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The West needs to look to Putin's next move after Ukraine

4 min read

As Russia continues to build up capabilities for an attack on Ukraine, evidence is growing that urgent warnings from the US of an imminent invasion are not empty alarmism.

Not all of this evidence is at the front line - Vladimir Putin hurriedly evacuating his superyacht out of reach of Western sanctions is the strongest combat indicator yet that he may be preparing to do something deeply stupid. 

The US’ seriousness has been underlined by urging Americans to leave Ukraine, a lead followed by a range of other nations. That too is a strong indication of what the US genuinely expects. Any land campaign would probably be preceded or accompanied by air and missile strikes on civilian targets and vital infrastructure. There’s little reason to think Russia would treat Ukraine any differently than it did Syria, where terrorising the civilian population into submission was seen as a swift and effective war-winning strategy. 

It’s urgent to prepare for the next time Russia uses military force to achieve its aims in Europe

But both Washington and London still need to get much better at telling their story of what is going to happen next. Poorly crafted messaging around disclosures of Russian plans has meant they have repeatedly backfired, with even supportive journalists becoming increasingly sceptical of what they are told. That has to change - urgently - if the US and UK want people and countries to properly prepare for all the fallout of a major conflict in Europe.

Both countries have been quick to rule out military deployments to Ukraine to bolster its defences. This was a serious blunder. Regardless of how unrealistic it may have been, there was no need to confirm for Russia that it could proceed without worrying about the worst-case outcome from attacking.

But there are still options for the West to deter Russia, by making it plain that a further attack on Ukraine risks precisely the escalation and Western involvement it fears most.

Establishing a no-fly zone and maritime exclusion zone for Russian military assets in Ukraine’s national airspace and territorial waters - and being visibly ready to enforce it - would show Western seriousness in a way that repeated warnings of sanctions never will. But if this is to be done, it must be done quickly, before Russia makes an identical move to try to keep Western support away from Ukraine. 

NATO needs to urgently consider how to handle a situation where Russia puts its nuclear forces on alert and declares that they will be used if its attack on Ukraine is hindered in any way.

A nuclear threat would present a direct and immediate challenge to NATO unity, one of Russia’s key problems. After all, there’s a good reason why one of Russia’s demands is that all nuclear weapons “should be returned to national territory” - they want the only tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to be their own.

But whether or not Ukraine gets the Western support it needs, it’s also urgent to prepare for the next time Russia uses military force to achieve its aims in Europe. And that means getting serious about the defence of European countries both in and out of NATO.

NATO - and the US and UK in particular - need to step up protection of the next line of defence in preparation for when Ukraine and Belarus are under Russian control. And the EU needs to be ready for the fallout of a major conflict that will inevitably impact neighbouring countries.

In the meantime, British politicians joining the procession of high-level visitors to Moscow to repeat messages that Russia has already dismissed achieve nothing - except, perhaps, delaying Russia’s plans a little further. The time gained must be put to good use, in preparing to defend not only Ukraine today but the rest of Europe tomorrow. 


Keir Giles is a Senior Consulting Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. 

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