It is likely that in the mess of war there will be more accidents. That is why the Russians must be beaten
MICHAEL FALLON 17 November 2022 • 6:00am
Over nine terrible months, Ukraine has certainly learnt who its friends are. Britain has been steadfast, supplying training, weapons and strong political support. The United States, as always, has done the heaviest lifting of all, spending over $18 billion on munitions and other military equipment.
But Ukraine’s truest friend is Poland. It’s Poland that has taken the bulk of Ukrainian refugees; it’s the Polish economy that has taken among the biggest hits, cutting its growth rate from 4 per cent to 1.6 per cent next year; and it’s Poland that has unstintingly raided its own inventories to give Ukrainian troops the weapons that they desperately need to defend their homeland.
The missile that hit eastern Poland may not have been Russian. But that doesn’t change the facts. All the hostile missiles fired since February have been Russian. Contrary to the laws of war, they have been targeted against Ukraine’s civilian population: residential buildings, power stations, water supplies and shopping centres have all been hit. Indiscriminate attacks like these always carry the risk of spilling the conflict into neighbouring states.
But Russia is resorting to indiscriminate missile attacks precisely because it’s losing the conventional war. Its initial invasion failed: Russian forces, once in the suburbs of Kyiv, had to pull back over the border to the north. In the south-east, Ukrainian troops are pushing the Russians deeper into the Donbas; the liberation of Kherson has opened the way from the Dnipro to Crimea. The campaign to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty looks to be long and bloody but winnable.
An unintended missile strike naturally brings fears of escalation, especially when Nato territory is involved. But it is Russia that now must fear escalation the most. It can hardly prosecute the war it is currently fighting. The last thing it needs is for this conflict to escalate. On the contrary, we have already seen Nato rediscovering its unity of purpose and its forces stiffening their defences in Eastern Europe.
Ukraine is in Poland’s debt, for its immediate and extraordinarily generous response. But the rest of us owe Poland, too, not just for its open-hearted humanitarian response but for its persistent prescience in warning us against the Russian threat.
Throughout my time as defence secretary, it was always Poland that understood that threat most clearly, that pushed for a firmer Western response. Nato’s troop deployments in the Baltic states, in Poland itself, and its air defence in Romania, owe much to Polish leadership and pressure.
And Poland should shame its Western allies into doing more to help. Nearly eight million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Poland since February; over 20,000 more still arrive every day. They’re fed, housed, and given free travel and places in school for their children. Families across Poland have opened their doors to the biggest movement of people on our continent since the Second World War.
Poland will spend a staggering €8.4 billion (£7.3 billion) on helping those Ukrainian refugees this year, yet has had a contribution of only €144 million from the EU. Contrast this with the huge amounts that the EU pours into extensive refugee programmes for those fleeing North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, the EU seems more concerned about the independence of parts of Poland’s court system than the displacement of eight million Europeans. Substantial payments legally due to Poland under the seven-year EU budget and from the post-Covid recovery fund (€73 billion and €35 billion respectively) are being withheld at a time when Poland needs all the financial help it can get.
Wealthier neighbours aren’t pulling their military weight either. Poland has donated more military equipment to Ukraine than any other EU ally, and four times as much as France. Poland has supplied self-propelled gun howitzers, portable air defence systems, and dozens of its tanks; yet Germany, despite its talk, still drags its feet on supplying rocket launchers and armoured vehicles.
Over 20 years ago, Germany deployed its Leopard tanks to the defence of Kosovo, yet there’s still no stomach in Berlin to lend them to the Ukrainian army fighting for its freedom. “The issue is whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check,” Chancellor Scholz told the Bundestag back in February, but those tanks, key to the recovery of further Ukrainian territory, remain in storage.
Putin has clearly become desperate. It’s likely that in the mess and confusion of war that there will be more accidents. But our response should surely be all the steadier. The wider risks of this terrible war will not be mitigated by well-meaning attempts at peace-brokering. The way to prevent further accidents and escalation is to end this conflict as quickly as possible: that means doing everything we can to ensure that Ukraine wins it.
Stopping Putin once and for all is the surest way of ensuring that the villages of south-eastern Poland – and the rest of us – stay safe.
Sir Michael Fallon was defence secretary from 2014 to 2017