Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 16 November 2022. © Richard Kemp
The missile strike in Poland that killed two people on Tuesday and triggered an emergency meeting of G7 leaders caused Western media and pundits to raise fears of an escalation in Russian aggression – and the outbreak of a larger war.
It soon became clear, though, that what happened was accidental and, although there have been some close calls, it is rare for major wars to start by accident.
The de-escalation of the Poland incident, however, does not mean fears of Ukraine exploding into a full-blown European conflict are unfounded. Alarm about the outbreak of World War Three was understandable. Indeed, we are closer to such an eventuality than many are prepared to admit.
Russia has already expanded this war, which started with a focus on military targets, by launching greatly intensified strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, most recently on Tuesday, with a barrage of around 100 missiles causing devastation in Ukraine as well as massive power outages in neighbouring Moldova.
The situation is increasingly fragile. Despite Russian setbacks, this is not the time for complacency.
The important question is: with Putin under immense pressure and desperate to regain the initiative, at what point might he decide to attack Nato weapons supplies entering the battle zone via Poland, which are so crucial to Ukraine’s combat power? Will he take military action against Nato surveillance planes, which play a pivotal role in providing the intelligence that helps keep Ukrainian forces fighting effectively? Will he initiate cyber attacks against Nato military capabilities involved in supporting Ukraine?
The Western mind will think it illogical for Russia to clash deliberately with Nato now, but, as we have seen, Putin does not think as we do. Depending on how the war unfolds, we should not discount such seemingly irrational moves.
If we are to avoid being dragged into a fight, Russia must be deterred. That means taking action against every act of aggression – deliberate or otherwise – that leads to death and destruction on Nato territory.
It looks likely the explosion in Poland was caused by a Ukrainian air-defence interceptor. Nevertheless, responsibility lies entirely with Moscow and its war of aggression. On top of the routine diplomatic protests, Nato should send a message to Putin by further increasing its troop numbers and beefing up air-defence systems in Poland. This would be a proportionate response.
Deterrence involves both political resolve and military capability. Despite all the talk of Nato being poised to rally to the defence of its eastern European members, we cannot be sure that, when it comes to the crunch, words will be translated into action.
Are western European governments really going to send their men to fight and die over territorial incursions in the east? Think of Nato’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan and of the reluctance of several member countries even to send weapons to help defend their Ukrainian friends.
Then there is the question of military capability. Among western European member states, only Greece and the UK meet their 2 per cent Nato defence spending commitment. That makes Britain’s contribution all the more important. But we expect Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement to postpone (at best) the planned defence budget increase to 3 per cent of GDP, even as defence spending is falling in real terms and troop numbers are being cut while Europe is experiencing its worst war since 1945.
Meanwhile – sending exactly the wrong signal – an overstretched British Army is halving its force in Estonia, despite the Defence Secretary’s previous pledge to double it. Some may think the Russian army has been so weakened in Ukraine that there is no longer a threat to the Baltic states. Again, this conclusion is reached by applying our own logic, not Putin’s.
At the same time, despite previously being billed as essential to our national interests, Britain is withdrawing its peacekeeping forces from Mali in the face of a growing presence there of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries. That will not go unnoticed in the Kremlin.
Ukraine has been battered by bombardments that have inflicted untold damage on civilian infrastructure and undermined military logistic capabilities. This is on top of grievous battlefield attrition. Putin’s generals are now preparing for a renewed offensive. We cannot predict which way the war will turn in the coming months, but however it goes Nato needs to be ready to deal with a Putin either growing in confidence or with his back to the wall. Both could present so-far unseen challenges to the rest of Europe, and it is questionable whether alliance capability or resolve are strong enough either to deter or counter them.