Geraint Hughes, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London
Over a month has passed since Vladimir Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ to subjugate Ukraine. Russia’s blatant and unprovoked invasion of its neighbour has caused a major international crisis, with Britain and other NATO powers being presented with the hard task of helping the Ukrainians to defend their homeland while simultaneously avoiding escalation with its nuclear-armed aggressor. The aim of this post is to summarise the key implications of this war for Britain’s defence policy, and also for its armed forces in particular.
The 2021 Integrated Review and the ensuing Defence White Paper emphasised the ‘sub-threshold’ threat that Russia and other potential adversaries posed to the UK and its allies, arguing that Britain’s enemies would utilise tools of statecraft short of overt warfare (propaganda, military sabre-rattling, covert action etc) to achieve their objectives. This thinking reflected current conceptions of ‘political warfare’, ‘hybrid war’ and ‘war in the grey zone’, in part inspired by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in February-March 2014 and its subsequent instigation of a proxy war in the Donbas. However, Russia openly ‘crossed the threshold’ on 24th February 2022 with its invasion of Ukraine, which was clearly intended to overthrow its government by force, and a failed offensive on Kyiv was also accompanied by attempts to assassinate the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Previous Russian military interventions were disguised by ambiguity (engineering a conflict with Georgia in August 2008 in which the latter appeared to commence hostilities) or a veneer of legitimacy (notably involvement in Syria in September 2015, ostensibly to help Bashar al-Assad’s regime defeat ‘terrorists’). In Ukraine in 2022 the Russians launched an overt attack on a sovereign state, and did not care to disguise it. As such, Britain and its armed forces can no longer count on any calculations of restraint or caution in Moscow’s policy decisions.
Given intelligence failures in the past it is worth emphasising that the British intelligence community (like its US counterpart) managed to not only monitor the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders in the winter of 2021-2022, but also correctly predicted that an invasion was likely; in contrast, the failure of its French counterparts led President Emmanuel Macron to dismiss his military intelligence chief. It will be for future scholars to determine the extent to which British assessments were based on technical intelligence capabilities (benefitting from the UK’s ‘Five Eyes’ relationships, particularly with the US), or on HUMINT potentially gained from disaffected sources within the Russian military and security establishment. SIS (MI6) are in all likelihood on the lookout for future Gordievskys whose disgust with their country’s policy towards Ukraine may make them valuable targets for recruitment.
Putin appears to have gambled on a surprise offensive into Ukraine to overthrow Zelenskyy, anticipating that a war for regime change would take a matter of days. As such, the Russian war effort has run into serious trouble, with Russia’s army being forced into an embarrassing retreat from Kyiv. This battlefield outcome is a product of Russian military ineptitude, but also the courage and skill with which the Ukrainian armed forces have conducted their defence, which testifies to the extent of the reforms undertaken over the past eight years. Britain has played a small – but nonetheless creditable – role in supporting Ukraine militarily, whether through the collective efforts of the Operation Orbital training team, or with the pre-war supply of important weapons systems such as the NLAW disposable anti-tank missile. The UK’s willingness to provide defence aid to the Ukrainians prior to the Russian invasion provides a favourable contrast to the more parsimonious (if not pusillanimous) attitude of other European powers, who seemed to assume that aid to a potential victim of aggression would be a case of throwing good money after bad. British aid to Ukraine may have initially been based on a presumption that the latter would need arms to fight a guerrilla war against an occupying power, but the current government’s readiness to provide more advanced weapons systems to the Ukrainians (including longer-range artillery and anti-aircraft missiles) represents a realisation that the latter are fighting a peer-on-peer war, and currently have the edge on the battlefield.
A more distressing and alarming aspect of the current war can be seen with Russia’s systematic use of brute force against Ukrainian civilians, and its flagrant violations of the laws of armed conflict, whether seen in the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Mariupol, or the rounding up and deportation of non-combatants, or reported cases of Russian war crimes including rape, looting and murder. The conduct of Russian forces in Ukraine has disturbing connotations of the atrocities surrounding the fall of Yugoslavia thirty years ago, and while Britain has faced adversaries with utter contempt for the laws of warfare before, this is the first time it is potentially confronted with one that is also one of the world’s largest nuclear powers.
One conclusion about Ukraine that should be swiftly dismissed is that of James Heappey, the Undersecretary of State for the Armed Forces, who has argued that the course of operations has vindicated the shrinkage of the British Army in particular. Heappey’s judgement that ‘small bands of determined people with the right missile technology are far more lethal than any opposing armoured force might prove to be’ is an astonishing one for a man of his intelligence and professional military experience. Currently Ukraine has an active fighting strength of just under 200,000 troops (not including reservists and volunteers) facing a Russian invasion force estimated at 190,000 strong. If the Ukrainians have been able to exploit the agility and tactical drive of soldiers involved in successive ambushes against Russian columns the fact remains that they have mass to back them up. Open source intelligence analyses of the fighting in Ukraine also testify to the sheer scale of human and material losses armed forces experience in major combat operations in which both sides have armour, artillery, combat jets and helicopters, and anti-aircraft defences. If these statistics are correct then the Russian army in Ukraine has lost more tanks (375) in just over a month’s fighting than the British Army possesses in its entire inventory (227). The fundamental principles of British policy now remain to offer the fullest support to Ukraine’s defence, while reinforcing the UK’s commitment to NATO’s collective defence and Article 5, most notably with Operation Cabrit and the RAF’s contribution to Alliance air-policing in the Baltic. These principles are sound, but we should not underestimate the sheer scale of the losses the three armed services may face if deterrence fails.
On a political level, the author agrees with Helene von Bismarck’s argument that the Ukraine crisis offers a valuable opportunity for Britain to rebuild relations with European partners damaged by BREXIT. The UK’s role in supporting Ukraine militarily and its willingness to defy Moscow enables it to bolster ties with EU member states threatened by potential Russian attack and also enables it to demonstrate its utility to the US as a reliable defence partner on the continent. For all the talk of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ tilt, the current war is a reminder not only of the importance of European security to Britain’s own national interests, but also of the fact that the British can be a significant and important actor in continental defence. Support for this proposition can be seen in the fact that even before 2022 the Russian military rated the UK’s own intervention capabilities highly. Britain can penny-packet what exists of Royal Navy, army, and RAF globally, or focus it all in Europe where its core security interests are at stake and its allies are present. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the author would argue that the latter course of action makes strategic as well as common sense.