Russian aggression in Ukraine, its determination to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad and its increased assertiveness has changed political thinking in the West. It is easy to forget that Russian aggression in Ukraine did not end with the annexation of Crimea and we would be foolish to ignore Russia’s ambition to challenge the West and to once again be the dominant power in a region well used to uncertainty.
The deterioration of geo-political trends shows no sign of abating but are western governments playing the right hand in countering the increased level of threats? Vladimir Putin’s determination to turn Russia into a dominant power not just in the region but on the global stage has yet to be fully countered by the West let alone its implications understood. While I am far from sure that we in the West make enough effort to understood why Russia feels threatened as it does, this is not the issue I wish to discuss today.
In the space of six months the message from the new US President, Donald Trump has reversed from being one that had initially praised Vladimir Putin as being a ‘smart leader’ and one that it was felt at the time could be a nation that the US ‘could do business with’ to one that now sees Putin’s Russia as a nation that poses a threat to world peace.
Meanwhile, just when there were the small beginnings of hope that a solution might be found to the hugely damaging conflict in Syria, the Assad regime now stands accused of an unacceptable chemical attack on its people that has stunned the world in its severity and cruelty. Russia continues to stand-by the Syrian regime for its own purposes and potential gain and the west has done little to stop it. Nonetheless, US missile attacks on the Al Shayrat airfield last week did send a warning that the US under Donald Trump was not prepared to stand idly by while Assad kills innocent people.
With little prospect of relations between Russia and the West improving and with Syria rather than Ukraine probably being the catalyst in terms of western attitude until and if Russia pushes its ambitions in that region further, it seems that a long period of stalemate is in prospect.
The attempt by UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson last week to persuade our EU foreign minister partners to increase sanctions on Russia failed not because of any direct intention by the EU to snub Britain for leaving the EU but because Europe as an alliance is weak. Indeed, rather than NATO being perceived as being obsolete, as President Trump had suggested last year before reversing that view earlier this month, it is Europe that in respect of playing an important role in defence and diplomacy that is increasingly being seen as being obsolete.
None of this is to suggest that the UK is failing to play the exact role that our American NATO allies would wish us to so do in supporting the defence of Eastern European states. Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft will soon deploy to carry out NATO’s Southern Air Policing mission based in Romania whilst the Army continues to support collective defence in Estonia. Our efforts may be small in the great scheme of things but Britain remains at the forefront of providing those countries in Eastern Europe that are most threatened by Russia with support.
Can and will any accommodation between the US and Russia be reached over the vexing subject of Syria this year? I doubt it. After all, Syria is Russia’s ‘trump card’ to greater power in the Middle East regions as a whole. Is further US and maybe allied military action in Syria the right response on the part of the Western Alliance or should we just rely on a further increase in sanctions on Russia? Undoubtedly sanctions have an important role to play and while Russia may be far more powerful that it was politically five years ago, it is in a far weaker position from and economy stance. The latter weakness translates into its ability to increase expenditure on its military and particularly in respect of replacing warn out cold war equipment technology.
From a weak start, in the face of increased Russian tension and aggression, response of the new US administration has seemingly begun to move in the right direction. While we may have little idea of what overall US global strategy currently is we have, in the wake of the missile attack on the Syrian air base, been left in no doubt that the Trump administration is not prepared to stand idly by in the face of continued Russian support for Syria in the wake of the recent chemical attack.
North Korea is an entirely different situation and one that the Trump administration has already made its views well known. What happens next will depend not on the US but on China. China’s banning of coal imports from North Korea in the wake of the latest failed ballistic missile test by the Pyongyang regime will unlikely be enough to appease the US of concerns but it is at least a start. China appears ready to support the US not least because it understands that North Korea poses an equal threat to Chinese ambitions as well. None of this will relieve concerns in Japan or other part of the Far East region but for now extending sanctions against the North Korean regime is probably all that can be done until and unless North Korea chooses to make an ill-timed move of aggression against its southern neighbour.
Iran is also back on the list of US concerns as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accuses Iran of what it calls ‘alarming ongoing provocations aimed at destabilising the Middle East and undermining America’s interest in the region’. President Trump has already ordered a review of the Iran nuclear deal that was signed by his predecessor although it has stopped short of accusing Iran of breaking any terms of that agreement. Iran is of course only doing what it has been doing for decades and Tillerson is probably correct in using language suggestive of Iran having the potential to travel the same path as North Korea. Even so, my feelings are that America will somehow come to terms with Iran provided that a level of stabilisation remains evident in that country.
As to China, it seems to me that the recent visit to the US by Chinese President Xi Jinping has to an extent improved relations between the two super-powers. Trade remains a huge issue and one that will not be resolved overnight but the Trump administration has made its views that a one-way street in trade between the two nations is unacceptable. China is of course the largest buyer of US debt but for now, the direction this relationship takes will most probably depend on Chinese resolve to force North Korea back from the brink.
The White House message that NATO is not after all obsolete has been welcomed but concern that NATO’s 26 European members continue to be financially constrained at a time of worsening geo-political tensions will remain a concern for the US. The Trump administration will continue to exert more pressure on European NATO member states to spend more on defence and to reduce the overall US burden of NATO expenditure and they are right to so do. Germany has already acquiesced to demands to spend 2% of its GDP on defence by 2024 but one is mindful of concerns of others who question whether in doing so Germany would then be too powerful in respect of military capability for its own good? This is a worthy point and not one that has been lost on those who fear a too strong Germany is undesirable for other reasons.
And what about the US view of the UK in all this? Does the UK still have real influence in international affairs, can its military sphere of influence be taken seriously after so many years of cuts in defence spending and fudging of issues such as spending 2% of GDP on defence or are we to be merely seen as a puppet of the US? The US still needs the UK not just as an ally but as an integral part of European defence. Despite the many weakness of defence capability conceptually, the UK remains important to the US for the checks and balances it provides diplomatically in an increasingly uncertain world. The UK brings expertise that interestingly, the US is not well stocked. In military terms that translates to having superb training, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability along with being well invested in cyber security. Our ability to support our allies quickly and efficiently along with the brilliance and respect that our intelligence agencies are held together with our ability to conduct diplomacy from afar are our strongest assets.
For the moment, three countries in Europe – France, UK and Germany – are focussed on forthcoming elections and hey may well be joined by Italy some time later. What concerns America undoubtedly concerns the UK but that does not necessarily mean that it impacts on French, German and Italian concerns. NATO remains the all-embracing body for our defence and long may that be so but we should be under no illusion that NATO’s resilience will continue to ‘contested’ by those for which the alliance was designed to defend and those who would be its enemies. Never has a stronger more fit for purpose NATO been required than it is today.
(CHW – London – 20th April 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785