Ukraine doesn’t need blankets. It needs weapons
For fear of provoking Putin we have done far too little to help Kiev. Now it faces full-scale invasion
Sir Michael Fallon 16th November 2021
Three years ago I stood on the shore of the Sea of Azov at Mariupol, Ukraine’s eastern seaport, and asked the local commander which way the Russians might come if they were to launch a full-scale invasion of the whole country. “The same way as last time,” he replied. Today that threat is very real. Thousands of Russian troops are now mobilised along the Ukrainian border.
Russia’s war in the Donbas has lasted longer than the Second World War. Russia has committed armoured vehicles, heavy weapons and troops into the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts; 13,000 Ukrainian lives have been lost, over 3,000 of them civilians. And we in the West have done too little to help.
Back in 2014 the Ukrainian Army was desperate for assistance. We gifted some protective equipment but my Coalition Cabinet colleagues wouldn’t go further: they didn’t want to “provoke” Russia. I was restricted to providing “non-lethal assistance that will reduce fatalities and casualties”. My good friend the late Senator John McCain ridiculed this as offering “blankets against tanks”. So, instead, we began Operation Orbital to help train the Ukrainian Army. Over 20,000 troops have been trained by the British Army, and the programme has been extended to maritime defence.
But seven years on it isn’t going to be enough. Putin has declared Ukraine as “New Russia”. He’s promoted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to cut off Ukraine’s gas supplies and revenue. And this is an autocrat who has defied international law and broken the treaties that Russia has signed: he’s continued to base troops in Moldova and maintain an airbase in Georgia in breach of the Istanbul Agreement; he fails to notify of military exercises; he’s invaded Crimea and intervened in the Donbas.
For Putin, the price for invading the rest of Ukraine is now alarmingly low. He’s watched the US’s precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan; he’s noted Biden’s removal of US sanctions against firms working on the Nord Stream pipeline. Above all, he’s witnessed a dismal lack of European solidarity on Ukraine. When Russia captured Ukraine’s patrol boats and their crews in the Sea of Azov, the European Council didn’t even deplore or condemn these clear violations of international law and of Russia’s own 2003 agreement with Ukraine: instead, Europe “expressed its utmost concern”.
What more can be done now? Given that the US is now supplying military hardware to Ukraine, we should look again at what more we might contribute. The Ukrainians don’t need blankets: they want counter-battery radar, anti-tank missiles, more drones, offensive cyber; and they should be free to deploy what they have where they need to, unlike at present. We should be helping to build up defensive capability and resilience right across Ukraine, and we must reassert international rights in the Black Sea through more co-ordinated naval exercising and air patrolling, as well as rebuilding the Ukrainian Navy.
Second, we have to persuade our German friends that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline directly undermines Ukrainian security, and that Berlin’s suspension of its certification should now lead to complete cancellation. Nord Stream 2 will damage Ukraine’s economy with much lower revenues from transit gas, and it will place a Russian stranglehold on supplies to Ukraine itself. The Prime Minister was right on Monday to highlight that “a choice is shortly coming between mainlining more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines and sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability”. German energy policy is now a danger to all of us.
Finally, Britain can only act with allies and partners. And if it’s uncomfortable asking Germany to reconsider its energy policy, it may be equally uncomfortable but necessary to ask our own Government to look again at security and foreign policy co-operation with our former partners in the EU. You don’t have to be a Remainer to see how vital it is now that London, Berlin, Paris, Rome and other capitals are in lockstep.
Putin is the ultimate opportunist: wherever he sees weakness he’s ready to test us. Ukraine is a Nato partner, not a member; its economy is fragile, its governance poor. But it is a democracy, whose hopes we have encouraged. Kiev too is a European capital.
Sir Michael Fallon was Defence Secretary 2014-17