to promote a more reflective discussion, seeking to shed light on issues surrounding, and consequent of, the war.  It did not delve into predictions as to the course of the war itself.

In their individual opening remarks, the panel members proffered the following (this précis also reflects some of the subsequent discussion):

  • Some disagree with statements that these events are unbelievable, especially in 2022 – it is no more unbelievable than 1914 or 1939.  This was countered saying Putin’s actions are at least irrational because the West consciously took a post-Cold War route, termed by the Germans friedenspolitik (peace policy), that looked to growth by means other than acquisition through armed force and military adventure.
  • It was acknowledged, 30 years ago, the fall of the USSR fell left some feeling (especially Putin) Russia had been diminished and humiliated.  But the West attempted to mitigate and compensate by focussing on confidence building.  Fostering cultural connections and the ideas of civil society – the West focussed on building (or thought it was), political bridges.  Crucially economic ties were emphasised to ensure economic interdependence, between erstwhile Cold War opponents, thereby making future military adventures of no advantage to any party.
  • But the West was wrong.  Putin made no secret of his belief in the rights of Russia to a buffer zone of subordinate states. He was repeatedly ignored, as was his almost mystical concept of restoring Russian greatness. As many have remarked, Putin is a 21st Century player looking at the world through 19th Century eyes.
  • The West inadvertently encouraged him – certainly with respect to his weakly opposed annexing of Crimea in February 2014.  Similarly, Western reactions to Russian action in Syria or with regards to Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) or Chechnya or Moldova (Transnistria) hardly have given Putin much pause for thought.  And perceived growing weakness of the West consequent of failure in Afghanistan coupled with newly found ‘friendship’ between Presidents Xi and Putin[1] all added to the equation that Putin saw working in his favour.
  • It raises the question as to whether Putin is the brilliant strategist or a cool calm opportunist? This Thursday Jaw didn’t conclude one way or another, albeit the sense was the majority thought the latter more likely.  During this strand of the conversation, it was mused that Ukraine might only be the ‘ways’, underpinned by wider ‘grey’ means, to broader ‘ends’ focussed on humiliating NATO. 
  • When it comes to sanctions, it was recalled that Putin has a PhD in energy economics.  In his equation he will see the advantage of the strangle hold he now has on energy supply to Europe.  And as for his customer base, a shift to an energy starved PRC will no doubt compensate for any loss to Europe.  Meanwhile Europe will have to address a seismic energy crisis (worse that the 1970’s OPEC incited crisis) as it concurrently attempts energy transition away from hydrocarbons.  It was noted the US gains from this, in so far that previously too expensive fracked LNG now becomes affordable by a Europe needing to cut off its sole supplier dependencies.  Some considered oil passing $300 a barrel inevitable (today, 14 March, Brent Crude is at $110), leading to economic crash given weakened national finances following 2007 banking crisis and the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • At the same time, the West has taken a 30-year holiday from serious defence spending and delighted in refining our economic and trading systems to make them ever more efficient in pursuit of continuous growth; whilst ignoring the very real dangers of strategic vulnerabilities (reliance on sole suppliers, lack of strategic reserve, lack of organic capacity and industry) consequent of such pursuits. 
  • Russian public opinion is with Putin – banking on him being deposed any time soon is an unrealistic expectation.  70% have never travelled from Russia and are tied to, and remain convinced by, state media.  They value the stability, sense of national pride and supposed economic success Putin has delivered post Yeltsin.  But the 30% of Russia that is internationally connected (via travel and social media) have been shocked by the catastrophe for their (i.e. mostly the young’s) future now unfolding. 
  • There remains a debate on what NATO did or didn’t promise, with respect to expansion, as the USSR fell.  George Kennan[2] and Henry Kissinger[3] counselled against expansion of NATO.

During the subsequent conversation amongst the Thursday Jaw participants, the following additional points were made:

  • NATO had to expand or die post-Cold War – but was that driven by NATO or by former Soviet satellite states deciding what they wanted?  Hand-in-glove was EU expansion.  In some respects this was the real expansion driver, as the benefits of democracy and liberalised economies encouraged adjacent states to seek union to better their countries’ prospects after the privations of Soviet oligarchic dominance.  As the EU spread east, defence and security ambiguities would have arisen if there hadn’t been approximate alignment of EU and NATO in Europe.
  • But looking forward, with Russia outside this club, should emphasis be shifted to the OSCE rather than sustaining NATO?  Mearsheimer[4] questions how countries end up in the sphere of vital national interest (or not).  Have those questions really been asked?  For example, the EU is not about to let Turkey into its club.  But if you are a proponent of self-determination, it is difficult to see how one can ultimately refuse application of those determined to join, even if it upsets other neighbours.
  • Should NATO, or the EU for that matter, be drawing red lines?  Red lines are ultimately hostages to fortune. In tackling a wicked problem, such as faced in Ukraine, there are no absolutes. Declaring lines hands initiative to any enemy – one’s courses of action are constrained until one’s declared red line criteria are met. And, of course, we have seen in the past how plausible deniability is used to stretch a supposedly inviolable red line.
  • Nuclear deterrence has been raised up the agenda by Putin, in so far that his threats have deterred NATO from making a conventional response to the crisis.  So, what is now our counter-deterrence thinking to avoid being boxed in?  Of true concern is Putin’s apparent willingness to consider the very limited use of tactical nuclear weapons suggests he is less convinced the West would respond in kind.  We have clearly misjudged him before, we may again. In essence we must find all ways to work with all parties and include a conversation with Putin.  What he is saying is usefully encapsulated in Oliver Stone’s interviews with Putin (2014 – 2017).[5]
  • There is a grave danger of excessive ‘Russiophobia’ with a NATO agenda dominated by an ‘America First’ policy.  In any conflict with Russia there is an assumption that NATO would win (and the parlous performance of Russian forces in Ukraine perhaps reinforces that belief). This will leave a deeply damaged Russia with the impact felt mostly on the ‘fields’ of Europe, away from continental US.  So, in developing a future grand strategy (that has been woefully lacking for decades) one must acknowledge that concern over the US’s future global role and ambitions are a big piece of this puzzle.  And right now the ‘elephant in the room’ is, perhaps, the US in a state of strategic paranoia and contemplating (again perhaps) the end of its hegemonic status and its dominant hand on the tiller of world affairs.
  • And in Russia, Putin has proven intellect, but can he think on his feet as things change?  Is he a slave to the system that spawned him?  How of a much difference is there in the quality of ‘advice’ proffered between Gen Gerasimov to President Putin and say Adm Radakin to Prime Minister Johnson – failure of speaking truth unto power is a crucial weakness that undermines and may result in more irrational acts.  One suspects, given recent Russian house detentions and sacking of senior officials, a complete picture may not yet reside in the Kremlin.
  • Irrespective of the impact on Russia, has Ukraine woken up the West and nailed the lie that democracies can work alongside autocracies with kleptocratic tendencies?  Cold War 2 would seem all but certain now. Rebuild of defences with credible hard power, not over reliance on influence through soft power, would appear no longer discretionary.  But funding will be an issue (a rise from 2 to 4% of GDP essential?) in amongst a cost-of-living crisis and fallout from the pandemic.  And in this, emphasis must reflect the UK’s post-Brexit status as an island nation outside any economic bloc but as part of the most coherent defence and security alliance in the world.

To conclude, there was an attempt to identify several unanswered questions that require further consideration:

  • Has the Cold War reignited? Putin remaining in power is no longer tenable; such violence and thuggery can never be allowed to be rewarded.  But regime change is not likely soon.  So how to play Putin – is he a grand strategist or cool calm opportunist?
  • Whither Pax Americana, especially after Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria?
  • Was NATO expansion really the cause?  If so, can it be part of the solution? 
  • Whither the Russian generation gap?  Does the West just have to be patient and wait for the ‘globally accessed’ youth to hold sway in Russia?
  • Has the West yet been truly woken up?  Siren voices and twisted narratives may yet subvert newfound resolve.  Can the West afford to lose (again) in the eyes of the world?
  • Whither counter deterrence (both nuclear and conventional)? 
  • Whither ‘Global Britain’?  Is the UK now more beholden to fully secure the ‘homeplate’ by structuring for poise, rather than promoting forward presence in pursuit of UK interests east of the Indian sub-continent?
  • Whither the PRC in all this?  How important is their customer base?  (In 2020, PRC to Russia was US$50.6bn, PRC to Europe US$442.6bn, PRC to USA US$452.6bn and PRC to UK US$72.6bn – in other words the value of ‘the West’ to PRC is bordering on US$1tr (13-14 times greater than that of Russia)).[6]  Does the PRC have a mediation role?
  • Whither Ukraine?  Has Russia woken up to the fact it is now fighting Slavs who don’t give up?
  • The UN has been neutered by a post-World War II constitution.[7]  How might it reform and at what cost to those currently holding perpetual veto rights on the UNSC?
  • With 33% of the UN General Assembly[8] abstaining, regarding the UNGA resolution on the war in Ukraine, whither the influence of the West especially amongst those nations that abstained but purport to support democracy and the principles of nations’ sovereignty?
  • Is a defence rebuild in UK affordable (i.e. taking us back to Cold War levels of spending)? If rebuild is no longer discretionary, ‘mass’ should no longer be watered down – we have had it amply demonstrated that banks cannot defeat tanks, certainly not before a huge amount of destruction has been wreaked.
  • Much vaunted reforms of the Russian military 2008-2014 discarded many legacy Soviet military structures.  But following two decades of investment, to deliver a smaller more professional permanent force, was this reform focussed too much on just the physical component of fighting power resulting in an incompetent performance in Ukraine?  Whither the moral component in particular that appear surprisingly weak in the Russian invasion forces?  But with little respect to international norms (eg use of cluster bombs, thermobaric weapons and chemical weapons against civilian targets) does that matter if mass and thuggery wins the day?
  • As an island nation on the edge of a continent where should the balance of defence rebuild effort go.  Reformation of the BAOR would seem inappropriate given European defence will become more muscular (German €100bn defence spending increase[9] and Sweden’s 40% increase[10] in defence spending point the way).  How is the UK to work/integrate with EU security and defence that is integral to UK interests?
  • How should sanctions on individuals and their estates be pursued in the maritime?  For instance, too many oligarchs slipped the net with their super-yachts.[11]
  • Is Ukraine the tipping point that provides a catalyst to energy revolution or just economic catastrophe?
  • What are the third order effects, of the failure of export of commodities (such as wheat) from Ukraine, on the security of poorer countries?

[1] “No limits” friendship (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EaiuASUpuc)

[2] https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-u-s-decision-to-enlarge-nato-how-when-why-and-what-next/

[3] Hearings before the US Committee on Foreign Relations (5 Nov 1997) https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-105shrg46832/html/CHRG-105shrg46832.htm

[4] John J Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, WW Norton & Co

[5] The Putin Interviews https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5mFuDu70z4

[6] Data from https://tradingeconomics.com/china/exports

[7] It should be noted that an emergency special session of the UNGA can be called to make urgent recommendations on a particular situation relevant for the maintenance of international peace and security in any instance where the Security Council fails to act owing to the veto of a permanent member.  The mechanism was introduced in 1950 with the Uniting for Peace resolution, which declared that: … if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security. If not in session at the time, the General Assembly may meet in emergency special session within twenty-four hours of the request therefore. …The General Assembly’s ability to recommend collective measures was the subject of an intense dispute in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962, an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice stated that, while “enforcement action” is the exclusive domain of the Security Council, the General Assembly has the authority to take a wide range of decisions, including establishing a peacekeeping force.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergency_special_session_of_the_United_Nations_General_Assembly)

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_General_Assembly_Resolution_ES-11/1

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2022/feb/27/scholz-announces-100bn-increase-of-german-defence-spending-after-russias-ukraine-invasion-video

[10] https://finabel.org/total-defence-2021-2025-sweden-wants-to-increase-military-spending-by-40/

[11] https://news.usni.org/2022/03/11/russian-owned-super-yachts-going-dark-to-avoid-sanction-seizure, https://inews.co.uk/news/russia-oligarchs-superyachts-sailing-moved-world-sanctions-ukraine-1498392, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/10/roman-abramovich-superyacht-heads-west-across-mediterranean-after-sanctions

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