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The crisis in Ukraine has exposed our strategic weaknesses

4 min read

Recent events in Ukraine have caused great dismay here in the UK and amongst our friends and allies, and the wider threat to the peace and stability of Europe is obvious.

Putin’s actions have, I hope, laid to rest the specious argument that he is simply concerned about the size and proximity of the “threat” posed by Nato. It has long been clear to those with eyes to see – and to read Putin’s own words – that his real objective is to return Ukraine to the status of a Russian fiefdom.

Sanctions must be sufficiently robust, appropriately targeted, and enduring

We are rightly putting in place a range of responses to his aggression, with sanctions very much to the fore. I welcome this, but stress that sanctions must be sufficiently robust, appropriately targeted, and enduring. We cannot defend Ukraine militarily. We can, however, counter Russia’s aggression provided we can sustain unity of purpose amongst our partners and a willingness to bear the long-term burden our measures will undoubtedly impose upon our own people.

Dealing with these challenges will require both resolution and agility, and will tax our diplomatic skills to the limit.

It is not long ago that some observers were questioning the rationale for the continued existence of Nato. Such critics in the UK were never clear about what would take its place, given that we in these islands long ago forsook the idea of national defence in favour of collective security. At least French commentators offer the alternative of an EU-based defence structure, unrealistic though such a proposal is as long as European nations refuse to make the necessary and very large investment in strategic capabilities. There is, of course, a need for Nato constantly to evolve in order to deal with new challenges and to exploit new opportunities, but it remains the fundamental bedrock of European security.

One of the reasons that people questioned the relevance of Nato was that they thought any future threats would arise principally outside of Europe. Indeed, the UK’s own recent Integrated Review, while not excluding Russia as an issue, gave the impression that our foreign and security priorities would increasingly lie in the Indo-Pacific region. There are certainly serious long-term challenges to global security in that part of the world, and the UK should play its part in facing up to them, but the peace and stability of our own neighbourhood should always be our top priority.

Even if the risks to the security of Europe were not obvious (and to many of us they were), we should remember the unbounded capacity of the future to surprise us – usually in very unpleasant ways. The apparently weak, piping times of peace are when we need to be at our most vigilant.

We must also be resilient. Globalisation brought us many benefits, although they were not spread widely enough, but it also introduced significant vulnerabilities. I need only mention Huawei, Nord Stream 2, and Russian money in London to make the point. Such vulnerabilities are not just apparent during a security crisis; many businesses have found how damaging it can be when just in time deliveries turn out to be just too late.

We have exposed ourselves to debilitating shocks that could unbalance our economy and our society more widely, and that make it harder for us to respond appropriately to international threats. It is neither possible nor desirable to turn the clock back entirely in this regard. We need the benefits that flow from a global approach to finance and business, but we also need to strike a better balance between commercial considerations and national resilience. The government has taken some tentative steps to address this problem, but it needs to go much further.

The crisis in Ukraine poses an immediate and serious threat to the security and prosperity of Europe, but it also raises longer-term issues. The priority must be on the immediate challenge, but we must also address the strategic weaknesses that it has exposed.


Lord Stirrup is a crossbench peer and former chief of defence staff.

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