Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: On the whole, modern politicians have no solutions

22 Jun

On the whole, modern man has no solutions. So warned Alexander Herzen, in words addressed to his son at the start of From The Other Shore, a brilliant account of the failure of the revolutions of 1848.

If Herzen had been watching today’s PMQs, he would have felt nothing has changed. On the whole, Boris Johnson had no solutions. Nor did one get the impression that were Sir Keir Starmer to become Prime Minister, he would prove rich in solutions.

Today, however, all he had to do was to ask questions, and all Johnson had to do was to avoid answering them, by suggesting that there were much better subjects which Sir Keir lacked the “gumption” to ask about, notably the rail strikes.

This was not quite fair, Sir Keir did want to know how many meetings the Government had held in order to avert the strikes.

“This is the Government that loves the railways,” Johnson retorted. But Sir Keir said it was a Government which loved allowing bankers to pay themselves unlimited bonuses: “He’s rolled over on bankers’ bonuses.”

So the Leader of the Opposition is not above engaging in a touch of class war. He did not, however, wish to indicate what if any solidarity he feels with the workers who have gone on strike, a point on which Johnson repeatedly twitted him.

Chris Elmore (Lab, Ogmore) had the first question at PMQs, and used it to ask whether the PM “has ever considered the appointment of his current spouse to a government post”.

Johnson thought this question showed that Labour “don’t want to talk about what’s going on in the real world”.

Who at this PMQs did want to talk about that? Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion, Greens) asked about the backlog of 23,000 refugee applications from Afghans who had put their lives on the line for Britain, and who were suffering “an incredible betrayal”.

Johnson said she was underestimating what Britain had done to rescue Afghans when Kabul fell, and offered no solution for the unrescued.

The post Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: On the whole, modern politicians have no solutions first appeared on Conservative Home.

Raphael Marshall: What the Foreign Office does well, what it does badly – and why the Civil Service Code needs reform.

8 Jun

Raphael Marshall resigned from the Foreign Office earlier this year, and submitted evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select over the Government’s handling of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Last month’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on Afghanistan is a bleak litany of institutional failures. However, the report is also a vindication of our political system. Very few countries’ legislators would have produced such a detailed, apolitical, and clear-sighted report. This is British parliamentary democracy at its honourable best. Amidst the unending row about Downing Street parties, it’s worth remembering how much is right about our political system.

One of the many tragedies here is that the Foreign Office (FCDO) is often a highly effective institution. The FCDO excels in some areas, notably Russia and the Gulf. The problems with the Afghanistan response stem primarily from the weakness of the crisis structure and a failure to pivot sufficiently urgently back to a war which had slipped down the Government’s priority list.

Nonetheless I find it very hard to understand why, in the aftermath of the withdrawal, senior FCDO officials appeared to be so complacent. As well as concluding that the Foreign Office’s answers to questions were ‘at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading’, the Committee also judged that:

‘Despite the manifest problems with its role in the withdrawal, the department has been reluctant to admit to any shortcoming… The Foreign Office has sought to blame other departments for issues, claiming that delays in answering Special Cases emails were the Home Office’s responsibility. The department’s leadership has appeared to be more focused on defending themselves from criticism than on identifying and resolving issues… The Lessons Learned review does not acknowledge the scale of the problems with its response, or the fact that many were rooted in sheer mismanagement rather than in the scale of the crisis.’

It’s unfortunately difficult to disagree with this summary. That said, it’s worth remembering that behind the scenes at the FCDO there are many people who are much more thoughtful about institutional improvement than the leadership’s public lines suggest.

The Goverment is highly rhetorically committed to reforming the Whitehall machine to make it more effective. However, it is at risk of appearing to attack Whitehall rather than help it to improve. At the same time, in practice the Government can appear prone to defending the machine’s performance in specific instances rather than recognising and seeking to mitigate problems (notably Afghanistan and the initial Covid response). This is not an effective combination.

One question that the Government should consider is internal challenge and Whitehall’s internal whistleblowing procedures. There are many excellent and patriotic people in Whitehall; institutional change requires allying with them to push for greater efficacy rather than solely trying to direct change from the Cabinet Office. My experiences with Whitehall’s internal whistleblowing mechanisms last year suggests they lack rigour and could usefully be strengthened.

As described in my Committee evidence, I wrote to the Head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir Philip Barton, in August to state that the flaws in the FCDO’s Afghanistan crisis response constituted breaches of the Civil Service Code (and also that I would likely resign to provide evidence to the Committee). Reporting breaches of the Civil Service Code is the established (although rarely used) mechanism for Civil Servants to escalate concerns internally.

I want to leave aside the question of Nowzad’s dogs. The FCDO maintains that it ‘inadvertently misled’ the Committee about Nowzad on at least five distinct points over the course of four months and coincidentally deleted relevant emails. The National Security Advisor maintains he has ‘forgotten’ all relevant information. This is scarcely credible, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that Whitehall is unsure how to address alleged Prime Ministerial impropriety, so I want to focus on the broader organisational questions.

Sir Philip met me the same day and appointed a senior diplomat to investigate. In this regard, he fulfilled his obligations to the letter. The investigation concluded that there was no breach of the Civil Service Code. Sir Philip told the Committee in December:

‘The central point he made, which we looked at, was that there had been a breach of the civil service code… a very senior diplomat who had not been involved at all looked at that and found no breach. She did point to some issues, but she did say very clearly that, under huge pressure, people had done their very best to deliver outcomes around the evacuation. Overall, I think some things he said are the sort of things we will look at in our lesson learning. Other things I do not think are fair’.

This gets to the heart of things. Of course, many people worked very very hard. However ‘people worked hard’ is not a coherent response to the structural problem that thousands of emails from the UK’s former allies were not even read, and decisions as to who to evacuate were made both too slowly and highly arbitrarily. Ironically, one reason many people worked so hard is because the FCDO failed to allocate sufficient staff.

One of the concerns I raised was that FCDO staff had been placed in an impossible position by being given (de-facto) responsibility for life and death decisions for which they had no relevant expertise without meaningful instructions. Sir Philip’s response was seemingly that, when placed in this impossible position, people tried their best. This is true but, to say the least, circular.

In essence, the FCDO’s contention appears to be that the Civil Service Code whistleblowing structure only applies to problems arising from malice or deliberate impropriety. This severely restricts the utility of the mechanism. There are probably very few (if any) genuinely malicious people in Whitehall; almost all problems stem from good-faith cock-up not malice.

I find this a puzzling reading of the Code; the Code calls for civil servants to ‘deal with the public and their affairs fairly, efficiently, promptly, effectively’. The evacuation from Kabul was an urgent public affair and it’s difficult to argue the FCDO handled it fairly, efficiently, promptly or effectively. Ultimately, what the Code actually says is less important than what it is perceived to say; the Government should redraft the Code to more explicitly require that the Civil Service be reasonably effective.

To my mind there are two other problems with the internal whistleblowing mechanism as currently set-up.

The first is that the Code is perceived to be primarily concerned with attributing blame to individuals; the result is that there is no formal mechanism to address institutional failure. Sir Philip’s line was, in-essence, that by invoking the Civil Service Code I was unfairly blaming colleagues who’d tried their very best. It would be useful for the Government to clarify that institutions can collectively breach the Code without anyone specific being responsible.

Second, responsibility for investigating alleged breaches of the Code lies in the first instance with departments themselves; it’s not reassuring that departments are responsible for marking their own homework. In my case, Sir Philip appointed a senior diplomat to investigate. On the plus-side, this shows appropriate seriousness. However, on the other hand the investigator had served in the Foreign Office for 30 years and likely had at least some acquaintance with all the senior officials involved. Without wanting to blame the investigator personally, it’s not clear this is compatible with a genuinely independent investigation.

In theory, the result of a departmental investigation can be appealed to the Civil Service Commission. However, as explored in a Policy Exchange report by Benjamin Barnard, the Commission has less than 20 full-time staff despite being responsible for around half a million civil servants. From April 2019 to April 2020 the Commission conducted only four investigations. The Government should strengthen the Commission, empower it to take an earlier role in investigations, and encourage more civil servants to raise concerns with it. This would be a cost-effective way to improve state capacity.

The post Raphael Marshall: What the Foreign Office does well, what it does badly – and why the Civil Service Code needs reform. first appeared on Conservative Home.

The Government and Afghanistan. “A disaster – a betrayal of our allies.” Tugendhat’s committee’s excoriating report.

25 May

My godson claims that the Foreign Office has responded well to Putin’s war.  And that this is so for the simple reason that it devotes a lot of time, money, staff and attention to Russia.  It could scarcely be otherwise given its size as a military power, its strategic position, and the threat it poses to our allies in Eastern Europe.

In case you are wondering who he is, and whether he might be the voice of King Charles Street, I can promise you that’s not so – because he is Raphael Marshall, the whistleblower who resigned from the Foreign Office over the Afghanistan debacle, and gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into it.

Select Committee reports are more prone to generate headlines than they once were, but even by today’s standards the report that Tom Tugendhat’s committee issued yesterday is excoriating. “Missing in action: UK leadership and the withdrawal from Afghanistan”, it declares.  And that’s just the title.

“The manner of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan was a disaster, a betrayal of our allies, and weakens the trust that helps to keep British people safe. It will affect the UK’s international reputation and interests for many years to come,” it concludes.

“There were systemic failures of intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation, which raise questions about machinery of Government, principally the National Security Council. The UK Government failed effectively to shape or respond to Washington’s decision to withdraw, despite having had 18 months’ notice.”

“Most damning for the FCDO is the total absence of a plan – developed in conjunction with the Home Office – for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission, without being directly employed by the UK Government. The Government was never going to be able to evacuate all—or even many—of these people.”

“But it failed to deliver the bare minimum that we owed them: a well-considered plan for who would be prioritised for extraction, and clear communications to those seeking help. The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope, hindering individuals from making the best decision for themselves.”

“The absence of the FCDO’s top leadership—both ministerial and official—when Kabul fell is a grave indictment of the attitudes of the Government, representing a failure of leadership…Decision-making was so unclear that even senior officials such as the National Security Adviser could not be certain how key decisions were authorised.”

“The FCDO has repeatedly given us answers that, in our judgement, are at best intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading…the Committee has lost confidence in the Permanent Under-Secretary, who should consider his position.

“Under the leadership of a Foreign Secretary who took up her post after these events, the FCDO has had the opportunity to make a fresh start and re-commit to transparency and positive engagement with Parliament. On this issue, it has so far failed to do so.”

I wrote at the time that “the case for the defence, not so much of Dominic Raab as Foreign Secretary but of the Foreign Office as an institution, is that it simply didn’t have the resources to cope. It will argue, as Raab has already done, that it had a limited number of employees with knowledge of Afghanistan.”

“To cut to the chase: if someone blows a whistle…they should do so with good cause. What’s the nub of the issue here? Is it really more than an over-stretched department not rising to events? I think so. Taken as a whole, Raffy’s account is an inside view of institutional failure.”

“For example, potential refugees were misled, according to Raphael, by being told that their emails had been logged, which suggested that these had been read when they had not. It is hard to see this device as other than a means of allowing Ministers to give a misleading impression to the Commons.”

“Elsewhere, a key refugee scheme, the Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) scheme, was only approved four to five days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, according to Raphael. However, the Ministry of Defence began planning for Operation Pitting, its own rescue scheme, in January.”

“It comes better out of Raphael’s account than the Foreign Office. He says that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence communicated very ineffectively, to the extent that the Ministry of Defence was initially not informed of the Foreign Office’s evacuation plans.”

“And that the Foreign Office did not initially provide the soldiers responsible for emailing priority evacuees travel documents with working computers. There are darkly comic moments in his story – such as the British Embassy in Washington reporting an e-mail from him requesting a security clearance as a Russian phishing attack.”

“But its details, such as the fate of Afghans depending on whether the civil servants on a particular shift had entered their application on a spreadsheet or not, are no laughing matter.”  The committee wants the Government to share with it the results of its internal investigation into the failure to destroy sensitive documents at the Kabul Embassy.

It is easy for journalists, and perhaps for MPs, to damn institutions for specific failures without taking into account the wider context.  In the case of the Foreign Office, this must include Ukraine as well as Afghanistan.  Why has one worked well and the other badly?

One answer is that is because the Foreign Office must make choices about where to concentrate time, money and effort, there is an inevitable temptation to neglect second-order problems – which Afghanistan is, for all the blood and treasure that successive governments have expended on it.

If realism morphs into fatalism, one of the unintended consequences can be, say, not ensuring there are clear plans for prioritising evacuees from Kabul.  At any rate, the Foreign Office now has two months in which to respond to the Committee’s report.

P.S: for those of you with a special interest in Downing Street, the report says that “the failure to plan for the Special Cases evacuations, or to put in place a fair and robust prioritisation system, left the process open to arbitrary political interventions.” This is illustrated by the case of the Nowzad animal charity.

“Amid intense media attention, its staff were called for evacuation at the last minute, despite not meeting the FCDO’s prioritisation criteria, after a mysterious intervention from elsewhere in Government. Multiple senior officials believed that the Prime Minister played a role in this decision.”

“We have yet to be offered a plausible alternative explanation for how it came about.” Meanwhile, the charity’s founder was allowed to use a charter flight to rescue his animals, absorbing significant Government resources in the midst of the biggest military airlift in decades.”

Fukuyama has written a disgraceful, third-rate book, as naive as his essay about the end of history

1 Apr

Liberalism And Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is a not very quiet American. He has been famous since the summer of 1989, when he wrote an essay called The End of History? for The National Interest. This made such a splash that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, whom I met by chance at a party, asked me whether I had read it.

To my embarrassment, I had not, though I did go away and read it afterwards, as it was evidently something any thoughtful person should have a look at, if only to see whether Fukuyama was quite as foolishly optimistic as he sounded.

He was. In his celebrated essay he wrote:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

This was not the effusion of some callow youth. Fukuyama was 36 when he wrote it, and in a way he deserved his fame, for he expressed what many western liberals believed to be the case.

His new book has one great merit. It is short: only 154 pages. The tone of voice is bland, optimistic, friendly. In the photograph of Fukuyama inside the back cover, he smiles in a benevolent way, conveying not only his desire to help, but an off-putting confidence that he knows how to help.

His intentions are so terribly good that one cannot help being reminded of Pyle, the touchingly upright but also disastrously over-confident idealist, “impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance”, who is the title character of Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The Quiet American.

Fukuyama has set out to write a defence of “classical liberalism”, and on his first page quotes with approval John Gray, who says liberalism is “universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historical associations and cultural forms”.

Here at once is a problem for all those of us who agree with Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”

Burke is not mentioned by Fukuyama. He does, however, touch on the French Revolution, telling us that it “spawned the next major competitor to liberalism, which was nationalism”.

Surely, one thinks, nationalism has often been liberalism’s ally? Did not 19th-century liberals see the creation of nation states as a way of bringing the blessings of freedom to countries which had previously been under imperial rule?

And what is happening in Ukraine? That came too late for Fukuyama’s book, but Sameer Rahim has just asked him about it in an interview for Prospect magazine:

Rahim: “You hear people in the west say Ukraine is fighting our battle – fighting for liberalism and fighting for democracy. How true is that? Or is it really them defending their nation?

Fukuyama: “Well, look, I think it’s a meaningless distinction. Everybody that fights for a set of values, fights for it as embodied in a specific country. You know, nobody fights for the abstract principles of liberalism. They care about being an independent country. But I think that many Ukrainians, certainly all the ones I know, also take pride in the fact that they are a free country.”

In practice, Fukuyama admits, liberal values have to be “embodied in a specific country”. There are places in his new book where he also admits this.

For example, one wonders what he is going to say about Afghanistan, where so many western leaders preached liberalism, only to run away from the difficult task of upholding it. Here is one of the only two references to that country in Fukuyama’s book:

“There are many parts of the world in which identity politics is very pronounced. The Balkans, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries are divided into clearly demarcated ethnic or religious groups, and loyalty to those smaller identities often takes precedence over larger national identities. Identity politics makes liberalism difficult to implement in such societies…”

As an account of what went wrong in Afghanistan, this is not much help. The ninth of Fukuyama’s ten chapters is devoted to a discussion of national identity, but here we find the admission that he has no idea what to say to “nationalist partisans” in Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia who seek “complete separation”:

“There is a big hole in liberal theory regarding how to deal with such demands and how to define the national boundaries of states that are fundamentally liberal.”

What we find in this book is an unwavering determination to argue for liberalism as a universal ideology, which must be defended against such aberrations as neoliberalism, on the right, and identity politics, on the left.

Abstractions pass before our astonished eyes, and many great thinkers are mentioned in a cursory way, but Fukuyama flees from the local, the particular.

He is, one might say, a liberal on the run, never stopping long enough in one place to be in danger of being pinned down, or to get to the bottom of the “discontents” that are mentioned in his title.

These are liberal discontents, and as far as one can tell, he is not really discontented at all. Optimism keeps breaking in. He is never at a loss for some sweeping generalisation of almost unbelievable banality:

“Liberalism by itself is not a sufficient governing doctrine on its own; it needs to be paired with democracy so that there can be political corrections made to the inequalities made by market economics. There is no reason to think that such corrections cannot occur within a broadly liberal political framework in the future.”

Jolly good. Fukuyama soars into the higher platitudes, where he is safe from contradiction, for he has said nothing concrete enough to be contradicted. What a contemptible evasion of responsibility.

On the Afghanistan point, here is Rory Stewart, towards the end of The Places in Between, his account of walking across that country, on the latter-day liberal elite which set out to create, in the words of the United Nations Assistance Mission, “a centralised, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law”:

“Policy makers did not have the time, structures or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organisations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.”

And here is Stewart’s furious footnote on the following page:

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a 19th-century colonial officer. Colonial administrators may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language…”

They did not pretend, as culpably naive, self-regarding liberals like Fukuyama do, that we are all the same really, and we all believe in the same ineffably woolly, free-floating principles. What a disgraceful, third-rate book this is.

Alicia Kearns: This week’s NATO summit must be used to speed Russia’s defeat

22 Mar

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton.

Last week, I had the humbling privilege of hosting a delegation of Ukrainian MPs. They call themselves the Women’s Diplomatic Battalion of Ukraine: Lesia Vasylenko, Alona Shkrum, Maria Mezentseva, and Olena Khomenko. It is currently treason for a Ukrainian MP to leave their country, but the four had secured special presidential dispensations to visit the UK to secure further support from their foremost bilateral ally.

At the time of writing, it is Day 23 of Putin’s invasion – an invasion that has followed almost exactly the intelligence assessments I received in Kyiv in January: Putin would invade within the month, he would seek to decapitate the country by occupying Kyiv and that, contrary to his assessments, the Ukrainian people would fight like lions.

It was also foreseen then that there would be an enormous capability and speed gap between Putin’s understanding of his armed forces and the reality. This has all played out, with our Ukrainian allies pulverising Russian troops thanks to British NLAWs (Next Generation Anti-tank weapons), American Javelins and Turkish Bayraktar drones provided in anticipation of invasion.

The Russian setbacks are extraordinary. There are rumours that ultra-loyalist “Zagradotryady” had to be formed – barrier units to shoot Russian soldiers who retreat or desert. But these losses have unleashed a new level of barbarity; in which Putin’s forces indiscriminately bomb civilians in an attempt to break Ukraine’s resolve.

This week, an emergency NATO Summit is being held, and the UK’s voice is pivotal. We must redouble our efforts around Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, surge support for the humanitarian catastrophe and bolster deterrence against chemical weapons’ use, as well as launching deterrence diplomacy to prevent Putin’s aggression from turning to the Western Balkans.

On defensive capabilities, the UK is walking a line whereby we cannot be accused by Putin of escalating the conflict, and culpability for any escalation is on him. There has been much discussion about a no-fly zone and, whilst all options must remain on the table, these are proving a distraction from the meaningful efforts of the UK to establish a de-facto no-fly zone through the use of surface-to-air weapons.

Through this means, Putin’s forces have already been unable to establish air dominance and are barely able to fly in the daytime. We must entirely deny them the air, and the deployment of new StarStreak missiles announced by Ben Wallace will further support this aim.

It is artillery causing a great deal of the damage we’re seeing, and at the NATO summit our allies must step forward with anti-artillery weapons. In this respect we have been world-leading, but our counterparts are not pulling their weight. Just one-fifth of Germany’s promised (if very late) defensive weapons have arrived. Ukraine fights for our shared freedoms, and if our allies fail Ukraine now, they fail us all.

On the humanitarian side, just one word is needed to understand the depravity of Putin: Mariupol. Once a coastal hub for heavy industry and education, Ukraine’s besieged city has become a byword for the barbarity of his campaign.

Ninety per cent of its buildings are damaged or destroyed, and its population of just under half a million has been without food or water for days. Civilians are forced to drink sewer water and, last Wednesday, the city theatre – where women and children were sheltering – was destroyed by Russian air strikes. Satellite photos show that before it was hit, the Russian word for children, “DETI” had been spelled out in large letters by the building in the hope Russian pilots would find a conscience. Mariupol is Ukraine’s Aleppo.

However, there’s one enormous difference: aid agencies just aren’t on the ground working to preserve life and protect the vulnerable. The Government has just pledged another £80 million of aid, and the generosity and goodwill of British public is likely also in the millions.

But while we are giving, Ukraine is having difficulty receiving, as international agencies squabble over mandates and appallingly, the idea that Russian permission is needed to be on the ground. These same agencies were working on the ground in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan – why have they abandoned Mariupol? We must lead calls for international humanitarian bodies to step in to save lives; it is not enough to be in Lviv alone.

There is an equally dark element of this conflict that has been largely absent from reporting: rape and sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence are too often silenced by the shame that is wrongly inflicted upon them. In Ukraine, women are being raped, and that almost certainly means that men and children are as well. There are reports of women over 60, those unable to get out, being raped and then hung or committing suicide. The International Criminal Court prosecutes crimes against humanity, including rape. The UK should lead efforts to expose and document these war crimes and support survivors.

As Putin grows more desperate, his use of thermobaric bombs and cluster munitions becomes more extensive, and we face the threat of chemical weapons use. We and our allies must determine now the repercussions Putin would face: we have a legal duty to intervene if chemical weapons are used, and that is a duty we must not fail.

Much has been made of the threat of Putin pressing his big red button, but this belies a much more likely reality. Ukraine has fifteen nuclear reactors, several of which are now controlled by invading Russian forces. Destroying a nuclear reactor is very difficult, but damaging a nuclear waste facility is frighteningly feasible, and any such incident would disperse radioactive particulates across Europe, reaching the UK, as they did following the Chernobyl disaster.

NATO and all freedom-loving nations must be resolute in telling Putin now, that any nuclear incident in Ukraine – no matter how extensive the false flags – will be met with the swiftest and harshest repercussions.

Whilst we rightly focus on Ukraine, we must not forget Putin’s wider ambitions and the potential of a second front in the Western Balkans.

Earlier this week, Russia’s Ambassador to Bosnia & Herzegovina threatened the country with the “same” as Ukraine. There is a fragile peace, one already under attack from Putin’s stooges such as the secessionist leader, Milorad Dodik.

Now is the time for NATO to prove that deterrence diplomacy can work, and prevent bloodshed on two fronts. Certain European countries disregarded the UK and US’s intelligence assessments on an invasion of Ukraine. At the NATO Summit we must ensure the same complacency and arrogance does not enable bloodshed in Bosnia.

It was a difficult goodbye last week. These courageous women travelled back to Ukraine knowing that Putin has put all Ukrainian MPs on one of two lists: a kill list, and those to be taken to Moscow.

One sentence our Ukrainian counterparts used repeatedly haunts me: “You will have no choice but to intervene, but this decision is being measured not in hours or days, but by the numbers of Ukrainians killed.” These brave MPs made their mark in Parliament this week, and did their country proud. When the war is over, and Ukraine has won, we’ll all meet again in Kyiv; but for now we must use this NATO summit to do all we can to hasten Putin’s defeat.

Rehman Chishti and Bashayer Al Majed: Let’s hold the Taliban to account on their vow to respect women’s rights

8 Mar

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham & Rainham and a former Adviser to Benazir Bhutto. Dr Bashayer Al Majed is Professor of Law at Kuwait University, Visiting Fellow at Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies, and an adviser to the Kuwait Parliament.

As we approach International Women’s Day 2022, we must look at the challenges that women and girls are facing around the world, simply because of their gender. In this article, we want to look at the situation facing women and girls in Afghanistan six months on from the fall of Kabul after the Taliban took control of the capital by force.

Whilst the world focusses on the grave situation in Ukraine, and we must do all we can to protect an international rules-based order and democracy, some authoritarian states around the world are using the situation as a pretext to further suppress human rights in their countries.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on 15 August 2021, they made a statement that they would operate “within the framework of Islam”. Six months later, the international community, and organisations like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and key stakeholders, need to now judge the Taliban on their actions and not their words. This article explores the rights of women and girls in Islam, and their role from the very outset of when the religion was formed in the 7th Century, in line with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

As the international community has not recognised the Taliban as a legitimate government and has the finance to hold the Taliban to their word, these two levers should be used to help safeguard the rights of women, girls and religious minorities in Afghanistan.

In the last six months women and girls in Afghanistan have not had access to a full and inclusive education. In September 2021 Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Higher Education Minister, indicated that women would be allowed to study in Afghanistan, but not alongside men, stating:

“Coeducation is in conflict with the principles of Islam and, on the other hand, it is in conflict with national values and is against the customs and traditions of Afghans.” 

Afghanistan’s previous government under President Ashraf Ghani had its flaws, however, progress was made with regards to women in society. Rula Ghani, the former First Lady of Afghanistan, was an active voice for women’s rights. She was revered in Afghanistan for undertaking humanitarian work to aid and empower children, refugees and women, showing the world the capability, independence and strength of Afghani women. She pressed for women’s rights and participation in the peace and leadership of the country.

In 1999, no girls were officially attending secondary school, and only 9,000 attended primary school. By August 2021, the figure had risen to 3.5 million girls in school, with women making up a third of all university students (public and private). In 2019, more than 1,000 Afghan women had started their own businesses; however, this progress is now under threat by the Taliban’s regime.

With regards to Islam itself, firstly, the Prophet said: “I advise you to treat women kindly.” There are several hadith where it is announced that forced marriages are not permitted in Islam, likewise if a woman marries and is unhappy the marriage can be ended.

In 12th-century Uzbekistan, Fatima al-Samarqandi was a respected scholar and jurist. She educated men and women and served as advisor for the Syrian leader Nur-al-din-Zangi. Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988-90 and 1993-96, and the first female leader of a Muslim state in modern times. Significantly, Bhutto led the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, demonstrating that that there is no limit to what female Muslims can achieve.

Many more female Muslim national leaders followed in Bhutto’s ground-breaking steps. For example, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia (2001-2004), who stabilised her country’s democratization process and eased the relationship between the legislative, executive, and military arms of the nation.

Dr Hawa Abdi of Somalia, a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, obtained a scholarship in Kiev, studied medicine, then returned to Somalia to be the nation’s first female gynaecologist. She continued to study law, and gained a professorship of medicine, opening a clinic and setting up a foundation to offer free healthcare, shelter and education to families displaced by the war.

Sammera Moussa received a PhD from Cairo University in atomic physics, the first woman to do so. She was the first non-US citizen to be invited to tour the American atomic energy facilities, whilst on scholarship there. She established the International Atomic Energy for Peace Conference to work towards developing safe methods to deliver cost-effective nuclear-based medical treatments.

Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel opened the door for Muslim athletes in the Olympics in 1984, being the first to win a gold medal in the 400m hurdles and the first Muslim woman to join the International Olympic Committee in 1998. She later held office as Morocco’s Minister of Sports. We now have Muslim women competing in many sports including Taekwondo, karate, show jumping, 100m, and swimming, some with hijab, some without, depending on their own preference.

In August 2021, 175 female Westminster MPs pledged support for the 69 female Afghan MPs in a statement written by Harriet Harman MP, recognising their talent in Parliament and their role in inspiring other Muslim women.

Additionally, further to a debate in Parliament, 70 MPs signed a statement of support to religious minority faith and belief communities across Afghanistan, written by Rehman Chishti MP. This shows that the issue of human rights and women’s empowerment is of crucial interest to UK parliamentarians.

Six months on from the fall of Kabul, we must now judge the Taliban on their treatment of women and girls in all sectors of society. The international community has the financial leverage to ensure that the Taliban are held to their word on female rights in Afghanistan, in line with Islam, and the role that Muslim women have played around the world, including leading majority-Muslim states.

This lever must be used to help facilitate concrete change on the ground in Afghanistan to ensure that the rights of women and girls are upheld, along with the other lever: state recognition.

Mark Francois: Now the Government must tear up the Integrated Review, start again – and boost the army

28 Feb

Mark Francois is the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a member of the Defence Select Committee and a former Armed Forces Minister.

As the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine only began five days ago, it may be too early to draw long-term conclusions, not least as we do not yet know how this war – for that is what is now palpably is – will play out. Nevertheless, there are at least four things which are already very clear.

First, this is a gigantic wake-up call for NATO, and indeed the free world more generally. I have written on this site before about how the reluctance of European NATO nations to meet the NATO target to spend at least 2 per cent of their GDP on defence was making the world a more dangerous place. Moreover, NATO’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer can only have encouraged adventurism in Russia.

We must also appreciate who we are dealing with. Vladimir Putin and most of his closest associates were senior officers in the Soviet KGB. These are utterly ruthless men, who are unlikely to be deterred by economic measures alone.

Their ultimate benchmark will be hard power, both nuclear and conventional, rather than sanctions, which they will have already priced in. The Russian psyche despises weakness, and so we need to react accordingly.

It is encouraging to note that NATO is beginning to close ranks and agree on sanctions and military aid to Ukraine. But we need to enhance our efforts and quickly, if we are to persuade Putin to abandon any idea, however fanciful, of attacking the Baltic States or Poland. Our response must includes not just deploying more troops on NATO’s borders. but also increasing our operational readiness to rapidly respond to any incursion.

Second, within the U.K itself, we need to “Review the Review.” The conventional war on the Central European landmass unfolding before us, is a massive international event – comparable in security terms to a 9/11.

It is likely to be a game-changer, which means that the much-vaunted Integrated Review of Foreign, Defence and Security Policy published only last year, has already been overtaken by events.

The Review, which was intellectually incoherent from the outset, self-evidently failed to anticipate the near-term likelihood of massive Russian aggression.

Its defence aspects were particularly flawed, since it envisaged further deep cuts in U.K. conventional forces, including reducing the British Army by a further 10,000 regular soldiers down to just over 73,000, its smallest size since the post-Napoleonic age.

Worse still, it purported to bolster our Armed Forces in five to ten years time by taking excessive risks in the next few years to finance the later improvements. Under the Review, critical capabilities – such as our already inadequate force of frigates, airborne early warning aircraft and armoured fighting vehicles – were to be retired or sold off, years before their replacements were due to come into service.

In particular, the British Army’s armoured and infantry forces were to be pared back, so that we could field a fully-fledged “war fighting division” – around a decade from now. What good is all that to us this spring?

The intellectual fig-leaf for this self-imposed disarmament, which mercifully has not yet been fully implemented, is called the “Integrated Operating Concept” (IOC). When you strip away all the Whitehall techno-babble, the essence of the IOC is that we can get away with fewer tanks, armoured vehicles etc, because the remainder will be better able to communicate and interact, thus producing a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The fundamental problem with this approach, as Captain Blackadder famously said to Private Baldrick about a previous military plan in the last ever episode of Blackadder, “is that it’s Bollocks.”

To begin with, the IOC largely relies on equipment which either doesn’t work (such as “Ajax”, the £4 billion light-tank, which has been delayed for years because it injures its own crew) or kit that doesn’t even exist yet, like “LeTacsis/Morpheus” (an all-singing all-dancing communications system, which hasn’t even been designed yet, is years away from service and is presently bogged down in endless disputes with contractors).

Moreover, the emphasis on high-tech solutions to everything ignores the brutal truth that, for all it’s technology, NATO was eventually run out of Afghanistan by what some commentators have described as “a bunch of country boys”, with light weapons and not an aircraft, satellite or submarine between them.

For the Russians, such theorising is unlikely to deter the 8th St. Petersburg Girl Guide Troop (Motorised), let alone the First Guards Tank Army. As Stalin famously said: “quantity has a quality all of its own.” The whole IOC, which is at the heart of the Review, and which provides the rationale for reducing our Army even further, is fatally flawed. We will likely need to go back to the drawing board and think again.

Third, it seems likely that U.K. defence spending will have to increase from its current level of around 2.3 per cent of GDP. The House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC), on which I have now served for five years, has consistently called for U.K. defence spending to reach at least three per cent of GDP, even before Russia invaded the Crimea and deployed a chemical weapon on U.K. soil in Salisbury in 2014.

Indeed, during the Cold War, it stood at around five per cent but was then slashed, by Government’s of both colours, as they extracted a “peace dividend” after the Wall came down. Well, following a major break-in, it looks as if our “insurance premium” is about to go up again, lest we allow the highly aggressive burglar to run riot.

However, as Conservatives, we instinctively believe that public spending is not just about how much you spend but, crucially, how effectively you spend it. The all-party Public Accounts Committee declared just a few months ago that MoD’s defence procurement system is “broken.”

Of the Department’s 36 largest procurement programmes, which were independently audited by the Government’s Infrastructure Projects Authority, not a single one -was on track to enter service both on time and on cost.

The Blob (which in this case takes the form of Defence Equipment and Support, or DE&S) is hopelessly inefficient. The Russian invasion of Ukraine should have finally persuaded us that we need radical reform in this procurement area, which employs over 10,000 people to do what the Israelis do better with barely 2,500.

Fourth, we need to materially increase our operational readiness. During the Cold War, our Armed Forces were held at high states of readiness, ready to respond to any incursion across the then inner-German border within a matter of hours.

Today, with a few exceptions (such as the RAF’s Quick Reaction Alert aircraft to intercept Russian bombers) our forces are held at much longer notice, especially with regard to a general conflagration.

As just one example, of our six, £1 billion each, Type 45 destroyers, only one was operationally available last July, due to a persistent problem with their propulsion systems, which the MoD is not scheduled to fully rectify until 2028.

Given what has just happened in Ukraine, we should now look critically at our readiness states across the board, and encourage our allies to do likewise. We should fix the kit that doesn’t work as a matter of urgency. As such, we should be prepared to issue a number of Urgent Operational Requirements ( MoD speak for drop all the bureaucracy and get the job done as soon as possible) to bring our kit up to scratch, of which the Type 45s could be but the first example.

In summary, we are now living in a different world from a week ago. Russia has invaded a peaceful, democratic, sovereign state. All those yards of newsprint and tweets from commentators who said this could never happen have been shown to be utterly wrong.

If you believe, as I do, that the first job of our Armed Forces is actually to deter war, by showing any potential aggressor that we are both morally willing and technically ready to defend ourselves and defeat them, then we need to change our whole mindset in Whitehall and indeed in Parliament too – and we had best do it quickly. The Romans had a powerful saying: “Si vis pacem parra bellum” – he who desires peace should prepare for war.

So should we. Not next year – or in ten years time – but now.

We can’t even begin to come to terms with the implications of this war

25 Feb

The Government’s responses to Vladimir Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine range from perhaps hosting its government in Britain, through sanctions targeted on Putin’s cronies and others aimed at Russia’s economy, to reinforcing our military presence in Eastern Europe and supporting armed Ukrainian resistance.

The asset freezes on more than 100 people and entities announced yesterday by Boris Johnson are an example of the first, and the proposed export ban on all dual-use items to Russia one of the second.

The Government has already moved army battlegroups, Apache attack helicopters, fighter jets and warships to Eastern Europe.  It is reportedly sending helmets, light anti-tank weapons and body armour to Ukraine.

It is essential to add that Ministers, like other participants in and observers of this drama, do not know how events will now unfold.

It could soon become clear that Putin has over-reached, and is consequently deposed.  Or he may hold what he is taking, as the western front against him collapses.

Most likely, he achieves his immediate objective amidst hideous bloodshed, installs a puppet government in Ukraine – and will then grapple with an armed insurgency supported by most if not all of the main western powers.

However, few certainties aren’t the same as none, and one development is certain.  Putin will react in turn to our allies’ and our own response to his war.  We have collectively not even begun to grasp the implications.

Some of us remember the Cold War against the Soviet Union.  More recall recent “hot wars” in which our troops fought abroad – Iraq, Afghanistan.

There has been republican and loyalist terror in Northern Ireland and Great Britain too, as well as atrocities by Islamist and other actors.

But most of us have not experienced such attacks, nor fought for our country abroad, nor encountered Soviet espionage at home.

Neither have we encountered what might be called Lukewarm War – or, in the less hyberbolic language of the Integrated Defence and Security Review, “competition across multiple spheres”.

This “will grow in other spheres, including technology, cyberspace and space, further shaping the wider geopolitical
environment”, it said.

“Systemic competition will further test the line between peace and war, as malign actors use a wider range of tools – such as economic statecraft, cyber-attacks, disinformation and proxies – to achieve their objectives without
open confrontation or conflict.”

Are our cyber-defences ready for possible cyber-attacks?  Our conventional ones for more Russian incursions into our airspace and waters? Is the Government geared up for Putin’s developing push in social media and elsewhere online?  Is the British public remotedly prepared for cyber assaults aimed at our national infrastructure?

Then there are the twofold implications of the further manipulation by Putin of Russia’s gas supplies – first, for prices at a time when the cost of living is already soaring and second, even more profoundly, for security of supply.

Successive governments have deprioritised this security, the first leg of any proper energy policy, at the expense of the other two: affordable prices and lower emissions.

So the war in Ukraine poses a new questionmark against the Net Zero emissions target, and will give new impetus to Rishi Sunak’s push for new oil and gas fields in the North Sea.

Security of energy supply, like running the NHS less hot in preparation for another pandemic, and like security of food supply, is an aspect of the emerging post-Covid politics of resilience (or should be).

It will be argued that Putin won’t cut off his gas supply nose to spite Russia’s economic face, and that it will be hit hard by western sanctions.

Especially by those applied to “high-end and critical technological equipment and components in sectors including electronics, telecommunications and aerospace”, to quote the Prime Minister’s words.

The counter-view is that Putin is turning Russia into an autarky, with low national debt, high reserves, a fiscal surplus and leverage over wheat and corn.  And that if you want to see what real resilience looks like, gaze eastwards.

It may be that with Russia moving closer to China, we are looking at a future in which Eurasia and Eastasia form a common economic bloc against Oceania’s, to borrow the terms of George Orwell.

Or in which, just as Nixon went to China, Donald Trump goes to Moscow: or rather, some future Republican or even Democrat President does so, in an attempt to peel off Russia from America’s hegemonic rival.

Then there are the implications for rogue actors: Iran; North Korea. Such future speculation returns me to today’s unknowns, such as Putin’s response to sanctions against Russia or the arming of Ukraine’s resistance.

It may be that Ukraine should indeed have been admitted to NATO, though I am far from convinced that the move would have been practicable. “Collective defence means that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies,” in the words of Article Five of NATO’s charter.

Would voters in some NATO member states, including Britain, see Russia’s attack on Ukraine in this way?  I doubt it. But whatever view one takes, the West in general, and the EU in particular, has been willing to float the end of Ukraine’s full membership of western institutions without providing the means.

At any rate, the Government is right to seek to arm the Ukrainian resistance, and western Europe must ready itself for a flow of refugees.

However, we have no alternative but now to draw a military line in the sand, or rather in the green grass of Europe, not in Ukraine itself but on the borders of our NATO allies, such as Poland and the Baltic States.

Which means action short of NATO seeking to establish a no fly zone over Ukraine, given the risk of escalation in the event of planes from any of the actors being shot down.

Admittedly, it’s impossible to weigh those risks in any event, since Putin is evidently more willing to take risks than some Russia-watchers believed.

In such circumstances, we tend to reach for the comfort blanket of the past.  It’s the Soviet Union all over again, say some.  No, 1939, say others.  Others still say 1914.

It’s true that history repeats itself.  But sometimes it says something new altogether, and the novelty catches us off-balance.

So it may be now in the wake of an event so baleful, like 9/11, that no-one can know where it will lead. Resolute voices filled the Commons yesterday.  But I also hear whistling in the dark.

David Gauke: Sue Gray’s report. Yes, the Met should have been more robust earlier. But there’s no evidence of a stitch-up.

31 Jan

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

The decision of the Metropolitan Police to request that Sue Gray make only minimal reference to those events that may result in a criminal prosecution has provoked great anger. Frustrating though the intervention is for all who want to see this matter resolved one way or the other (well, one way in particular, for many of us) and inept though the Met’s communications have been, a lot of the criticism is over the top.

There is no evidence of a ‘stitch-up’, as Ed Davey has suggested, between the Government and Number 10. Could the Met have taken a more robust approach earlier in this process? Yes, but their experience of investigating politicians and then getting drawn into political controversy (see Tony Blair and cash for peerages or the arrest of Damien Green) has made them cautious.

Could their communications have been much clearer in the last few days? Absolutely. Cressida Dick set out the criteria by which it was decided to launch an investigation, which was very helpful, but the Met appears to have been all over the place as to whether it wanted to limit what Sue Gray should say.

Is it clear why the police have now requested ‘minimal’ references? Not from what the police have said, and their reference to ‘prejudicing’ investigations is curious given that these matters are not going to end up in front of a jury.

But none of this suggests that the police are doing the bidding of Number 10. And there is an explanation for why the police would not want Sue Gray to set out all the facts she has uncovered, best set out by the Secret Barrister.

If the police are undertaking an investigation, they do not want all the evidence known to them to be available to a suspect who can then alter their story to take into account any inconvenient facts. When put this way, if this is the explanation, one can see why the police are not being explicit as to their reasons.

Does any of this matter for the fate of the Prime Minister?

He must have a hope that the longer this goes on, the public gets bored, new stories and issues emerge (Russia and Ukraine being the obvious example), momentum for a change is lost and he survives.

At the moment, this appears to be the predominant view and the intervention by the police appears to have helped him in that sense. But, to step back from this for a moment, the fact that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has concluded that there is evidence of a “flagrant and serious breach” of the lockdown restrictions by people who knew or should have known that this was the case is not encouraging for the Prime Minister. So no, the Met Police have not saved him. His fate is still in the balance.

– – – – – – – – – – –

There was always something odd about the evacuation of animals cared for by the Nowzad charity in Kabul. A great deal of political pressure was placed on the Government to intervene and, no doubt, MPs were receiving plenty of representations from the public on the matter.

At the time, I got the impression that Ben Wallace was resisting prioritising Nowzad (much to his credit, in my view) but was overruled. I tweeted accordingly. (It has to be said that Wallace (who has impressed as Defence Secretary), has recently denied that this is what happened.)

In December, Raphael Marshal, the whistleblowing former Foreign Office official, alleged that resources that could have been used to assist deserving cases were diverted towards the Nowzad staff and animals.

At this point the Prime Minister denied any involvement, even though there was evidence that Trudy Harrison, Johnson’s Parliamentary Private Secretary was heavily involved in communicating with Nowzad, and Dominic Dyer, a colleague of Pen Farthing, had said that that the Prime Minister intervened. Since then, we have had evidence of numerous Foreign Office e-mails stating that the Prime Minister had made the decision.

What is going on? There is the obvious answer – but maybe the Prime Minister is telling the truth, and he did not issue an instruction. What is beyond dispute is that plenty of people in Whitehall thought that he had.

I am not sure what is more concerning – that the Prime Minister made a terrible decision and then lied about it, or that Johnson is telling the truth, someone else made the terrible decision, and persuaded Whitehall that it was the Prime Minister who had done so.

As Alex Thomas of the Institute of Government has pointed out, neither explanation is reassuring. Of course, if it is the latter, the one person who should be most furious and most determined to get to the bottom of this is Boris Johnson. He, after all, is the one who has had his authority usurped. What is he doing to find out?

– – – – – – – – – –

As with any issue, there will always be some people who will link it to Brexit – and “Partygate” is no exception. On one side of the debate there is Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis suggesting that the removal of Johnson will mean it is possible to reverse Brexit.

On the other side, there are those who argue that those calling for Johnson to go are unrepentant remainers seeking revenge. Speaking as an unrepentant remainer who thinks that Johnson should go, I do not think either position is true.

If Johnson goes, his successor will spend the leadership election campaign convincing the electorate of their Brexit credentials – the Conservative Party is too far gone in its espousal of Brexit to reverse course for a long time. Nor is the option of rejoining on the table until there is a seismic shift in public opinion, which has not happened yet. As for the campaign to unseat him being a Remainer affair, that is not the impression I get listening to David Davis, William Wragg or Steve Baker.

Nonetheless, those saying that being anti-Johnsom constitutes being anti-Brexit should keep up the argument. This might help in the short term but the longer that Johnson is linked to Brexit – that to be fully onside with Team Brexit you also have to be part of Team Johnson – the easier the task becomes for those of us who think that the 2016 result was a mistake and that the current distant relationship with the EU needs to be changed.

Go on. Make it all about being a Brexit loyalty test.

Ben Roback: Biden’s response to Russia shows a president desperate to repair his reputation at home and abroad

26 Jan

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

If a week is a long time in politics, then eight years is an even longer time in President Putin’s pursuit of “Novorossiya”. As the Prime Minister reminded the House yesterday, Russia’s incursion into the Donbas region led to the illegal annexation of 10,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has lived in fear and without peace ever since.

The White House entered the New Year with an alarmingly long list of domestic priorities. Putin’s latest flirtation with international lawbreaking has upended that list and put international relations at the top of the political agenda. Over 100,000 Russian military personnel and assets have been deployed in Crimea and in the Voronezh, Kursk and Bryansk regions of Western Russia. Russian naval assets from the Baltic and Northern fleets have also been reported heading south.

Russia, of course, denies it has any plans to invade. Putin is seeking guarantees that Ukraine will not be admitted as a Member State.

The five statements posted on the White House Briefing Room website since the turn of the year have grown gradually more severe in language and tone.

On January 2, President Biden and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine “expressed support for diplomatic efforts, starting next week with the bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue”. On January 19, the President and Senators, who had recently returned from a Congressional delegation to Ukraine, “exchanged views on the best ways the United States can continue to work closely with our allies and partners in support of Ukraine, including both ongoing diplomacy to try to resolve the current crisis and deterrence measures.”

Later that day, the President warned that any Russian forces moved across the Ukrainian border “will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies”. Yesterday’s call with allied leaders across Europe warned of “reparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank.”

So, what next?

The President is scarred by his disastrous mishandling of the Taliban’s summer takeover of Afghanistan. “Biden warns Russia that if they invade Ukraine, America will evacuate and leave $86bn in weapons behind”, joked one parody Twitter account. The administration cannot afford to make such vast mishaps again.

The Biden administration, desperate to repair its reputation at home and abroad, held two classified briefings yesterday for congressional leadership aides and committee staff on the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. The remaining Members of the House and Senate will have to wait until Congress returns from recess next week. There have reportedly been nine inter-agency briefings for the national security committees and eight briefings for leadership, committee and personal office staff.

Washington is spearheading a pro-Ukraine defence alongside its NATO allies in the face of Putin’s parading. The Pentagon has put 8,500 troops on standby for possible deployment to Eastern European allies and Baltic nations. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16s to the region. France has expressed readiness to send troops to Romania under NATO command. If Russia invades Ukraine, Boris Johnson warned the UK “would look to contribute to any new NATO deployments to protect our allies in Europe”.

The diplomatic toolkit has not yet been fully deployed. Calls to eject Russia from the SWIFT global banking system are growing louder, whilst MPs on both sides of the House of Commons urged the Government to do more to limit the flow of Russian money in the City of London in a Ministerial statement yesterday.

Global Britain at work

This column is hardly the place to determine whether the bubbling crisis in Ukraine is a welcome or irrelevant distraction from the Prime Minister’s travails spearheaded by the Metropolitan Police and Sue Gray. But what is undoubtedly clear is that a muscular UK presence so far in efforts to deter Putin alongside our closest allies is a visible display of what “Global Britain” at its best could be capable of.

Indeed, the seriousness of the situation in Ukraine is such that there has been no room for domestic political point-scoring so far. But it must be recognised that the UK’s freedom from the shackles of the European Union means that it is free to tie itself as close to the United States’ position as possible. EU Member States, meanwhile, must balance their position delicately given Germany’s refusal to upset its main domestic gas supplier – Russia.

White House and NATO allies are not wasting time in preparing to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, initially via diplomatic routes (including sanctions) and then providing defensive weapons systems and readying troops. President Biden might have misspoken earlier this week when he said the expected the Russians would “move in” given White House spokespeople has spoken carefully to try and clarify those remarks.

Inflation is already causing policymakers headaches in the United States and the United Kingdom. Any ground conflict in Ukraine will only add to those pressures given the inevitable rise in gas prices or reduction is Russian-sourced supply. Democratic leaders must decide if that is a price they are willing to pay.