25 Jan 22. That, according to US President Jo Biden, there is “total unanimity” between the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the EU in respect to facing up to what is described by a No 10 spokesperson and quoted on the BBC Website this morning as “growing Russian hostility” is welcome just as also is the warning that should a further Russian incursion into Ukraine occur it was apparently agreed that “allies must enact swift retributive responses including an unprecedented package of sanctions against Russia.
Last week Chancellor Olaf Scholz went so far as to suggest that Germany could halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (built but has not yet secured approval to open) and that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says has been built in order to increase European energy security, should Moscow invade Ukraine.
With western nations rallying behind Kyiv over a Russian troop build-up Olaf Scholz said it was “clear that there will be a high price to pay and that everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention in Ukraine”.
These are indeed brave words from Germany, a nation that increasingly and most particularly because it decided to abandon nuclear power whilst being forced to cut its reliance on coal fired power stations, is heavily reliant on Russian gas. Indeed, in this discussion it should be noted that Russia currently supplies close to one third of all gas used in Europe and until now, conventional wisdom has been that despite the long underlying potential for conflict to occur, Russia would because its economy depends on it, never cut off supplies of gas to Europe.
No one doubts that Vladimir Putin is a potentially very dangerous adversary or indeed, that from his self-built power base in Moscow one of his many skills is the art of unpredictability. Unusually, I find myself agreeing with the suggestion voiced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday and that I know has emerged in recent weeks as a strong feeling within the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, that Ukraine will morph over the years into being something similar to what occurred in Chechnya.
It was suggested to me the other day by one of my most respected confidants that the Russians at large currently have no stomach for warfare and I do not disagree with that. But that speaks about the Russian people – it does not speak to the view we have and will continue to hear from the Kremlin and where any possible loss of face is unacceptable.
What is commonly referred to as the first Chechen war occurred in 1994 when Russian troops advanced onto a rebellious region of Chechnya that was seeking independence from mother Russia – I say advanced but probably what I should have said was large numbers of cold, hungry and ill-equipped Russian conscripts staggered in seeming disarray into a conflict that killed thousands of civilians and large numbers of its own troops.
Chechnya was a disaster for Russia’s then leader Boris Yeltsin and not only did it lead up to a long and protracted second war in Chechnya in 1999 – one that would last ten years – but also one that I recall led to Boris Yeltsin’s downfall and the handing over of power in the Russian Federation to Vladimir Putin in 2000.
If it was the Afghan war that had pushed the then Soviet Union to the brink of collapse it was arguably, following its ultimate success in the second war, Chechnya that would begin the resurgence of Russia as a major potential adversary of the West.
And the similarities between Chechnya and Ukraine today are there for all to see – a war and a potential war that began, as the New York Times put it so aptly, with an elaborate subterfuge orchestrated by Russian intelligence and that was a repeat of what had occurred in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine (the annexing of Crimea from Ukraine following the revolution in the latter) in 2014 – designed to look to the outside world as Russia being no more than a simple bystander in a local conflict. Russia, as it has always done and continues to do today was lying through its teeth.
If Chechnya is regarded by historians as the war that began the reshaping of the Russian Federation what will they make of the current build-up of military power by Russia on Ukraine’s doorstep?
The first thing to say is that we should be under no illusion that Russia is better equipped today in respect of military power and prowess than it has been in thirty years.
The second is to suggest that perhaps the answer to that question lies with the Russian people who despite their toleration of Vladimir Putin, have never forgotten the disaster that was Chechnya and the huge loss of life of ill-equipped Russian soldiers. That is why a belief holds true with some that Putin must tread very carefully into a war with Ukraine and that the Russian people probably do not have the stomach for war may well be right.
Would that be enough to stop Putin’s potential advance into Ukraine? As I said earlier, Putin’s major skill is unpredictability. He is dangerous and when cornered who knows how far he would go.
Western Nations are taking the right stance and slowly but surely, they do now appear to be taking the threat of an invasion of Ukraine by Russia seriously. Talks between the US and Russian Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will continue in Geneva later this week or early next, although few anticipate positive forward momentum from any dialogue.
I will continue to observe and provide weekly updates if I can…..
CHW (London – 25th January 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785