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How to defeat Putin and save Ukraine

England, October 2022: UK armed forces train Ukrainian personnel | Alamy

6 min read

Vladimir Putin needs to know that he has more to lose by continuing this war than with ending it

The war in Ukraine is a fundamental challenge to the West and its outcome will dictate the future for all of us.

We know what it takes to win this war. It is both simple – and at the same time very difficult. We must somehow persuade Vladimir Putin that he has more to lose by continuing this war than with ending it. 

Only Putin himself can change his mind. Not a parliament, politburo or even the UN Security Council – just the mind of the commander who has embarked on this foolish, disastrous path.

In the authoritarian society Putin has created with few constraints, one man can – and did – take a country to oblivion by personal dictat. And yet, even dictators can often be highly sensitive to movements among their people.

President Xi Jinping recently ended his draconian Covid lockdown policy, literally overnight, because he saw the people had had enough. The Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, similarly released thousands of arrested women hijab protesters from jail because he could feel the storm clouds growing.

In Kosovo 1999, Slobodan Milosevic was persuaded by Nato that we intended to invade to achieve our objectives: “Nato in, Serbs out, refugees home.” In fact, we had not yet made the decision but we deliberately gave the impression that we had and it was enough to spook Milosevic – and Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin told Milosevic that he was on his own – and the dictator folded.

What, then, do we do to help Ukraine prevail? My formula: supply weapons in quantity; signal to Russia that Britain will not back down and is prepared to stand with Ukraine for the long term; and sustain the solidarity and unity which has both shocked and surprised Putin and inspired the Ukrainian people.

But more importantly, we must consider how we could lose this war.

Keeping a strong coalition of political support is vital and has meant so much in global politics. Weakening this would encourage bickering, grandstanding, private initiatives and talk of compromises.

Putin’s main tactic now is to string out this war until the United States presidential election in 2024 and hope that Donald Trump returns to the White House. This is why there has not been a Russian offensive so far, with the Russian position instead being dug in defensively. Trenches, minefields, re-enforced positions – the tactic is to just “wait them out”.

We lose by blaming the increased cost of living on the war in Ukraine. Many countries are struggling at the moment but this shouldn’t mean we press for a settlement to relieve us of the increased price of pasta and fuel.

The cost of living was rising before the invasion in February last year. These are costs we have to bear and they are a lot less than the costs borne by those fighting on the ground in Ukraine. 

We must reinforce the message to the public that Ukrainians are fighting on our behalf too and there will be dire consequences if Putin prevails. 

In a full-scale confrontation with Nato, Russia would lose

But the real message is: if the cost of living has jumped because Putin invaded, by how much will it soar if he succeeds? If Putin wins, what future awaits Taiwan and Russia’s neighbours?

It would be a mistake to bypass Parliament. Learn from the mistakes of David Cameron when he was prime minister and failed to prepare for his remarkable and humiliating vote on Syria in 2013. Winston Churchill, in contrast, went to Parliament personally and regularly through the Second World War and kept MPs fully briefed and involved. Rishi Sunak has not yet led a single debate in the Commons on Ukraine and there have only been two full parliamentary debates since the invasion.

We shouldn’t react as though Putin has declared war on the West. We must take it one step at a time.

Putin is rapidly learning lessons from the debacle of the February invasion and implementing changes accordingly. He is working armament factories around the clock to replace used munitions, spending his time rallying the public for more and more sacrifices on the ground. We are doing little of any of these.

We should not complain about how much it’s costing taxpayers to host Ukrainian refugees. There’s no point countering the Farage-type attitude that Ukrainian refugees are the same as asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats. They are not. In fact we are only temporarily hosting Ukrainians while their loved ones fight and die on our behalf and they look forward to returning to Ukraine the moment it’s safe.

We should try and get messages through to the Russian people and their leaders in the way we did during the Cold War. After all, that signalling might just change public support for the Kremlin and persuade Putin to do what Mikhail Gorbachev did in 1979 in pulling the Red Army out of Afghanistan.

During the Kosovo war in 1999 we held a press conference every day for the 78 days the war lasted. The messages of our resolve got through to the internal refugees but also to the Serbian high command. That’s why there’s a monument in Pristina today made up of the old satellite dishes which delivered our messages.

We should not become preoccupied with fears of escalation, but transmit these fears of escalation to the enemy. Timidity about what the Russians might do with some of their many nuclear weapons has allowed the Russian military high-command to forget that in a full-scale confrontation with Nato, Russia would lose.

Getting it into the heads of the top military people around Putin that if they intend to pursue a total scorched earth policy in Ukraine, they should not expect the West to stand back indecisively.

President Joe Biden, the leaders of Nato and the West do not want to lose. They know only too well the costs, nationally and internationally, of Putin prevailing in Ukraine. But beating Putin will mean taking tough action, meaningfully and with a long-term commitment to winning. To change his mind he needs to know, and have evidence, that we are there until he loses.

Put as simply as we did so successfully in Kosovo: “Russia out, Ukrainians back, refugees home.” Simple, memorable, clear – and the way to win. 

Lord Robertson is a Labour peer, former secretary general of Nato and former defence secretary

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