Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative party
It is too late to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine. That began eight years ago when “little green men” (i.e: Russian soldiers) occupied Crimea. Their invasion was extended by pro-Russian militias (led by Russian soldiers, paid by Russian money) who “rule” the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
This time round, 100,000 Russian soldiers mass openly on Ukraine’s border, while Ukrainians, who have been denied the advanced Western weapons with which they could have resisted a full-scale Russian assault, sign up to train as insurgents.
It is probably too late to prevent a new Russian military escalation. Putin’s demand for a veto over NATO membership was never designed to be accepted, but to divide the West. His request for security guarantees is risible. Since 1945, only one European capital has ordered troops into its neighbours’ territory against their will. It begins with an M and isn’t Madrid.
It might be too late to influence what sort of escalation Putin will choose. Will he limit himself to an attack on the south East, to secure a land route to Crimea? Will he try and cut off Ukraine’s coastline all the way to Odessa? Or will he plan a full-scale invasion, even using troops he has positioned in Belarus, to attack Ukraine from the north, surrounding Kyiv and besieging it into submission?
But it is not too late to ensure Putin’s aggression fails, by imposing costs so high that he has no alternative but to give up his efforts to drag Eastern European countries back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Doing so requires a shift of mindset. It is no longer enough to consider Putin’s Russia a wayward member of the international community, with which it is possible sup provided one’s spoon is as long as the Nordstream 2 pipeline. He has been acting as a belligerent against us and, if we are to avoid war, it is time to get ready to treat him as one.
Russian escalation should trigger a seat of measures beyond sanctions that could usefully be called “belligerency short of war.”
This programme would mean support to Ukraine and pressure on Russia across five fronts: military, information, energy, economics and kleptocracy. NATO countries should coordinate emergency legislation to enable such a shift.
Military pressure should not be understood as Western troops directly fighting the Russian army, but should involve collecting and supplying Kyiv with intelligence on Russian activity; training Ukraine in the use of advanced equipment, and ensuring plentiful supplies of it reach Kyiv.
Ben Wallace’s well-publicised delivery of anti-tank missiles is one such example. One hopes, indeed expects, that other supply operations are taking behind the scenes, including the provision of drones, surface to air missiles, communications systems, and defences against amphibious assaults.
Counter-terrorism laws should be revised so they do not unintentionally snare pro-Ukraine volunteers. Furthermore, if Russia does not withdraw its forces and equipment from the Ukrainian border, NATO should expand its relatively small rotational presence of around 6,000 personnel and permanently station troops and equipment in the Baltic states, Poland and Romania proportionate to the Russian threat.
The information war has already begun, with Putin and the Russian foreign ministry repeating outright lies about Western strategy. Articles such as Wallace’s excellent deconstruction of Kremlin propaganda are a start. They need to be accompanied by an active strategic communications campaign of counter-messaging.
Ukraine itself should conduct Kosovo war-style daily televised briefings in English, French and German, as well as in Ukrainian and Russian to get its message across to the world. As an example of measures that would not be acceptable in peacetime, but would be appropriate against a belligerent state, Russian state broadcasters and other outlets under the effective control of the Russian state, even if not formally Russian assets, should be banned from the airwaves and their content excised from social media.
Energy remains a point of weakness for the West. One of the consequences of cutting off Russian access to the SWIFT payments network will be to make it difficult to pay for the Russian gas on which many European countries are still heavily dependent.
But liquified natural gas (LNG) supplies can make up the difference, provided the price is high enough. What is needed is a financial instrument to enable European countries to pay for the LNG without passing on the cost to their population.
Measures will also be needed to supply gas to Ukraine in the summer once its storage runs out, and ahead of next year’s winter. The United States could find ways to subsidise production so that we won’t have to pay high prices for LNG next year if the war continues into 2023.
Economics by contrast is a point of strength. Russia’s economy is smaller than Canada’s, and only the size of Belgium and the Netherlands put together. Gas aside, the loss to Western countries of full-scale ejection of Russia from the global economy is bearable.
As well as suspending the country from SWIFT, Russia could be denied access to the international debt and foreign exchange markets, forcing it to pay for its war by taxation or inflation.
Conversely, Ukraine’s economy is small, and its defence budget is estimated at $6 billion. Even a vastly expanded war effort could be underwritten by cheap Western-backed debt. Covid-relief instruments can be re-used to soften the blow of sanctions on firms that had been legitimately trading with Russia.
Finally, an offensive against Russian strategic corruption is overdue. Tom Tugendhat is planning a new investigation of Russian kleptocracy at the Foreign Affairs Committee. He will do an excellent job, but the task should not be left to parliamentary committees.
Across the West, executive agencies of the state need to identify assets linked to the Russian state and freeze them. This is the modern equivalent of impounding belligerent shipping. It should go without saying that Western states should pass laws barring former politicians and officials from working for Russian-state linked entities.
Romantic speculation about Ukrainian insurgents fighting on behind Russian lines needs to be put into perspective. Ukrainians will fight heroically, but Russian counter-insurgency is pitiless, as anyone from Chechnya or Syria will tell you, and Ukrainians shouldn’t be left to face it alone. If the West adopts the right set of measures short of war, fewer will have to.