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Monday, 23 May 2022

The future of European security after the war in Ukraine

On 17 May, Lord Robertson, former NATO Secretary General, gave the annual SEESOX/ESC lecture in St Antony’s college. The Directors of the ESC and SEESOX, Hartmut Mayer and Othon Anastasakis, chaired jointly.

Lord Robertson began by describing Russia as an immensely complicated entity. It was important to distinguish fact from fiction. The 9 May Victory Day parade in Moscow was impressive, but had nothing to do with the facts on the ground in Ukraine. The Ukrainians - part of anti-Nazi fighters in the Second World War- were now fighting Russia. And the Russian Army was apparently no longer capable of fighting against people who didn’t want them.

The parade prompted three observations: victory in the war was not Russia’s alone, but equally we should recognise Soviet losses; there was a danger of conflating Russia and Putin – the Putin clique was not representative of his people; Russia was given insufficient credit for allowing a peaceful transfer of power in Poland and a peaceful conclusion of communism. The contrast with China and Tienanmen Square was stark.

Putin gave a totally dishonest characterisation of Ukraine: because of his emotionalism and messianic obsession with Russia. But the West should avoid provoking the thin-skinned Putin into even more reckless behaviour. He appeared convinced that NATO was a threat; but if so, why had he moved all troops away from the NATO frontier?Words mattered. There was a risk of reactions to loose western language. We should be supportive but leave the conduct of the war to the Ukrainians who would have to live with the consequences.

As for the future of European security, it was our duty to think beyond immediate events. Russia would still be there. Our argument was with the Putin clique, not the Russian people. Our aim was to defend Ukraine, not attack Russia. Young generations of Russians traduced by Putin propaganda deserved an idea of where Russia’s future role lay in European security.

The NATO Russia Council was created in 2002. It set out a path which initially produced real results, including: two joint conferences on military aspects of counter-terrorism; discussion of chemical weapons; ammunition disposal; Search & Rescue at sea; Proliferation etc.

It was a huge agenda initially compromised by the then US administration and then abandoned after Russia’s attack on Georgia. How should we move onwards with younger Russians? Before Putin, the Russian people had been connected to the world. Disconnection showed Putin was scared of Russian people. We needed to reconnect. How?

One way was to recreate a joint understanding of shared experiences. We needed to demonstrate a future for Russians and a future with values that we shared; and we needed them on our side as the world faced the urgency of climate change, global terrorism, organised crime, migration, instability, pandemics.

At the end of The Second World War and Cold War Russia was respected and stood proud. We needed to restore that and a perspective of hope and cooperation.

There were many questions in a wide-ranging Q&A session: covering Russia’ s greatness or not; nationalistic leanings of young Russians; getting away from the Soviet view of history; Erdogan’s statements on Swedish/Finnish accession to NATO; the danger of personal sanctions disaffecting people whose support could be helpful; the consequences if Trump had been US President; the demand for democracy (or not) within Russia; was the West sufficiently sensitive in the manner of NATO enlargement; was there scope for NATO and the EU between them to create non-“threatening” policies; in NATO enlargement, should a promise of membership go hand in hand with protection; what should we say to Ukraine (or others) about the Budapest Memorandum; what if Ukraine sought to restore pre-23 February boundaries; was it best to let the Russian economy collapse and become like Iran or North Korea; the rapidity of war crimes tribunals (new /deterrent); implications for China, India and Brazil; role of UK; could we learn good lessons from the Cold War period?

Lord Robertson protested that he was not a historian. But it was clear that we needed to include Russia and treat them as an equal, as and when we could: eg on climate change. We needed a narrative to go out to decent Russians after the collapse of the Russian invasion.

Yes, many young Russians were pro war, but that was on the basis of a false narrative and rallying round the flag. We needed to get beyond that.

There was a risk of provoking by language. Talk of an invasion might have meant that Putin calculated that he risked losing credibility if he did not invade.

Lord Robertson was struck by the sheer incompetence of the war strategy. Had the Russians really though through what an invasion of Ukraine involved? Or was it one man’s decision?

Joining NATO was a process which went through various calculated stages. NATO should carefully explain to Erdogan the price of a veto.

As for Trump, Robertson had been trying to figure out what was in Putin’s mind, let alone Trump’s. But the invasion of Ukraine had, for a brief moment, united Democrats and Republicans.

We were NOT insufficiently sensitive about the likely Russian reaction to NATO enlargement. As Secretary General, he had had 9 meetings with Putin, and the latter had never complained to him. And Putin himself had signed the NATO- Russia Council document. He was now busily engaged in rewriting history.

There were serious worries about proliferation after the failure of Budapest guarantees. It had been a pragmatic decision at the time. Nobody except Liz Truss had yet said anything about going beyond the 23 February lines (though the actions of the UK government in general had been well-judged and proportionate).

China could not be happy. The country had never recognised Crimea annexation, and was now entangled in a Putin-terms trade war with the US. There were major implications for the rest of the world, especially food. There could well be a movement towards some dirty compromise.

Liddell Hart had reminded everyone that the enemy of today was the customer of tomorrow and the ally of the future. This should temper our response.

The West had reacted very quickly and effectively to war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, so there were precedents.

We needed strategic patience, and to recover the lost arts of arms control, dialogue(even in difficult circumstances) and trip wires: a renewed modus operandi.

The consequences in Germany of Putin’s invasion had been remarkable: and vis a vis Sweden and Finland, Putin had achieved in 4 weeks what the Alliance had not achieved in 40 plus years.

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