By Keith Best, Former Executive Chair, WFM/IGP
Apart from the size of its conventional forces and formidable nuclear arsenal, let alone its chemical and biological weapons (which might in themselves be adequate cause for concern) why should we really fear Putin’s Russia? The first, tactically, is the way in which Russia sees little step change in the deployment of weapons of mass destruction from use of conventional weapons. That means that there are far fewer constraints on Russia (not least because it sees war as obviating any obligations under international treaties to limit or prohibit the use of such weapons such as those mentioned or cluster bombs, mines etc) to use such weapons than on the West.
The second is a total difference in perception of the situation between the two sides. The West sees an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country contrary to the rule of international law and a war crime of aggression; it is desperately seeking to avert a wider conflict involving the whole of NATO and an escalation to nuclear war. As far as Putin is concerned, however, he is already at war with the West. Having never recognised the right of Ukraine to exist his explanation that this is a policing intervention rather than an invasion is plausible as, for him, Western involvement and a democratic government in Ukraine represents itself an invasion by the West into what should be regarded as part of the Russian empire which was never relinquished by consent. In effect, in his mind, he has entered on to historic Russian territory to expel an alien government and its Western co-conspirators. It is only this interpretation which can give meaning to Sergei Lavrov’s contention that Russia has not invaded Ukraine and the banning of the description of “war” or “invasion” among the Russian people on pain of up to fifteen years’ imprisonment. Otherwise, his words at best are risible or wholly uninformed – which is not what you would expect from the country’s Foreign Minister for the last eighteen years and one of the principal architects of the war.
It is clear, also, that we must be prepared in the 21st century to see total war waged brutally and indiscriminately against civilian targets, hospitals and ambulances without any of the constraints of the last two hundred years set out in the Geneva Conventions and other humanitarian instruments, more reminiscent of mediaeval warfare with all its attendance horrors of rape, murder and destruction. It seems apparent that there are no ethical or moral standards for Putin. That in itself, once this terrible tragedy is over (and, of course, it will end at some stage), means that the international community must look again at the effectiveness of the rules of war and how they can be enforced. There is no doubt in my mind that extending the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to cover all such eventualities represents the only possible deterrence and route to justice.
Perhaps what is most dangerous of all is that Putin is a caged animal, feeling surrounded by inimical forces that want to see the destruction of Mother Russia and having seen over thirty years its shrinkage as first the former Warsaw Pact countries not only left the Soviet hegemony but then joined the EU and, for him most provocatively and menacingly, became part of NATO and then the Commonwealth of Independent States (or “Stans”) became autonomous to a greater or lesser extent (with Uzbekistan hosting a major US airbase). Unlike China with its growing economy and increasing global influence and confidence Russia is in decline. It feels not only encircled and embattled with its future in doubt from a West that wishes to crush it but also recognises that, economically, although rich with natural resources, these are largely fossil fuels (as well as valuable minerals such a nickel) that will not sustain it in the future. Moreover, it cannot be happy to have seen the degree of cultural permeation from the West and the spirit of openness that has infiltrated from the West, especially among the younger generation – its future population.
There is a chilling comparison with the lead-up to the First World War. A student of this time will have read the excellent book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark which is a definitive history of how nations that were trading openly with one another with no thought of going to war were sucked into a sequence of events that led to the worst conflict in history.A significant component was the naval race between Britain and Germany which the Germans could foresee they would lose in a few years’ time. That, combined with the paranoia and instability of the German Kaiser (not dissimilar to that of Putin), persuaded the German High Command that they needed to strike early in order to prevent the inevitable humiliation. Has Putin come to the same conclusion in terms of waning Russian influence? When Germany marched into the neutral Low Countries a generation later they achieved rapid success, the blitzkrieg, which took the Allies by surprise and took the initiative. If Putin was seeking to emulate that he has already failed – the Ukrainian war even after only less than a month is messy and bogged down with only slow progress, not least due to the unexpected opposition and solidarity of the Ukrainian people defending their homeland.
It is always dangerous to be an armchair military tactician but the Russian military tactics we see in Ukraine have not changed much from those of the Soviets in the Second World War: a massive concentration of artillery fire (e.g. “Stalin’s organs”: the multi-barrelled rocket launchers that instilled such psychological fear in those on the receiving end), seeking to pound the opposition into submission and encirclement to cut off re-supply. This was exemplified by the pincer movements in the Second World War isolating German troops and forcing their surrender (e.g. the capture of about 265,000 Germans under Field Marshal Paulus at Stalingrad).These tactics put an enormous strain on both personnel and logistics and it seems that Russia did not calculate correctly for either. That is even before any successful occupation which will require several hundred thousand troops to hold down an unwilling and resistant population. Will Putin emulate Hitler’s mistake of opening up a second front if Ukraine develops into a stalemate? It was Operation Barbarossa, tying up millions of men, that hastened the end of the Nazi aggression. We shall know more when we see (already beginning to happen) Russia calling up its reserves. Putin has neither the reserves nor the supplies to sustain a second diversionary attack, say, in Finland especially against a backdrop of Russia’s economic decline through sanctions and drying up of oil and gas revenues as Europe finds alternative sources.
What is being demonstrated is that a career in the KGB/FSB is no substitute for military knowledge or proper planning. Stalin executed many of his generals during the Great Purge before the Second World War and another 17 were shot in 1942 – the Soviet military effectiveness suffered as a result. It was only Zhukov who really saved them and then after the war he was dumped! Will Putin lash out in the same way if things continue to go wrong and introduce a reign of terror? It may already have started with the house arrest of two FSB agents. One thing is certain, just as with Stalin, it will be everyone else to blame except Putin himself. That is when the mafia-style, thuggish political cancer inside the Russian state will start to eat away and may commence its crumbling. We have to hope that this will happen soon enough not only to save brave Ukraine but also the rest of the world from a new global conflagration.
This may well end up with a very different looking world. It is to be hoped that Putin’s fall (whenever and however it happens) will be swift and will convince Russia that it needs a new dialogue with the West and not just a confrontation. A new Glasnost and Perestroika could bring the means for a rapprochement so long as the West is prepared to acknowledge and exercise it away from the hawks that want to see Russia totally destroyed. That means engagement and building of mutual trust (the sort of thing that British nuclear scientists like the late Frank Barnaby and I were seeking to do in the 1980s at the behest of the Soviet Academy of Scientists in mutual observation of nuclear tests). It will be a hard call made no easier by what has happened in Ukraine – it is clear that Ukraine at least will never trust Russia again.
There does need to be assurances about NATO not being seen as a threat to an already paranoid state – again, perhaps, with a return to mutual observation of military exercises. People’s memories are short. Lord George Robertson, the former Labour defence secretary who was NATO’s Secretary-General 1999-2003 said that Putin made it clear at their first meeting that he wanted Russia to be part of Western Europe. “They wanted to be part of that secure, stable prosperous west that Russia was out of at the time,” he said, as reported in The Guardian. He recalled an early meeting with Putin, who became Russian president in 2000, when “Putin said: ‘When are you going to invite us to join NATO?’” We do not know how serious that was or the manner in which it was said but we should not rule out, in a different political climate in Moscow, that possibility. Putin himself told the late David Frost in a BBC interview shortly before he was first inaugurated as Russian president more than 21 years ago that he would not rule out joining NATO “if and when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner”. He told Frost it was hard for him to visualise NATO as an enemy. “Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world.” The West does have to accept part of the blame for such a complete reversal of his earlier attitude but it is never to late to try to build bridges – although those with Putin have now been burned.
China, for obvious reasons, would resist such a rapprochement but the outcome would depend more on whether Moscow saw its security and economic future in safer hands in co-operation with the West rather than with an autocracy which, itself, could crumble one day. Geographically, so much of Russia is European. Peter the Great realised the importance of modernising his country along European lines which he did, sometimes with severe brutality, to the extent that from that time Russia has always been an important part of Europe. What we must now seek to do is to ensure that it is part of a peaceful one.