A decade ago, the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark published a good book about the outbreak of the First World War. In my eyes, however, there was one thing wrong with it: the title. The Sleepwalkers suggested that, in 1914, the leaders of Europe did not know what they were doing. In truth, one of the most ghastly aspects of the great nations’ conduct that fateful summer was that each believed they were acting rationally, to promote or defend their national interests. Kaiser Wilhelm II, with his unerring instinct for the wrong gesture, opened champagne with his suite to celebrate Germany’s declaration of war.
Yet a future chronicler who writes of 2024 might justly title their own work The Sleepwalkers. We are living in the most dangerous times, so unstable since the end of the Cold War. Governments posture relentlessly about their commitment to our security. The defence secretary, Grant Shapps, made an emotional speech last week about the threats facing us. He is, however, a member of a government with no apparent intention of doing anything about them. Do not be fooled by the Nato exercises to which Britain is making a brief troop commitment, the bombs dropped by RAF Typhoons on Houthis in Yemen, the big talk about our warship, or even occasionally warships, deployed in the Red Sea.
Successive administrations have reduced our armed forces to hollowed-out shells which frighten our foes no more than they impress our friends. The least bad thing that can be said is that they are in better shape than those of our European neighbours. So dire is the state of our army that its chief, General Sir Patrick Sanders, was moved this week to propose a mass citizen reserve force for Britain’s home defence.
We shall address the detail of some of the problems below, but a good first question is this: how have we, the British people, allowed this state of affairs to come about? We fulminate about Rwanda, the Post Office, the NHS, HS2, Prince Andrew, the roads. But we remain indifferent to the pathetic condition of the armed forces. There are no votes in defence. And since votes are the preoccupation of our rulers, they continue to talk big and do little. Consider how odd it is, when in our real world Russia, China and Iran pose more serious threats to our wellbeing than any foreign powers for many decades, that in the latest series of the cult TV thriller Slow Horses the baddies are two megalomaniacal MI5 women and a cluster of Old Etonians. Last summer an essay appeared in German and American academic publications written by Constanze Stelzenmüller, a respected Washington foreign policy guru. She began by arguing the imperative need to sustain aid to Ukraine. She then went further, arguing that it was past time for the West to stop pretending such nations as Russia, China and Iran can be treated as sort-of-neighbours. They are our enemies, committed to do us harm. She urged that we should look in the face that unpleasant reality.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, more than a few optimists in the West’s chancelleries embraced the theory of convergence — that despite the difference in systems between Russia, China and the West, the world would gradually align itself with free-market democracy. President George Bush Sr articulated this dream in a 1990 address to Congress: “Out of these troubled times … a new world order … can emerge: a new era, freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace; an era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony… A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognise the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.” Even 34 years ago, many nations did not share this utopian view of a future of which the United States was to be sole arbiter. Yet as late as 2005, Bob Zoellick, President George W Bush’s deputy secretary of state, asserted that once China became a “responsible stakeholder” in the US-led world order, bilateral differences with Washington could be settled in the light of shared interests. Well, we know better today — or at least, we should.
Stelzenmüller writes: “The free democracies must now understand that they are dealing with a phenomenon they had believed to be historically obsolete: state rivals who see them as ideological enemies. Specifically, ‘absolute’ enemies.” Ukraine is the immediate front in the confrontation with Russia. President Putin is not wrong when he tells his people this has now become their war against the West because we have indeed pinned the credibility of the Nato alliance to the purpose of denying victory to Moscow the aggressor. This makes it all the more alarming that European and American will is flagging. Almost nobody is telling it like it is. Jingo newspapers bear as much blame for parroting government deceits about Ukraine’s prospects as our ministers themselves, who feel obliged to keep promising victory. Optimists should also abandon the oft-repeated assertion that the Russians are mere bunglers. They are getting steadily better, especially in the field of electronic warfare, and they have far more munitions. Drones are key. Kyiv estimates that Russia is producing or procuring 100,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) a month, while Ukraine can achieve only half that number. Iranian-made Shahed drones cost far less than the western missiles deployed to shoot them down. Russia has doubled its tank production to an estimated 200 a year.
Not only do Putin’s forces fire many more shells than the Ukrainians, they can buy or manufacture them much more cheaply: a Russian 152mm round costs about $600, while the 155mm shells shipped from the West — now in alarmingly small numbers — cost ten times as much. The Russians are probing Ukraine’s cellular phone networks, a key element in its defences, and are thought to be close to a capability to interdict them.
The Ukrainians have had a grim year. Their counteroffensive has failed. The Russians continue to pound their cities. The average age of President Zelensky’s soldiers is 42 because they have pursued a policy of conserving their youth, though they will shortly reduce the conscription age from 27 to 25. Twentysomethings are fleeing abroad to escape service. There have been collective refusals of orders and indeed mutinies in forward areas. Unless Republicans in the US Congress retreat from their block on further military aid, by the end of next month the Ukrainians will run out of artillery shells. This last issue is urgent and critical. The Ukrainian leadership is confused about what to do next. It has no credible strategy unless, or until, new arms supplies arrive.
As I have often written in these pages, most Nato nations remain big on promises to Ukraine but ever littler on deliveries. Privately, most west European governments — though emphatically not the Nordics — are desperate to see a closure of the war on almost any terms. They are weary of its cost, not least in energy bills at home, and impatient to focus on their own domestic issues. They find the confrontation with Putin dispiriting and fruitless. An informed military friend said to me last week: “For Ukraine, this needs to be a year of consolidation. They should focus on 2025 for a possible breakthrough offensive.” I was not surprised by what he said, but nonetheless dismayed: 2025 feels a long march away for those who are suffering so much. Not only is western patience ebbing but the Ukrainians’ morale is fragile. They read newspapers. They know western support is uncertain. This is the second winter in which many homes have no heat, no glass in the windows, rubble in the streets.
Some western officers complain that they find the Ukrainians hard to teach: they persist in attacking on narrow fronts, which makes it easy for the Russians to concentrate against them; their commanders’ management of all-arms battles is often poor. But the Ukrainians, in turn, are exasperated by American instructors who try to hustle them into employing US tactical doctrine in their own wildly different environment and who are not themselves enduring the harrowing losses. Nobody has exact figures but the Russians are thought to have suffered about 300,000 casualties since February 2022, the Ukrainians at least half those numbers, which hurt more in their much smaller population, 37 million against Russia’s 144 million. If Ukraine is the immediate front in the western confrontation with Russia, thoughtful soldiers are acutely conscious of wider threats amid the fragmenting world order. The Houthis in Yemen are a nuisance rather than a major enemy but the damage they are inflicting on world trade obviously prompts glee in the Kremlin. Russia is a skilled disrupter and we must expect more disruption — perhaps, for instance, attacks on undersea pipelines and communications links. These are hard to protect and sabotage can be deniable. In a year when 80 elections will take place worldwide, Russia’s army of trolls will be pursuing black arts for which “fake news” is an inadequate term in a new age of artificial intelligence.
We need to rearm in every dimension, to meet an ever-increasing range of threats for which even the US is under-prepared. The cost of replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent is soaring way ahead of inflation, eating deep into the defence budget. The only sensible course is to ringfence the deterrent spend, to safeguard shrinking funding for conventional forces. British sailors continue to speak of our aircraft-carriers with the reverence due to the ships’ grotesque demands on defence resources, but American strategy gurus are apprehensive about the vulnerability of these behemoths in the hypersonic missile age, and we own few aircraft to fly off them.
I am biased because I have always been a passionate opponent of the carriers. We need more warships, but smaller and handier ones, and more sailors. The navy is desperately under-recruited, and who can be surprised when a civilian nuclear engineer earns six or seven times the pay of a uniformed one?
The British Army has dispatched about 20 per cent of its weapons and equipment to Ukraine, and the Treasury refuses to authorise replacement of most of this materiel. To send shells to Kyiv, Britain is obliged to buy in the market from third parties. The only significant ammunition contract the government has authorised since February 2022 is for 155mm artillery rounds that will not be delivered for two years.
Next time you hear a minister, or indeed a prime minister, expressing vocal support for Ukraine, as successive incumbents have done for the past two years, forget the width and measure the quality. These same ministers, going back through David Cameron’s premiership, have presided over a recklessly irresponsible shrinkage of the armed forces. The US continues to appreciate the political value of our support in armed confrontations such as that taking place in the Red Sea. But dismiss any notion that the practical weight of our contributions counts for sixpence. While the RAF has a theoretical 169 combat aircraft, a substantial proportion are unserviceable or being pensioned off, and there are more active air commodores than trained fighter pilots — a substantially smaller figure than the number of planes.
If my tone sounds splenetic, it is intended to be. Putin’s policies, not merely towards Ukraine but worldwide, are founded upon a belief that the West is decadent; that we are too weak-willed to withstand protracted attrition against his hardy warriors, who scarcely deign to count their dead. In truth, Russia is paying a terrible economic and social price for Putin. In its ten-year war in Afghanistan, the country lost an estimated 26,000 killed, while in two years of Ukraine conflict four times as many Russian soldiers have perished, and six or seven times as many troops are deployed. But there is no sign that Putin’s control of his country is threatened. Even if he himself is overthrown, a successor is unlikely to be more enlightened. If our rulers on both sides of the Atlantic were acting responsibly, they would be urging our nations to prepare not, please heaven, for all-out war but for a protracted armed confrontation with our enemies, as Stelzenmüller is surely right to characterise the autocracies.
I sometimes hear sceptics dismiss arguments for rearmament, saying that Russia is wildly unlikely to attack us. But the great lesson of history, and especially of Cold War One, as we have learnt to call it, is that it was Nato’s preparedness to fight which enabled the democracies ultimately to prevail. To revert to 1914. The British government, led by Herbert Asquith, concluded at least seven years earlier that it would be hard for Britain to stay out of a European war. But ministers refused to adopt the obvious response — to prepare to dispatch a large army to the Continent in the event of a showdown. This was deemed politically unthinkable, when a third of all public spending was devoted to Britain’s beloved Royal Navy. Thus was a decision made that we would fight any war principally at sea, as suited us best. But what if our enemies chose otherwise? The Kaiser gleefully remarked: “Dreadnoughts have no wheels!”
Circumstances today are very different, but we cannot credibly make national security policy to suit our own convenience. We must arm to defend ourselves, and to help others to defend themselves, in the confrontations and wars we have got, not the ones we would prefer. We must strive mightily to persuade our European neighbours to do likewise, and it seems to some of us a tragedy that our influence upon their policies has been drastically weakened by our parting from the EU. Above all, we must hope that the US does not sleepwalk into tragedy in November by electing a president who thinks well of Putin. We, the British, have stripped our own defences to aid Ukraine in the past two years, but our €6.6 billion military aid amounts to a tiny fraction of the Americans’ €43.9 billion, the Germans’ €17.1 billion. Even tiny Norway has contributed €3.6 billion, and Denmark €3.5 billion.
Without the leadership of the US, Nato and its members would be in desperate trouble. And seldom have we needed the alliance more than today, as it prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary on April 4, already committed to conflict in fact if not in name.