What role could Britain play in deterring a Russian invasion of Ukraine?

James Pierson
James Pierson

Senior Researcher, Tactics Institute For Security & Counter Terrorism

At the time of writing, Conservative MPs are tying themselves in knots as to when, or if, to ditch Boris Johnson. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, the autocratic President of Russia, rattles his proverbial sabre at his next-door neighbour. While the exact number is uncertain, Ukraine alleges Russia has amassed 127.000 troops on its border. This includes 1.300 tanks, over 1,600 artillery pieces and 3,700 armoured vehicles.

So, what is Putin playing at? Invasions are rare. Major powers invading large nations with sizeable militaries themselves, even rarer. Ukraine’s military numbers almost 255.000 active personnel, and 900.000 reservists. Since Russian-backed rebels seized control of the east of the country in 2014, Ukraine has benefitted from Western largess, with arms and training supplied by the United States and its allies flooding in. So, when Russia built up forces on its borders once more, many in the West assumed Putin was threatening Ukraine for show.

But Russia’s demands in negotiations with the United States have broadly been seen as unrealistic. Russia says NATO must pledge to never invite Ukraine to join the alliance, and that its activities in member states which border Russia should be limited. The United States and NATO reject this and say they can’t possibly grant Russia a veto over who can join or allow them to dictate what alliance forces do in member states. But if Russia is uninterested in a negotiated settlement, this should surely be a warning sign.

At most, Western observers feared Russia would launch a limited invasion of the Donbass region of south-eastern Ukraine, and then negotiate its status as an independent Russian client state which could act as a buffer between the two nations. Indeed, in a major slip up by President Biden, he seemed to suggest such a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would be acceptable. While he’s since tried to draw back from these comments, many fear the damage has been done.

But regardless, Ukraine has warned something much worse is in the offing, and that the current build-up is both quantitively, and qualitatively, different to any which has come before. For example, the Ukrainian’s estimate that 54 Russian Battalion Tactical Groups (combined-arms units formed from motorized rifle, tank, naval infantry, or airborne battalions with supporting attachments) are on their border. Furthermore, they say this is an increase of two such battalions from just the week before. It’s fair to ask for how long such an undertaking, with all the logistics needed, can be sustained. Russia’s economy is the 11th largest in the world but saw a 3% drop in GDP between 2019 and 2021. But while that was a smaller decline than many other nations (in the same period, the UK saw a fall of 9.7%), Russia, as a major exporter of oil, gas and other minerals, is highly sensitive to swings in world commodity prices. With Covid running rampant through the population – only half of Russians are vaccinated – the economy is more precarious than ever. To put it crudely, is Putin willing to spend exorbitant sums mobilising his forces, only to order them back to their barracks with nothing to show for it?

And there are real reasons he might want to invade Ukraine. Firstly, the West’s supply of arms and training after the 2014 conflict might have been too effective. In recent months the tide has begun to turn in the long-running conflict between Kiev and the pro-Moscow separatists. With no settlement between the Ukrainian government and the rebels on the horizon anytime soon, Putin might have calculated that he needs to settle the issue once and for all. Secondly, while the West dismisses Russia’s demands, especially when it comes to NATO expansion, and the tendency is to assume that Russia voices such concerns cynically, this is simply not the case. Valid or not, Russia really does fear encirclement, and this is something which harks back to the Cold War and beyond.

Western leaders would do well to remember Russia’s history of invasion, most famously by Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941. The latter in particular has scarred the Russian psyche and this the West forgets at its peril. Finally, while Russia’s economy is precarious and vulnerable to sanctions (something some Western leaders assume will stop Putin’s march to war) in fact he might never get a better chance. The West’s economies, especially those of Europe, are equally vulnerable. Energy prices are skyrocketing. 80% of Europe’s gas is imported from Russia, Algeria and Norway, with Germany in particular exposed and importing 90% of its needs. Almost 30% of Europe’s supply comes from Russia. And this dependence is only going to get worse, with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline being built beneath the Baltic sea, which will run directly to Germany. Should Russia invade Ukraine the West might well level sanctions, but Russia could theoretically at least, switch off the tap.

So, what can the West, and in particular Britain, do to deter invasion?

One major answer lies in the City of London. According to Graeme Biggar, director general of the National Economic Crime Centre, ‘a disturbing proportion of money that comes out of those laundromats (Russian financial vehicles set up to launder money or assets) – not much shy of 50 per cent in one case – were laundered through UK corporate structures.’

And who are the people who ultimately benefit from this corrupt money?  The oligarchs and other allies of Putin, who the Russian President relies on to stay in power. Should the political will exist to protect Ukraine, the UK government could make it clear that the gloves would come off when it comes to such assets. Should the warning not be heeded, the UK authorities could make good on the threat, to both shorten the war and deter Russia from acting in such a manner in future.

A second means of deterring a Russian invasion would be riskier, and that would involve military intervention. Not “boots on the ground”. The idea of British squaddies fighting and killing Russian soldiers (and dying at their hands) would be unpalatable. But the British could take a much more active role in training Ukrainian forces. Already there are reports that the US is considering just that, with the CIA offering assistance which could be used by a Ukrainian resistance if their land was occupied. But of course, both the US and UK have been here before, most famously training the mujahideen in the infamous Operation Cyclone to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and blowback is a well-documented risk.

Whatever happens, the West needs, in future, to ensure it never comes so close to the brink again. Because the unpalatable truth is that the current situation was allowed to occur.  Russian concerns about encirclement were never taken seriously, nor were Ukraine’s concerns about Russian encroachment. Similarly, by allowing London, and the international financial system more broadly, to be used by oligarchs to launder their ill-gotten gains, a corrupt autocracy was allowed to take hold in Moscow. Any moves now, even if they stave off an invasion of Ukraine, could quite easily be argued to be too little, too late.

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