by James Monroe
Chair: Sir Gerald Howarth
Speaker: General Sir Richard Shirreff
On Thursday 26th January, The Henry Jackson Society welcomed General Sir Richard Shirreff -Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, 2011-2014 – to talk about the conflict in Ukraine. Since a planned ceasefire was agreed in September 2016 between Ukraine and Pro-Russian rebels, the situation in Ukraine has largely been overshadowed by the ongoing crisis in Syria. This timely talk by Sir Richard Shirreff, reminded us that the ongoing conflict, and Russia’s active involvement in the region, remains one of the greatest threats to regional and Trans-Atlantic peace today.
Sir Richard Shirreff opened the discussion by referring to Vladimir Putin’s speech on 18th March 2014, at a ceremony to incorporate the Crimea as part of Russia. Sir Richard reminded the audience that Putin stated that the West posed a very real threat to Russian security by deploying military forces on its borders, and, if pushed, Russia would have no hesitation in pushing back. Putin claimed that 95% of the Russian population supported Russia’s right to protect the interests of Russians and further stated that Ukraine and Russia ‘‘are one nation’’. Putin also urged the world not to trust those who say that ‘‘Crimea will be followed by other activities’’.
Sir Richard highlighted the duplicitous nature of these comments by drawing attention to the participation of Russian military forces in the subsequent invasion of Donetsk. Sir Richard was adamant that since Ukraine remains on the front line, the West has a duty to assist in any way possible. Sir Richard explained that economic sanctions have had an impact on the Russian economy, but have not yet achieved their goal of forcing a change in Russia’s policy towards the Ukrainian conflict. Russia has not yet withdrawn its forces, has done little to further the ceasefire, and has shown no signs of willingness to enact a lasting and stable settlement.
Sir Richard urged that the effort to create a safer Europe is in peril. In 1994, following the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Russia agreed to respect the borders of its neighbouring countries, an assurance that played a pivotal role in persuading Ukraine to destroy its nuclear arsenal. Sir Richard stated that Putin has consistently violated this agreement, and further cautioned that Putin’s aggression poses the gravest threat to the Trans-Atlantic community since the end of the Cold War.
Sir Richard advocated a number of strategies to assist Ukraine and proposed several suggestions as to how to best implement these. He urged that the West must provide Ukraine with additional military capabilities in order to inflict losses on Russian military personnel and armaments. Ultimately, Putin must find action in Ukraine too costly to pursue. Specifically, Sir Richard advised that Ukrainian forces needed more UAV’s, counter battery-radar, secure radios and medical training.
Sir Richard was clear that NATO could only play a limited role, given that Ukraine is not officially a member state. The focus must therefore be on bilateral support for Ukraine from individual member states. However, whilst NATO may not be able to intervene directly, Sir Richard explained that NATO must think through what collective defence means in the 21st Century, must go on the offensive against Russia in the realm of cybersecurity and must establish a permanent military presence in the Baltic States to act as a deterrent against future Russian aggression. Above all, a strong focus on nuclear deterrence remains the critical issue upon which the safeguarding of Trans-Atlantic peace depends.
Sir Richard also acknowledged that Donald Trump’s stance remains critical. Since 1949, it has been widely understood that the USA will come to the aid of any member nation under attack. Trump recently called this into question. Collective defence, NATO’s key doctrine is now under threat. Facing a political opportunist such as Putin, Trump’s stance on collective defence may prove critical to peace in Eastern Europe.
Sir Richard concluded by stating that Russia only respects strength; where Russia finds weakness it continues to probe, where it finds strength it backs off. He urged that whilst dialogue with Russia was critical and needed to be drastically improved, such dialogue is not unconditional and must be based on Russia’s acknowledgment of the rights of its neighbours to live without fear of intervention or invasion.