IN an unexpected development, the looming confrontation in Ukraine has reverted to a more academic form of combat – death by essay.
Last July, Vladimir Putin published 7,000 words on his view of the history of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Then just over a week ago, our Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (or perhaps one of his brighter minions) produced an analysis of the current situation, largely repudiating that of Putin.
Of course history, rather like a trial, sometimes consists of selecting helpful evidence and glossing over the unhelpful. (This approach, of course, led to the notorious dodgy dossier and the invasion of Iraq).
While I rather like the idea of international disputes being settled by the pen and prose (poetry being the nuclear option), deploying hundreds of thousands of combatants from at least three nuclear powers seems to me to be a bit of overkill to settle an academic dispute.
For better or worse, rightly or wrongly the Russians fear Nato’s intent. It doesn’t take an A J P Taylor or David Starkey to recall that recent Russian history, from 1812, has involved three invasions from the west.
Napoleon sacked Moscow, the Kaiser triggered the Russian Revolution and getting rid of Hitler cost the Russians some 25million lives, four times as many as died in the Holocaust.
The ensuing arms race with the West bankrupted the Soviet Union and caused its breakup. The subsequent influx of MBA-toting whizz-kids from UK and US banks and consultancies built a system that failed. There was a near revolution – Yeltsin’s finest moment – the rise of the kleptocrats and the return of order, if not full democracy, with Putin.
None of that Russian suffering may have been the West’s intent, but it does explain their concerns about security and their suspicion of Western (read Nato) motivation.
If you can understand that, you might see that at least some in Russia would see EU or Nato membership for the Ukraine as akin to returning the map to something close to Hitler’s front line in 1943. That neither you nor I see it that way is not the point. The Russian view is not the Western view, as was demonstrated with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Inciting Ukraine to join the EU, as has happened, and to join Nato, as has been mooted, seems to the Russian leadership like the EU and Nato expanding.
When the Soviet Union fell, the boundary with Nato was a republic (Ukraine) and two countries – Poland and East Germany – away. Now Nato is next door in the Baltics. Given the Russian perception and experience, that’s not comforting.
On the military point, even the staunchest defender of the territorial integrity of a distant land should take a long look at the reality. The Russians have some 60 to 80 battalion battlegroups deployed. Ukraine has 20 to 30. The UK has one in the Baltics and could, perhaps and on a good day, field three more in a couple of months. Moving heavy armour and supplies takes time.
The US has announced it is sending 8,500 troops – call it nine to 12 battalion battlegroups – presumably to Poland. This is far from overwhelming strength.
The air aspect is not good either. Russian air defence is excellent, and its S400 missiles can defend Ukrainian airspace from launch sites in Russia and Belarus. Which means that for Nato to achieve some form of air superiority over Ukraine, it would have to attack launchers on Russian sovereign territory. That’s called starting World War Three.
Wallace’s paper ends by suggesting that while Ukraine may be remote, we need to do something about it for fear of the ‘next time’ – presumably implying a Russian attack on Nato via the Baltic states or Poland. Has that been suggested? Or is Wallace deliberately stoking fear?
The realpolitik is straightforward. Some of the UK’s (and more of the EU’s) gas supply comes from Russia through Ukraine. If Putin wanted to turn it off today, he could. Whether he, his puppet or the current regime controls Ukraine makes absolutely no difference.
So there is no vital UK or EU interest at stake. Although Ukraine has asked for troops, it’s not a Nato member, so we are not obliged to send some, even if we had some and wanted to.
The UK, EU and US do not have the military firepower in place to stop Russia doing whatever it likes in Ukraine. It’s possible that Putin is already achieving what he wants – Western disunity and higher gas prices – without having to go to the expense and risk of armed conflict.
Russia may or may not suffer economic sanctions – one thing Putin has already achieved is a split in the EU and Nato – which they’ll remedy by selling more gas to the Asian markets.
It’s not pretty, it’s not nice, but there is nothing that we can or should do. Can we move on, please?