IN 1982 we recaptured the Falkland Islands. This unlikeliest of victories impressed the world’s armed forces. According to ‘those who knew’ among the most impressed were the Soviets, who rewrote their war plans on the basis that the British were prepared to fight (and fight ruthlessly hard – as per the sinking of the Belgrano), accepted casualties and won. The war was fought in addition to the UK’s other commitments (Ulster and Nato). Sadly, things are a bit different now, as Mr Putin and others have noticed.
In any case, unlike the Falklands (which were, and remain, UK sovereign territory), there’s no vital UK interest that is affected by Mr Putin parking his tanks in the separatist enclaves of eastern Ukraine (which Russia now recognises as separate republics). The UK’s total trade (exports plus imports) with Ukraine in 2021 was just under £2billion (compared with trade with Russia at about £16billion). Our trade with the US, our largest partner, is £210billion. In that context, economically Ukraine is a rounding error and Russia a minor actor.
Unlike much of Europe, the UK is not reliant upon Russia for energy (gas). Other than the affront to our perception of ‘international order’ it would not much alter life in the UK if Putin extended the enclaves or invaded the rest of Ukraine. There would no doubt be humanitarian problems, and a shooting war adjacent to Nato allies is undesirable, hence the cries for action and the implementation of sanctions.
The efficacy of sanctions remains questionable. If (say) Gazprom is prevented from raising money in the UK or USA it remains able to seek funding in other markets such as Shanghai. The only certainty is that the City won’t make money out of it. That’s a stubbed toe, rather than a bullet in the foot, but it’s still lost revenue.
Seizing Russian-owned assets in the UK would prove tricky. UK law generally protects property ownership rights so some draconian legislation would need passing. (Of course, this may not worry a Parliament that acquiesced to the population’s incarceration, but it will take time. In that time the ownership of the assets will no doubt have shifted.) Moreover such moves will not stop a tank tomorrow. Which, absent any diplomatic progress, leaves military options.
The military options are limited. There is insufficient time to deploy ground troops to Ukraine, even if we (both Nato and the UK) had enough and a mandate. Supplying sophisticated weaponry to the reasonably capable Ukrainian armed forces makes sense, and we’ve done that. Some (including Tobias Ellwood, who should know better) are calling for Nato to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. They presumably envisage Nato jets destroying Russian military aircraft in Ukrainian airspace, in much the same way as we did over Iraq in the days of Saddam.
If only it were that simple. Russia has deployed its potent S400 (and other) surface-to-air missiles in Belarus as well as in Russia. No doubt more will deploy to the enclaves. Given the 250-mile range of some versions of the missile this means that the Russian air defence bubble will cover most of Ukrainian airspace from Russian and Belorussian soil. How will Nato react if its jets are illuminated by S400 fire control radars? In Iraq the response was simple: the illuminating radar was engaged and destroyed. Launching missiles at a radar in Russian sovereign territory is getting awfully close to an act of war. Is Mr Ellwood really proposing to risk that for a country that is not a Nato member?
Wise leaders fight only battles that they think they can win. Even then, they are wrong about half of the time. This is a time for cool heads to avoid the politician’s syllogism: ‘Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do this’ – as ever, Yes Prime Minister was bang on the money. Rather the questions should be ‘Is this a direct threat to the UK’s national interest?’ (No.) ‘Is it a direct threat to an ally’s national interest?’ (Maybe if the gas stops flowing to Europe.) ‘What can we do to prevent it?’ (Almost nothing.)
The embarrassment is that in 1994 as part of the Budapest Agreements, the UK, US, China, France and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for it surrendering its nuclear armoury. Several changes of Ukrainian and Russian government later Mr Putin no longer thinks the Ukraine of 30 years ago still exists. De facto he’s got a point. Add to this the complexities of the Minsk Agreements (to which the UK is only a party through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OCSE) and the diplomatic and legal situation is, at best, a mess.
Clearly Mr Putin has read Vegetius: ‘Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.’ (If you want peace, prepare for war). Our classics-loving Prime Minister (and his predecessors since Baroness Thatcher) seems to have forgotten that.