Alphen, Netherlands. 9 May, 2015. Today is Victory Day in Russia commemorating and celebrating Russia’s crucial and critical role in the defeat of Hitler and the evil scourge that was Nazism. Let me immediately pay tribute to the role the then Soviet Union paid in the defeat of the Nazis and the enormous sacrifice of its peoples. Up to 28 million Russians died in the Great Patriotic War with 75% of all Nazi forces engaged by General Zhukov’s and General Rokossovky’s Soviet forces. For all the sacrifice elsewhere defeat of the Nazi’s would quite simply not have been possible but for the herculean Russian effort. Today, Russians everywhere have a right to feel proud. Today, as a Briton I offer my profoundest respect to Russia and Russians.
Which makes what I had to say to a senior Russian in Budapest this week all the more necessary, and sadly, all the more regrettable. My message was blunt. As a student of Russian Moscow is today charging down a dangerous, strategic blind alley that can only end in either major conflict or major defeat for Russia…or both. Indeed, the new ‘war’ Moscow is waging against imaginary ‘fascists’ in the West is utterly ill-conceived and can only end in disaster for Russia and quite possibly all of us.
A week or so ago in Rome I acted as Rapporteur for a big NATO meeting that considered Russia’s use of strategic maskirovka/hybrid warfare – that complex mix of deception, disinformation, active destabilisation, aggression and intimidation in which Moscow is currently engaged. Moscow’s aim is to keep the rest of us permanently strategically, politically and militarily off-balance. As part of that meeting I chaired three of NATO’s top commanders in a discussion about how best to counter Russia’s use of military intimidation. Today 16,000 Russia troops will march through Red Square supported by the latest Russian tanks and military aircraft, together with two Iskander M mobile tactical nuclear missile launchers. The show of Russian military might on show today is meant to send a ‘message’ of Russian might to fellow Europeans like me and my leaders. The message from my NATO commanders was clear; should heaven forbid a shooting war ever break-out in Europe between Russia and NATO Russia would lose.
President Putin is not simply engaged in strategic maskirovka for the sake of it. His strategy is clearly designed to lever effects at two levels. At the grand strategic level President Putin is endeavouring to reinvigorate Russia’s strategic brand and the influence and effect Moscow seeks to exert to its east, south, north and, of course, west. That is why the guest of honour today is President Xi Jingping of China, with the President’s strategic ‘messaging’ to the West loud and clear. At the domestic level all of this sabre-rattling and sabre-toying is designed to ensure the survival of President Putin domestically by wrapping the Kremlin in an enormous, nostalgic Russian flag.
And, for the record, I regret the refusal of many Western leaders to attend today’s ceremonies in Moscow. Whatever one thinks of Moscow’s use of hybrid warfare in Ukraine it is Russia’s sacrifice and ultimate triumph seventy years ago that 9 May commemorates. Moreover, I fully understand that Russia has legitimate interests and rights that must be respected. I am also prepared to accept that President Putin is genuine in his world-view. The President clearly has a classical view of power and does not accept the ‘community’ concept of international relations pioneered by and implicit in the European Union. He is certainly not ‘duty’ bound to see the world the same way many other Europeans see it.
However, what saddens me most about Russia’s use of hybrid warfare today is the betrayal of political principle it implies. Worse, I am witnessing the sad retreat of a country which I hold in the highest regard into political cynicism that goes far beyond political realism. The struggle against Nazism was essentially about the upholding of norms in international relations; that might for might’s sake is not only not right, but never right, and that free peoples have the right to free sovereign choice. Then Soviet leader Josef Stalin may have disagreed with me about this but my pious hope has always been that contemporary Russia would demonstrate its greatness by championing such ideals and respecting them. Russia can never be ‘great’ in the way it is behaving today, and does not need to behave this way.
Therefore, as a friend of Russia, I feel deeply disappointed and concerned to see Russia dragging Europe down into the abyss of power balances and spheres of unwanted influence. Indeed, Ukraine has become but the front-line of a much greater and even more dangerous systemic struggle, and I say that with due respect to the people of Ukraine and their current agony.
In my latest book Little Britain I berate my own country’s leaders for too often turning am major power into a minor one. Russia is also a great country, a great power and a great state. However, at present it is acting like a stupid one. As I said in Budapest, there can be no European security without Russia and all of us want Russia to take its rightful place as a leader of the European family. And, to see that happen we are prepared to be patient and sit down and address sensibly Russian grievances. However, Moscow must understand one thing; we will not negotiate with Russia with a Russian gun pointed to our heads.
There is a reason why Russia celebrates Victory Day on 9 May whilst the rest of us celebrate VE Day on 8 May that is itself indicative. After British Field Marshal Montgomery took the surrender of all Nazi forces in north-west Europe on 4 May a period a wrangling then took place as to where the final, final, final surrender should be signed. On 8 May the Nazis surrendered (again) at Rheims to Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force General Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, at Stalin’s insistence the Nazi’s surrendered (again) in Berlin on 9 May in a ceremony organised and overseen by the Red Army. Complex though it was the multiple surrenders culminating as they did in the main signing in Berlin was, given Russian sacrifice, entirely appropriate.
In honour of Russia’s fallen; Za Rodinu! Za Rossiya!