End-goal in Ukraine – The Lord Richards Interview
With decades of military experience, including nearly three years as Britain’s chief of the defence staff, Lord Richards is accustomed to the challenges and horror of war. The decorated former officer speaks to Noa Hoffman about conflict in Ukraine and the west’s moral duty to the Ukrainian people
As the former professional head of the British armed forces, Lord Richards is no stranger to the pressures of war. In 2000 the crossbench peer commanded Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone. He was tasked with rescuing British and other foreign nationals but, through creative strategising, simultaneously helped quash the Revolutionary United Front rebel army.
In 2006/7, Richards commanded the NATO campaign in Afghanistan – the only non American general to do so - as the Alliance expanded its operation across the whole country. In 2011, as military adviser to David Cameron and member of the National Security Council, Richards played a key role in Britain’s intervention in Libya and later Syria. In both cases not always harmoniously.
Today, through his home television rather than the corridors of Whitehall, Richards watches another war unfold. It is a conflict that has catalysed one of the greatest shifts in European geopolitical relations since the Second World War.
Since Vladimir Putin ordered Russia to invade Ukraine on 24 February 2022, more than 1,500 civilians have been killed. Apartment blocks, playgrounds and hospitals have been reduced to rubble, while more than 10 million people have fled their homes, leaving death and destruction at the front door behind them.
The west has been gripped by images of Kyiv, the colourful and cosmopolitan Ukrainian capital, transformed into a hellish death zone, marred by guns, barricades and brave camouflaged defenders. There is currently no end to the war in sight.
A peaceful resolution is desperately sought by the west. However, crucial to achieving such an end, Richards says on a Zoom call with The House, is Nato member states agreeing a “grand strategic aim”. To secure the future territorial integrity and prosperity of Ukraine, the west must define what a successful resolution to the conflict entails. This key detail, the peer believes, is yet to be established.
“If we don’t have a clear strategy, with a well-defined end state, there is a risk that events overtake us in the way that happened in 1914,” Richards, who was awarded his peerage in 2014, says.
“A war was never intended, but a series of miscalculations led to four years of hell,” he adds. “We need to avoid that by having a well understood and then properly resourced plan.”
Richards worries Britain could similarly repeat mistakes made in Syria, where the west’s “acolytes” were encouraged to “fight a bloody war” without being provided sufficient means of assistance to win it.
The former commander stresses Boris Johnson is right to encourage Ukrainians to “fight this war on our behalf”. However, the Prime Minister must do “whatever is required” for Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to achieve a mutually agreed end-goal. Not to do so, the peer emphasises, would be “morally bankrupt”. With all the sacrifice entailed, better not to fight a war at all than to inadequately resource it and lose.
But Nato has made itself clear. The defensive alliance does not want to be drawn into a wider war – possibly a world war – with Russia. Member states desperately want Ukraine to triumph but equally avoid any manoeuvres Putin could perceive as unacceptable intervention. Primarily, these include troops on the ground and the distribution of offensive weaponry.
However, with his decades of military experience, Richards is certain if an agreed end-goal warrants more Nato action, whatever that may entail, then Nato must provide it.
“Otherwise, you’ll go on losing people for no strategic purpose,” the former commander says.
“More cities will be destroyed, and people’s lives will be ruined for a generation, if not longer.”
Grand strategy aside, Richards says the Prime Minister has “risen to the challenge” of war in Ukraine “admirably”. So too, he believes, has US president, Joe Biden, which has come as a surprise to the peer. Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Richards grew sceptical the leader of the free world could “stand up for what is right”.
“I think he’s more than recovered his status, influence and authority,” Richards says.
“The odd verbal blunder must not be allowed to disguise his leadership and instinct, which seem to me spot on.”
Throughout his tenure as president, Biden has been criticised over a range of seemingly off-the-cuff remarks. One of these, which the White House later retracted, was his characterisation of Putin as a war criminal. The label has now been applied by Johnson, as well as German chancellor, Olaf Scholz.
Richards is adamant Putin and his commanders have a “case to be answered”, but he is cautious about “pre-judging guilt”. The fear is accusations of war crimes will only harden Russia’s resolve.
“I would rather have been sotto voce about war crimes and seduced President Putin into not worrying about that until we can deal with it in due course,” the peer comments.
Beyond war crimes, Zelensky has gone a step further and accused Putin of committing genocide. Discussing harrowing scenes in cities such as Bucha, where bodies of civilians lay strewn across blood-soaked streets, the Ukrainian president has described Russian troops treating innocent people “worse than animals”.
Ukrainian government officials have documented instances of women and children being raped and tortured by Russian soldiers before then being killed or committing suicide.
“You have to cross a very high bar to prove a genocide has happened,” Richards says.
“My own instinct is that bar has not yet been reached, although there is certainly a prima facie case without doubt on the war crimes front.”
The peer caveats that if there becomes “clear and widespread acceptance” Russia is committing a genocidal campaign, Nato will have to intervene. Though for now, the focus must be on ensuring Ukrainians not only survive the war but also “come out on top”.
One way the west has sought to aid this process is through imposing an unprecedented and co-ordinated package of sanctions designed to cripple the Russian economy and defund Putin’s war machine.
Britain has now sanctioned more than 1,200 individuals and businesses with ties to the Kremlin. Among those targeted are 76 oligarchs and 16 banks who share a global net worth of around £650bn.
The sanctions alone are unlikely to dissuade Putin from continuing to wage war, but Richards believes they are a “key part of the armoury” government has at its disposal. Like many others, the peer thinks they can still go further.
“We must look again at using sanctions more voraciously, in order to have a shorter-term effect and to really worry those around Putin,” he says.
In an ideal scenario, western sanctions would swiftly infuriate Russians at all levels of society such that they would organise to stage a coup or revolution ending in regime change. But this, Richards admits, is unlikely. In the short term, sanctions could serve primarily to increase their resolve.
“Do not underestimate, as we historically have consistantly done, Russia and the Russian people’s capacity to endure hardship and pain,” Richards says.
“But they are a critical part of a long-term strategy to do what we failed to do in the 90s, which is to bring Russia into the community of nations, with a democratically elected and accountable leadership.”
A thriving and truly democratic Russia living alongside a free and secure Ukraine today feels somewhat like a fairytale. Richards admits it may be “wishful thinking” on his part. Nonetheless, it’s an outcome the west must do all in its power to achieve. That, Richards says over and over, starts with a clear, long-term and well-defined strategy.
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