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.

Robin Millar: History teaches us that appeasing aggression only fuels more aggression. It’s a lesson we must apply to Ukraine.

26 Jan

Robin Millar is the MP for Aberconwy.

Earlier this month Russian troops were deployed to suppress a civilian uprising and to protect Russian nationals, economic and military assets. Russian supplied weapons were used by the Russian-trained security services who were ordered to “shoot to kill” protesters who had revolted against the Russian-backed dictator of their country.

This situation played out in Kazhakstan, a former Soviet republic – but it serves as a reminder that Russia is determined to maintain its influence throughout the former Soviet Union. It also serves as a stark warning of the seriousness of the situation on Ukraine’s border and the small but real prospect of Russian invasion.

There are clear incentives for western involvement to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

First, the West has a moral obligation to take an interest and to act. Ukraine is a Western-looking country with aspirations to join NATO, a defensive alliance. Russia’s response to such aspirations held by other former Soviet republics has been to try and install a puppet regime – historically with a scant regard for democracy or human rights. Further afield, Russia’s actions in Syria under Assad and Belarus under Lukashenko must raise concerns for the fate that awaits the people of Ukraine, should their country fall.

Second, practically, a Russian invasion would drive up our cost of living, energy prices, inflation and threaten our post pandemic economic recovery. While the UK imports minimal quantities of Russian gas – depending instead on imports of LPG imports from the Middle East and of gas through pipelines from Norway – we are as exposed as any other economy to wholesale gas price increases. Should Russia restrict, by which I really mean weaponise, gas supplies in the event of conflict, prices would be pushed even higher than present record levels.

Third, unchecked, an invasion would have huge geopolitical implications for Europe and the West. Plenty of other states around the world will be watching to see if Western words are followed by action. China – and Taiwan – will have noted the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, led by an increasingly introvert US.

History teaches us that appeasing aggression only fuels more aggression. Even after 30 years, Russia has never fully accepted the independence of these former Soviet republics and has yearned to bring them back within its sphere of influence. Should Ukraine fall, Russia’s focus will shift to the Baltic States – each with their own significant Russian minorities.

However, the UK, along with our NATO allies, has been deterring them by overtly defending NATO member states.

Military deployments have included RAF Typhoon fighter jets to Lithuania in support of Baltic Air Policing in June 2021 – resulting in multiple interceptions of Russian military aircraft. In May last year an RAF-led military Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) was sent to the Baltic region as a component of Operation Cabrit – the British operational deployment to Estonia where UK troops are leading a multinational battlegroup.

This battle group forms part of the NATO-enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) mission, designed to improve Euro-Atlantic security, reassure NATO allies and deter NATO adversaries. Additional NATO reinforcements to the Baltic Sea include Denmark deploying a frigate and F-16 fighter jets, and the US reportedly deploying additional warships and aircraft to the region, along with thousands of additional troops.

As NATO members, the Baltic States fall under the umbrella of NATO’s collective defence – the unique and enduring principle that binds all NATO members together: an attack, be it armed, cyber or CBRN, against one member is an attack against them all. Russian aggression against the Baltic States is therefore a scenario that must be deterred. NATO can provide this deterrence.

However, NATO must stand united – which is easier said than done.

Last week the US President cast doubt on that unity, mutual commitment and determination. He undermined weeks of diplomacy and careful positioning when he stated: “what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades and it depends on what it does… It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do etc”. He continued to say, “there are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens.”

Closer to home, Germany, a key alliance member, is one of the world’s major arms manufactures and exporters and supplies weapons to nations such as Egypt, Israel and Pakistan. However, it is actively blocking the transfer to Ukraine from other alliance members urgently needed weapons including long range artillery shells and their delivery systems.

And this is exactly why the role of the UK is vital.

Shortly after being elected as the Member of Parliament for Aberconwy in 2019 I was privileged to be selected to participate in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be briefed on our military preparedness in Eastern Europe and on the threat that Russia represents on several fronts. I am also grateful to have observed, first-hand, the professionalism and dedication of our Armed Forces personnel, along with the high standard of training that they receive.

The UK is showing leadership in supporting Ukraine and in deterring Russian aggression. In August last year Jeremy Quin, the Defence Minister, told Parliament that “since 2015, the UK has trained over 21,000 Ukrainian military personnel in medical skills, logistics, counter improvised explosive devices, leadership and infantry tactics as part of Operation Orbital.”

More recently, recognising that a Russian invasion would be led by armoured columns crossing the border, the UK has provided targeted support to the Ukrainian military by airlifting 2,000 Next Generation Light Anti-Tank (NLAW) missiles. Given the scale of Russian armour this contribution is hugely significant in deterring Russian aggression, although it will not have gone unnoticed that public flight data shows the transport flights of this vital cargo are deviating around German airspace.

The price of this support is indeed high, but the cost of failure will be undoubtedly worse.

Our military support of Ukraine’s freedom is a symbol of the UK as a force for good in the world – every bit as much as our leadership in support for COVAX, the programme to provide Covid-19 vaccines to developing nations. As I write, “God Save the Queen” is trending on social media in Ukraine.

Every effort must be made to secure a diplomatic solution. But we must not repeat the mistake of Chamberlain, to confuse peace with an absence of conflict, until it is too late. Russia must know that any invasion of Ukraine will be resisted, militarily if necessary, by a united and determined NATO.

AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific. A tilt to it, yes. A lunge, no.

20 Sep

In a chapter of their book on Britain’s defence capability, White Flag, our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott describe “Operation Tethered Goat”.  It sets how in the event of a Russian incursion a small NATO force would attempt to defend a 65-mile stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border “straddled ominously by Kaliningrad to the west and the Russian satrapy of Belarus on the east.”

“If Russia were to attempt to close the gap, NATO’s only option would be to punch north with the US-led brigade based here. Until then, it would be up to the Baltic states to hold their ground, supported by small detachments of NATO forces stationed inside their borders.

“One of those forces would be headed by a small but fierce battalion of UK troops stationed in Tapa, Estonia. Some 800 troops from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are here, supported by smaller deployments from other member states”.  The isolation and vulnerability of our troops gives rise to the operation’s grim nickname.

This is the background against which to see the Americo-British-Australian deal over nuclear-powered submarines, the wounded reaction of France, and the new security pact between the two countries: AUKUS.

Further war in eastern Europe is relatively unlikely, for all the recent tangle between Russia and Ukraine.  But were it to happen, it would directly affect Britain and the alliance on which our security has depended for the best part of three-quarters of a century: NATO.  It would be war in our back yard.

Conflict in the South China is perhaps more likely, but would affect the UK less directly.  We wouldn’t be bound by our NATO obligations to participate.  And whatever may be said of the South China Sea, it is not in our neighbourhood.

None of which is to say that either the new deal or the pact is a bad thing.  Their core for us is the transfer of material – including in “cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities”, as Boris Johnson put it last week – not that of troops, for all the recent journey of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea.

As he went on to say, “this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands,” including perhaps the Red Wall-ish areas of Barrow and Derby.

The deal also shows how fast time moves and frail attention spans can be.  Only a month ago, Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan raised the prospect of an isolationist America withdrawing into itself.  Any prudent British government should be alert to the possibility and what it could mean for the future of Europe.

AUKUS is a sign that, whatever else might happen elsewhere, the United States is commited to the Indo-Pacific and that, as in Afghanistan, there is continuity between what Donald Trump did and what Biden is doing.

There has been a startling shift there in attitudes to America within the last five years or so – just as there has been one here since David Cameron declared a new “golden age” in Anglo-Sino relations.  That was before Brexit.  Of which there is a point to be made about the pact and the deal.

In the wake of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, Remain obsessives raised our exit from the EU, suggesting that it was responsible for Johnson failing to persuade Biden to delay the withdrawal, because Washington no longer listens to us.

Never mind that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel took much the same position.  The boot is now on the other foot.  Some of our fellow Leavers argue that were it not for Brexit, Britain would never have abandoned France for America and Australia – just as, were it not for our exit from the EU, the Government wouldn’t have summoned up the nerve to get on with our own Covid vaccine programme.

Like other counter-factuals, this one is unprovable.  And the lure of new jobs, plus the tug of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian relations, might have been enough to lure some other Prime Minister in an EU member Britain to make the same decision.

What can safely be said is that our relationship with America carries on as before, regardless of Brexit, and that Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO, the Commonwealth, and is one of Europe’s two armed powers, a top five aid donor, and in the top ten influential nations list on any reckoning.  All of which Leavers spelt out during the referendum campaign.

The Global Britain slogan has been ridiculed but, whatever one’s view of leaving the EU, it touches on a fundamental reality which AUKUS, that G7 membership, that Security Council presence and all the rest of it helps to illustrate.

Liz Truss is straight out the traps banging that drum, but it is worth pondering Global Britain, as suits that spherical image, in the round.  Europe is part of the globe.  It is a lot closer to us than Australia, if not in kinship than at least in distance.  And, as we have seen, a conflict in our continental hinterland would disturb us more immediately than one in an Asian sea.

Which takes us to France, and an entente that at present isn’t all that cordiale.  It’s scarcely unknown for Macron to withdraw its ambassadors when piqued: in recent years, they were brought home from Italy and Turkey.

But he will be very bruised, not least because the deal and the pact seem to have been firmed up in private between the three powers during the recent G7, while he was talking up France’s relationship with America (plus its interests in the Indo-Pacific), and taking potshots at Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The real-life cast of The Bureau – i.e: the French intelligence services – may have been asleep on the job, and there is certain to be an inquest.  British crowing at the Gallic cockerel’s embarrassment is inevitable.

But while your own neighbour next door may eventually move out, France won’t be going anywhere, and it isn’t in our interest for this complex relationship to cool further.  France is our only major military partner in Europe (and elsewhere: see Mali), a top five trading one, home to up to 400,000 Brits, the source of most of those channel boats, and tortously intertwined with our culture and history.

Nord 2 has brought Germany closer to Putin’s orbit.  The former’s election takes place soon.  Whatever the result, France will feel the tug from Germany, as will the whole EU.  We don’t want to see the latter plump itself up as a potential rival to NATO.  But it would help us, America, and Europe itself for our neighbours – bearing that Russian presence in mind – to spend more on defence.

Their unwillingness to do so (Mark Francois recently set out the figures on this site), Germany’s passivity and a certain strain in French thinking suggests a drift into the Russian orbit.

De Gaulle’s ambivalence about the old Soviet Union, on which he blew cool post-war and warmer later on, had its roots in a French cultural antagonism to America and periods of alliance with Russia.  The ghost of the General will believe that AUKUS proves him right: that when push comes to shove, Britain will always throw its lot in with its American cousins.

We should turn a new page with France, or at least try to  – and remember that while a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a one thing, a lunge there would be quite another.  Putin hasn’t “gone away, you know”. And Islamist extremism hasn’t, either.

Garvan Walshe: Russia’s building up troops on Ukraine’s border. Here’s what we can do to stymie Putin.

15 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

Tanks rolling towards the Ukrainian border. Paratroopers in Crimea. Mechanised troops to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. A “rotational” but in effect permanent presence on Ukraine’s frontier with Belarus.

These are just the most obviously military steps in Russia’s campaign to divide and confuse the West, and test the mettle of the Biden Administration.

They come as tensions increase in East Asia, with China increasing pressure on Taiwan, and the US trying to enlist Japan into backing up the island. The question on Russia’s mind is who are the Japans – the large, democratic American allies – of Europe?

Moscow could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t any. France was suckered into attempting a “reset” in relations in exchange for cooperation in the North Africa that never materialised. How seriously can Germany be taken until it cancels Nordstream 2? And the UK has just released a review of strategy promising a military tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s big disadvantage is that its economy is still relatively small (its GDP is the same as that of Spain and Portugal, or the Nordic countries), and its autocratic regime needs an expensive repressive apparatus to hold onto power.

Its advantage, however, is that such wealth as it has comes from natural resources, and these are easy for the ruling elite to capture. It’s much easier for the “Collective Putin”, as the ruling elite is sometimes known, to spend them on internal security, military hardware and foreign subversion than it is for a democracy constrained by law, voters unhappy about tax rises, and expensive welfase states.

Putin’s central belief is that the world is a transactional place where raw power is decisive. He finds it difficult to understand the Western talk of values, and dismisses it as cant, just has he knows that Russian lines about non-interference in the affairs of other nations or respect for international frontiers are empty propaganda – to be used, or discarded, as convenient.

But if he cannot quite fathom the levels of trust that Western countries still have for one another, he knows how to erode it by supporting nationalists from Marine Le Pen (whose party received loans from a Russian bank) to Alex Salmond (still a presenter on Russia Today), and of course, Donald Trump.

But 2021 has worsened the strategic environment. Biden has bluntly called him a “killer”. The autumn’s elections in Germany could deliver the Greens (who are not only anti-Putin, but anti-the oil and gas from which he makes his money).

His only solid European ally is Hungary, whose government has bought Russia’s vaccine, hired Rosatom to renovate its nuclear power plant, agreed to host and give diplomatic immunity from regulatory oversight,to the Russian state International Investment Bank, and provided a permissive environment for Russian spies. Viktor Orban’s collaboration with Putin, is however, enough to neutralise the EU’s Russia policy and limit the effectiveness of NATO.

The latest military build up is another attempt to increase pressure on the alliance now that Trump is no longer in a position to destroy it. Ukraine, which was formally offered a path to NATO membership in 2008, has repeated its request to join, splitting its friends from those who profess to be afraid to “poke the bear.”

But if immediate NATO membership for Ukraine is currently off the table, there is an opportunity here for the UK to be a “North European” Japan, and anchor North European security against Russia in support of the US-led alliance. This role should naturally fall to the UK, since France is heavily committed in North Africa, and Germany cannot be expected to be decisive, especially during a year where the election coincides with Russia’s annual Zapad military exercises.

Britain is in a position to convene a coalition of European countries worried about Russia, including Poland, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, possibly with Ukraine in association. A semi-formal initiative and northern analogue of France’s European Intervention Initiative, but obviously more defensive in nature, could focus on reinforcing the territorial integrity of its members, as well as security of the Baltic sea, and develop programmes of mutual assistance in civil resilience for circumstances below those that would warrant the invocation of NATO’s Article Five.

Such an initiative would, I believe, be well received in Washington, where a reinforcement of Britain’s role in the Euro-Atlantic, and not just the distant Indo-Pacific, theatre would bring significant relief.

Johnson – “Our new, full-spectrum approach to cyber will transform our ability to protect our people”

13 Mar

The Integrated Review will be published on Tuesday.  That’s to say, the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, to give the document its full title.  Boris Johnson will make a Commons statement.

And he steps up the pre-publicity today by saying that the review will commit to a new, full spectrum approach to the UK’s cyber capability – announcing the establishment of a ‘cyber corridor’ across the North of England and, he claims, thousands of jobs. The Prime Minister said:

“Cyber power is revolutionising the way we live our lives and fight our wars, just as air power did 100 years ago. We need to build up our cyber capability so we can grasp the opportunities it presents while ensuring those who seek to use its powers to attack us and our way of life are thwarted at every turn.

“Our new, full-spectrum approach to cyber will transform our ability to protect our people, promote our interests around the world and make the lives of British people better every day.”

The Government says that opening a new headquarters for the National Cyber Force (NCF) in the North of England will drive growth in the tech, digital and defence sectors outside of London, and help create new partnerships between government, the sector and universities in the region.

The NCF was created last year to transform the UK’s capacity to conduct targeted offensive cyber operations against terrorists, hostile states and criminal gangs – drawing together personnel from both defence and the intelligence agencies under one unified command.

Opening the HQ of the NCF in the North of England will drive growth in the tech, digital and defence sectors outside of London and help create new partnerships between government, the sector and universities in the region, Government sources claim.

They add that “the review will set out the importance of cyber technology to Britain’s way of life – whether by defeating enemies on the battlefield, making the internet a safer place or developing cutting-edge tech to improve people’s lives”.

Defence currently sustains more than 35,000 jobs in the North West of England alone. Ten thousand people are employed in maritime design in Barrow and 12,000 people work in advanced aerospace engineering and manufacturing at Samlesbury Aerospace Enterprise Zone, where the UK is producing the fifth generation F-35 stealth aircraft.

In addition to the NCF,  last year saw the creation of the 13th Signals Regiment, the first dedicated cyber regiment, and expanded the Defence Cyber School. These capabilities will play a part in operations, including HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first global deployment this year.

We now wait to see what mix of cyber and conventional capabilities the review proposes; what it says about the major foreign policy and security challenges, and where development fits in – as the Government prepares to abandon the 0.7 per cent GNI aid target, at least temporarily.

The challenges should shape the capabilities – on paper, anyway, though that is more often than not the case in the breach than the observance.  If the review stresses, say, naval and cyber capability at the expense of the army, what does that imply for the potential defence of the Baltic states from Russia?

What is Boris Johnson’s position on China, where the UK’s trade and security interests are at odds, Conservative backbenchers are in revolt over China’s abominable treatment of the Uighars, and Dominic Raab, this very day, has accused China of breaching the joint declaration on Hong Kong?

Finally, does the Government now believe that there is no major third threat to Britain’s security – from Islamist extremism, which dominated the security conversation from 9/11 through 7.7 to the murder of Lee Rigby and beyond? It didn’t get so much as a mention in the Prime Minister’s recent speech to the Munich Security Conference.

The review’s launch this week will be followed by a Defence White Paper next: that’s the document in which cuts and scalebacks will be announced.  A procurement review will come in its wake.

Meanwhile, there’s at least one select committee report in the immediate pipeline – the Defence Select Committee report on procurement itself.  Busy times for the Ministry of Defence in the immediate future then,.