With nine days to go before the US decides on which of its two ‘tarnished’ candidates will find themselves sitting in the Oval Office of the White House late January and with Britain and its allies affixed on sorting a range of other awkward is self-inflicted issues and problems, why is it that the silence in regard of how Vladimir Putin is pushing his wider political and military ambitions forward in the Baltic is quite so deafening?
As Putin continues to hide Russia’s wider aggressive ambitions behind its abhorrent actions in support of the Assad regime in Syria I suppose that it is quite understandable that some should even begin to see what is going on in Syria and Ukraine right now and of where Russia’s new found aggression and challenge might lead in effect to being rather like a potential re-run of what some of us remember for real, the Cuban missile crisis.
Maybe it will but whether it does or does not, it really is time that Britain and its NATO allies began to face up to reality – we are now being challenged by Russia just as we are also by those that do not share our culture and our belief in freedom of speech and action, freedom of how we may worship and of those who see democracy in a different way. And that means we must stop kidding ourselves that we are spending nearly enough on real defence.
That the level of threat against the west has been raised by Putin rhetoric, by Russian actions in Syria, by movements of its Navy and by the continual testing of resolve of NATO member states such as the UK and those of none NATO member states such as Sweden and Finland is unarguable. That the reaction of western allies has been slow and lacking in deep rhetoric is also probably true as also is the attitude of western governments including our own toward realistic increases in defence spending.
Never did I imagine that I would live to see such political weakness by western governments in response to Russian aggression and new found determination and never could I have imagined a situation in which the answer to Russia’s increased level of aggression toward the West would be, apart from providing a small amount of increased support to other Baltic region sovereign states, merely words combined with what looks rather like burying of heads in the sand.
In a speech reported to have been given in Sochi last Thursday Vladimir Putin is reported to have told his audience that [Russia] has to “learn from Israel – it never lets go” he said and “they fight to the end, that’s why it [Israel] exists at all. There is no other option” he said. “We have to fight. If we let things slide, we will always lose”.
While the Russian leader has been quietly pushing his Ukraine ambitions further forward and threatening, or at the very least, creating increased fear of a widening of its aggressive stance towards then by other Baltic Region sovereign states; in its bombing of Aleppo in Syria having absolutely no regard for the lives of a reported 275,000 civilians believed to be still trapped in that hell hole of a city, what has the West really been doing? Worrying about the consequences of Brexit, the world economy, the EURO economy, China’s economy and its political and global ambitions, the US presidential elections and the fragile nature of internal political climate in Britain and, with elections getting ever closer, worries over the evolving political situations in France and Germany.
Except for sending a few withered warnings of discontent, except for announcing and intention to provide a small amount of additional military support for other worried Baltic region states together with the admittedly very praiseworthy attempts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to broker some kind of solution that led to the aborted cease fire agreement that was all too quickly broken by Russia and its Syrian Government allies, very little else except politically playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin.
Where I wonder is the voice of the United Nations Security Council in all this? Nowhere as far as I can see!
The realisation that what Russia is doing in Syria is primarily about diverting attention away from its new found Baltic region ambitions may well be open to debate but I for one am not about to be fooled that Ukraine is the real target here and that, when he [Putin] believes that the West is at its weakest political point – presumably right after the US presidential election – he may well move those Ukraine ambitions forward yet another notch.
For now, as an interesting report in Newsweek noted, “Russia’s support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad is logical”. I agree. Cleverly, as far as the civil war in Syria is concerned, Russia has so far framed its involvement in Syria as an attack on terrorism and in supporting its ally, Syria. In doing so Russia is seemingly enticing a still very resistant US to become more politically and militarily involved with the implication being that this will be the final event that leads to a war between the two superpowers.
Maybe it will but just maybe it won’t but whilst we are nowhere near that point yet in my view, no-one should be under any misapprehension that the increase in geo-political tensions and the deteriorating state of relations between Russia and the West is more than just a return to cold-war tactics and strategy.
The West in my view must prepare itself for a potential outcome that no-one wants to see meaning that all NATO member states must devote more attention to Russian ambitions and accept the need to bolster defence and play a more significant role in international diplomacy. They must pay more attention to China’s potential ambitions as well and that its continual challenging of Japan has serious implications for world peace and stability.
Back in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s view that the West is now very weak politically and impotent in regard of agreeing on military action is probably quite right. Thus, Russian brinkmanship clearly has the upper hand and I doubt that he [Putin] fears whichever of the two candidates wins the US presidential election on November 8th will challenge his authority if for no other reason that he knows that in regard of Syria, America has tired of fighting in the wars of others.
But, I wonder, what would the US and for that matter, Britain and its other European NATO allies do if and when Russia seeks to further extend its ambitions in Ukraine? I hope that, unlike the pathetic reactions we provided sixty-years ago during the Hungarian uprising when pleas from those who sought our support to challenge Russian authority and that would eventually lose their lives when such requests fell on our deafened ears, that this time we really do reach out to support the oppressed in Ukraine and those of other Baltic region sovereign states whose absolute right is to be free, independent and to live within a chosen and hard won democracy. This isn’t just about challenging the right of Article 5 of the NATO Charter, it is about doing what is right.
In saying the above I do not criticise the UK effort in announcing that we are to send 800 troops together with Challenger tanks and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for reconnaissance purposes to Estonia in the spring of next year although I had rather that they and maybe others were being despatched earlier than that. Even so, that France, Denmark, Italy are now to join Britain, the US, Germany and Canada in sending military personnel and equipment into Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is good news although a cynic would not be anticipating such moves to set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin.
Small though this level of increased support is, at least this is a reaction by the West and recognition that doing nothing is no longer an option. Posturing is no answer to Russian ambitions and although I blame Russia’s fears in part on our own long standing inability to understand what it is that makes Russia tick and in recognising that they have never lost sight of having been attacked by Germany twice over the past one hundred years, we are where we are on this today.
The bigger issue for us is that hearing Ministers claiming that we are increasing the defence budget and that we are spending 2% of our GDP on defence will no longer wash even if either where in reality true. Playing with figures, adding more of what had not used to be included in defence spending such as pensions, intelligence, Trident replacement, cyber and so on in order to claim we are spending 2% of our GDP on defence, is lying to the public and our government should be ashamed.
Given the level of increased threat by Russia we need to be spending closer to double on defence today than we currently are. Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain need to double the amounts that they spend too. The EU should stop wasting time on creating a European Army on which agreeing on missions may prove impossible and get back firmly behind NATO, which itself needs further strengthening.
The Royal Navy is short on destroyer and frigate capability and there is no use denying that using OPV’s for missions for which they were never designed will shorten the lives of the capability. We already have far too much obsolescence to counter despite the new ships that we have built and acquired over the past ten years. The Royal Navy remains short of people and particularly qualified engineers and it is still facing the larger problem of retention in what is a highly competitive world. The Royal Air Force suffers similar problems in respect of capability shortage both in terms of equipment and manpower. Make no mistake, our armed forces are extremely stretched of resource no matter what our Government says. That message is certainly not lost on Vladimir Putin.
CHW (London 31st October 2016)
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