Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 12 April 2024


If we don’t rearm, our enemies will crush us

The Times

Thinking British people now understand that Russia’s assault on Ukraine could succeed, because President Putin is displaying more staying power than the West. There is also a realisation that the United States has tired, probably for ever, of leading and largely funding the defence of Europe.

Though successive British prime ministers have professed to embrace Ukraine, which is essentially our proxy in facing down Russian aggression, they have done almost nothing to sustain the supply of munitions, once the army’s cupboard was emptied.

Remember the self-congratulation about our dispatch of a handful of Challenger tanks, and hosting the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest because Ukraine was unable to do so?

The only mitigation for faltering British support is that most of our neighbours have done worse. Some of us have repeatedly asserted that without America the Ukrainians could become toast. That proposition looks like it is being tested. The foreign secretary wasted his breath in Washington this week, urging the US to resume arms supplies to Ukraine. Homilies on such matters from Europeans carry as much weight with Congress as a feather falling on an elephant.

The Germans have discovered a €25 billion shortfall in their defence spending plan, overlaid on national economic stagnation. President Macron is shipping 100 howitzers, but these cannot make good his earlier refusal to back Ukraine, though France is the world’s second-largest arms exporter. Europe is belatedly placing big orders for munitions, but little will leave manufacturers before 2025.


In Britain as much as on the Continent, since the end of the Cold War it has been the all-party fashion to treat defence not as a vital element in our polity but as an optional extra to the main business of government, which is to apportion resources to minorities clamouring competitively for cash for health, welfare, the environment, roads, badgers.

Almost all our political debate is about personal entitlements, not national responsibilities. Why should other nations heed lofty British words about Gaza and Taiwan, Ukraine and Haiti, when our armed forces are threadbare and Britain has chosen to relinquish its status as a “Tier One” military power?

It was predicted before the budget that because “there is no money”, there would be no increase for defence, and so it proved. But leaders of all parties should start telling the British people, as today they do not, that if we decline to rearm, our enemies will walk all over us, not by invasion but by attacks on our vital interests and infrastructure. We shall be shocked by how much this hurts.

Nobody should compare contemporary foes to the Nazis, their leaders to Hitler, because such language diminishes any argument. Yet our lassitude in the face of 2024’s threats is indeed comparable to that of the old appeasers. The British people in 1938 supposed they might escape a war, simply because they did not want to fight anybody. Today they likewise recoil from such an ugly distraction from Taylor Swift and suchlike.

Yet just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to decide against resorting to violence. It was plain to wise people in the Chamberlain era that Anglo-French diplomacy to deter the dictators was useless unless matched by rearmament. The same is true now.


An Australian who specialises in international affairs has just sent me a 1996 letter to The Times from the great strategy guru Sir Michael Howard, because he knows the writer was a close friend of mine. Michael warned against an ill-considered eastward expansion of Nato, as “the beginning of a familiar pattern of aggression”.

He wrote: “Russia, seeing herself threatened by her traditional enemies, would once again set about establishing her dominance over Ukraine, Belarus and probably the Baltic states … Within a few years, we would be back to a military confrontation.”

Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic bluster that we must not allow Russian sabre-rattling to deny sovereign peoples their right to join Nato, or the EU. Fair enough. But there is an indispensable corollary. Michael and others warned three decades ago that the Russians were bound to respond nastily, and thus Europe had to be poised to stop them. It was recklessly insouciant to take no steps to prepare ourselves, both morally and militarily, to fight if the Russians responded with force, the language they best understand.

President Zelensky’s predicament will be desperate if Russia takes Odesa
President Zelensky’s predicament will be desperate if Russia takes Odesa

Putin holds a fundamentally weak hand, but plays it well. Compare and contrast the limp attitude of Europeans to defence with that of Russia, now a war economy in which one third of the national budget is pledged to military spending — about 7.5 per cent of GDP, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Huge quantities of munitions are also imported from Iran and North Korea.

Much nonsense about Russia’s imminent collapse has been published over the past two years. Putin can sustain his war. Western sanctions are porous. Any Putin crony who wants a Bentley can source one.


On security as so much else we must ask ourselves, as well as our politicians: when shall we get serious? The immediate challenge is to prevent Ukraine from losing its war this summer, when only a trickle of western arms deliveries is getting through. If the Russians could take Odesa, as is not impossible, President Zelensky’s predicament would be desperate. Europe must send Kyiv yesterday every gun and shell it can purchase — we cannot manufacture the hardware ourselves in real time.

Beyond this, as ever throughout history, if we wish to avoid having to fight another big war we must create a credible military deterrent in which nuclear weapons are the least relevant, though still necessary, component. Even granted the will, which is problematic, Europe requires a decade of enhanced spending to make itself remotely capable of self-defence, in the absence of the US.

Given the parlous condition of UK design and procurement, in the short term we should buy more proven, invariably cheaper systems from abroad — American and Swedish armour, Israeli drones and missiles. Since 2010 the Tories have refused to make the necessary defence spending commitments. Labour must.

Aggressors start wars because they believe they can win them. “How many divisions has the Pope?”, Stalin once demanded contemptuously, when challenged about his persecution of Catholics. His words were probably apocryphal, but are nonetheless pertinent.

If Putin or China’s President Xi today demands: “How many divisions has Britain?” — or, for that matter, Europe — the truthful answer deserves the scorn it must inspire in both tyrants. They believe the West is decadent and thus vulnerable. The evidence is on their side, unless we change our priorities.

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