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While NATO countries have reduced their military forces during the past 11 years and withdrawn from conflict zones in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan; the Russian military has grown in power and influence.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.
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.
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 https://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/reports 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.
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.
On Wednesday 26 January, I will be speaking about the Media’s role in Libyan wars at the bastion of press freedoms, The Frontline Club, next to Paddington Station.
Many people will have read some of the captivating books by independent journalists, who covered the Arab Spring and embedded correspondents in the World War Desert Campaigns. Fewer will be aware of the influence of British and Irish journalists in the Libyan war of 1911-12 and know that the great newspaper editor and champion of the oppressed, WT Stead, wrote before he died on the Titanic: “Francis McCullagh, whose ready pen, whose fearless spirit and whose presence in the firing line has made it possible to make the great public realize the criminality of the plunder-raid on Tripoli”.
McCullagh’s voice was not solitary as he was joined in Libya by other distinguished British correspondents, including: George Abbott (Daily Chronicle and The Holy War In Tripoli), Ernest Bennett (Manchester Guardian and With the Turks in Tripoli), Alan Ostler (Daily Express and The Arabs In Tripoli), Henry Wright (Illustrated London News and Two Years Under The Crescent), Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (Reuters and Daily Telegraph) and Tom Grant (Daily Mirror).
These journalists set a high bar for subsequent war correspondents embedded in the Allied armies that fought in the Libyan desert, such as William Massey, Alexander Clifford and Alan Moorehead, and those who covered the Gadhafi era and its aftermath. Discussing the difference between independent and embedded journalists, I will illustrate how press interpretations have influenced the way we think about Libya since the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher and the Lockerbie bombing with unfortunate ramifications for the future of this fascinating country.
After Her Majesty The Queen took the courageous decision to revoke the Duke of York’s honourary military titles, such as Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, the Media invited me to provide expert comment on television and radio.
Sky News cameras arrived after dark for their early evening news, BBC Radio 4 and LBC Radio recorded me during the night and BBC Breakfast TV sent a Zoom link so that I could join the immaculate Jenny Bond at 8 o’clock for a studio discussion about what this means for Prince Andrew. By the time the Jeremy Vine show called me on Face Time, this story was being overtaken by Downing Street party apologies and Djokovic detention, but it was still important to explain what the role of Colonel-in-Chief entails and the importance of the Royal Family as the enduring embodiment of the civil-military relationship in Britain today.
Early in January 2012, we hosted the three Permanent Under Secretaries of the UK’s Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development in Tripoli. This was a wide ranging visit to scope the future relationship between Britain and Libya and should have paved the way for close diplomatic, economic and security ties and facilitated the reconstruction of airports, harbours, schools and hospitals.
Their report, which was passed to all the members of the National Security Council, identified a number of dilemmas such as the demand for British advice, but “coolness towards any suggestion of the visible presence of Western government personnel on the ground”. The two key priorities were Security Sector Reform (reintegration of the militias) and Border Security (managing migration). They concluded: “There is an urgent need for HMG to get its planning in place.”
A week after they departed, I travelled to Bani Walid to assess the security situation in this gateway to the Sahara. There had been an uneasy peace following the death of Qadhafi and the local council imposed by the NTC had not been able to pacify the tribal elders. Soon after I arrived with a group of British special forces, the fighting began in earnest as a hundred fighters attacked the NTC’s military compound. A short time-out was called to allow US agency staff to leave the town, before the battle continued with dozens of casualties caused by the mortar bombs and machine gun fire.
This was the day, I knew that the honeymoon for the new government was over and that Libya was heading for a second civil-war, but the uprising was barely mentioned by the world’s press at the time and soon forgotten by the international community.
1922 was a dramatic and pivotal year for Libya. After Mussolini grasped power in Rome at the head of 30,000 Blackshirts, Emir Idris al-Sanussi withdrew to Egypt in self-imposed exile and the Tripolitanian Republic disintegrated as the brutal Italian conquest of the country began in earnest.
Meanwhile, the exploration of the Sahara continued apace. Following Rosita Forbes’ intrepid expedition to Kufra in 1921, Francis Rodd travelled into the heart of the Sahara and wrote about his time with the Tuareg in his book People of the Veil. At the end of the year, Ahmed Hassanein set out from Sollum and discovered two lost oases that opened new Saharan routes that were later used by British special forces.
Rodd and Hassanein were connected in two other ways. They both matriculated at Baliol College, Oxford and both were companions to the British diplomat, Milo Talbot, when he patiently negotiated the crucial peace treaty that ended the Sanussi Jihad in 1917 and allowed Edmund Allenby to focus solely on the Ottoman threat in the east.
Read more about Talbot’s forgotten mission and this period of the long Anglo-Libyan friendship in Part 2 of Liberating Libya.
With hope and belief, the Libyan government organised a disarmament conference on Christmas Day 2011 at the Radisson hotel in Tripoli. The British Ambassador was in England, so I represented the UK Government and was greatly honoured to meet the last living member of the original 1951 Senate, who was one of 24 Libyans from the three provinces chosen to sit in the upper house of government.
I spoke to the receptive audience about our long friendship and recent partnership to liberate Libya from the brutal shackles of the previous regime and was followed on the stand by the renowned revolutionary leader, Abdelhakim Bel Haj. He was very grateful for Britain’s support and looked forward to working with the United Nations on the disarmament project, but unfortunately, this cordial relationship was paused when London issued instructions to forbid any further dialogue with him.
See chapter 16 of Liberating Libya for the story of Bel Haj’s subsequent legal challenge and the embarrassing admission of the UK government.
News is coming through that the Libyan parliament has postponed Friday’s presidential election in Libya as the ballot papers for nearly 90 candidates have not been circulated in time for voting.
This has been the most likely outcome for the past three weeks ever since Libya’s Higher National Elections Commission realised it could not deliver the complete technical and logistic support needed for a transparent, free and fair election.
It does not help that the judiciary has allowed high-profile candidates, who have broken eligibility rules to stand for president, or that the government cannot guarantee the safety of international monitors as local militia deny the voters full access to the candidates.
This was the main topic of discussion at The Oriental Club where I recently joined a panel of speakers about the future prospects for Libya. We concluded that the government is in between the rocks of “Scylla” and whirlpool of “Charybdis” over the issue of holding the elections on the 70th anniversary of independence. If they hold them on Christmas Eve, the losers will refuse to recognise the results because the legal framework is flawed. However, postponing them risks deepening the divide between the three main regions Cyrenaica (East), Tripolitania (West) and Fezzan (South); and strengthening the position of those who wish to maintain the status quo.
At least the UN Secretary General has now appointed a competent Special Adviser in Stephanie Williams to mediate between the opposing parties. Having been Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, she knows the challenges and understands how important the economic and military tracks are to political progress in 2022.