Russian Womanhood

I join others around the world who are applauding Marina Ovsyannikova for her brave stand on Russian News. Her placard, which includes the words: “Stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda” was a welcome sign that the tradition of Russian womanhood is as strong as ever. If there is ever going to be a reversal of the current Russian system, it will be founded on the courage and honesty of women such as Ms Ovsyannikova.

This is another example of the similarities with the Russian civil-war that took place one hundred years ago and reminds me of the story of General Brian Horrocks’ experience at a station near to Krasnoyarsk on 18 March 1920. As he stretched his legs, an unprepossessing girl approached, but was ordered to move away by a Soviet guard who drew his sword from its sheath. Instead of kow-towing to the bully, she sprang towards him with a storm of words. She didn’t say anything that might not be repeated in a court of law, but she “burned him up with retorts that made him cringe” and he retreated to the train, while the girl spoke to the future British corps commander.

“Where you not afraid that he might strike you with his sword?” Horrocks asked.

“Bah, the son of a swine has no heart, none of them have!” she replied.

This was not the only time that the British prisoners-of-war came across heroic Russian women who faced up to state terror. For more tales of the extraordinary bravery of Russian women, see chapters 4, 13 and 14 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.

Russian Womanhood 1919

Russian Morale

Several commentators have observed that the morale of the Russian army fighting in Ukraine is very low and have suggested this is a reason why they will lose the war. Those of us who spent ten years on the Central Front in Germany during the Cold War recognise the same characteristics that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, we should not be too hasty in drawing conclusions from what we are seeing in the western media and should in stead, remember what General Horrocks wrote about the Russian soldier.

For those who are not aware, Horrocks was an instructor in the Anglo-Russian Brigade in Ekaterinburg during the civil-war in 1919. He described how ordinary Russian soldiers had to put up with brutish leaders, inadequate equipment and appalling conditions on the front line, but somehow accepted their lot with a shrug and the word “Nichevo”. This was on the lips of every man who suffered the slightest annoyance, but was afraid to do anything about it. It means “Oh never mind!” and is whispered by the trampled man in his mud sepulchre with his last breath, while those above nod in agreement (see chapters 5 and 13 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners).

There are so many similarities between what is happening now in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and what happened in the 1919 civil-war. The railway refugees, the humanitarian catastrophe, the brutality of the campaign and the unbelievable propaganda are all prominent. The big danger is that, just as 100 years ago Trotsky built the formidable Red Army, President Putin is using the current war to build a new army that will look to other horizons. At least Jeremy Hunt has recognised this and has called for the British Government to increase Defence spending, so we can properly deter further aggression.

Russian Mobile Rocket Launcher Used in Ukraine

British Soldiers Fighting For Ukraine

The news that a Coldstream Guards soldier has gone to fight for Ukraine against Russia reminds us of the long history of British soldiers fighting for other countries and causes. Some of these deployed with an official formation such as the British Auxiliary Legion during the first Carlist War in Spain. Others were individual postings such as the loan service arrangements to help the King of Jordan and the Sultan of Oman against rebel insurgents.

The current situation is more like the sad case of Bertie Montagu of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who went to fight with the Libyan army when Italy invaded in 1911. It did not end well for the young man, although he proved himself to be a courageous commander in battle. The story how he earned the prestigious Order of Medjidie is in Chapter 4 of Liberating Libya, but perhaps more relevant to the current situation is the tale of what happened to him afterwards.

The War Office demanded his resignation when he returned from North Africa, but reinstated him as an officer in the Royal Munster Fusiliers at the outbreak of World War I. He fought with his battalion at Gallipoli and was so badly wounded that he was invalided out of the army. However, a year later, he re-enlisted and deployed to the Western Front, where he was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme on 25 November 1916.

One hopes that history will not repeat itself in this case…

Lieutenant Montagu was treated by the Egyptian Red Cross when he was wounded near Tripoli in 1911

Ukraine Numbers Don’t Add Up

To succeed in a land battle, a military maxim suggests the attacker’s capability needs to be dominant by 3:1, which is pretty much the exact ratio between the totals of the Russian and Ukrainian forces, if you include reservists in the calculation. Of course, with an extensive border to defend, local superiority can be achieved easily by a well-trained, mobile army, but holding onto the captured territory requires more troops on the ground. So why has President Putin invaded his southern neighbour with such a tiny proportion of the Russian army?

What we have seen in the war so far, is a relatively cautious approach compared with the way the Soviet Army planned to invade Germany in the Cold War. There has been nothing like the sort of artillery barrages that the British Army of the Rhine anticipated if the balloon went up in the 1980s. So why has President Putin held back from using the full might of the Russian military?

The answers to these two pivotal questions lie in Putin’s own words and the patterns of recent conflicts. Someone once said that only a fool would try to predict the future, but these vital issues might provide the public with an idea of the length and depth of this war and where Putin might go after Ukraine. It is time the serious UK media commentators focused on the grand strategy, rather than the here and now.

Latest Russian Artillery Used in Ukraine

Another European War

Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, is further away from London than Tripoli, but there is still a sense that the Russian military advances in Ukraine are closer to home than anything happening in North Africa.

For all the political outrage that has poured out of Western capital cities in the last few days, the story is the same as the one we have seen in the past decade in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.

It is no wonder that the Defence Secretary said there was a whiff of Munich in the air, or that George Osborne recently said: “the humiliating retreat from Kabul and the appalling famine looming there is teaching this political generation the heavy price we pay for our absence.”

When will we learn that “Do Nothing” does more harm than good?

Language of Reliability

When I was the Chair of the Committee of Defence Reliability, I was responsible for looking at statistics to arrive at a judgement about whether something was unlikely, possible, probable, likely, or certain. Looking at recorded data produces a quantatitive percentage that can be translated into a qualitative opinion. The term 98% certain is in fact an oxymoron -something is either certain or it is not.

When this week the President of the USA changed his language from a Russian invasion of Ukraine being probable to possible, I hoped that his advisors were providing him with hard percentages, rather than plucking words out of the ether.

If it is the former, then there is great hope that the crisis has been averted (for now), if it is the latter then we need to tighten our language and explain what we mean more clearly.

Flights From Ukraine

I thoroughly applaud the Defence Secretary for his visit to Moscow to reinforce British diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. What he said made absolute sense from the perspective of playing to the American and British public. However, from a practical viewpoint, the economic approach will only hold good if China supports the USA…

The key to conflict prevention remains in President Putin’s December demands. Ukraine became a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 after they had already deployed on UN peacekeeping operations in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. They went on to participate in NATO military operations in Bosnia and Kosovo before 9/11. When three Ukrainian officers were part of my NATO headquarters in Baghdad, there was a very strong prospect of full membership, but this receded under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.

The strategic situation changed completely with the Euromaiden uprising in 2014, which preceded the Russian annexation of Crimea and the incursion into Ukraine’s eastern areas. For a time, NATO concentrated on bolstering military support to the Baltic States, while politically supporting Ukraine’s stated desire to become a full member of NATO. It has now come to a head because in June last year NATO announced that Ukraine would become a member despite the Donbas War which up to that point, had been a statutory block to membership.

While NATO countries have reduced their military forces during the past 11 years and withdrawn from conflict zones in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan; the Russian military has grown in power and influence. Russian strategists will now be calculating the two most likely outcomes: Ukraine becoming a member of NATO and thus forming a potential pincer movement with the Baltic states against Moscow; or a limited incursion to stop Ukraine’s progress towards NATO membership with inevitable economic consequences.

The announcement by the USA and a dozen other countries that they are evacuating their diplomats from Ukraine reminds me of the humiliating retreats from Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this does not bode well either for the West’s moral authority, or for the likelihood of a successful outcome. If we are serious about assisting the Kiev government, we need to share their risks.

NATO In Iraq 2008

Congratulations to my Colonel-in-Chief

Twenty five years ago, I was invited to present a dozen of my soldiers to Her Majesty at a reception to mark Her 50th anniversary as Colonel-in-Chief of my Regiment.

It was a wonderful occasion in the Regent’s Gallery at Belvoir Castle, as it was the first time since our hectic operational tour to Bosnia-Herzegovina that she had met us.

It is quite extraordinary that she has now completed 70 years as monarch and is coming up to 75 years with her Lancers. She has been an exemplary role model not only to the military, but to all her subjects and I am sure I join all those who have sworn the oath of allegiance to say how proud we have been to serve in her regiments and wish Her Majesty good health in this Jubilee year.

Bringing Sunshine To The Regiment

British Help To Ukraine

In January 1916, two resolute British ladies, Muriel Paget and Sybil Grey, opened an Anglo-Russian Hospital at the Dmitri Palace in St Petersburg and followed this up with field hospitals and food kitchens in Ukraine, where British nurses treated severely wounded Russian casualties from the front line. Muriel remained there after the Russian revolution, but when the security situation worsened in 1918, she had to evacuate her medics to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway. This tale and other stories of British support to the White Russians fighting in Ukraine are included in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners, a reminder of one of Britain’s military forays into the Russian Empire.

Leaping forward to March 2001, my team attended a Ukrainian seminar at Chatham House and was invited to Kiev to explain how Britain conducted its Peace Support Operations. The success of this visit led to their first UN peacekeeping operation, which has expanded to six deployments in Cyprus, DRC, Kosovo, Mali, Sudan and South Sudan. One of the key findings in our early meetings was that the Ukrainians preferred to work through the Organisation For Security and Co-operation in Europe, which comprises 57 participating states and now runs the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Their daily report, which can be found here makes for sombre reading.

Later on, I worked alongside three Ukrainian special forces officers in Baghdad, who helped me to understand the historic tensions between Kiev and Moscow that have created the current security crisis between Russia and Ukraine. The fiery political rhetoric is all very well, but deterrence has to be based on military equivalence to be credible because economic sanctions alone have proved ineffective in the past. As ever, the answers lie in the lessons of history.

This building has survived intact and is very close to the Faberge museum in St Petersburg

Front Line Club Hybrid Event

I am looking forward to discussing Britain’s role in liberating Libya and the challenges facing the country after the 2011 revolution with Tim Eaton from Chatham House and members of the audience on Wednesday 26 January.

This is the first event the Front Line Club is holding in London since the pandemic and they have an excellent restaurant for those who wish to stay on after the talk. Anyone who is not able to attend in person can join the debate online and ask questions through the internet.

Tickets for the event that begins at 7.30 p.m. are available on The Frontline Club’s website:

Meeting Members of the Western Revolutionary Command in Libya in 2011