British soldiers training Ukrainian troops in battlefield first aid

The paper tiger and the Russian bear

NATO’s naive and supine response will not drive Putin’s army from Ukraine and emboldens Moscow still further


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

They laughed at me when I made a speech in the House of Commons in 2014 during one of the interminable European debates. I explained I had no wish to remain in the EU because I’d seen a clear desire by the United States and some EU member states to pick a fight with Russia.

I used to be a frequent visitor to Crimea and earlier that year I had witnessed the Russians occupy Sebastopol and shocking, unexpected fighting in Kyiv. I tried to explain the complexities of this to my audience, but they were more interested in fishing quotas than gunfire as I trembled at the idea that Britain, then a member of the EU, might be dragged into a war with Russia. Well, Brexit or no Brexit, we haven’t been dragged, but leapt into the fray with extraordinary, myopic jingoism.

Whilst I have no truck with what Russia has done and my eyes are fully open to the sophisticated agitprop she uses, we seem to have wilfully deluded ourselves about Russia’s capabilities and intentions and joined the rest of the West in a fool’s paradise.

Some expected the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some did not; what became immediately apparent, though, was that this was an unparalleled opportunity for the media — it was almost like the Afghanistan debacle, but simpler because Russia was painted as ineluctably bad whilst Ukraine was impossibly good: there were no nuances.

Anyone who even hinted at Ukrainian deficiencies or defeats immediately became a “Putin apologist”, and no criticism or even informed commentary was tolerated for many months. Indeed, only now with Kyiv’s summer offensive at a standstill, all eyes distracted by Israel’s plight and US funding largely choked off has any dissent been brooked. Headlines such as “War-weary Ukraine now fears victory is ‘extremely unlikely’” were unimaginable even a few weeks before it was written in December.

But, I had watched in 2014 as Russia sent her troops into Crimea almost unopposed. The West did nothing but talk and impose flaccid sanctions and then, for the next seven years, the Donbas smouldered. Agreements designed to bring about a ceasefire broke down, but it was what amounted to Vladimir Putin’s “final warnings” to NATO just as Russian troops attacked on 22 February 2022 which let the world know that Russia would:

roll back NATO’s military capability and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 1997, when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.

This was a clear statement of intent, yet the West and many Ukrainian elements seemed to be surprised and shocked that Russia would do anything more than arm and support the Donbas insurgency and then keep a keen eye on things. But then, two years ago, Moscow’s troops poured westward in a classic attempt to behead the government in Kyiv and seize control. Badly planned and poorly executed by a few regulars — but mostly militia and home defence troops — the thrust failed in the face of determined Ukrainians and Western weapons.

Immediately the media flooded into the easiest and best-connected city, Kyiv. Soon our screens and ears were filled with the sight of sundered tanks and gleeful stories of Putin’s incompetence. Whilst Zelenskyy stood firm, dismissive stories suggested that it was Moscow that was heading for regime change. This was nonsense.

Whilst the assault on Kyiv was unravelling, a great swathe of territory was taken along the coast of the Sea of Azov with remarkably few casualties and enough speed to cause the Ukrainian flagship, the Hetman Sahaidachny, to be scuttled whilst in harbour. In the space of a few days, a so-called “land bridge” was established — the vital link between the Donbas and Crimea which became the target of Ukraine’s ill-starred summer offensive last year.

Yet almost nothing was heard of Russia’s blitzkrieg in the south; all eyes, all reports were fixed on her humiliation around Kyiv.

Firefighters at work after a Russian drone hit a residential building in Odesa on 17 January 2024

This is just one example, but it’s emblematic of the grave disservice we are doing ourselves by underestimating Russia. Certainly, many things have gone wrong for Moscow, but now she stands within a spit of victory and, make no error, she intends to capitalise on the advantage she’s bought by pushing NATO back still further.

NATO has long supported Ukraine with training, much of it on the soil of member nations, as well as weapons and money. This has become a proxy war for which NATO has manuals on how to use other nations’ forces to do the fighting.

What is surprising, however, is the type of training and operational planning that has been delivered. NATO’s doctrine revolves around “manoeuvre warfare” in which highly agile and mobile forces on land, sea, air and space combine to deliver surprise, concentrated operations at a speed and tempo that first dazzles the enemy and then routs him with a series of violent manoeuvres. This is the creed of all the Western military academies, but it hasn’t worked.

There has been much criticism by hardened Ukrainians of the training delivered by wholly inexperienced NATO troops, but it is the failure of last summer’s offensive, planned and orchestrated by Western officers, which proves the point. First, Russian intelligence indicated when and where attacks were planned and then the use of satellites, surveillance aircraft, sensors and drones made surprise impossible.

Hurriedly-trained storm brigades with a jumble of Western and Soviet equipment were thrown at deep minefields and redoubts over ground with which Russia was bloodily familiar. The Ukrainians tried time and again to pierce these lines, but their assaults largely failed with dreadful casualties, leaving Russia’s critical “land bridge” barely dented.

By sloppy assessments of Ukraine’s foe, NATO has now caused Russia to mobilise her entire economy for war, modernise her weapons and almost double the number of troops under arms. Before this proxy war began, Moscow’s men were unprepared, under strength and unlikely to engage in anything other than brush fire wars. Now the most battle-hardened force in the world stands ready to chance its arm directly against the West.

Really? A former defence minister who hasn’t grasped the vital difference between dead and wounded?

Then there’s the vexed subject of casualties and the surrounding lies. There is no doubt that Russia has suffered serious casualties which are carefully censored, but she can absorb them. Ukraine’s population, reduced by emigration, is much smaller and the number of dead will have a disproportionately greater effect. Ukraine, too, keeps its fallen a strict secret, making estimates extremely difficult. But, in late November 2022 Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU, said in a video that “more than 100,000 Ukrainian military officers have been killed so far”.

Her speech would have been carefully researched and checked and, whilst it’s hard to know why she chose to say this, there’s no doubt it was deliberate. Outrage followed; at first von der Leyen stuck to her guns, then she pivoted saying that she meant killed and injured. Really? A former defence minister who hasn’t grasped the vital difference between dead and wounded? The matter was laid to rest, though, by a simple edit: now it’s as if she never spoke.

Meanwhile, reports of vast new cemeteries, of all-female combat units and increasingly desperate measures to conscript including forced repatriation of youngsters from countries abroad suggest that Ukrainian casualties have been staggering and that von der Leyen’s estimate late last year was probably modest. One can only wonder what the total must be now after another year’s bitter fighting.

The West has, of course, experienced casualties in the minor wars that have been fought over the last decades and which have seared the public. Look no further than the reverence with which we treated the Afghanistan dead and imagine the effect that a “first day of the Somme” butcher’s bill would have on our liberal democracies. Deluding ourselves about Ukraine’s sacrifice and Russia’s willingness to absorb bloodshed simply makes war more likely.

Then consider this. The central article of faith of Western foreign policy since at least February 2022 has been that Vladimir Putin must be stopped in Ukraine if his further expansion is to be thwarted. So, Ukraine must be our proxy lest Poland, the Baltic States or other NATO countries end up in the crosshairs.

That’s a reasonable fear, but it’s only a realistic one if NATO does something to prepare herself for war. There’s almost no sign of that, except in Poland, which has mobilised, whilst Denmark, Latvia and Lithuania are conscripting more citizens. Little else has been done.

There’s been a lot of talk, of course. The Netherlands’ military boss, just a few days ago, suggested that his forces should mobilise for war, whilst our Chief of the General Staff (CGS) put the army on a war footing back in 2022, but these are just soldiers: politicians make the decisions. Indeed, Whitehall took so little notice of the CGS that the army was reduced by 10,000, our heavy artillery was given away and the British garrison in Estonia was cut in half.

On top of this, NATO has pretty well run out of ammunition and materiel having donated almost everything to Kyiv. Yet, there’s no sign that the West is going to be able to ramp up its ability to produce ammunition, armoured vehicles or cheap and plentiful drones.

Look at the haplessly named ASAP (Act in Support of Ammunition Production). Last year the EU promised one million 155mm shells to help to avoid the crisis that is now gripping Ukraine’s artillery, but the programme is dreadfully late with only 300,000 delivered so far, of which the vast majority have either come from existing war stocks or from South Korea.

Despite the acronym, nothing was delivered swiftly as the whole process had to go through EU committees and legalese. The biggest weakness, though, is that 152mm Soviet calibre rounds would have been more useful because there are so many old guns in Ukrainian service. But rejigging production lines proved too challenging for the supposedly technologically-advanced West.

Yet, as the EU stutters, Russia is likely to reach her production target of 200,000 rounds per month by the coming spring. Meanwhile, we seem content to look at bare cupboards whilst Russian industry is gearing itself for a long war. That’s why Russia has used her armour so recklessly in Ukraine whilst the only new tanks delivered to a NATO country have been a handful of Leopard 2s to Hungary from a pre-war order. Yes: Victor Orban’s Hungary, the most pro-Russian country in the alliance.

All this means, of course, that the rump of NATO will have to depend almost entirely on their rich and well-armed US cousins should Russia decide to come for one or more of the member countries. Yet, the US is distracted by the conflict in Israel, is already eying-up further adversaries in the shape of Iran and China and is trying to resolve an acute recruitment crisis whilst trimming the myriad, costly bases she maintains around the world.

Prudent countries which fear war try to deter it by careful — and expensive — preparations. But, contrary to their frequent and noisy public statements, we in the West have done very little to ready ourselves for battle. Doesn’t this suggest that Western leaders do not believe that President Putin has any desire to take NATO territory? If that is so, why have we got involved in this war at all other than to degrade and belittle Russia?

Whether or not the heads of government believe there really is a threat from Russia, the Ukrainian crisis has created an opportunity for NATO to be rigorously tested. It’s worth remembering that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been constantly involved in small wars more or less successfully: can the same be said for NATO?

A new Russia emerged from the ashes, a country which looks intently at NATO’s failures

Our embarrassment in Afghanistan has greatly emboldened Russia. Whilst the Soviet Union also failed in that country, a new Russia emerged from the ashes, a country which looks intently at NATO’s failures and draws worrying conclusions.

A supposed strength of NATO is its charter’s Article 5, which suggests that an attack on one member state will draw retaliation from the whole alliance. But now that’s been found wanting. In November 2022, whilst the G20 summit has in full swing in Bali, the Russians launched a missile attack across Ukraine in which one missile was believed to have fallen on Polish territory killing two farmers. Kyiv and Warsaw were understandably outraged and, with many NATO members in one place, it seemed that Article 5 would be invoked.

The missile turned out to be an Ukrainian air defence weapon that had missed its target, but what should have been a resounding, unequivocal response from NATO dissolved into hot air. There were no forces stood to, no warlike preparations made — and a good thing too, because it was a false alarm.

But Moscow was watching and saw that the supposedly automatic, tough response from the West was hollow and carried no obligation at all. Yet again, this emboldened her further.

One of the mainstays of Russian propaganda has long been its avowed intention to “de-nazify” Ukraine. The Kremlin fully understands the effect of this dog whistle on both the West and its own population — that’s why it’s vital for us to know the truth about far-right extremism.

The subject of the problem in Ukraine was exposed by American and European journalists well before the 2022 invasion, with organisations such as Right Sector and the Azov movement identified. But the problem appeared to be limited. Once the fighting started, though, our media did their utmost to suppress any hint of such ideology in Ukraine, despite incidents such as BBC journalists being embedded with Kyiv units wearing Nazi death’s head badges.

So where is the conflict leading? Supposing that Russia wins some form of conclusive victory in Ukraine, will Moscow be content to stand its war machine down or is her economy now fully geared-up and her forces experienced enough to risk even more?

The cancer of war will always metastasise. So, when Poland sent troops to the Belarusian border last July, Moscow said they would respond “with all means possible” and called the Poles a “dangerous enemy”.

More widely, the Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, when commenting on attacks on Crimea using missiles produced in the West stated that Russia had “an opportunity to act within the framework of jus ad bellum against everyone in NATO”.

Has our ill-considered, naive stance been the catalyst for Moscow to forge alliances with China, North Korea and the BRICS countries? Similarly, how much has her influence over Iran been extended because of what the West has done?

Think of the Russian exclave, Kaliningrad. Does Russia now feel confident enough to thrust between Poland and Lithuania to establish a corridor to its isolated citizens and to its Baltic fleet surrounded by NATO countries?

After almost two years’ bitter fighting, a subservient media has convinced most in the West that Ukraine can drive Russia from her borders. In reality, Moscow has taken about a quarter of Ukraine, most of her ports, a great deal of her manufacturing and agricultural assets and shows no sign of stopping the fight.

Crucially, the West has shown itself to be weak and, with a handful of exceptions, NATO countries are making no attempt to re-arm or prepare themselves to deter any further Russian expansion westwards despite noisy rhetoric by Washington, Brussels and London that that will never be allowed to happen.

Iraq, Afghanistan and the whole litany of NATO failures should have shown us that democracies lose when jingoism replaces objectivity and governments believe their own rhetoric rather than the bloody reality of the battlefield.

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