UK Foreign Policy: An Absence of Strategy?

14 mins. to read
UK Foreign Policy: An Absence of Strategy?

The shadow of war

On 16 June, General Sir Patrick Sanders, the new commander-in-chief of the British army, sent out a message to all ranks, as well as to all Ministry of Defence civil servants. He wrote that the threat posed by Russia signalled “a new era of insecurity”. He also said that it was his duty to make the British Army “as lethal and effective as it can be”, adding that “the world has changed since 24th February, and there is now a burning imperative to forge an army capable of fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle”. He added that it was the first time since 1941 that a general had taken command of the British army in the shadow of a land war in Europe.

On the same day, Boris Johnson, having just returned from Kyiv, warned that the war in Ukraine would not be over soon, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the war “could last years”.

Vladimir Putin recently compared himself to Peter the Great, the tsar who captured what is now Ukraine from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth following the Battle of Poltava (1709). The Great Northern War (1700-21), of which Poltava was the largest and most decisive battle, saw Russia emerge as an empire spanning much of eastern Europe while the Swedish empire was pushed back into its Scandinavian heartland. Clearly, Putin sees this war as a historic watershed.

There is a significant risk that Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine could escalate into an all-out NATO-Russia conflict. That scenario seemed to come one step closer last Saturday (18 June) when Lithuania moved to block the passage of Russian goods from Belarus (which, although a sovereign state, is under de facto Russian control) to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad oblast. Kaliningrad − previously known as Königsberg, the city where Prussian kings were crowned − was seized by the Soviets from defeated Nazi Germany and incorporated into Russia in 1945.

The supply route to Kaliningrad – by train across the so-called Suwalki Gap – is a strategic pinch point. The ban will also cut off Kaliningrad’s only oil pipeline from Russia. In response, Moscow indicated that Lithuania would face “serious” though unspecified consequences. Russian commentators have described the ban as “a blockade” and have claimed that it violates international law.

What is the UK’s strategy in this evolving conflict? And how does it differ from other major western powers?

As a rough generalisation, the Anglosphere nations – supported by the frontline nations of eastern Europe such as Estonia and Poland − insist that Putin’s Russia must be defeated in Ukraine, otherwise the post-WWII, rules-based states system would be replaced by the historically more common doctrine that might is right. If Putin were to win decisively, China would be emboldened to retake Taiwan and Russia would only hunger for other territories it controlled under the tsarist empire.

In contrast, ‘Old Europe’ – principally France, Germany and Italy (whose leaders jointly visited Kyiv last week, offering EU membership to a country that might soon cease to exist) – insist that Russia must not be humiliated and that the ‘Bear’ should be offered some ‘fresh meat’ (ie Ukrainian territory) in order to stop its rampage.

Which view is strategically more coherent?

A brief history of misguided interventions

The UK’s long-term strategic goals have often been subordinated to short-term objectives over the last 25 years or so, as General Lord Richards observed recently. Lord Richards served in Afghanistan and Iraq and observed first-hand how grand strategy was undermined by poor tactics.

In 1999, Tony Blair persuaded a reluctant Bill Clinton that NATO had a moral obligation to intervene in Kosovo, which was still a province of Serbia. Belgrade was bombed. This was the last chapter in the decade-long series of conflicts around the break-up of Yugoslavia. The UK had no vital strategic interests in the Balkans. While Slovenia and Croatia have become stable EU members, Serbia remains a resentful client of Russia. The creation of the new statelet of Kosovo was used by Putin as the justification of his seizure of Abkhazia and North Ossetia from Georgia in 2008.

The NATO invasion of Afghanistan, a consequence of America’s hysterical response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks (2001), lacked strategic direction. NATO forces remained in the country until the debacle of the Taliban reconquest in August last year – what Lord Richards describes as “a total strategic failure”. Nearly 500 British service personnel perished in Afghanistan over the 20 years of our involvement, but it is difficult to say just what they died for. It is true that the Al-Qaeda terrorist-training camps were taken out (within the first six months, in fact), but the country is poorer now than ever – so, the developmental goal, if ever it was realistic, was not achieved. Very few if any military leaders regard the long Afghan war as a success for the UK.

In Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein was rapidly overthrown by decisive military action led by the US. The problem then became how to govern a conquered Iraq. The Americans decided to approach that task by dismantling his Ba’ath Party at the same time as the Iraqi army and police force. The UK advised against this on the ground that if you dismantle all the institutions of state at the same time you risk creating a vacuum into which all kinds of disparate forces would be drawn. There would be unintended consequences.

And that is exactly what happened. All kinds of elements which had been contained under Hussein’s brutal dictatorship now surfaced, including the extremist Islamists who later formed Islamic State (IS). Iraq for a time was rendered ungovernable by extremist elements. Regime change was achieved (for precisely what purpose is still arguable) but at the cost of destabilising the country and indeed the entire region from Iran to Lebanon.

In 2011, under David Cameron’s leadership, the UK, in close partnership with France, intervened in Libya. Once again, regime change was enacted in a country which is inherently politically unstable and where there was no coherent opposition group ready to take over. David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy were allowed to take the initiative by a strategically detached US president, Barack Obama, who was put off any idea of foreign intervention by George W Bush’s travails in Iraq. They focused on the removal of the dictator, Muammar Gaddafi – without any thought for what might follow.

Libya promptly descended into a protracted civil war. It is still far from stable. It is now a hub for people traffickers who despatch refugees across the Mediterranean in ever increasing numbers. And it is currently a base for Russia’s notorious Wagner Group mercenary brigade (a sort of Russian Foreign Legion, though not as romantic as the French version).

Then came Syria. In the 2011 Arab Spring, popular dissent in Syria was brutally crushed by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Western leaders, including David Cameron, swiftly concluded that Al-Assad was the bad guy (he is certainly not nice) and determined that the solution was that he must go – once again without formulating a view on who should replace him. Things came to a head in August 2013 when, in response to Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, Cameron asked the House of Commons to sanction an attack on Syria – and lost by 272 votes to 285. Once again, Obama decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and Al-Assad was allowed to cross a “red line” with impunity.

The House of Commons shared the government’s moral outrage against the atrocity but rightly determined that it had no coherent military strategy. A bombing raid, still less troops on the ground, would have no assured outcome. Thereafter, Putin smelt blood. He intervened with substantial military assets to bolster Al-Assad’s position. His campaign was merciless and successful. Russia effectively established a satrapy at the crossroads of the Middle East and expanded its warm-water naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean. More importantly, Putin became a kingmaker sought out by potentates across the region. He was emboldened by his success to take further risks.

Finally, the UK felt compelled to intervene in Syria covertly – not against Al-Assad but against Islamic State which was a sworn enemy of Al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime. It would have saved much trouble if the west had just allowed Al-Assad to vanquish his opponents at the outset instead of encouraging and supplying disparate opposition groups with arms in the early phase of the civil war. There was never a coherent opposition to Al-Assad; and even if he had been displaced it would probably have been with a regime even more vile than his.

Lord Richards discerns a similar lack of coherent strategy in Ukraine right now. He thinks that Washington and London have only a very vague notion of how they want the war to pan out or what sort of Russia we would like to see emerge from the conflict.

Strategic thinkers might want us to encourage a weakened Russia, post-conflict, to align closer to the west rather than to send the Bear into the arms of the ‘Dragon’ – China. A “defeat” for Russia – though it is not easy to imagine what that would look like – might engender an even more hostile and resentful mood in Moscow. And what happens then? Already, Russia is selling the oil it once sent westwards at discounted rates to China and India. What if New Delhi decides that its long-term interests are better aligned with Moscow than with the west?

Strategy means that states pursue their long-term national interests by a combination of trade, economic leverage, investment, soft power, diplomacy and the tacit threat of military action. As Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. But in Whitehall there seems to be a lack of strategic thinking. Lord Richards thinks that all new ministers, when appointed, should be sent on an intensive course in strategy – just as senior army officers are. He thinks that we need a more dominant National Security Council to develop strategic-thinking skills.

Paris and Moscow

It pains me to say this, but the French political elite are much more capable of strategic thinking than their counterparts across the Channel.

This is reflected in the French response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has deep roots. France has tried to establish mutually supportive relations with Russia since the late 19th Century − really since France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) which culminated with the declaration of the German empire at Versailles on 18 January 1871. By 1892, France and the Russian empire signed a military convention which in time became a military alliance directed against Germany. Concomitantly, there were huge investment flows from France to Russia in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century – the French financed much of Russia’s railway network.

France was the first western nation to recognise the Soviet Union (1924). The two countries signed a non-aggression pact as early as 1931. Both supported the Popular Front government in Spain from 1935 onwards – and came out on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

When De Gaulle became president of France in 1958 and inaugurated the Fifth Republic, he assiduously cultivated the Russians whom he regarded as a counterweight against the dominance of “les Anglo-Saxons”. He visited Moscow in 1966. In the same year, France withdrew from NATO’s military command structure and all American troops were expelled from French soil. Even since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, France has sought a kind of special relationship with Russia and was unenthusiastic about NATO’s action against Russia’s friend Serbia in 1999 – an event which was clearly pivotal in the evolution of Putin’s assessment of the west.

Today, Emmanuel Macron is desperately trying to keep the lines of communication open with Putin and has said that Russia must not be humiliated. Just as in the time of De Gaulle, Paris doubts the US can be trusted to secure French interests; while the British, as Churchill said, given the choice between Europe and the open sea would choose the sea (as we did in 2016). In fact, France, which controls 11 million square kilometres of ocean in the Pacific, is as much of a naval power as the UK. Germany, while a useful and rich ally, is not a serious military power.

The truth is that the French take a much less moralistic view of international relations than the British. They see long-term constructive relations as more important than the peccadilloes of individual governments. Russia is a real and present danger; but it is not going to withdraw from Europe, and therefore it must somehow be accommodated. The question is: at what price?

If Macron could preside over a peace deal with Russia, which would inevitably involve the cession of significant territory by Ukraine to Russia, then France could continue with its “sovereign Europe” project with France as its leading diplomatic and military power, though not its leading economy. With Macron now without a majority in the Assemblée Nationale, his domestic clout is much weakened; but in foreign-policy matters he is still unassailable.

London and Kyiv

Volodomyr Zelensky has repeatedly singled out the UK for praise, for its stalwart support of the Ukrainian cause, most pragmatically by supplying high-end weaponry. Boris’s image is everywhere in Ukraine – not least in the guise of the folkloric Cossack Mamay. The one thing for which Boris has been praised in the last year is his stout defence of Ukraine. The supply of western armaments, principally from the US and the UK has been stepped up in recent weeks, although let us not underestimate the effectiveness of Turkish drones (The Turks are playing a subtle game – friends and confidants to all).

Another reason why the UK takes a harder stance towards Putin than France is that, under Putin, two atrocities were committed on UK soil – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko using polonium in 2006, and the Salisbury novichok attack in 2017. The perpetrators have never been brought to book.

But the current level of arms shipments will not ensure a Russian defeat. Ukraine is losing between 100 and 300 servicemen every day, sometimes more, according to US military estimates. Russia has 10-15 big guns for every one operated by Ukraine. If indeed the Ukraine war does drag on for a year or more, Ukraine’s population will be severely depleted by death and widescale emigration. The country’s infrastructure and economy will have been devastated.

Even if the Russian army were to withdraw next week – which is not going to happen, even if the morale of Russian troops is low – Ukraine would take decades to repair itself. If the country were ceded the $300bn of Russian foreign-exchange assets frozen by the US and its allies, that would still not be enough to finance the reconstruction of the country. In an article for the Sunday Times last week, Johnson admitted that Ukraine will require funding and technical help “for years to come”. The UK has already donated £2.1bn in aid to Ukraine since the invasion began.

How it all ends…

Putin, who began with dreams of Blitzkrieg and a victory parade through Maidan Square, Kyiv, on 9 May, is now set upon a war of attrition. The longer it takes, the less of a nation there will be to save. And he calculates that the longer the war drags on, the more the fragile western coalition, afflicted by inflation and imminent recession, will be put under strain. As the impact of a prospective Russian-gas shutdown intensifies, so the Germans are likely to waver. Already they foresee a winter of misery. Chancellor Scholz said this week that Putin should be thwarted – but he did not call for a Ukrainian victory.

For the Anglosphere, anything less than an outright Ukrainian victory would be appalling; for French pragmatist” and their European acolytes all this is reason to secure peace as soon as possible. That is the dilemma.

In the US, there is talk about an “endgame”. As for the Ukrainians themselves, they are not inclined to negotiate with an adversary which has murdered, brutalised, deported and raped untold thousands of their people. Of course, the African Union wants peace so that crucial grain shipments can resume – although I fear that President Macky Sall does not understand that Ukrainian ports will not be able to operate as they did before the war under any scenario. There will be no shipments from the mine-ridden Black Sea for years. Famine in Africa and beyond is now almost inevitable. That is part of Putin’s hybrid warfare – he is already spreading the narrative that the west is starving the developing world because of pitiless western sanctions against Russia.

Our chairman, Jim Mellon, told the audience at the Master Investor Show on 19 March that nobody knows how this war is going to end. That is still the case. But some scenarios are more likely than others. The prospect of a long war of attrition against an increasingly gruesome global economic backdrop – entrenched stagflation – is now the most probable. Global equity markets are only just beginning to price that prospect into stock values.

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