Sarah Atherton is a member of the Defence Select Committee and is MP for Wrexham.
The invasion of Ukraine is a dreadful, shameless crime, perpetrated by a corrupt leader entertaining a fantasy of rebuilding the old Soviet Union. In the same way that the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were brought to an end by the brave people that lived there, we can only hope that Russia’s own people and the heroic people of Ukraine will defeat him. The occupation and destruction of a peaceful European nation in the twenty-first century is truly horrifying.
Events have also shown that the West and our shared defence aims have been left lacking: whilst Russia and China have built formidable military forces, used misinformation tactics to exert pressure and resorted to domestic genocide and international war crimes, one might say that the West has been too focused on woke minority issues.
There have also been signs of what was to come: the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Salisbury poisonings, and widespread allegations of election interference. But what did NATO do – as a defence organisation and military alliance – to counter these events?
Yes, there were stern words of condemnation and the expulsion of Russian diplomats, but the West’s responses to these events look now to have been lacking. If NATO is to prevent future aggressions, we must all have ‘big sticks’ to back up our words of diplomacy and our democracy.
Francis Fukuyama famously declared the post-Cold War era to be the ‘end of history’. There was an assumption that the threat of a European land war was over, and we have allowed ourselves to forget the hard-fought lessons of European history. We have sleepwalked into these current events, believing that the collapse of the Berlin Wall meant that we could take our eye off the defence of our nation. The ‘end of history’, the so-called ‘peace dividend’ of Thatcher and George H.W. Bush, has proved to be a false dawn.
Whilst I welcomed the recent Integrated Review and continue to believe it proposes a solid plan for the future, looking towards the Indo-Pacific whilst recognising the changing nature of warfare, we must fundamentally rethink our national and global aims in light of what has happened in Ukraine. The belief is that defence spending should be linked to the threat that the UK faces, and this is why I believe we should increase spending to at least three per cent of GDP. The Foreign Secretary said this recently, and I agree with her.
To start, we must reconsider the cuts to personnel – particularly to the infantry and our armoured capability.
But defence – and our nation’s safety – should also look at our reliance on foreign energy sources and supplies. To ensure that we are no longer reliant upon Russia, directly or indirectly, this Government has been right to rethink how we supply energy to our nation. Recent announcements are welcome but the Government must come up with more – and fast.
We must roll out a new generation of nuclear reactors, and quickly, and we should be re-assessing fracking and tidal enhancement. Radical new energy policies will take time to take effect, but the longer-term implications for energy security will be welcomed.
As part of this, we should also park, for the time being, the Net Zero endeavour. Of course, it can and should remain a long-term aim but ensuring that we can, as a nation, generate the energy we need without a reliance on overseas sources should come first.
In my constituency of Wrexham, we have a large and hardworking Polish community – the largest outside of London and a history dating back to World War Two. We should be engaging a similar welcoming spirit this time around by welcoming into our town, and nation, those displaced from Ukraine who are true European refugees and victims of Europe’s latest war. It is right that the Government are engaging and re-evaluating support for refugees as this crisis evolves.
The appalling invasion of a democratic and sovereign European nation in the twenty first century will change our lives forever. It has already caused a seismic shift in global politics. Just look at Germany, where Olaf Scholz’s has executed an about-turn on German domestic and international policy. Scholz’s decision to increase defence spending and cancel Nordstream 2 goes in the face of German political orthodoxy under Angela Merkel.
The Government is rightly considering how to act in the face of this new reality – because some of the decisions of 2021 are now up for debate.