Putin is testing the West. The UK should seize this opportunity to galvanise Europe into action.
ROBERT JENRICK. 1 January 2022 •
President Putin has conjured up a crisis in Ukraine which presents the West with only bad choices. Thus far we’ve avoided the worst outcomes, but the British Government can’t afford to turn a blind eye to events on Europe’s eastern border.
Putin has mobilised the military on a scale previously unseen, with 75 per cent of Russia’s total battalion tactical groups now situated on Ukraine’s borders. His ultimatums to NATO are unserious attempts at diplomacy, designed to provoke a rebuff from the West and feed into a coordinated disinformation campaign being pushed by the Kremlin that somehow NATO is on the attack.
From Putin’s perspective, there are incentives to make a move now. The US is fixated on China, which makes their military support seem unlikely. Meanwhile, much of Europe is now heavily dependent on Russian gas – the result of decades of ill-conceived energy policy – so cannot afford to impose the most costly sanctions.
This is not to say an invasion is certain. It could be an elaborate bluff, designed to extract concessions from NATO. After all, any invasion would inflict considerable damage to Putin’s goals. Beyond the bloody, costly and protracted conflict that would ensue in Ukraine, it would surely prompt NATO to strengthen our presence in eastern Europe – states Putin considers to be Russia’s rightful possession.
As Putin ponders his next course of action he will be considering the rather vague, “massive consequences” promised by the G7 if he were to invade. Putin takes such language with a pinch of salt. It’s going to take demonstrated resolve – not just words, but deeds.
And the truth is that this united rhetoric belies a divided Europe. Thus far the UK has been Ukraine’s staunchest European partner, deepening our economic partnership and providing military training to 21,000 Ukrainian troops under Operation Orbital.
To deter Russia we must convince our more sceptical European friends to collectively implement a series of robust, specific measures should Putin escalate the situation. The coordinated response to the Skripal poisonings demonstrates how effective the UK can be as a convening power. A package of water-tight sanctions that could inflict serious economic damage to the Russian economy, set out clearly for all to see, coupled with the sale of defensive weapons to Ukraine – so far blocked by Germany – should act as the two pillars on which any package is based.
Berlin must be the focus of our diplomatic efforts. A change in the German government provides an opportunity to break from the disastrous energy policies which have contributed to the deterioration of Ukraine’s security. Nord Stream 2 has ended Ukraine’s status as a transit state (making an invasion easier), enriched the Kremlin and, by making Europe dependent on Russian energy, constrained our ability to act. Preventing the operationalisation of NS2 is the single biggest move Europe could make to strengthen its – our – collective security. In foreign minister Anna Baerbock, and Economic Affairs Minister, Robert Habeck, the coalition has two influential individuals who share the UK’s outlook – it is the more sceptical German Challencelor, Olaf Scholz, that we must convince.
As we reflect on a tumultuous 2021, it is clear that the events in Afghanistan will be one of the defining moments remembered by future generations. A time when Western resolve was tested and found deeply wanting. Russia, China, Iran and our other adversaries saw the US and its allies falter. Let it serve as a sobering reminder of how rapidly a situation can deteriorate and the tragic consequences that follow when we take our eye off the ball. If we are to pursue a positive, proactive foreign policy – the crux of ‘Global Britain’ – we must be able to deal with domestic and international crises simultaneously.
This is a test of will, and our ability to work with our allies. We will soon see if we are up to the challenge.
Robert Jenrick is MP for Newark, the former Communities Secretary. He lived and worked in Russia in the late 2000s.