The Rt. Hon. Dr. Liam Fox MP provides his verdict on the situation in Ukraine. This has been taken from a speech given by Dr. Fox to the UK Defence Academy in Shrivenham on 10th February 2015.
The current crisis in the Ukraine is not a unique situation, but part of a continuum than has been evolving in recent years. The fundamental reason for this is that the Putin Kremlin still clings to Cold War doctrines which put them on collision with the free world. In particular, the insistence on the concept of a “near abroad”, in other words, a veto on the foreign and security policies of its immediate geographic neighbours, is a remnant of a bygone era. Or, at least, it should be. Many of the former Soviet satellite states, such as Poland or the Baltic states, gravitated towards the West precisely because they believed that sovereign nations should be able to exercise self-determination. It is this concept which Russia rejects. By the same token, the apparent belief in the Kremlin that ethnic Russians, wherever they live, are to be protected, not by the laws or constitutions of the countries in which they live, but by an external force i.e. Russia, drives a coach and horses through our concept of international law. It is this fundamental difference in outlook, which makes, and will continue to make, normalisation in relations with Russia so difficult.
You might think that, in any rational world, Russia would recognise that it has large strategic overlaps with many of the Western nations, not least the threats posed by the rise of China and the growing problem of Islamic fundamentalism, much of it on Russia’s southern borders. Yet, instead of trying to find common ground with the West, Russia’s recently updated military doctrine still casts NATO as the biggest threat to Russian security. Putin still regularly attacks what is described as Western “aggression” as a means of propping up his political position, justifying the large increases in his defence spending and excusing his aggressive international posture.
Let us just stand back and have a look at the bigger picture. Russia has a clear strategic plan which is to create and hold zones of potential destabilisation in the areas of maximal importance for the maintenance of European security. As well as having Kaliningrad in the Baltic, there has been a steady campaign to intimidate its smaller neighbours there and to finance political candidates sympathetic to Moscow. In the South Caucasus, not only does Russia have an occupying force on sovereign Georgian territory, but it has now created a virtual client state in Armenia. In the Balkans, the encouragement of Republica Srpska to see the illegal secession referendum in Crimea (before its military annexation by Russia) as a precedent, risks further destabilisation in this most volatile region. None of this is an accident, but part of a well thought out and, so far successfully executed, strategy.
And what has been our response to all of this? From the cyber attack on Estonia to the invasion and occupation of Georgia, the West has shown a pitiful level of response in the face of Russian provocation. On top of this, the failure of the United States (and the United Kingdom, its closest ally) to enforce international law, and president Obama’s own red lines, over the use of chemical weapons in Syria was taken in Moscow as a further sign of the lack of Western resolve. Yet, many commentators say, it must surely have been foreseen in the Kremlin that Chancellor Merkel, with her own memories of life in Soviet dominated East Germany, could not possibly tolerate Russian adventurism in Ukraine without response, notwithstanding Germany strong economic interests in Russia. The willingness of David Cameron to lead the call for sanctions has also been to Britain’s credit and these sanctions are now significantly hurting Russia. But how much does Putin really care? We all know that the Russian economy has long been beset by rampant corruption, cronyism and a lack of diversification. In recent years it has only been sustained by high fuel prices, whose resulting fiscal surpluses have helped fund huge increases in social and defence spending. In recent weeks, as the oil price has tumbled, as the rouble has faced a meltdown, and with money being poured into bank bailouts, the spectre of political instability has reappeared. Alexei Kudrin, a long time Putin ally and a possible future Russian Prime Minister has said that payment discipline will fall significantly and company defaults will follow. More ominously, he claims that falling living standards will produce increasing protest activity. I believe that the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime, and its willingness to crush dissent is likely to worsen if the economic crisis results in public dissatisfaction with Putin himself. Let me explain why.
The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, described Putin’s behaviour as that of mid-20th century tyrant. Yet we know what tyrannical regimes do when faced with internal dissent. Essentially, they have three choices; to liberalise in an attempt to diminish the tension, to repress in an attempt to contain it, or to externalise to distract attention. If Russia’s economic difficulties cause increased internal political stability, and given the domestic popularity of the Russian annexation of the Crimea, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Putin will choose the third option. And it is an option that is more available than it has been for many years, not only because it is part of a wider strategy that is already being successfully deployed, as I have described, but because Russian military capability has also improved.
Ever since the invasion of Georgia showed the shortcomings of Russian military capability, the Kremlin has been engaged in a programme of upgrading and retraining. Oil revenues have been translated into high-end electronic warfare and UAVs in particular. While NATO forces undertake traditional training exercises, Russia has used the Ukrainian conflict to test new weapon systems on the ground. The Russian backed separatists have a range of new defence capabilities, including the Buk system, which probably brought down Malaysia airlines flight MH 17 and the Strela system which is used for lower altitudes and shorter ranges. Of course, Russia denies providing these capabilities, despite the fact that NATO, as well as independent experts, have seen direct evidence of Russian military involvement. All this, coupled with Russia’s programme of exercises and manoeuvres, involving tens of thousands of personnel, should send a clear signal to the West. Some of us have warned for years about the increasing size of the Russian military budget and the capabilities it was intended to provide. The gullibility of the West is astonishing. We must be clear about what Russia is doing. There is every reason to believe that Russian regular troops are fighting alongside the pro-Russian separatists. Putin’s assurances to the contrary are as worthless as his promises have been in the past. The Minsk ceasefire, signed in September, is in tatters. Why would any subsequent agreement be worth the paper it is written on? The US Secretary of State, John Kerry is right when he says that Russia is violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, acting with impunity and crossing the Ukrainian border “at will with weapons and personnel.”
What are the options available for NATO and the West? The first would be to be in denial about Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine and accept the word of president Putin that it’s nothing to do with him or his military forces. This would certainly be of comfort to those who worry about “a more strident” response by Moscow to any meaningful international action.
The second would be to accept the reality of the Russian involvement, but to look the other way, in the hope that it would be the limits to his political and territorial ambitions.This would certainly be in line with the West approach to the invasion of Georgia and other elements of recent Russian behaviour. It is true that the West wants Russian help on issues such as Iran, Isis and Afghanistan. But at what price?
The third would be to increase the current response by a further round of sanctions, increasing the already substantial pressure on the Russian economy. It is clear, however, that the number of European leaders willing to endure further domestic pain is limited.
The fourth option would be to give the Ukrainians the capabilities they most require in order to fight against the military superiority of the pro-Russian separatists and their Kremlin allies. Primarily, this would involve properly encrypted communications, UAVs for surveillance and targeting and anti-tank capabilities to deal with the massive deficit which the Ukrainians currently have on this front. There is increasing scepticism in Washington that any diplomatic solution reached with the Putin government will be as worthless as that achieved in Minsk. As John Kerry has said “we are choosing a peaceful solution through diplomacy – but you cannot have a one-sided peace”. While the US has been mulling over the options, including the provision of so-called lethal assistance, Russia has been quick to warn of the consequences. The Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, has warned of the “colossal damage to Russian American relations” that would follow any American decision on the Ukrainians. It would be pertinent to ask why, if there are no Russian troops involved in eastern Ukraine, this would be such a problem for Moscow?
There is currently every possibility of a split between United States and its European allies on how to respond to the crisis in Ukraine. This would provide a dilemma for Britain. Would we act, along with our historically closest ally, the US, if it chose to give military assistance to Ukrainians or would we side with a more risk averse European Union, seemingly the default option of choice for many in Whitehall?
It would be easy to make two mistakes in the analysis of this problem. The first would be to believe that Putin is a unique figure, and that any alternative Russian leader who may emerge as a result of political instability would be preferable. This is just wishful thinking. There is no reason to believe that a weak and aggressive Russia would be any less dangerous than a strong and aggressive Russia, indeed, the opposite may be the case. The second would be to pretend that this is simply about sovereignty and the well-being of the Ukrainian people themselves. Important though this undoubtedly is, the response to the Ukrainian crisis is largely about the international credibility of the West, and NATO in particular. Russia is not the only country who will be watching our response. China, with its increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea will be looking to see if there are any red lines that the United States is genuinely committed to and our allies, especially in the Gulf, will be looking to see whether lessons have been learned from the Syrian chemical weapons debacle.
I think that even if a cease fire is agreed we should actively consider giving the Ukrainians the military supplies they need to defend their territorial integrity. They are not the aggressors and have shown no appetite for expansion. On the contrary, they have already watched Russia annex a part of their sovereign territory by force. Appeasement has a bad track record. It will not improve in the future.
Dr. Liam Fox is a British Conservative politician, Member of Parliament for North Somerset, and former Secretary of State for Defence.