Having spent about a third of my 25-year military career in the Cold War training for conflict with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, I am not naturally pro-Russia, but I find the level of anti-Russian rhetoric coming out of Whitehall disconcerting. For if we are not careful, our leaders’ anxieties and suspicions will become a self-fulfilling prophesy as we talk ourselves into a confrontation with Russia.
Take, for example, the reported comments by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon suggesting Russia is likely to attack the Baltic states. Sadly, they do not include why President Putin would want to risk a war with NATO, or why he would want to galvanise an Alliance whose members are slowly but surely weakening it through neglect (fewer than a fifth of NATO’s 28 members are spending the required 2% of GDP on Defence).
It is also worth mentioning that addressing the threats he outlines from subversion (e.g. propaganda) and cyber attack is principally the responsibility of police, intelligence and internal security forces, not the military. Yes, armies, navies and air forces are key to national defence but there are also other organisations with a crucial role to play in protecting states from foreign aggression. But it is the military that, if misused, could turn international tension into a deadly crisis, so we should be very wary of unnecessary ‘Sabre rattling’.
It is crucial to remember that the NATO Alliance exists to provide collective self-defence to member states. Through Article 5 of the founding 1949 Washington Treaty, NATO members agree that an attack (in Europe or North America) on one state is considered an attack on all. It is therefore unhelpful, even counter-productive, for senior politicians to blur the clear distinction between what NATO is obligated to do for the Alliance members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from what some people would like it to do in Ukraine. If we do not preserve that distinction we undermine the unique commitment NATO countries make to go to war on behalf of their Alliance partners, and if we weaken the powerful deterrence that provides then we increase the possibility the Alliance will be challenged.
Similarly, the call by ex-Defence Minister Dr Liam Fox to arm Ukraine is worrying. While supplying a country with arms might help protect it before a war breaks out by deterring violence, experience shows that adding arms to a conflict does not stop the fighting but increase it. Providing one side with more weapons might influence who is winning on the battlefield but it rarely creates peace, and this is particularly true if the other combatant, as here, also has access to external support. If Russian commitment to the separatists holds, then the West cannot ‘win’ the resulting ‘arms race’ and risks being drawn into the conflict itself.
Dr Fox links the Ukraine crisis to NATO’s credibility, which is ironic, as dragging NATO beyond its core responsibilities will probably expose the different levels of commitment toward Kiev within the Alliance, and highlight divisions among the 28 member states over how to deal with President Putin. Instead, NATO should focus on fulfilling its existing commitments to collective self-defence and make it absolutely clear to Moscow that regardless of what happens in Ukraine the Alliance will invoke Article 5 if any Baltic state comes under attack. That will both protect NATO members and maintain its credibility.
The NATO Alliance must not intervene in Ukraine and it is not helpful when our leading politicians speak as though it should. Nor should they talk about potential conflict between Russia and NATO in ways that make that possibility more likely. Instead, we need measured language and carefully considered thinking. Thankfully, there is still time for both.
Photo by Defence Images