The continuing reports of war crimes and atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine has led to a large increase in NATO deployments in Eastern Europe despite waning public support in France, Germany and Italy (where only a quarter of the population are now in favour of sanctions according to recent polls).
As a reminder, at the Madrid summit this year, member states agreed to increase the NATO Response Force from 40,000 to 300,000 troops. What we are currently seeing on the ground is a doubling of the multi-national battle-groups in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia; with new formations in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, as well as extra divisional headquarters and pre-positioned equipment, weapon-stockpiles and missile-defence-systems in the region.
There is an element of brinkmanship at play here. From my experience of NATO operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, there are so many political caveats that accompany these multinational teams that it makes it almost impossible for the lead nation to send troops into the danger zones. There are also the interoperability challenges that degrade the fighting capability, which is why we used to insist that the smallest building block for effective and capable deployments was/is a brigade (not a company as seems to be the case now).
The numbers are also a long way from the size and scale of NATO forces in the Cold War. When I deployed with the NRF’s predecessor to the Russian border in the Arctic Circle and was involved in the famous Reforger exercises in Germany, Britain alone had more than 300,000 troops. However, taken with the increased support provided to the Ukrainian armed forces by individual nations and the need to avoid escalating the war into a nuclear conflict, the new deployments are important developments as the winter approaches.
The Prime Minister’s visit to Kyiv has highlighted the continuing need to support the people of war-torn Ukraine and in particular protect civilians from the bombardment of the capital and other cities. Of his three overseas assignments during the last week, this was without doubt Rishi’s most important in terms of sustaining the Free World. That is not to say that economic hardships and rising sea-levels do not need our close attention, but belt-tightening and crop-growing have to be set within the context of the fight against authoritarianism.
The cases of torture that have been reported following the recapture of Kherson are very harrowing, but are not unique. In 1920, Prime Minister David Lloyd George set up a Committee to Collect Information on Russia led by Alfred Emmott who took evidence between 10 June and 17 August from British prisoners released from Moscow jails. Lord Emmott’s report, held at Nuffield College, Oxford was an important academic source for my book Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners and provides a yardstick for comparing the treatment of captives released this week. It is intriguing that many of the techniques used by the Cheka are still used by the Russian interrogators one hundred years on and that the experience of the journalist, Anzhela Slobodian is so reminiscent of Francis McCullagh’s time in Lubjanka jail told in Chapter 11.
A Moscow Prison for British Prisoners-of-War in 1920
The announcement of the complete withdrawal of British troops from Mali is terrible news for both international peacekeeping and the credibility of British foreign policy.
I have written about Operation Newcombe before because it began when I was in Libya and was closely linked to our Special Forces’ work to prevent the spread of Al Qaida in the Maghreb. The task in Mali is probably the most challenging of all the current British Army deployments both in terms of physical environment and conceptual complexities. It is also one of only three areas where the new General Service Medal is awarded.
Mali is designated as one of the United Nations least developed countries, where poverty is rife and mortality rates are among some of the worst in the world. The people desperately need Aid, but the delivery of medical support, food, supplies and education depends on their physical security.However, the strategic stakes are not just humanitarian, but also involve people trafficking, weapons proliferation and international terrorism. The Long Range Reconnaissance Group that operates from Gao, 250 miles from Timbuctoo, is making a vital contribution and its withdrawal will have severe consequences not only for the Sahel region, but also asylum destinations.
Unfortunately, the strong military government that took over the country in a series of coups has now allied itself to Russia through the mercenary group Wagner. The previous government was propped up by France, which led the international peacekeeping efforts in the desolate countryside. However the current government has rejected western exhortations and is looking for a military solution similar to the Russian aided Assad government victory in Syria and Khalifa Haftar’s success in Libya. Taken together with the 2019 withdrawal from Afghanistan, this is another humiliation for the West as its declining influence continues in World affairs.
As a former author of British peacekeeping policy, I find it tragic how our government has become confused about what it is doing and is now reliant on others for its key military capabilities, so it cannot act independently. If we wish to maintain our place at the high table within the United Nations, then we must be prepared to roll up our sleeves and actively help on the ground, rather than just point the finger from the touch-line (or an Aircraft Carrier).
Eighty years ago, Winston Churchill was invited to the Lord Mayor’s reception on the day before the anniversary of the Armistice and spoke about the ongoing war in the Western Desert. The Second Battle of El Alamein had officially ended on 5th November, but Rommel was still fighting a savage rear-guard action as he withdrew through Libya and each gain, such as Tobruk on 13 November, was accompanied by more British killed in action.
In London, Churchill delivered one of his inspiring speeches and with reference to the end of WWI said of the present situation: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” For Remembrance Sunday, he authorised the mass ringing of church bells, not heard in Britain for over two years. Three days later, the Prime Minister visited his alma mater where he said to the assembled school: “Two years have passed since we stood alone…All we knew was that we should fight to the end…Far be it for me to say how long the road will be…but I do feel that the day will shortly come…when we shall reach a broader and brighter light..”
Such powerful words and so appropriate for our Remembrance Sunday in 2022.
The Prime Minister Speaking At Harrow During The Second World War
This week we are commemorating the anniversary of the end of hostilities on the Western Front in World War I. At the time, many people claimed it was the war to end all wars, but history shows that war has not magically disappeared from the world. So it is absolutely right that we commemorate the lost lives in all wars and share a thought for the families of soldiers, sailors and air people, who are still struggling to come to terms with their missing loved ones, who died recently on operations abroad, or while training at home.
In 2022, the reason to remember is even more obvious as war has returned to Europe and so many lives have been affected by the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Our government has been neglecting its armed forces since the Financial Crisis, but now more than ever the country’s dedicated service personnel and veterans need our support. That’s why I travelled to El Alamein to commemorate the fallen who gave their lives for our freedoms todayand will be supporting the Royal British Legion this week at our local memorial.