Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP
Artillery Row

No time for EU-bashing

Let’s focus on Putin, not Brussels

It was exactly forty years ago in September 1982, that the correspondents Harry Phibbs and your Humble Scribe made their way to Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Our purpose was to expose the duplicity of Moscow’s allegedly independent peace and disarmament movements. As he was intending to hand out leaflets to Muscovites, Special Agent Phibbs (which is how the adventure felt to us) was arrested at Sheremetyevo airport, questioned and expelled. For a young man aged 16, still at school, it was an exceptionally brave act. 

At 21, I was old enough to know better, but I slipped into the capital and lodged at the Intourist Hotel, then the obligatory accommodation for overseas visitors and 10 minutes’ walk from the Kremlin. Last time I dropped in, it was still standing, a concrete relic from the austere Soviet era. Gone were the little booklets of Lenin’s more tedious speeches, left on one’s pillow each evening by room service. Missing, too, were its elderly floor ladies, who sat behind desks on each storey, noting the departure and arrival times of every guest, every hour. 

Sceptics claim the invasion is somehow the fault of the EU

These reports of my comings and goings would end up in the Border Guards Directorate of the KGB headquarters, on Lubyanka Square, just around the corner. It was easily identified by the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary and founder of the first two Soviet state-security organisations, the Cheka and the OGPU. Erected in 1958, it greeted me in 1982, though “Iron Felix” had vanished when I visited in the post-Soviet Glasnost era. Putin, himself a KGB man, is rumoured to want it reinstalled, along with the ever-watchful hotel floor ladies. Perhaps they have already returned. I am not about to find out.

Harry and I both understood that our activities of 1982 would be a tiny drop in the ocean against the USSR’s sustained disinformation campaign against the West. Of course, neither of us could know the Soviet Union would die seven years later. Back in 1982, the Kremlin claimed the Warsaw Pact was entirely peaceful in outlook, and it was the NATO alliance who were the aggressors. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament among many pressure groups, lapped this up, hearing what they wanted to hear and discounting any Communist threat. 

But threat there was, as my Russian military colleagues told me in the heady 1990s when the state opened up under Mikhail Gorbachev. One of them even gave me a 1:50,000 scale map of the military academy where I taught, with every detail overprinted in Cyrillic. Presumably this was to help him and his Tank Corps and Rocket Forces chums, when they took a vacation through the fields and roads of the Thames Valley.

Now here we are, all over again. An assertive Russia, threatening the deployment of nuclear weapons, accusing NATO of a campaign of aggression and terrorism. Some sceptics in the West are claiming that this is, somehow, all the fault of NATO or the European Union. Various voices, from the traditional hard-left activist John Pilger to the veteran professor John Mearsheimer, argue that NATO embarked on a campaign of influence and virtual occupation to entice the former Warsaw Pact countries to join. Russia has merely responded to Western tanks parked on its own front lawn. 

Both overlook that every Eastern bloc nation applied to join of its own volition — being worried about the possibility of exactly what has now come to pass. A revanchist Kremlin. They ignore, too, the brutality of Putin’s unprovoked attack, the targeting of Ukrainian schools, hospitals, power stations and apartment blocks, the documented slaughter of civilians and kidnap of their children. 

Others argue that this is additionally the fault of a weak EU, who sent mixed signals eastwards, dithered when firm action was required and remains weak and militarily divided. Here, I will take issue with my dear old comrade-in-arms, Phibbs. He and I have drifted apart on the value and utility of the European Union. Harry argued in The Critic, with commendable passion, that were Britain still in the EU, it would have been unlikely to get as much aid to Ukraine as quickly as it did. This, he asserted, was because the UK would have had to operate within the confines of the EU’s slow and seemingly-cumbersome Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). 

Phibbs certainly has a point that it took the EU too long to release appropriate military aid to Ukraine, when moral support as well as missiles was needed in large quantities from Day One. However, his EU-bashing piece misses the point that Britain already has a proven record of playing fast and loose with EU bureaucracy — witness the Northern Ireland Protocol. Thus, had it been necessary, I am sure the UK would again have acted outside the confines of EU structures. 

If the EU can be accused of sending weak or mixed signals to the Kremlin, so too, can Boris Johnson. On 17 November 2021, he attacked Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and then chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, for expressing concern about diminishing British military strength. “We are cutting back on our tanks,” Ellwood warned Johnson. “What is amassing on the Ukrainian border? It’s tanks. But that’s beside the point. I’m saying step back, look at the wider security picture, look at our defence posture … capabilities have been reduced.” Johnson was dismissive: “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European landmass are over, and there are other, better things we should be investing in … [which is] how warfare in the future is going to be.” That aged well. 

Phibbs also cites the obstructions of “securocrats” in the British defence establishment, who were objecting “to such assistance [to Ukraine], on the grounds that it would be ‘provocative’. Boris [Johnson] overcame these objections and gave the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace the backing needed for the critical supplies to get through, with enough time for the necessary training also to be provided”. 

UK military aid to Ukraine began back in 2015

This, my dear old friend, is nonsense. There is no deep state “securocracy”, much less one opposed to supplying military assistance elsewhere, which is a cheap extension of soft power and plays well with the electorate. We both know that significant UK military aid to Ukraine began with Operation Orbital, back in 2015, when David Cameron was Prime Minister and Johnson was still Mayor of London. This was a measured reaction to the invasion of the Donbass and annexation of the Crimea, which I had visited only weeks earlier), driven by alarm at Putin’s possible future expansionist plans. Orbital was expanded under Theresa May, with training provided by teams of Royal Navy, Royal Marines and several army battalions. By its end, the Ministry of Defence announced it had educated 22,000 Ukrainian military personnel in four years

None of this had anything to do with Johnson, whose gaffe-prone tenure as Foreign Secretary (July 2016 to July 2018) was not marked by any attention to Ukraine, support being the business of the Defence Secretary (Michael Fallon, then Gavin Williamson). The key figure here has surely been Ben Wallace, at Defence since July 2019, not Johnson. Whilst Foreign Secretary, the latter’s only noticeable dealings with Russia were over the Skripal poisoning case in March 2018

Orbital eventually became Operation Interflex, when the training of Ukrainian soldiers, supported by other international partners, was moved to the United Kingdom. Interflex, now under Truss, aims to process up to 10,000 Ukrainian troops every 120 days. The move to Blighty was due to fears of Russia launching an attack on Ukrainian training facilities, which indeed happened when a Russian airstrike killed 35 people on 13 March 2022 at Yavoriv, about 10 miles from the Polish border.

As a dedicated flag-waver for Johnson (another issue on which, alas, my friend, we part company), Phibbs ponders, “Would another Prime Minister have taken the same anti-establishment stance? Would Keir Starmer? Would Theresa May? It would seem doubtful. Had Jeremy Corbyn been Prime Minister, one wonders whose side we would have been on.” Whilst I certainly concede the last point, it was May who increased the training package when it was most needed. There is no reason to think that a Prime Minister Starmer would diverge from a morally correct and popular policy.

Whilst it is true that under Boris Johnson’s premiership military aid increased, the seeds of Ukraine’s successful defence were surely laid by the solid pre-invasion training of Kyiv’s soldiery. Generous supplies of combat kit once the Russians had crossed their start line were as nothing to the new doctrine drummed into Zelensky’s warriors beforehand, as well as modern weaponry. Innovative concepts of leadership and tactics, as well as a Western arsenal, have helped Ukraine so far overcome their Russian opponents, not just rocket launchers and armoured vehicles. 

Until this year, the training packages were a multi-national effort, led by the United States, Canada and Britain. This brings me to my final point. The Ukraine war — through Putin’s latent threats in the Arctic, Baltic and Black Seas — affects non-EU members such as the United States, Canada, Norway, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia and Turkey. Thus NATO, under its robust Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, has taken the lead, stressing that “containment” of the fighting is his priority, whilst encouraging his members to supply to Ukraine what it most needs. 

Right from the beginning, the world knew that Russian aggression in Ukraine was far larger than an EU issue. Security and Defence has become a popular EU-biffing topic, and the Union’s slow response has encouraged this. The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, chaired by Josep Borrell, has always seen NATO as responsible for the territorial defence of Europe, however. Some fear a creeping, independent, EU-led army, but such projects and who will lead them are not in the here-and-now. If such a structure ever transpires, it will not be whilst an aggressive Russia is trampling around Eastern Europe. Despite its desire to join both organisations, the defence of Ukraine was never going to be EU business.

I’m sure Harry and I remain as united in our determination to expose and confront Russian aggression as we were in 1982. Sadly, we seem to disagree on the means, for this is no time to use Mr Putin’s lunatic war mongering as an excuse to attack the EU. What is needed now more than ever is Western unity, not fracture, which can only help Russia’s extreme nationalists.

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