Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
Although often attributed to Leon Trotsky, the Communist revolutionary probably didn’t coin it. The War Commissar and architect of the Red Army was born in Yanovka, Ukraine, then part of Russia. Regrettably, with Moscow’s ‘special operations’, war has been far too interested in the region since about 04:40 Kiev time on February 24.
Western Europe has been reduced to spectators, first shocked by Russia aggression, then awed by the Ukrainian fight-back.
24/2 could be as seminal for Europe as was 9/11 for the United States. Within days, the post-Cold War security landscape was upended. After decades of free-riding off the American taxpayer, Europe’s nations are hurriedly reaching for their wallets to contribute to their own defence.
Germany has begun a programme of rearmament. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission – supplier of broomsticks to German troops when defence minister – promised EU military aide to Ukraine. Sweden and Finland might fast-track their membership of NATO.
In the face of actual state-on-state invasion and war in our European backyard, Global Britain’s own year-old ’tilt to the Pacific’ Integrated Review and accompanying Defence Command Paper are becoming as redundant as the Prime Minister’s prediction that the ‘old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European land mass are over.’
What is surely over are defence cuts, the reduction in the Army’s strength down to 73,000 – with the corresponding loss of accumulated expertise and institutional memory – and the loss of vital defence infrastructure. Forces’ manpower and firepower need an immediate boost.
We have been watching military history being made in Ukraine. As a literary or documentary genre, military history is ever-more popular, probably because ever-fewer readers and viewers have any experience of military life, let alone combat, unlike the Russian invaders and the Ukrainian resistance forces.
What Ukraine is showing us is that defending the homeland isn’t just about trained soldiers in uniform. As their families flee west to safe havens, Ukrainian fighters offer examples of sacrifice, resilience, courage, and patriotism.
We surely ask ourselves what we would do in their situation. But it’s also a moment for us in Britain to take stock of our values and to ask ourselves what really matters. While Russia has been preparing for real war, an increasingly polarised Britain has squandered its energies fighting self-indulgent culture wars.
On Monday in London’s Holland Park, flowers, blue and yellow ribbons, as well as messages in support of Ukraine had been laid at the statue of St Volodymyr, who Christianized the Kievan Rus. For some, the statue has become a focal point, perhaps almost a place of pilgrimage.
If Volodymyr were British, it is unlikely that the less fragrant aspects of his history would be tolerated in this country’s current cultural climate. It must be wondered what Sadiq Khan’s 15-person Landmark Commission on diversity in the public realm would make of his attitude towards non-Christian faiths. The saint must fall?
Hours before the Russian invasion, came reports that spies and cyber warriors at MI5, MI6 and GCHQ in Cheltenham – now at the forefront of the country’s defence – have been encouraged to check their white privilege and avoid gendered language such as ‘manpower’. The leaked (!) Mission Critical report, which has surely done as much harm to the security services’ reputation as Soviet mole Guy Burgess, encourages staff to declare their pronouns, apparently to make transgender staff feel more included.
Those privileging (that word again) trans’ rights often do so at the expense of the rights of women. Such misogyny is perhaps inadvertent, but must be at odds with the equality, inclusion and diversity agenda, which has been embraced with enthusiasm by much of Britain’s public sector.
Commitment to the EID cause is reflected by, for example, the rainbow-painted pedestrian-crossings favoured by some NHS Trusts, among them, reportedly, Shrewsbury and Telford. The full report into the catastrophe within its maternity services will be published next month.
“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
Churchill would surely have wished well those experienced British military veterans who are Ukraine-bound to lend a hand visiting violence on the invaders. If any of us were in Kyiv or Kharkiv right now and rough men were protecting us from Russian attack, preventing our city from being blown to rubble like Grozny or Aleppo, would we be quite so quick to rush to judgement about toxic masculinity?
Europe’s dependence upon Russian oil and gas, allied with its obsession about going green, has financed Moscow’s war machine. If the first duty of the British government is the defence of the realm, the rushed pursuit of Net Zero is a dereliction of that duty. In another context, Boris Johnson declared “I get it and I’ll fix it”. It’s time for him to get that there is no national security without energy security.
All those who are demanding Russia respects democracy in Ukraine can ask themselves whether they respected the 2016 Brexit Referendum result.
Cheering on Ukrainian patriots fighting for their homeland raises questions about why so many in Britain seem to dislike this country and seek to change its history. It is a paradox that the values admired overseas are disdained at home.
As Ukraine’s children take shelter from shelling in a real war, this country’s culture warriors should lay down their mobile phones in shame.
Putin’s apparently irrational invasion of Ukraine – as baffling as Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion of, ironically, Russia – has pulled the rug from under Western Europe. All our certainties about perpetual peace and the rules-based international order are vanishing. Britain needs to dump trivial and divisive identity politics (pronouns: Me, Myself and I) and show some seriousness of purpose.
That the Russian economy is about the size of Spain’s is fast becoming a cliché. But unlike Madrid, thanks to its investment in the military, Moscow is wielding world-changing power, if not (at least not yet) nuclear weapons. As Trotsky observed:
“Not believing in force is like not believing in gravity.”