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The Ukraine Crisis: How does the West offer Russia an iron fist in a velvet glove?

Liam Byrne meets Brigadier General Pamela McGaha at Camp Butmir in Bosnia Herzegovina this week

As tensions remain high in the Ukraine, it’s about time we heard something resembling a strategy from the UK government. President Biden has promised the Ukrainian president that the West will “respond decisively” if Russia invades but what does ‘decisive’ look like? How should the West offer the proverbial ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’?

While the Ukrainians are projecting a rather effective message of ‘keep calm and carry on’, Russia continues to mobilise assets at the border and UK diplomats on the ground are alarmed at the sheer spread of Russian forces around the Ukrainian frontier. So how do we break the long-jam?

Well, as it happens there should be a big point of consensus between the West and Russia, which is the need for a new framework for controlling deployment of intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe. Indeed some argue that

“the Kremlin could be satisfied if the U.S. government agreed to a formal long-term moratorium on expanding NATO and a commitment not to station intermediate-range missiles in Europe”.

The 1987 INF treaty negotiated by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev was ground-breaking. It required both sides to eliminate their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500 and 5,500 kilometres from Europe and eliminated thousands of weapons from Europe.

But Russia’s violation of the treaty ultimately triggered President Trump’s withdrawal from the Treaty in February 2019 without a robust process for renegotiating. Hence Putin’s concern that NATO might deploy intermediate-range missiles once again.

Yet a process to credibly renew the INF treaty is in everyone’s interest; it’s good for us and would help demonstrate a respect for Russian homeland security. It is after all a nation that has been repeatedly invaded throughout history from the Mongols to Hitler. Without a Treaty in place, as the European Parliament warned, we face

stark choices all carrying inherent security risks, including engaging in a deployment race with Russia, or refusing re-deployment of US missiles on European soil, potentially leaving European countries exposed to Russian intimidation’.

Oddly enough when I asked the Defence Secretary to set out UK objectives for the Treaty he could only promise to write to me. Our goals were not at the top of his mind.

Nevertheless, it is now vital we prepare for the worse case scenario. Military defence of the Ukraine is hard and expensive (up to half a trillion dollars) but an attack is not impossible to deter, beyond arming the Ukrainians with defensive weapons.

A massive package of economic sanctions, from suspension of Nord Stream 2 (that will double gas capacity) from Russia to Europe plus Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT international payment system would hit Russia hard (perhaps a 5% hit to Russian GDP) – but would also come at a cost to allies like Germany. There’s also plenty more space for sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs and corporate behemoths like Gazprom and VTB Bank, as the Atlantic Council’s Edward Fishman told the Guardian:

Current sanctions against Russia are light-touch; if Iran sanctions are a 10 out of 10 in intensity, today’s Russia sanctions are perhaps a two or a three,” Fishman said. “Not a single major state-owned Russian company is under full-blocking sanctions.”

But nor are military options impossible. So what might they look like?

1. Moving NATO forward.

Russia’s greatest strategic weakness has always been it’s 20,000 kilometres of border – ten of which are in Europe. Threatening to bring NATO closer to Moscow along this huge front is therefore the option that would ensure a tactical advance for Russia in Ukraine becomes a strategic defeat in Europe. That could entail admitting Finland in the north, Georgia in the south plus Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo in the Balkans:

  1. Finland has always maintained a strong military but hitherto not sought to join NATO. In this environment that could change. And strengthening Finnish defence is arelatively cheap option, perhaps as little as $5.2 billion upfront and $550 million annually.

  2. Georgia is more expensive to shield with the famous NATO Article 5 mutual defence clause costing perhaps $9.5 billion in one-time costs and $3.8 billion annually for a full, multinational NATO brigade, a battalion-sized U.S. air and missile defense task force, plus permanent US division.

  3. Fast tracking NATO membership for Bosnia and Kosovo would be low cost and stymy Russia’s pervasive active measures throughout the Balkans. Though the current political crisis in BIH makes outright membership hard, we could accelerate things by stepping up training exercises, and renewing a deal with the EU to allow the UK to redeploy forces into the peacekeeping force, EUFOR

Source: Carnegie Endowment

2. Moving forward on ‘frozen conflicts’.

Russia has created two ‘frozen conflicts’ in Georgia in Abkhazia and Ossetia along with a third in Republic of Transnistria inside Moldova. But as Kevin Ryan, the former U.S. Defense Attaché to Moscow argues, these spaces are therefore vulnerable because there are not part of ‘Russia proper’ and as such;

“Reinforcing Moldovan and Georgian forces to create a credible threat to retake these breakaway regions would require Russia to divert military forces from any plan against Ukraine —perhaps enough to throw the plan in doubt.” Especially if accompanied by a ‘quarantine’ of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is surrounded by Poland and the Baltic.

3. Accelerating NATO modernisation.

This should be the most important strategic result of President Putin’s gamble. Since NATO’s Wales summit, NATO allies have increased defence spending but the alliance’s capability to deploy large-scale strength at pace is too weak. NATO’s Non-US active personnel have declined by 40% since the Cold War and reliance is heavy on UK, French, and German capabilities. During the Cold War, NATO could field 360 combat battalions in Europe. More recently it was a challenge to stand up four battalions in the Baltic. NATO is punching below it’s weight and that’s simply not something we can afford any more.

We have to ensure this is a defining moment in drawing a hard stop to Russia’s attempt to ‘re-imperialise’ it’s old dominions in Eastern Europe, a project that proceeded apace in recent years without much challenge. The invasion of Georgia in 2008, seizure of Crimea in 2014, support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, support for an attempted coup in Montenegro – along with a host of offensive ‘active measures’ against the West from murders in the UK to what Robert Mueller described as “sweeping and systemic’ interference in the 2016 US presidential election – all point to a larger trend which has got to be stopped. Even if we agree with Henry Kissinger’s argument made back in 2014 that Ukraine should ultimately live outside NATO, a strong Western response is vital now to ensure President Putin understands that military action to render Ukraine a satellite state

would doom Moscow to repeat its history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the United States.”

For the long run it is now vital we bar any further advance in the kleptocapitalism that President Putin has perfected, described so well by Luke Harding in his fine book, Shadow State. This insidious corruption has already infected swathes of the UK and European and UK economy, where Chatham House concludes,

‘failures of enforcement and implementation of the law – plus the exploitation of loopholes by professional enablers – have meant that little has been done in practice to prevent kleptocratic wealth and political agendas from entering Britain.’

It is a cancer eating our economy from within. Ultimately we can’t afford yet another nation to be gobbled up by the Kleptosphere.

Above all, the crisis must be the spark for West to renew our story about our hopes and dreams for the great European motherland. Narratives matter and here our best guide is actually the last leader of the Soviet Union, President Gorbachev.

At the height of his power, Mikhail Gorbachev came to Strasbourg to speak to the Council of Europe, founded by Churchill to ensure there was never a return to the totalitarian monstrosities of the Nazis. Gorbachev offered a vision of a new unity of Christendom and Central Europe, stretching from Ireland’s Atlantic Coast to Siberia, ‘a common legal space’ for Europeans to call home. If we genuinely believe in a world that’s a ‘rules-based order’ this is a moment to make sure that dream isn’t lost forever.


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