The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has shown that we need to focus on rearming our armed forces if we are serious about defending the current international order, writes Andrew O'Brien.

On the 15th March 2018, I wrote for this platform about the weakness of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her policy on Russia. The article was in response to the sanctions proposed by the Government in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning and their aim merely to get the newspapers and broadcasters off their back. I ended by asking: "It is four years since the annexation of Crimea. What fresh Russian aggression will we be decrying in four years' time?"

Nearly four years later we have witnessed the invasion of Ukraine with the annexation of large parts of the country seemingly inevitable.

Despite the years that have passed since the annexation of Crimea, Britain's foreign policy and strategy has not changed. Sanctions have been proposed, but the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov has said numerous times that Russia is aware that the only tool in the British (and Western) toolbox are such measures. No matter what we impose, they know that after a few years these sanctions will be relaxed.

All Russia, or any country, has to do is demonstrate its own resolve and take suitable protective measures. Hence the $600 billion foreign currency reserves that Russia has built up in advance of this invasion. The Russian economy may be taking a hit at the moment, but given recent experience, we cannot count on this being long-term damage. Posturing on sanctions may look good for the media, but what good are they for the people of Ukraine now? It also avoids confronting the public will the hard truths.

Attempts to modify Russian policy through energy policy have also become less effective. The growing strategic alliance between China and Russia has seen Russia take steps to reduce its dependence on Europe as the main market for its gas exports. Putin only recently signed a 30-year deal with China for over $100 billion in gas exports. Russia has also been looking to increase exports to India and other Asian countries to find new markets for its natural resources.

It goes without saying that any success in Ukraine could lead to further aggression in the Baltic, although the fact that these countries are NATO members is likely to lead Russia to take an indirect route of destabilisation and dismemberment. The Ukrainian model will be deployed again with fake republics declared and "peacekeepers" embedded whilst Western powers hope for the best. However, the country that will be watching Russia's invasion of Ukraine most closely will be China. They have designs of their own to take Taiwan and to consolidate their control in South East Asia. If Russia succeeds in annexing large parts, or even the whole, of Ukraine then this will embolden China to accelerate its own military plans. Ukraine may become the modern equivalent of the Abyssinian crisis of the 1930s.

Why should we worry about a "quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing"?

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This is partly a matter of our values, not just our belief in democracy, but what statesmen of a different generation would have called "honour". We were a guarantor of Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity, yet we have stood by whilst this agreement has been crushed under the caterpillar tracks of Russian tanks. What value is Britain's word if we are not prepared to meet our obligations? This will affect our economic relationships as much as our diplomatic relationships. Countries presume that trade deals and economic partnership is part of a general commitment to mutual support on matters of vital national interest. The situation in Ukraine will undermine this belief and will have consequences for trade and economic cooperation in the future. Countries may decide it is better to throw their lot in with Russia or China, rather than be left isolated when push comes to shove.

For Britain, a global trading and investing nation, international peace and stability is critical. As Chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat told radio listeners last week that Russia's invasion was going to send oil prices skyrocketing and even increase the price of bread. Defending the international system is not merely a matter of prestige, it is about our core economic interests. It is for that reason that Britain has for two centuries sought to maintain the international order and oppose those that seek to overturn it through brute military force. This is not merely my view, but the view of the current British Government in its Integrated Security Review. In that review, published less than a year ago, HM Government said:

"The UK will meet the responsibilities that come with our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We will play a more active part in sustaining an international order in which open societies and economies continue to flourish and the benefits of prosperity are shared through free trade and global growth."

The question is how to do this? If we are serious about defending the international order and those that we have solemn agreements with, such as Ukraine, we must have the military power to do so.

Britain is not in Ukraine partly because of political decisions, particularly a lack of confidence that the public has in British political leadership to use force wisely after Iraq and Afghanistan, but also because there is nothing practically that we can do. Britain has only one 'warfighting' division on continual alert, but that division will not be ready until 2025. The MoD also does not think that that division is a match for its Russian counterpart. As the 'Bismarck Brief' has noted, Russia has built its military capacity around countering the strengths of the West, namely airpower, to win land wars such as the one that it has just launched in Ukraine. However, even assuming that we did have a warfighting division and that it was ready to go, it would not be sent because there is no redundancy built in.

Russia, China and the United States have built forces that can sustain losses, but Britain (and many European allies) cannot commit forces because if they were to suffer losses, there would be nothing left. If you have only one or two of anything, you are never going to risk deploying it. It also explains why Britain continually suffers procurement problems. Whatever we have has to be 'the best' because we have so few of it, and as our enemies are constantly adapting, we are forever revising our equipment leading to overruns and delays rather than taking the risk of completion. I would happily bet with anyone that our 'warfighting division' will not be ready by 2025 in light of the action in Ukraine which will throw up new military challenges.

The post-Cold War experiment of running the Armed Forces like a listed company, with no "inefficiencies" has been found to be a nonsense. Hamstrung by decades of underinvestment and a lack of redundancy Britain has been left as a spectator to a European invasion. Armed forces are expensive, but so is war and global instability. We cannot accurately predict what we will need and as military action has become 'quicker', the classic British tactic of waiting until war is declared before getting ready is no longer fit for purpose.

We desperately need to look beyond headline grabbing sanctions. Rather than talking "tough" on sanctions for a battle that is already lost, the Prime Minister should use this crisis to create a new political consensus for comprehensive rearmament. Not just cyber and intelligence capacity (which attract significant political attention because they are seen as exciting and low risk), but rebuilding the fighting strength of the Army, Navy and Air Force so that they can meaningfully participate in the defensive of our allies, partners and strategic interests. This will cross-party support, taking years to undertake and will cost more than 2.5 per cent of our GDP, but never again should Britain be forced into the position it is currently experiencing in Ukraine.

Where will we be in four years' time? It is difficult to say. It may not be the Russian border but the Chinese instead. It may be in the Middle East. What we can know is that without a dramatic change of course, the international order will be further revised to our detriment and this humiliation for the West will not be our last.

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