Security & defence

Ukraine Is Nato’s Front Line

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Written by Adrian Hill

Is the West, and especially America, running down its support for Ukraine? If so, the costs in the medium and long term will be immense.

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Vladimir Putin discussed Russia’s war against Ukraine while combining his annual press conference with “Direct Line” forum on the 14 December. The “Direct Line” is an annual highly staged media ‘event’ during which Putin answers pre-selected questions from the Russian public. Putin skipped “Direct Line” last year, the first time he did not broadcast one since 2012. This year he discussed his objectives in Ukraine, specific operational and tactical situations along the front, and specific concerns from Russian military personnel and volunteers in a far more public and prolonged fashion than his previous statements about the war since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This approach suggests more confidence in his ability to address the Russian public on the war situation. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington DC, his approach also may signal more personal confidence in Russia’s prospects in Ukraine following relatively successful Russian defensive operations in western Zaporizhia Oblast, plus dangerous wavering of Western support for Ukraine. Putin did not offer a new approach or describe how Russia intends to achieve victory, nor indeed specify what Russian victory looks like. And he waited a few days before announcing himself as a candidate for next year’s presidential election!

ISW reports that on the same day as Putin’s media event Germany’s largest readership newspaper BILD ran a story about Russia’s plans to capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and grab up to the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast by the end of 2024. These goals would fall in line with ongoing localised Russian offensive operations in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv oblasts. Russia also reportedly plans to take large parts of Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv oblasts, including Kharkiv City if possible, in 2025 and 2026. BILD reported that an insider source stated that Russia plans to occupy large parts of Ukraine located east of the Dnipro River within the next 36 months. Russia is reportedly planning to hold the current front line in Kherson Oblast along the Dnipro River, concerned only about preventing Ukrainian forces in southern Ukraine from advancing towards occupied Crimea.

BILD also reported that Russia’s plans are based on mobilizing Russia’s defence industrial base, suffering annual casualties of around 100,000 military personnel in grinding offensive operations, though calculating that help may come from the possible election of a US president in 2024 who dramatically reduces or stops military support to Ukraine. BILD revealed that a source familiar with the leaked intelligence says the Kremlin plans to rely on “sham negotiations” while continuing to conduct offensive operations similar to the way in which Russia negotiated the Second Minsk agreement in 2015 when the Russian military continued to occupy additional Ukrainian settlements. ISW say that BILD previously published largely accurate intelligence findings about Russia’s plans for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in December 2021 which assessed that Russia would attack Ukraine from the south from Crimea, from Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, and from the north in late January or early February 2022. Although the Russian invasion as executed did not perfectly align with BILD’s reporting, it sounds remarkably close!

America

I’m an ancient Brit with American friendships that go back more than fifty years – politicians, businessmen, academics, reporters, diplomats, and many who wore a uniform – forged in war and peace. We live in a world that began on the 9th of August 1941 when Churchill and Roosevelt’s warships, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser USS Augusta, dropped anchor in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland for two days of talks. They signed the Atlantic Charter which laid the foundations of today’s American world. This was one of the greatest strategic moves in history.

Consequently I find it hard to tolerate the pantomime that is today’s Congress. Where is the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior? Where is the Democratic Party that voted for JFK and Barack Obama? After nearly a century with Europe mostly at peace Putin goes back to the bad old ways, changing frontiers by threats and violence. All are violations of international law. The whole world suffers yet the nation that created so many alliances across the globe has a Congress full of people who think it’s nothing to do with them, blissfully kidding themselves that frightful dangers will all go away and leave America alone. That sounds more Calvin Coolidge than Ronald Reagan.

This side of the Atlantic also needs to wake up. A disarmed Germany started to wake up and then found it has a budget hole. Scholz will prevaricate for months, they’ve already started by using ‘Call me Dave’ Cameron as a smoke screen for their inability to act at all. Fortunately we ordinary Brits’ restored our freedom to act and can reach for the fire extinguisher straight way then squirt where we think is most urgent. America’s Congress believes illegal immigrants from Mexico are a more dangerous threat than Putin’s cannon fodder, tanks, artillery and missiles, all not far from the NATO borders. When I look at TV pictures of Joe Biden just about tottering along without falling over (he’s two years younger than me) I remember standing in the street a few feet from Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, both standing up and waving from their open car at the start of their Inauguration Parade – my closest friend, Ambassador Terry McNamara, and I were amazed by their energy and vigour. Ronald Reagan was sixty-seven years old. They were exceptional. Today America desperately needs younger faces.

Respected journalist and broadcaster, Fareed Zakaria, wrote a very perceptive article in Foreign Affairs published on 12 December this year. In it, he points out how the USA is not in decline but actually the most powerful and well-placed nation on the planet. In 1990 US per capita income was 9% higher than Japan’s and 24% higher than Western Europe. Today those figures are 48% and 42% higher, respectively. In 1990 the American economy was 5% smaller than the EU (at purchasing power parity),Today the American economy is 10% larger than a much expanded EU. In the 1970s and 1980s the leading manufacturers of technology – consumer electronics, cars, computers – could be found in the USA, Japan, Germany, Netherlands and South Korea. By 1989 only four of the ten most valuable global companies were American, the other six were Japanese. Today nine of the top ten are American. The American top ten have capitalisation greater than the combined value of the stock markets of Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The dollar is the currency used for 90% of international transactions – and an Irish friend tells me that English law is used for most commercial contracts.

Fareed Zakaria maintains that China is not a spoiler like Putin’s Russia but gains from access to the global commerce system and the Chinese know this. Moreover, if one adds all the NATO members and America’s numerous regional allies, together they create 60% of global GDP and provide 65% of the global military spending. China is the only other superpower ( accounting for 18% to America’s 25.3%  of global GNP ) but you can’t create a global navy by simply building lots of ships. The Kaiser did exactly that a century ago and his fleet only fought one major battle. They did a lot of damage to the Royal Navy’s battle cruiser force but they never came out again to take on the British battleships.

The challenges facing the democracies are formidable but we are not in decline. According to the World Bank the Global GDP pecking order after the Americans and China reads Japan, Germany, India, Britain, France, and only then Russia. Putin has set the Russian economy on the road to Soviet Union levels of arms production. What that does to Russian inflation is another matter.

For us islanders the way ahead is clear. We have to increase the share of our trade and commerce with the rest of the planet. Joining the Trans Pacific Parnership is a first big step towards this ambition. The less we rely on Europe, the better. Europe’s NATO members may not like the idea of the German led EU as a military power. Britain outside the EU is the obvious friend around whom they can cluster. They’ve done it before. But we have to persuade the Americans to stay involved with NATO.

The recent deal with Japan and Italy to build a sixth-generation stealth fighter shows us another important compass bearing. As a small power with a long and illustrious history we have a lot of influence but nothing replaces real military power. Our armed forces ought to be three times larger. Some of that strength can be restored by increasing the size of the volunteer reserves but the Royal Navy and RAF need the whole original order for 138 F 35 fighters. We have the carriers thanks to Gordon Brown. Let’s have the decks packed with aircraft thanks to Rachel Reeves.

Carriers and nuclear deterrent submarines need attack submarines and surface escorts. We need three times as many as we have now. I’m all for the US Marines flying from our carriers and allied navies defending the strike force. That said, the Royal Navy should be able to send carrier groups anywhere in the world without depending on the US Navy for stealth fighters and ballistic missile defence from Aegis class destroyers. The Royal Air Force needs restoration as well, starting with AWACs aircraft, strike aircraft, fighters and tactical transports. We should also revue Tony Blair’s Europe driven decision to scrap our tactical nukes. I would bring them back because they scare the right people

David Cameron should go and live in Germany before he lets Scholz and Ursula steer our foreign policy. How anyone so ignorant of the situation on the ground can intervene in dangerous Near East crisis while relying on hearsay shows only that the remainers still run our foreign policy. This won’t change with a Labour government but might with better people in the Conservative Party or another Party altogether.

Berlin, Brussels and Paris in that order.

The trend on this side of the Atlantic does not inspire this ancient Brit. Rather than accept the British islanders conclusion – that rules drawn up by Continental Germany and France to favour their own industries and commerce, simply hobbled our global trade – instead they’ve meddled in our politics, sent refugees in droves across the Channel in rubber boats, and instinctively done their best to hamper up our exporters. Try buying British consumer products in Switzerland which is not in the EU nor belongs to the European Economic Area but is within the Single Market.

All this busy bodying led to a shock result for Ursula in Brussels. We overtook France as a manufacturing nation and our exports – including those to Europe – reached record highs. Europe won’t stop meddling, nor trying to trip us up. Rather like Putin, they don’t want a prosperous free-wheeling democracy visible on a clear day just across the Channel. For Brussels any free, independent European country is a dangerous temptation which others might follow. For years they’ve been trying to bully the Swiss into a ‘ framework ’ deal that favours the EU. Given the risk of a Euro collapse that would make Greece like a picnic, all those nice hard Swiss francs must look very tempting for the Bundesbank.

Ukraine

ISW do a remarkable job of gathering and sifting intelligence from open sources. Below is their considered view on America’s support and help for Ukraine. I think they say it all….

The United States has a much higher stake in Russia’s war on Ukraine than most people think. A Russian conquest of all of Ukraine is by no means impossible if the United States cuts off all military assistance and Europe fails to step into the breach. Such an outcome would bring a battered but triumphant Russian army right up to NATO’s border from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean. The Ukrainian military with Western support has destroyed nearly 90% of the Russian army that invaded in February 2022 according to US intelligence sources, but the Russians have replaced those manpower losses and are ramping up their industrial base to make good their material losses at a rate much faster than their pre-war capacity had permitted.

A victorious Russian army at the end of this war will be combat experienced and considerably larger than the pre-2022 Russian land forces. The Russian economy will gradually recover as sanctions inevitably erode and Moscow develops ways to circumvent or mitigate those that remain. Over time it will replace its equipment and rebuild its coherence, drawing on a wealth of hard-won experience fighting mechanised warfare. It will bring with it advanced air defence systems that only American stealth aircraft—badly needed to deter and confront China—can reliably penetrate. Russia can pose a major conventional military threat to NATO for the first time since the 1990s in a timeframe set to a considerable extent by how much the Kremlin invests in its military. Since Moscow has already committed to an ambitious post-war military expansion programme the US cannot be confident that the timeframe will be very long.

The overall military potential of the United States and its NATO allies is so much greater than that of Russia that there is no reason to doubt the West’s ability to defeat any conceivable Russian military even assuming that Russia fully absorbs Ukraine and Belarus. But as Americans consider the costs of continuing to help Ukraine fight the Russians in the coming years, they deserve a careful consideration of the costs of allowing Russia to win. Those costs are much higher than most people imagine.

To deter and defend against a renewed Russian threat following a full Russian victory in Ukraine the United States will have to deploy to Eastern Europe a sizable portion of its ground forces. The United States will have to station in Europe a large number of stealth aircraft. Building and maintaining those aircraft is intrinsically expensive, but challenges in manufacturing them rapidly will likely force the United States to make a terrible choice between keeping enough in Asia to defend Taiwan and its other Asian allies and deterring or defeating a Russian attack on a NATO ally. The entire undertaking will cost a fortune, and the cost will last as long as the Russian threat continues—potentially indefinitely.

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About the author

Adrian Hill