Western leaders should leave Ukraine’s war aims to the Ukrainians

1 May

One of the things about war is that it has a habit of running away with people. Whatever the lie of the land before the first shot was fired, attitudes tend to harden very quickly once blood is spilled.

We are not actually at war, of course. But the Government is still taking a harder and harder line.

Just this week, Liz Truss has called for a sustained rise in defence spending – “freedom must be better armed than tyranny” and warned that the war in Ukraine could last five years.

Ben Wallace, meanwhile, has been reported as saying that the goal must be to drive Russian forces from all of Ukraine, including Crimea.

Now in fairness to the Defence Secretary, his actual comments seem rather more guarded, emphasising that there is “a long way to go” before a theoretical push into the peninsula and reminding listeners of the abandoned Minsk Agreement. Ruling out a negotiated settlement he was not.

It also goes without saying that Ukraine deserves the West’s full support to fight for as long as she wishes to fight. Russia has launched an unprovoked war of aggression, in the course of which it has perpetrated outrage after outrage against the civilian population.

But as with the previous tough talk about prosecuting Russian war criminals, politicians should be careful that we don’t end up in a position where we are pressuring Kiev to keep fighting where it might otherwise wish to reach a settlement.

NATO is not actually at war with Russia. This means that whatever the hardships created by the breakdown in trade relations – and they may be severe – it is not our people dying on the frontline or getting displaced in their millions from their homes. It is therefore much easier for those waging proxy wars to strike uncompromising poses than those actually fighting them.

Insisting on the return of Crimea, especially, may end up backing the West into a corner wherein it cannot sign up to any realistic settlement.

Unlike the ‘People’s Republics’ in Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia annexed the peninsula outright in 2014 and has since administered it as an integral part of the Federation.

Life under Moscow rule has therefore played out very differently to that under the gangsters and nationalist militias running the Donbas, and whilst the situation in international law is quite straightforward there is nonetheless the question of whether or not Crimea would, given the choice, actually prefer to remain Russian.

This fact may not cut much ice with Western policymakers; they did not feel, for example, that the right of Kosovo to independence from Serbia should be accompanied by any reciprocal right for Serb-majority North Kosovo to choose to remain Serbian. Foreign policy is seldom, for all the rhetoric, actually about the even-handed application of universal principles.

But that sense of national feeling, if it exists – not to mention an extremely defensible geographic position and the sheer loss of face – could have a big impact on how far Russian leaders (including hypothetical post-Putin ones who might otherwise want to abandon his bid to conquer Ukraine) would be prepared to go to defend it.

If Ukraine chooses to invade Crimea, that’s its call and its right. But if the most realistic prospect of peace involves compromising on the peninsula, that choice should be Kiev’s to make. NATO is not fighting Russia, Ukraine is.

Our Cabinet League Table. Wallace top again, Patel up, Johnson down – and Sunak in the red

25 Apr
  • This is Ben Wallace’s third table-topping month (with 85 points his rating has barely moved), and a pattern is beginning to form below him – as Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Anne-Marie Trevelyan come in variously at second, third and fourth (with scores in the mid to low sixties).  Both the first of those and now the second are being written up as potential leadership candidates.
  • Priti Patel was bottom of the table last month on -17 points, having languished at the lower end of it for some time – not least because of the small boats issue.  The Government now has a policy to deal with it, and her rating consequently jumps to 31 points, near the middle of the table.
  • Boris Johnson was in the same zone last month, having been in negative ratings for the previous three, and is now back down again – third from bottom.  Ukraine will have pushed him up last month; partygate will have pulled him down this. But the driver of his low scores is that the Government is too left-wing, at least in the view of many activists.
  • Rishi Sunak plunged last month to third from bottom in the wake of the Spring Statement (on plus eight points).  He drops to last place this month, coming in at minus five points, in the wake of the furore about his wife’s tax affairs and former non-dom status.  It is perhaps surprising that his fall isn’t larger; it may even be that the worst is behind him – in this table at least.

Our Cabinet League Table. Sunak plunges to third from bottom.

4 Apr
  • Last September, I reported that Dominic Raab had plummeted third from top in July to fourth from bottom in our Cabinet League Table.  Today, he is back to sixth from top, having worked his way out of the relegation zone.
  • I write this to offer comfort to enthusiasts for Rishi Sunak, who was eleventh last month, but now finds himself plunged to third from bottom, in the wake of a Spring Statement with which the majority of our panel is dissatisfied.
  • Having managed the table for a long time, I know that what goes down can come up again – and vice-versa.  Our respondents are very knowing, and many use the table as a form of running commentary rather than a means of permanent judgement.
  • At the top, the changes are very marginal, with Steve Barclay’s fall of nine points from 64 to 55, and drop from second to fifth, being the largest movement in the top ten – and it’s not a very large one in the great scheme of events.
  • At the bottom, Priti Patel falls into negative ratings after a month’s bad headlines over Ukrainian refugees.  The Home Office is so permanently troubled that it’s hard to see her moving up towards the comfort of mid-table in the near future.
  • Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is out of negative ratings, where he had been for three months running, and into the middle of the table.  This is at once an impressive recovery from where he was and a lacklustre rating given his position as Prime Minister.
  • Johnson will undoubtedly have gained from his handling of the Ukraine, which received an overwhelming thumbs up from our panel.  Ninety-three per cent took a positive view of it and 58 per cent a negative one of Sunak’s Spring Statement.

Allan Mallinson: What if Putin opts to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

22 Mar

Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, and a novelist and writer. His The Making of the British Army is published by Penguin Random House.

Ben Wallace wrote on this site last week that Vladiir Putin should be in no doubt that escalation will meet a robust response. A day earlier, Garvan Walshe described the need for “escalation dominance”.

They’re right, of course. And unthinkable though it may seem, we need therefore to talk about tactical nuclear weapons. We’ve almost forgotten what they were.

The only thing that ever bothered me in the 1980s, when the Cold War was at a dangerous fork in the road and I was commanding a squadron in Germany, was the periodic guard duty at the nuclear ammunition storage site near Paderborn.

It wasn’t the thought of a nuclear accident – where else to be in that event but at ground zero? – or attack by Spetsnaz or terrorist gangs, for we could have dealt with that. Rather was it the military police battalion of the 59th (US) Ordnance Brigade (Special Ammunition Support).

The MPs’ job was security, and they took it hyper-seriously. (If not, why not?). A Lance Corporal that stumbled when interrogated about his precise orders could bring a career-stopping rebuke from the Commander-in-Chief for the officer in command.

The ammunition was nothing to do with the strategic nuclear deterrent (Polaris), technically. These were low-yield shells for the Royal Artillery’s eight-inch calibre howitzer (range about 12 miles), and warheads for the Lance ballistic missile (range, 50 miles or so): they were tactical – “battlefield” – nuclear weapons (TNW).

Each national contingent on NATO’s Central Front — the US, British, Canadian, German, Dutch and Belgian — fielded the same delivery systems, but the warheads were American, to be out-loaded during a crisis, and fiercely guarded for the rest of the time.

The Royal Air Force (Germany), along with the other national air contingents, had sub-strategic nuclear bombs and missiles of their own. The targets of RAF(G)’s TNWs were troop concentrations to the east of the River Weser, in the event of Soviet spearheads breaching the so-called Weser Line on the western side of the Upper Weser valley. The Lances and howitzers of the Royal Artillery’s 39th Heavy and 50th Missile regiments would have joined in the interdiction.

That, however, was the purely military view of TNW, and there were indeed some who regarded nuclear artillery as “just a bigger bang.”

The other view was that of the policy staff in Whitehall. I remember during my first week in the directorate of military operations being told by a senior mandarin that the General Staff did not understand deterrence.

In essence, the policy staff’s view was that of Sir Humphrey Appleby when he explained Deterrence to the Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister.  Hacker thought he probably wouldn’t use Trident in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain, and that they, the Soviets, probably knew it – so buying Trident was pointless.

Sir Humphrey agreed, up to a point: “Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t. But they can’t certainly know.”

Hacker doubted this. “They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.”

Sir Humphrey was then at pains to explain the essential element of uncertainty in deterrence theory: “Yes, but though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that, although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would.”

Which is why when in 2015 Jeremy Corbyn, pressed by Sarah Montague, the Today presenter, on whether there were any circumstances in which he would use the nuclear option, said “No”, he effectively cancelled deterrence and made himself unelectable as Prime Minister.

Sir Humphrey didn’t explain to Jim Hacker the role of TNW in deterrence theory. It was comedy, after all, and the joke was better delivered quickly. But the purpose of TNW, said the real Sir Humphreys in the 1980s, was to provide a plausible ladder of escalation: graduated response, rather than the erstwhile and rather less plausible doctrine of massive retaliation, with its notion of mutually assured destruction.

What those eight-inch nuclear shells did was provide multiple threads in the seamless cloak of escalatory deterrence logic – from the first rifle shots as Soviet troops set foot across the Inner German Border, to the release of multiple warheads over Russian cities.

TNWs weren’t meant to be used; they were meant to demonstrate that the cloak of deterrence was indeed seamless, and that there was therefore real peril for the Soviets in any offensive. Strategic and tactical nuclear weapons were inseparable in deterring both conventional and nuclear attack, which was why NATO could never sign up to “no first use.”

The Soviets had to be convinced of the real peril, of course – and so the soldiers and airmen had to plan for the actual use of TNW, practise their firing, and store the warheads and missiles well forward. And indeed the policy staff tended to view calls for any substantial strengthening of conventional defence, as the soldiers were always urging, as potentially diminishing deterrence, since it might increase the threshold of tactical nuclear release and therefore tempt a Soviet conventional attack with limited objectives.

Some soldiers thought this was all nonsense. Several chiefs of the general staff in the 1980s, notably two of the most cerebral – Dwin Bramall and Nigel Bagnall – would happily have scrapped all nuclear weapons, strategic and tactical.

They supposed the Soviets acted with the same rationality as they themselves, and were probably right to, although we’ll never know because the Soviet leadership was never put to the ultimate test. The arguments ceased with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when TNW were withdrawn from Europe and, in effect, scrapped. The Russians, on the other hand, did not scrap theirs.

Putin quite evidently acts with a different rationality, his logic based on different premises. What if, therefore, in contemplating using TNW, he becomes sufficiently certain that NATO, unable to respond with other than strategic nuclear weapons, will never gain the authority of its members to escalate?

In the public imagination, his crude but tellingly vague nuclear threats over Ukraine suggest intercontinental strikes. But what if he were contemplating a TNW strike against a “legitimate military target”? And how, in any future confrontation with NATO, would the alliance deter that same threat — or if deterrence fails, would restore deterrence?

To win Cold War Two, we must get real again about deterrence. NATO rearmament must address the seam that has been inserted in the previously seamless cloak.

Ben Wallace: Putin should be in no doubt that any escalation will meet a robust response

18 Mar

Ben Wallace is the Secretary of State for Defence.

Somewhere out in the mud and snow of Ukraine, brave men and women are trying to resist the overwhelming forces of the Russian Army. The Russian doctrine will insist on escalating violence and brutality in order to overcome a population that will not immediately capitulate.

Whether this invasion lasts days or months, the consequences for Vladimir Putin will endure for years. How many Western leaders were lied to, and by now, feel taken for fools? How many times did we all hear the promise that “Russia will not invade Ukraine”?

In early February, I sat opposite two of the most powerful of Putin’s inner circle, General Shoygu and General Gerasimov, and I heard the same assurances.

My experience with the Russian administration has taught me to judge them only by their actions, not their words. I was so unconvinced by their phoney performance when we sat and discussed Ukraine, I immediately ordered more aid to Ukraine as soon as I got back to the UK. I am glad my instincts were proved correct.

There was a moment in the bilateral tête-à-tête where I felt like saying: “You know you are lying and you know I know you are lying, so why don’t we just end it all here.”

In Russia, they actually have a word for this type of deception, ‘vranyo’. It is viewed as the ultimate demonstration of power. The fact one side knows it is being lied to and can do nothing about it.

At the time, I thought it would be best to sit and listen to their deception; to let them think that they were cleverer than us and assume we were just another foreign delegation to be lectured at and put in our place. It was that same arrogance, from that same building, that is responsible for the Russian military plan we now see grinding to a halt before our eyes.

No one can say they weren’t warned. Prime ministers and presidents repeatedly warned that the Ukrainians would fight and that the international community would sanction the Kremlin. I warned that as a consequence of invasion, they would get more defence spending and more NATO on their borders. Every single consequence that we warned Russia about has now come to pass.

But briefly, the mask slipped, and that was all it took to know the truth. To know that somewhere in the same building was another room and with another map. Marked with army units and Ukrainian cities.

The slip occurred as I was leaving. I complimented Gerasimov on his military doctrine that had influenced our own defence reform. I said how much I agreed that ‘speed and readiness’ of armed forces was so important in today’s world.  Probably not prepared for a compliment, he replied: “I have 136 Battalion Combat tactical groups ready. Never again will we have to be number three to the US and China.”

His determination to be able to correct some Russian perceived historical inadequacy and humiliation levelled towards his country after the Cold War was overwhelming.  Just as he said it, another senior General walked past and said in perfect English: “Yes, speed and readiness… and intimidation.”

In January, I wrote that the world was in danger of engaging in Putin’s ‘straw man’ of NATO encirclement and not focusing on his deep held beliefs: that Ukraine was really Russian and that sovereign Ukraine was desperate to be liberated from a government of Nazis.

All the evidence was from Putin’s own words over the years. But still people didn’t want to hear it. In fact, even now there are still Kremlin ‘useful idiots’ who naively parrot his straw man that ‘NATO ambitions provoked Russia’.

No one should doubt that what we are seeing unfolding before our eyes is a planned invasion, not to nullify non-existent Ukrainian threats, but a deliberate attempt to occupy and annex a sovereign country. Russia is doing this despite signing agreements and communiqués over the last two decades respecting the rights of all countries to be free to choose their alliances.  It is an act of unprovoked aggression the scale of which we haven’t seen in Europe for 77 years.

As the Russian military effort falters and their plan unravels, what can we expect to happen next?

First, Putin will be determined not to fail in any way. He is unlikely to be told the truth about the scale of the failures. The first response, as we have already seen, is to blow the dust off the old Soviet doctrine and resort to encirclement, followed by persistent bombardment and siege.

The second will perhaps be the introduction of chemical weapons into the conflict. Either using a false flag operation to attempt to justify more violence, or as a straight military tactic in the same way that we saw Sarin gas deployed in Syria.

Third could be an attempt to widen the conflict to distract from failure. Putin may feel that the way out of the hole that he has made for himself is to lash out and hope other nations will join in the fight and therefore give him an excuse to escalate. He might also be foolish or desperate enough to think that his destruction of Ukraine would go unnoticed amidst a wider war.

The United Kingdom and the Ministry of Defence are prepared for all of the potential ‘next steps.’ NATO is militarily stronger than Russia and every response will make it even harder for Putin to succeed in Ukraine. The sanctions have proved that his assumption of a weak, decadent West being unable to come together was wrong.

The first scenario is already happening with devastating loss of civilian life. That is why I took the decision to increase and upgrade provision of lethal aid to the Ukrainian forces. The high velocity anti-air missiles will seriously challenge Russian air.

The Kremlin should not doubt, for one second, that the other scenarios will be met with a similar robust response – both from the international community and from Britain. It would be unwise to test us.

Europe and the US will not make the same mistake it did in 2014 after the invasion of Crimea. We will stand united.

Stewart Jackson: Arms to Ukraine, Russian bank sanctions, action on SWIFT. How Johnson and Britain are showing leadership.

7 Mar

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

The events since the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces just eighteen days ago will have vindicated Lenin’s famous dictum that “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Francis Fukiyama’s “End of History” feels even more like a take from another age as before – now that liberal democracy faces its gravest threat in decades.

The German volte face on defence and energy and the ditching of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, the repudiation of the foolish and cynical Merkel engagement with Putin, the shattering of the Net Zero shibboleth, the renaissance of a cohesive and united NATO and the pivot of the US Administration back to European security, are all fundamental changes.

It would be churlish to deny that the European Union has risen to an historical challenge – although the “strategic autonomy” fantasies of Emmanuel Macron are surely now irrelevant. A partial post-Brexit thaw is also notable as witnessed by the Foreign Secretary’s invitation to and attendance at the EU Foreign Affairs Council on Friday.

The German U-turn and commitment to spend an extra £83 billion on defence this year is an epoch-making development as significant as German unification in 1990. The Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary have all been integral to these changes.

Indeed, it really isn’t too much to claim that the UK Government has, since last autumn, galvanised the wider liberal democratic West towards action in defending its own values and strategic interests.

So it’s time to repudiate the lazy narrative from some media commentators (and not just the perennial Johnson-haters) that the United Kingdom has been slow, ineffective and lacking influence or political and diplomatic heft during this crisis.

The evidence suggests quite the opposite.

Ask the Ukrainians themselves. A new poll by Lord Ashcroft commissioned from Ukraine and featured on ConHome last Friday showed that a majority of Ukrainians named only one country as doing enough to help them: Britain.

Even some of his opponents accept that Boris Johnson has handled the current crisis with aplomb and a sure touch, with clear messaging and a simple narrative. As ever, the Prime Minister has eluded his detractors and performed admirably with his back against the wall. Plus ca change.

Similarly, the Cabinet has looked serious and professional in swiftly driving through legislative and policy changes on the back of foresight and detailed planning dating back many months with confident and authoritative media performances by the likes of Ben Wallace, Dominic Raab, Grant Shapps, Liz Truss and Priti Patel.

Despite the cries of impotence by some Remainer naysayers, the British Government, which has never eschewed the importance of collaborative working with the EU in areas like defence, intelligence and security, has strengthened bilateral alliances with the Baltic States and Poland.

Additionally, the UK is the leading light in the Joint Expeditionary Force: an alliance of northern European countries: Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Latvia  and last week, the Prime Minister “outlined details of the UK’s new offer to NATO across its eastern flank”. The UK stood ready for any further request from NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe to go further with military support to NATO from UK Armed Forces, he said.

One senses in the Prime Minister a real sense of purpose and a moral mission in opposing Putin’s thuggish aggression, which is why he has travelled several times to Eastern Europe in support of our allies, to Poland in February and the Baltic states a week ago, and he no doubt feels acutely the disappointment of having to rule out a No Fly Zone, since this would plunge Europe as a whole continent into dangerous conflict with a damaged and desperate nuclear-armed Russia.

Whilst the sanctions imposed on Putin’s regime after the Crimean invasion of 2014 were anaemic and low intensity, this country knew what it was dealing with after the 2018 Salisbury poisonings and quite rightly prepared for likely Russian foreign incursions by helping to arm our allies and to prepare to wage economic warfare.

Our policy has been consistent in contributing over two per cent of our GDP to defence spending in line with NATO strategy. Whatever Germany and others may do now in terms of meeting the NATO minimum target, the former currently spending just 1.5 per cent of GDP, the UK remains the fourth largest spender in the Alliance – the third in effect, since Greece, the largest spender, is arming against Turkey. Therefore we’re the largest NATO spender in Europe.

From that position of relative strength, we’ve been able to offer more than merely warm words to our friends on the front line.

We’ve trained 22,000 members of the Ukrainian armed forces under Operation Orbital since 2015, and were among the first European nations to send defensive weapons to Ukraine, with an initial tranche of 2,000 anti-tank defensive missiles, and more weapons left RAF Brize Norton last weekend, including handheld anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry.

UK economic warfare and sanctions are focused on restricting the Russian economy and bringing the leadership and oligarchy to its knees using such legal measures as Unexplained Wealth Orders and the putataive Economic Crime Bill, as well as multilateral action.

The UK has led the way sanctioning in banks – cutting off Russian debt raising and limiting deposits in UK banks, while also employing trade embargoes, travel bans, asset freezes and export controls and draconian measures in space, aerospace, aviation and maritime and other key strategic sectors like services and energy.

Fundamentally, the plunge in the rouble and in foreign reserves, rocketing interest rates and the collapse in Russian supply chains and living standards would not have happened without international action, and the UK clearly helped to lead the way in terms of two of the biggest sanctions: Impeding Russia’s access to the SWIFT system, and sanctioning of Russia’s Central Bank.

The Prime Minister was reported as calling for Russian banks to be barred from SWIFT as early as February 25th  and a bar was extended that to all Russian bank assets last week.

Finally, the Government has committed a total of £220 million of direct aid to Ukraine, including £80 million of humanitarian aid announced on 1st March and launched in a matter of weeks, a Family Visa Scheme and a local sponsorship scheme, to settle displaced Ukrainian nationals in the UK.

In many ways, our country has led the world in response the Ukrainian tragedy and has, at the very least, proven our ability to exert influence as an independent, sovereign nation which freely chooses to work collectively with both bilateral and multilateral partners, helping to strengthen NATO, stand with America and forge a partial rapprochement with the European Union in the face of the most serious assault on our values since the Cold War.

The Foreign Office recognises better than it did the need to combat Russia propaganda over Ukraine

19 Feb

Every new Foreign Secretary used, until recently, to think there must be something we can do to improve relations with Russia.

This error is no longer being made. Russia has behaved so badly, in such a variety of places, ranging from Ukraine to Syria to Salisbury, that the need to combat Russian propaganda has instead come to the fore, and the Foreign Office and other parts of the British Government have become better at doing so.

In the present crisis, western public opinion has been prepared for the likelihood that Moscow, by mounting false flag operations, will seek, in an outrageous and implausible way, to blame its aggressive acts on Kiev.

Much Russian propaganda is cack-handed, to say the least. “Their tradecraft is not very good,” a source remarked, and instanced the Salisbury attack, which was so clumsy it constituted a kind of education in how shameless Moscow is prepared to be.

Jeremy Corbyn was pretty much alone in failing to accept the evidence in that case of Russian culpability. The attack happened on 4th March 2018, and on 12th March  the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, was summoned to the Foreign Office to be addressed by Boris Johnson, the then Foreign Secretary, in the presence of Alan Duncan, Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, and one British official. Duncan has since published his diary account of this meeting:

Yakovenko and his deputy came in, all jaunty and smiling as if nothing had happened. Boris and I were suitably severe. We all remained standing up, on facing sides of the Foreign Secretary’s large office table.

“Ambassador. Two people have been poisoned on UK soil in Salisbury. One is in a critical condition and might die. His daughter and a policeman are in hospital. Our laboratory has established beyond doubt that the poison used was a banned military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.

“We know that this was made in Russia, and can only have been handled by the Russian state. Either the Russian state did this or it has lost control of its Novichok stocks. You have until midnight tomorrow to let us know which.”

And then he raised his tone and with fabulous indignation verging on anger, told him in no uncertain terms how unacceptable it was to violate our security, try to murder someone on British soil, breach a highly important international convention, etc. It was a deliciously delivered dressing down, in response to which the dumb-struck Yakovenko couldn’t say anything, and just left.

Well done, Boris! I felt genuinely proud of him. Perhaps it worked so well because he was not larking about and playing to the gallery – he spoke from the heart and meant what he said. It was a magic moment, which shows that little can beat Boris at his best.

By the end of March 2018 Britain and 28 other countries had expelled a total of 153 Russian diplomats.

False flag operations by GRU agents in Ukraine are likely to be conducted with the same mixture of brutality and incompetence.

There will be an insulting refusal to try to harmonise the different provocations into a coherent narrative. Every attempt will be made to muddy the waters while at the same time seeking to justify the unjustifiable.

So it is important that Johnson, Liz Truss and Ben Wallace, and their equivalents in the United States and other western nations, continue to warn of the likelihood of further violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, and to condemn any violations as soon as they are committed.

Vladimir Putin craves propaganda victories. The West must go on denying him those victories. Last night the Foreign Office issued a statement condemning the latest cyber attacks by the GRU on the Ukrainian banking system:

The UK Government judges that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were involved in this week’s distributed denial of service attacks against the financial sector in Ukraine.

The attack showed a continued disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty. This activity is yet another example of Russia’s aggressive acts against Ukraine.

This disruptive behaviour is unacceptable – Russia must stop this activity and respect Ukrainian sovereignty. We are steadfast in our support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

Patience will be needed, but a clear principle is at stake. Russia has no right to violate Ukrainian sovereignty, and other sovereign nations must not cease to point this out.

There is no public support for turning the Dnieper into Britain’s next Suez

10 Feb

Yesterday, we led our newslinks with the news that the Government has decided to deploy more troops to Poland. An extra 350 British soldiers will be deployed in the country, following Joe Biden’s announcement of an extra 1,700 American ones.

One scarcely needs to be a senior Russian military strategist to note that these are not big numbers. For comparison, Russia has reportedly amassed somewhere in the region of 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border – enough, according to that country’s own defence experts, to capture Kiev.

This latest British deployment is part of a series of moves by NATO to reinforce member nations in Eastern Europe, in case a war in the Ukraine ‘spills over’. Direct assistance to Kiev has been limited to airlifts of equipment, as well as ships and other materiel.

In fairness to the Government, the UK seems to be broadly considered to have acquitted itself well on this front, and Ben Wallace’s handling of the crisis has helped propel him to the top of our Cabinet League Table. But such measures will not save Ukraine if Vladimir Putin decides to order an invasion.

Hawks such as Tobias Ellwood, who has called for a direct deployment of NATO forces on Ukrainian soil, are almost completely isolated. Abroad, the West is struggling to form a coherent position even on economic sanctions. At home, as our Editor pointed out in the aftermath of the disastrous retreat from Kabul, the public seems set against military intervention except when Britain or its assets are attacked, or in the event a “genocide or large-scale humanitarian crisis”.

And in this instance, can we really blame them? Sending troops to Ukraine would simply be the apogee – or should that be perigee – of NATO’s woefully muddled policy towards the country.

Since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has sometimes been dubbed “a bureaucracy in search of a pension”. Following the collapse of the USSR, a defensive compact against a credible threat has become something much more nebulous. This has seen it expand into Russia’s near-abroad, aggravating Moscow, whilst at the same time most of its members’ commitments to actual military spending has attenuated.

This lack of strategic focus extends beyond the defence sector. Germany has shuttered its nuclear power sector and favoured the Nord Stream II pipeline, leaving the EU’s most powerful Member State extremely vulnerable to Russian energy politics. The UK too, as we noted before, has for decades neglected to develop domestic nuclear energy which could have increased our strategic autonomy (not to mention ameliorating the current cost of living crisis).

Our Armed Forces, meanwhile, are smaller than ever and getting smaller. Every new generation of kit, in order to maintain cutting-edge specs, is smaller than the last. Trying to divide a shrinking budget across commitments ‘East of Suez’ and maintaining a global expeditionary capacity also means our military is simply not geared towards a large-scale conventional land war in Europe, even if we were minded to fight one.

There is no will for a joint NATO deployment in Ukraine. Indeed, even as Liz Truss was setting off to Moscow, Emmanuel Macron was trying to pressure the country into signing up to the deeply unpopular Minsk II agreement, which will see the Ukrainian constitution reformed and a much larger role handed to what are essentially Russian proxies. La paix à notre époque!

And in the absence of major partners, there is no public appetite for giving Putin the chance to turn the Dnieper into the next Suez with an independent Anglo-American deployment (assuming hypothetically that the Americans were game).

Politicians who want to rebuild Britain’s capacity for action and will to act had best settle in for decades of difficult, detailed work – and be prepared to make hard choices.

Would a China hawk such as Tom Tugendhat, for example, be prepared to relinquish the UK’s role in the South China Sea, if that was what it took to resource an Army of the Baltic? Would successive defence secretaries be prepared to move away from buying state-of-the-art warships to free up funds for larger quantities of less sexy equipment? Would the defence chiefs?

That’s assuming they can persuade future prime ministers not to cut defence spending, of course.

Our Cabinet League Table. Truss’s year-long reign is ended as Wallace goes top.

1 Feb

Our monthly panel of Party members has become very knowing.  It seems to me increasingly to use the Cabinet League Table to upscore and downscore Ministers on the basis of the month’s events. And so –

  • Ben Wallace’s vigorous response to the crisis in eastern Europe, coming relatively soon after his mature conduct during the Afghanistan debacle, propels him upwards from 62 points to 80 points – and he displaces Liz Truss after her year-long reign at the top of the table.  The Defence Secretary’s name has crept into the margins of future Party leadership speculation. It will now advance further.
  • Truss herself is down from 74 points to 67 points.  That’s a small drop and of almost no significance, but it may indicate that the Foreign Office, with its multilayered challenges, is a tougher proposition for the occupant than International Trade in the wake of Brexit, in which she was able to roll over a series of deals.
  • Boris Johnson is still in negative ratings, but his score must be seen in the context of a positive total on Covid handling, and a change of mood about the toxicity of “partygate”.  Last month, his rating was -34 points, a record low for him.  This month, it is heading in the right direction.
  • Another interesting Johnson indicator is the fall in support for his most vocal critic in this table – Douglas Ross.  Last month, the latter was on 30 points.  This month, he is in the black by a slender margin of six.  The Prime Minister has his supporters as well as his critics. And they have marked the Scottish Tory leader down.
  • Elsewhere, the movements tend to follow publicity, good and bad.  So it is that Mark Spencer plunges even deeper into the red.  That Jacob Rees-Mogg, ninth last month, plunges to fifth from bottom.  That Sajid Javid gets a Covid bounce from twelfth to sixth.   And that Michael Gove, who has had a quieter month, recovers to mid-table.
  • Rishi Sunak’s score at 39 points is his lowest as Chancellor.  One can cite individual reasons for this, such as the coming National Insurance rise.  But it’s the big picture that matters.  Many panel members clearly believe that the Government is taxing and spending too much, and pin at least some of the blame at the Chancellor’s door.

These results came in over the weekend, and so don’t take into account the Sue Gray report and yesterday’s Parliamentary statement.  My best guess is that neither will help to improve the Prime Minister’s rating.

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.

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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?

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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.