Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
Vladimir Putin has his eyes on Ukraine. Last April, he moved large troop formations to the border, only to pull them back after extracting a summit with Joe Biden.
In July ,he wrote an essay arguing that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era. We know and remember well that it was shaped – for a significant part – on the lands of historical Russia”. He concluded
that “together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”
Now the troops have returned, massing on Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders. Further Russian troops threaten Ukraine directly from the north via Belarus, and the south-west in the breakaway Transdniestrian reigon of Moldova, while Russia’s Navy is preparing to blockade Ukraine’s south coast, if not launch ambphibious assaults against it. Elite Russian formations are moving in on border areas, while more ordinary forces are being prepared to hold territory captured. One people, indeed.
There is more to Russia’s military build-up than meets the eye. We don’t know whether Putin will choose a full-scale invasion, or content himself with more limited operation to take more Eastern Ukrainian territory, or seize a land bridge to the Crimean Peninusla.
We do know, however, that he isn’t just threatening Ukraine, but the West as a whole, and is preapred to act on a number of fronts. He’s attempting to use the threat of war to extract concessions from NATO and force a new division of Eastern Europe, in which nations are forced into spheres of influence decided by great powers, instead of being allowed to determine their own future (don’t overlook the manufacturing of a crisis in Bosnia – to distract attention and confuse decisionmaking).
This is the most serious foreign policy crisis since the end of the Cold War, and it is also the first major crisis of Liz Truss’s time as Foreign Secretary. As Trade Secretary, things were relatively straightforward. She notched up trade deals as though at the crease on a good pitch under a clear blue sky. Now the clouds have descended and the new ball has been taken.
Rather unaccountably, Britain has been absent from the high diplomacy over Ukraine since the start. It was caught off guard as Crimea was occupied, and, like the US and Poland, it is not usually involved in the “Normandy Format” discussions at the highest level.
Yet Britain possesses important capabilities that could help persuade Putin to call off an invasion. Its failure to be present at the highest level conveys a false message of Western disunity that could make Putin miscalculate by thinking he has more leeway.
More unaccountable still was the low key given to the Ukranian issue in the Foreign Secretary’s speech at Chatham House yesterday because, if there is a network of liberty, Ukraine, which has been fighting to regain control of its territory since 2014, ought to be one of its more crucial nodes.
Ukrainian democracy stands as a direct refutation of Putin’s strongman rule. He cannot allow Ukrainian democracy to succeed, because if Russians and Ukrainians really are one people, then why shouldn’t Russians have democracy too?
Ukrainian democracy expresses a desire to join NATO. And though NATO membership for Ukraine is not immediately on the cards, the freedom to make alliances with other countries is an essential part of sovereignty. That is why Biden was right to resist Putin’s attempt to force NATO to rule Ukrainian membership out.
A similarly forceful defence of Ukrainain’s liberty in foreign policy was missing from Truss’s speech yesterday, but she would be wise to make it part of her commitment to our friends in Kiev. She has been subject to considerable criticism that she is too focused on economics and insufficiently heavyweight to do the job.
Some of this is simply sexism, but some is the kind of legitimate concern that attaches to any new Foreign Secretary without a foreign policy background. The crisis in Ukraine is her chance to show up those who doubt both her resolve and her command of geopolitical reality. Its effective management could see her grow into a stateswoman fit for this turbulent decade; failure would prove her critics right.
Western strategy should begin by understanding that while Putin has not made up his mind about invading Ukraine, he thinks Western countries to be more scared of the outbreak of war there (even though they wouldn’t be fighting in it) than of abandoning Ukrainians to Moscow’s hegemony. The ignominous withdrawal from Afghanistan can only have reinforced his belief.
The measures we have thought up are good ones that will cause Putin pain: barring Russia from the SWIFT financial network, preventing Russian state companies from issuing debt, pursuing Russian oligarchs’ illicit gains, finally cancelling Nordstream 2, and potentially, in response to an incursion, stationing NATO troops permanently on the territory of its Eastern European neighbours.
But our mistake is to make Russian actions the test of whether they should be applied. They should instead be calibrated on whether Russia agrees to certain practices, including respecting the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, an end to the support for rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, the termination of assassinations outside Russia, and respect for the terms of the 1994 Budapest memorandum.
Securing international agreement for such a policy would be challenging. It will face particular resistance in Germany (though the new government is likely more amenable than the last one), but it would have the immesurable advantage of taking the initiative back.
Instead of the West wondering whether Russia will invade, Russia would have to wonder whether the West will cut it off from the global economy. This strategy also entails risks, such as that of a gas crisis, which will need to be mitigated by proper use of storage, financing for LNG shipments, and perhaps further supplies from friendly countries like Norway.
What about the risk that this might provoke Putin into the very war that we’re seeking to deter? It should be discounted for three reasons. First, appeasement will only reinforce Putin’s belief that the West has become weak and ripe for exploitation. Second, it wouldremoves the value of war as a device to intimidate not only Ukraine, but also the West. Finally, it would buttress the deterrent value of sanctions as a means to prevent war: if we are willing to impose them for measures short of war, we will certainly bring them to bear if Russian troops attack Ukraine again.
There should be no place in the twenty-first century for Putin’s intimidation of a sovereign democratic state like Ukraine, but the West is still strugging how to handle his brinkmanship. Truss should lead the effort to send it back to the nineteenth century where it belongs.