Yesterday, we led our newslinks with the news that the Government has decided to deploy more troops to Poland. An extra 350 British soldiers will be deployed in the country, following Joe Biden’s announcement of an extra 1,700 American ones.
One scarcely needs to be a senior Russian military strategist to note that these are not big numbers. For comparison, Russia has reportedly amassed somewhere in the region of 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border – enough, according to that country’s own defence experts, to capture Kiev.
This latest British deployment is part of a series of moves by NATO to reinforce member nations in Eastern Europe, in case a war in the Ukraine ‘spills over’. Direct assistance to Kiev has been limited to airlifts of equipment, as well as ships and other materiel.
In fairness to the Government, the UK seems to be broadly considered to have acquitted itself well on this front, and Ben Wallace’s handling of the crisis has helped propel him to the top of our Cabinet League Table. But such measures will not save Ukraine if Vladimir Putin decides to order an invasion.
Hawks such as Tobias Ellwood, who has called for a direct deployment of NATO forces on Ukrainian soil, are almost completely isolated. Abroad, the West is struggling to form a coherent position even on economic sanctions. At home, as our Editor pointed out in the aftermath of the disastrous retreat from Kabul, the public seems set against military intervention except when Britain or its assets are attacked, or in the event a “genocide or large-scale humanitarian crisis”.
And in this instance, can we really blame them? Sending troops to Ukraine would simply be the apogee – or should that be perigee – of NATO’s woefully muddled policy towards the country.
Since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has sometimes been dubbed “a bureaucracy in search of a pension”. Following the collapse of the USSR, a defensive compact against a credible threat has become something much more nebulous. This has seen it expand into Russia’s near-abroad, aggravating Moscow, whilst at the same time most of its members’ commitments to actual military spending has attenuated.
This lack of strategic focus extends beyond the defence sector. Germany has shuttered its nuclear power sector and favoured the Nord Stream II pipeline, leaving the EU’s most powerful Member State extremely vulnerable to Russian energy politics. The UK too, as we noted before, has for decades neglected to develop domestic nuclear energy which could have increased our strategic autonomy (not to mention ameliorating the current cost of living crisis).
Our Armed Forces, meanwhile, are smaller than ever and getting smaller. Every new generation of kit, in order to maintain cutting-edge specs, is smaller than the last. Trying to divide a shrinking budget across commitments ‘East of Suez’ and maintaining a global expeditionary capacity also means our military is simply not geared towards a large-scale conventional land war in Europe, even if we were minded to fight one.
There is no will for a joint NATO deployment in Ukraine. Indeed, even as Liz Truss was setting off to Moscow, Emmanuel Macron was trying to pressure the country into signing up to the deeply unpopular Minsk II agreement, which will see the Ukrainian constitution reformed and a much larger role handed to what are essentially Russian proxies. La paix à notre époque!
And in the absence of major partners, there is no public appetite for giving Putin the chance to turn the Dnieper into the next Suez with an independent Anglo-American deployment (assuming hypothetically that the Americans were game).
Politicians who want to rebuild Britain’s capacity for action and will to act had best settle in for decades of difficult, detailed work – and be prepared to make hard choices.
Would a China hawk such as Tom Tugendhat, for example, be prepared to relinquish the UK’s role in the South China Sea, if that was what it took to resource an Army of the Baltic? Would successive defence secretaries be prepared to move away from buying state-of-the-art warships to free up funds for larger quantities of less sexy equipment? Would the defence chiefs?
That’s assuming they can persuade future prime ministers not to cut defence spending, of course.