Liz Truss and her Foreign Secretary will have to work hard to maintain Western unity in coming months
CON COUGHLIN DEFENCE EDITOR 8 September 2022 • 6:00am
It is a measure of how badly Russia is faring in its quest to conquer large tracts of Ukraine that the Kremlin is resorting to ever more outlandish tactics in order to boost its propaganda output. While Russian forces are in a desperate battle to hold on to the meagre gains they have made in the six months since Vladimir Putin launched the invasion, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is continuing its attempt to indoctrinate the Russian people with an entirely different narrative – one in which Moscow is vanquishing its foes.
Every morning, the Kremlin’s state-controlled news channels, a key weapon in Putin’s propaganda war, pump out a Panglossian view of the Ukrainian conflict – one in which the Russian military is making solid territorial gains while the West is facing financial ruin over its sanctions policy towards Moscow.
Mention is rarely made of the enormous losses suffered by the Russian military – the latest Ukrainian estimates put the total number of Russian combat deaths at a staggering 50,000. Nor is there much discussion of the ruinous impact Western sanctions are having on the Russian economy, which has obliged Moscow to default on its foreign debt for the first time since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
In a sign of the Kremlin’s deepening desperation, the latest bizarre development was the appearance of a clip from ITV’s This Morning on a Russian state-controlled television channel. The segment featured hosts Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby introducing a competition offering viewers the chance to win cash to cover their energy bills this winter.
It was immediately seized on as further evidence of Britain’s dire economic plight – and its supposedly weakening resolve. The Russians continue to claim, erroneously, that the pain faced by their enemies is the result of the Western sanctions imposed at the start of the Ukrainian conflict, as opposed to Moscow cutting gas supplies to Europe.
In many respects, however, Russia’s obsession with belittling Britain should be taken as a back-handed compliment, as it shows the prominent role London has played in leading the West’s robust response to Russian aggression.
At a time when many European leaders have been reluctant to hold Moscow to account for its actions, Boris Johnson rightly won many plaudits for his unequivocal support for the Ukrainian cause – an attitude that unquestionably helped to stiffen the resolve of wavering allies such as Germany, Italy and France.
Johnson was also pivotal in making sure the Biden administration remained committed to the Ukrainian war effort, and did not become distracted by domestic issues, such as the forthcoming mid-term elections.
With the formation of a new government under Liz Truss, one of its primary challenges will be to maintain a leadership role in the crisis, and to ensure that the significant setbacks Russia is currently experiencing on the battlefield and in its economic fortunes results in the Kremlin ultimately suffering a humiliating defeat.
Truss is already well-acquainted with the Ukraine brief from her stint as foreign secretary, where she more than matched Johnson in her determination to punish Moscow for its actions. There were even occasions when she appeared to overreach, such as her insistence that the conflict would only end when Russia gave up all its captured territory, including Crimea – a claim that far exceeds Nato’s more modest goals.
Overall, though, Truss has had the right instincts on the Ukraine issue, and will therefore be able to invest a welcome degree of continuity in Britain’s involvement in the conflict, which the Ukrainians are bound to appreciate given the cracks that are starting to appear in Western resolve.
There is much to applaud, too, in the ministerial appointments she has made pertaining to Ukraine. The elevation of James Cleverly to Foreign Secretary is particularly helpful, as it will ensure that unity at the top of the Cabinet on Ukraine is maintained. Having previously worked as Truss’s deputy at the Foreign Office, Cleverly was responsible for Britain imposing sanctions against scores of Putin’s acolytes earlier this year. As an Army reserve officer, he has also long taken a close interest in national security issues.
Retaining Ben Wallace as Defence Secretary also makes sense, as he has handled a challenging brief admirably, and could be a key ally if Truss sticks to her commitment to increase Britain’s defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade. The notion that the UK can continue reducing the size of the Army at a time when Europe faces its biggest security challenge in decades is no longer credible, and Wallace will have a big role to play in ensuring any restructuring means we are properly equipped to tackle future threats.
If Britain is serious about keeping its global leadership role on issues such as Ukraine, then it needs to have the military clout to back it up.