Sir Gerald Howarth was Minister for International Security Strategy from 2010 to 2012 and is a former Chairman of the APPG on Ukraine.
As the horror in Ukraine unfolds before our eyes, we stand in awe of the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people yet also stand helplessly by, unable and unwilling to send in military force to challenge this appalling, unprovoked aggression.
We need urgently to take stock if we are to prevent the whole of Europe sliding into the abyss of a continent-wide conflict.
We are where we are today for three overlapping reasons. First, the West has been progressively weakened in both its confidence in its values and in its willingness to fight for those values.
We have reduced our armed forces to a level where we now freely admit that we cannot undertake any major operation except in partnership with others. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Falklands campaign, it is a sobering thought that our capacity to repeat that operation is questionable.
The fall of the Berlin wall led to immediate demands for a ‘peace dividend’ which has been taken so many times that we are left with armed forces substantially reduced from their 1990 strength of 312,000 to a mere 150,000 today – 25 per cent smaller than Ukraine’s forces.
Yes, we have offensive cyber capability – this was one of the few pluses to emerge from the dreadful 2011 Review my ministerial colleagues and I had to undertake resulting from the £160 billion deficit bequeathed our Coalition Government by Gordon Brown – and the RAF has established a new Space Command.
But the Royal Navy will shortly be down to six destroyers and eight new Type 26 frigates (replacing 13 Type 23s), the Army to a strength of just 78,000, and the RAF will have woefully few F-35 Lightnings, and faces and the imminent scrapping of the C-130 Hercules workhorse. By contrast, in 1982, we had 13 destroyers and 35 frigates, losing two of each type (as well as two other ships) to enemy action.
That today’s platforms are in theory much more capable than those they replace misses the point. As we found out a few weeks ago, an F-35 at the bottom of the sea is no use to anyone. The 2021 defence review must be revisited and the defence budget increased.
Secondly, we have shown an extraordinary naivety. Despite Vladimir Putin’s annexation of part of Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, relentless support for pro-Russian dissidents in the Donbas, the attempted murder of a former Russian agent in Salisbury, the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, and his declared ambition to rebuild the Soviet empire, we have assumed he would not venture further.
However, since he was able to undertake all these with complete impunity, he clearly calculated that the same would apply to today’s aggression.
I have been pointing out for years that the temptation for him to annex the territory between the Donbas and Crimea, giving him land access to the latter, must have been great. The humiliating retreat from Kabul last August, led by a very weak US President, and the much-trumpeted declaration that NATO would not set foot in Ukraine, all served as green lights to Putin, who gambled that, yet again, he could attack his sovereign neighbour with impunity.
The man respects only force and we have pulled our punches.
Despite all these warning signs, we have deliberately chosen to ignore them. Anyone who has had the temerity to challenge this appalling complacency has been dismissed as a Cold War warrior or worse.
(One of the few to do so has been General Sir Richard Shirreff, not only a commander with operational experience but also a former NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), with all the strategic experience that role confers. My advice to Ben Wallace, our excellent Defence Secretary, is to get General Richard into his office immediately.)
Thirdly, we have been guilty of a consistent 30-year complacency. We had assumed that the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the emergence of perestroika in the new Russia heralded a safer dawn. We should beat our swords into ploughshares, was the cry. My generation has enjoyed an entire lifetime of virtually unbroken rising prosperity, liberty, and security.
But we failed to acknowledge that these priceless benefits actually come with a price tag. Thomas Jefferson’s wise adage, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, has been forgotten.
Despite all those warnings – and I have no space here to articulate similar warnings about the rise of China under its repressive Communist Party – we gaily waved aside Vlad The Invader’s onward tyrannical march, preferring to obsess about issues like gender fluidity and pulling down memorials to the nation’s past benefactors. Even now, it seems the bishops cannot bring themselves to pray for victory to the heroic people of Ukraine.
What is particularly galling is that the UK, along with the USA and Russia itself (note: not France or Germany), is a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which, in return for Ukraine’s surrendering its entire arsenal of nuclear weapons, the parties agreed to respect Ukraine’s ‘independence, sovereignty and existing borders’.
It is a pity Sir John Major, whose signature is on that document, has found time to attack Boris Johnson but no time to denounce the persistent and flagrant violation of the document he signed on behalf of us all.
This litany of strategic failures raises the very real prospect of a wider war in Europe. If Putin succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, who now believes he will stop there? He has made clear his bitter resentment at the collapse of the Soviet Union, a resentment shared by many Russians, and has declared his determination to rebuild it.
Will he be tempted to go for Moldova? Or drive a corridor through Lithuania to the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, probably under the now familiar mantra of protecting Russian-speaking people? Can we be certain that NATO, despite its welcome new-found resolve, would be willing to invoke Article 5?
There must be no misunderstanding: one hostile foot on NATO territory triggers Article 5. It must vigorously reinforce its Eastern flank with troops and heavy armour as well as in honing its cyber capabilities. In addition, we need a massive information campaign to counter the propaganda lies being fed the Russian people.
The Prime Minister has led the battle to beef up the NATO and international response, but more needs to be done. Failure now to increase the political, economic and military pressure will not only imperil European security, but will send a signal to other despots that the West really has lost the will to fight for its values.
If it does, the world will become a much less safe place. As Dr John Hulsman urged here this week:
“What is required is a rapid change in British strategic thinking. Britain’s calling is to lead the Anglosphere, a great power almost no one has given nearly enough thought about.”