By seizing the Crimea, Russia has threatened the international community

Aaron Ellis

As the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine escalated over the weekend, many in the West showed an embarrassing lack of character. Seemingly contemptuous of its international obligations, a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council seized the territory of another country, justifying its actions on the same grounds as Hitler when he demanded the Sudetenland. Rather than appreciate the potential awfulness of the crisis and summon up their courage, however, Westerners reacted to it parochially and with snark.

“It’s Europe’s problem, let them sort it out,” declared many Americans, “we don’t have any interests there”, whereas various Western Europeans commented that, “We cannot be dragged into a war because of Russophobes in the East.” Those on the right of the political spectrum in both Britain and the United States blamed the supposedly ‘weak’ President Obama. Sajid Javid, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, claimed that there is ‘a direct link’ between Ed Miliband’s opposition to intervening in Syria last summer and Moscow’s actions now, making the Labour leader unfit to be Prime Minister. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Who gives a shit about all this? Russia is invading Ukraine.

The Allies fought a world war for, and built an international system on the principle that states must not be allowed to forcibly redraw their borders – no matter how much the people in the annexed territories ‘like’ their occupiers. We enshrined it in the UN Charter: ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity…of any state’. The system that was created by the Allies (Russia amongst them) was designed to help countries find “the surer ways of preserving peace”, as Margaret Thatcher once said, ways enabling “the peoples of each sovereign state to lead their lives as they choose within established borders.”

When President Putin seized the Crimea, Ukraine became a vital interest of Britain, the United States, the European Union, and indeed anyone else interested in maintaining world peace. Mr. Putin’s actions struck at the foundation of a global order that has, in his own words, ‘underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.’ We simply cannot allow the challenge to go unpunished.

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David Cameron must justify bombing Syria

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Aaron Ellis

David Cameron will decide today whether or not to recall Parliament to debate military action in Syria. There shouldn’t be any doubt about it, considering MPs’ hostility towards intervention. If the Prime Minister authorises an attack on Bashar al-Assad’s regime without parliamentary approval, then backbenchers on all sides will pour a massive bucket of s***t over his head…

If Mr. Cameron does recall Parliament, however, MPs must compel him to explain two things.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the type of military action being proposed, so the Prime Minister must explain what specific use of force he is recommending. Reports suggest that the U.S. will launch several airstrikes none of which will change the underlying dynamics of the Syrian conflict, yet some people seem to believe that they will ‘end the slaughter’. We need more clarity on this in order to ensure a better debate.

Secondly, Mr. Cameron must explain why he believes that the use of force he is recommending will generate the desired outcome – deterring Bashar al-Assad and other tyrants from gassing their own people. MPs must make him to draw a line from ‘bombing’ (Who? What? Where?) to ‘preventing the normalisation of chemical weapons use’. Shortly after the Libyan intervention began, the Prime Minister told the Commons that Britain was “sending a message” that “the way to meet the aspirations of people in North Africa and in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression.” A hundred thousand deaths later, it can be safely assumed that Mr. al-Assad did not receive that message, so why will he and others get this one now? Mr. Cameron must explain why this is not just ‘therapeutic violence’, making us feel better about our own impotence.

Many years ago, David Cameron remarked that “[b]ombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.” Given war is the use of violent means for diplomatic ends, why are these “bad ambassadors” the best way to achieve our ends in Syria? If the Prime Minister doesn’t answer this question, then Parliament must compel him to. We are talking about “the future of the 21st Century”, according to a Downing Street spokesperson; MPs can’t leave untested the assumptions underpinning Mr. Cameron’s claims when the stakes are so apparently high.

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Britain cannot afford to abandon Trident

Louis Reynolds

Danny Alexander, discussing his recent policy review of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, sought to highlight the need to ‘move on from the Cold War postures of the past’; unfortunately, it seems that the senior Liberal Democrat apparatchik is forgetting the lessons of history. Mr. Alexander’s recent foray into the perennial nuclear weapons debate suggests that his party’s proposals can only be the product either of ignorance or, as Liam Fox alleges, politicking of the worst sort; that which compromises the long-term interests of the state. Certainly, they are not based on a holistic, historically-minded or even realistic assessment.

The nature of state on state conflict is that it is often unpredictable. Major wars can and have in the past come about due to, in various assortments and to varying degrees, diplomatic misunderstanding, mismanaged gun-boat diplomacy, foolish posturing, poor leadership, and a myriad of other factors. As the International Relations scholar Christopher Coker recently pointed out in a sober lecture on the possibility of a major conflict involving China in the twenty-first century, previous conflicts have come about with very little warning. Even the argument commonly made today, that our intermeshed global economic system would prevent state conflict from taking place, has historical precedence. The same arguments were made concerning the supposed peace-keeping effect of the gold standard and the international credit system in 1913.

When one makes the judgement, as Mr. Alexander has done, that Britain must reduce its nuclear deterrent’s effectiveness in order to save a few million pounds over a decade - 0.17% of the overall budget to be precise - one puts a low price on national defence indeed.

Simultaneously, one puts a huge amount of faith into the ability of politicians to make accurate, long-term calculations regarding future needs. Danny Alexander’s vision of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is fundamentally based, and can only be based, on his long-term vision of a world in which inter-state conflict will not take place. To confidently assert that major interstate conflict - of the kind relatively historically common up to this point - is no longer a threat, one must not merely be assured of the inherent goodness of modern states and the unprofitable nature of modern war. One must also be assured that states always make the most logical decision, always act in the most intelligent manner and always function as a comprehensible, cohesive whole. This is folly.

The Liberal Democrat’s half-baked idea that there should be a ‘surge’ capacity betrays their awareness of their own dangerous optimism and highlights their lack of serious strategic consideration. A ‘surge capacity’ – as if such a thing were possible in the context of nuclear weapons – is exposed as lunacy given a moment’s thought. What might be the effect, I wonder, on an already tense international political landscape, if the United Kingdom were to decide things had become dire enough to initiate a nuclear weapons surge? I would argue that attaching such a function to our nuclear weapons policy might be more than counterproductive.

The Liberal Democrats’ apparent awareness of the limitations of their proposals, combined with the utterly trivial amounts of money that could be saved by a reduction in the Vanguard fleet or a conversion to cruise-missile deployed weapons has lead some observers, including former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, to suggest that the their stance on this issue has more to do with internal politics than national defence. Whether or not this is the case, these musings on nuclear deterrence represent a familiar beast; the reasonably unrealistic and realistically unrealisable Liberal Democrat pet policy. Thankfully, such policies are generally harmless, though there is the potential that similar views, if they became Labour policy, might be very damaging to the United Kingdom’s interests indeed.

Britain isn’t engaged in the Cold War, a major world conflict is not imminent, and defence policies should not be maintained solely on the basis of possibilities; what really matters in international defence are probabilities. Yet it is not ahistorical to suggest that today’s political landscape is particularly uncertain, and as such inevitably to a degree unstable. Furthermore, the Trident programme is already the perfect size for the United Kingdom. A four submarine fleet allows for a constant deterrent, with sufficient training, refitting and rest capabilities, at the lowest possible cost. The UK Trident programme is powerful and limited in scope, it is effective and it represents ultimate security at low cost in an uncertain world; one that is not disarming, in nuclear or even general terms. The Liberal Democrats think that their nuclear policy would represent a step forwards for Britain; in reality, it would represent a foolish and unnecessary leap.


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The West must respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria

Alexander Pannett 1.15pm

There are growing reports that the Syrian regime of President Assad has been using chemical weapons against his own people. If true, it would herald the crossing of a “red line” for the US and may lead to military intervention from Western forces.

The use of chemical weapons currently appears to be small-scale, tactical deployments. A few chemical shells targeted at rebel bunkers. The danger is that the use of chemical weapons reveals the growing desperation and determination of the Assad regime to resort to any methods necessary to survive. Now that a precedent has been set, it is no longer unthinkable that Assad’s forces would use chemical weapons against civilians on a larger scale. They have certainly shown no compunction in causing mass civilian casualties with more conventional weaponry.   

Assad has shown his disdain for threatened international reprisals if he uses chemical weapons. He has gambled that there will be no direct Western intervention in retaliation and that as Western intelligence agencies are already indirectly aiding rebel groups, there will not be any major escalation in the rebellion. He is correct that the West is reticent.

Considering the quagmire that Syria has descended into, with its kaleidoscope of factions and interests, the West should be cautious about getting directly involved. Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the cost and strategic dangers of being drawn into wars in the Middle East. Previous Western intervention has exacerbated regional rivalries and sectarian divisions, raising the threat of terrorism, not diminishing it.

However, the wider issue is that the West must demonstrate to the world that it is serious in its stance against the use of chemical and biological weapons. It must also make it clear to Assad that any escalation in the use of such weapons against civilians would herald direct intervention. Otherwise Assad may believe he can act with impunity, which would have tragic consequences for the Syrian people.

Despite understandable reservations, the West should announce that it is now directly aiding secular rebel groups and it should also impose a no-fly zone. With air assets deployed to enforce the no-fly zone, the West can more easily resort to a direct air war if Assad escalates his use of chemical and biological weapons. If direct intervention is required, use of ground forces should be limited to special forces working in tandem with rebel forces as in Afghanistan in 2001. Their main priority would be to secure all biological and chemical weapon sites to stop such weapons from falling into the hands of extremists.

Obama is right to be cautious and will be loathe to commit American forces to an area of the world that is a distraction from the much more strategically important Pacific. But a leader does not choose the events that he or she faces. For now the West should limit its actions to aid and a no-fly zone. But it must do all it can to dissuade Assad from deploying chemical and biological weapons against the civilian population. Only the imminent threat of force will do this.

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A little solution to the EU’s big Nobel Peace Prize balls-up

Richard Ellis 10.29am

I can’t stand the French. Their accent irritates me. As does their arrogance, their dishonesty, their laziness and their ingratitude.

The idea that their cooking is better than ours is nonsensical (how would you rather start your day - a full English breakfast or a croissant?).

And the suggestion that they have a nobler sense of chivalry is a joke (no Englishman worthy of the name has even seen those pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge; the French published them).

I don’t care much for the Germans either, though deep down I imagine that our Teutonic cousins would be almost as civilised as us if they didn’t share a land border with France.

Nevertheless, even I can acknowledge that the people of France and Germany have demonstrated a remarkable greatness of spirit in the years since 1945. Three bloody wars in seventy years left deep scars and painful resentments.

During the mid-1960s, my father spent a few months living in Paris. One evening he had plans to meet some friends in a bar and invited a (French) colleague. He explained that there would be some French people there but also some Dutch and probably a German. Once apprised of the guest list the colleague lost interest: “I would rather stick my hand in a bucket of s**t than shake hands with a German.” And that was some while after the end of the Second World War.

The statesmen and peoples of France and Germany have put these antipathies behind them and forged a deep alliance. That is both a remarkable transformation and a tremendous achievement - and it played a major (though not an exclusive) role in securing peace for Europe. If anyone has earned a Nobel Peace Prize it is the French and the Germans.

The European Union certainly has not. The EU was not even around when the Franco-German rapprochement took place. Nor, with its north and south at diplomatic loggerheads, is the EU a matchless example of how to run a peaceful body politic.

It is too late for the prize to be re-awarded but perhaps a compromise could be reached. Brussels could offer to hold the prize on behalf of the French and the Germans. In fact, now I think of it, that would be even better than giving it to the French and Germans outright. After all, a joint award would bring questions of who should have actual possession of the medal and when.

The French would be bound to hold onto the medal for longer than their turn, which would irk the Germans, who would certainly retaliate - and that could leave us all right back at square one.

Richard Ellis is a solicitor and former parliamentary researcher

A British Empire could rise again…on American coat-tails

Aaron Ellis 10.07am

The rise and fall of great powers is a familiar theme of history and a regular concern for politicians. Yet few appreciate that a country can rise and fall and rise again.

During the past millennium, England has held and lost many empires, and gone from one of the known world’s foremost powers to its weakest and back again. An Anglo-Saxon chronicler lamented in the late tenth century that England’s navy was not what it was just sixty years previously, “when no fleet was ever heard of except of our own people who held this land.”

England can be one of the world’s foremost powers once more, but it is a long-term ambition, and I will be long gone if and when it is achieved.

We are only a secondary world power today and, since the 1940s, we have been dependent on the United States for our security. Trident is not the only thing for which we rely on Washington: half of the material processed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) comes from American sources. We could not have intervened in Libya without the help of the US military either, no matter how fiercely the Prime Minister believed that venture was vital to national security.

In order to justify the many benefits we enjoy from our close relationship with the Americans, Britain tries to make herself useful. Yet we will find this more and more difficult to achieve as successive administrations in Washington "pivot" to the Pacific, and as successive governments in London try to keep the defence budget as respectably low as they can.

So how could Britain make itself useful? There is an option: take responsibility for those parts of the world the US can no longer afford to look after.

Not only would this justify perks such as intelligence sharing and the nuclear deterrent, it would also give time to develop these and other capabilities ourselves or wait for emerging powers to develop them and realign ourselves accordingly. It also offers Britain an opportunity to build her influence in those regions vacated by the Americans in the twentieth century.

By limiting ourselves to a few “spheres of influence”, Britain can also prove itself useful to the US without overstretching. Moreover, if the British are to be “deputy” to the American “sheriff”, we must choose parts of the world where we have real interests at stake. This requires thinking strategically and making tough choices in defence and foreign policies. We would also have to put our money where our mouth is on the subjects of “hard” and “soft” power.

There are several regions the Americans could turn over to Britain. For instance, rather than evenly divide its navy between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the US plans to shift its emphasis to the latter in the next eight years (with a 60:40 ratio). Britain could make up the difference and gradually take on full responsibility for the Atlantic. This would require us to build up our own naval power.

We could also relieve the US of responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British have a better relationship with Islamabad than the Americans do, putting us in a better position to oversee security in the region once troops depart Afghanistan next year.

Britain has tangible national security interests at stake: the head of MI5 has said that half of the terrorist plots against the country come from Pakistan. With the latter paralysed by political crises and its army suffering an ideological crisis, it is unlikely that figure will go down in the foreseeable future.

Yet if we were to assume the burden of security in that region from the US, we would have to try to match their presence. This won’t merely be about “hard power” (i.e. US counterterrorism), but also about diplomatic presence and financial assistance. One expert has described British aid to Pakistan as a “drop in the ocean” compared to America’s.

Though British politics is becoming increasingly eurosceptic, Washington would like to see us play a bigger part in the continent’s security, preferably by helping to forge a better working relationship between NATO and the EU. The always-sharp Christopher Coker has suggested the UK can earn real gratitude here, “provided we are seen to be a useful European ally to our European friends.”

This entire approach is ambitious in the long term but prudent in the short to medium terms. In order to sustain the special relationship throughout the twenty-first century, it sticks to the theme of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: if we want things to stay the same, things shall have to change.

As for the twenty-second century, it offers an opportunity for the United Kingdom to lay the foundations for yet another rise to the top of the world.

No Englishman should have any less ambitious a vision.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis

We cannot intervene in Syria

Giles Marshall 9.16am

I hate to say it, but Vladimir Putin has something of a point about Syria. We could do worse than simply wring our hands and leave things to the once and future Russian President.

Our problem is our outraged liberal values. Yet if we were able to take a step back from moral emotionalism, we would also have to acknowledge that not a single western intervention in the Middle East has resulted in a safer and more stable regime. Usually the reverse - utter chaos, anarchy and extremism, where innocents still die in large numbers.

Peter Oborne has a revealing account from ‘free’ Libya in this week’s Spectator (not yet online). In it he offers a vision of street fighting as a spectator sport, the kidnapping of hotel managers, and the descent of society into a murderous, corrupt abyss. There may not have been sweetness nor light under Colonel Gadaffi, no more than Iraq was a blissful democracy under Saddam Hussein, but what the West has orchestrated in its place is arguably much worse.

There are few things more damaging to a society, or more inimical to the pursuit of worldly peace, than countries without functioning governments. We might rail in our foolishness against governments and politicians here in the liberal West, but that is because we have them.

Governments are absolute prerequisites for stable, functioning and prosperous societies. That is why in 1787 the American Founding Fathers decided it was so important to have strong central government rather than merely a loose confederation of states. And that is why western nations today should err on the side of caution before conniving to overthrow yet another ghastly regime.

It could be that President Assad will fall in time as a result of internal revolt. On the other hand, it could be that we have greatly underestimated the support he still receives in much of Syria, and the fear that Syrians have of being overrun by Islamic militia of the type now ruling the roost in Iraq and Libya.

Whatever the true state of affairs, it would be madness now to propose action on the basis of emotional news reportage, regardless of how imperative and moral such an intervention might seem to us.

In this instance, it is the morally neutral President Putin who could in fact understand the value of realpolitik more than we do. We do not have to like Putin or the Syrian regime to realise that there is far more to Syria than we could ever hope to comprehend. That of course was the case in both Iraq and Libya, but this time, perhaps, we should resist the temptations of our better nature in favour of realism, however unpleasant it may seem to us. It is profoundly conservative, and reflects that clear understanding of man’s flawed nature.

It is not heroic, but international affairs rarely are.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

The West’s half-hearted efforts will not end Syria’s civil war

Dan Trombly 10.23am

The pressure has increased for more forceful intervention in Syria. Despite the presence of international observers, the Assad regime refuses to adhere to a ceasefire demanded by the UN.

Whether it involves arming the rebels or a repeat of the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995, the ongoing strife in the country calls for further action, and US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry recently urged consideration of both options. Yet despite the frustration of diplomatic efforts, military options seem bleak.

Those who argue that past success in Bosnia could be replicated in Syria both ignore the history of the Bosnian war and its differences with the current conflict. The UN’s attempts to create “safe zones” resulted in the horrific massacres of Srebrenica and elsewhere. The Bosnian war was ultimately won when the numerically superior combined force of Croatian and Bosnian troops launched ground offensives, not when NATO began air strikes.

Similar attempts to implement “safe zones” in Iraq following the first Gulf War required the threat of ground assault in the south of the country, and the tactic failed frequently in the north, such as at Irbil in 1996. Even after the Desert Fox bombing campaign, forces withdrew once a Baghdad supporting faction secured that area. Notably, Saddam Hussein’s rule was not ended until troops fought their way to the capital in 2003, despite “safe zones” having been declared alongside frequent US air patrols and strikes.

In Syria, as in Bosnia and Iraq, neither protection of civilians nor regime change can be assured without superiority on the ground. Even air strikes would require a bombing campaign larger than in Iraq in 2003.

And enormous obstacles stand in the way of arming the Syrian rebels. In Bosnia, for instance, it was Croatia’s invasion that brought about a Serb defeat, not Bosnian forces. In Syria, without a ground invasion of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of troops - from Turkey, the Arab states, or the West - Syria’s rebels will remain woefully outmatched in conventional capabilities. Indeed, Turkey rarely conducts cross-border raids against PKK terrorists without several thousand soldiers.

The Syrian rebels need artillery batteries, armour and air support, not just man-portable anti-tank or anti-aircraft weaponry.

Even with Western air support, the rebels would likely continue to use the guerilla tactics befitting the outmatched force that they are, avoiding pitched battles and ceding territory to draw out hostile forces. While these might be effective tactics in a long-term insurgency, they are unlikely to result in regime change or effective protection of civilians in the short-term. Even the maintenance of a safe haven for rebel forces would need to be done outside Syrian territory, rather than in “safe zones”.

Simply arming rebel forces is more likely to cause a protracted civil war than a quick victory. The United States and others learned this is Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan during the Cold War. But in those cases, there was thought to be some value in attrition, and supporters of proxy groups were relatively indifferent to civilian casualties and the collateral damage of prolonged conflict. In Syria, such outcomes are unjustifiable on humanitarian grounds, nor on strategic aims (seeing Assad depart quickly).

Moreover, an influx of arms leaves lasting consequences. The behaviour of Libyan militias is a case in point.

An authoritarian regime such as Assad’s can hold on until hostile armoured columns roll on Damascus. Therefore the only strategically feasible option for a quick victory in Syria is a full-scale invasion. Yet no Western state is willing to undertake such a mission and a Turkish or Arab effort seems very unlikely.

Ultimately, Syria’s civil war will drag on. In the meantime, Western powers must work with Syria’s neighbours to prevent WMDs and other arms from leaving the country; they must provide aid to refugees that manage to escape Syria; and continue to exercise diplomatic options to the best of their ability.

Unless Western policymakers can convince their own populations and their Middle Eastern allies that an invasion is justifiable, providing military aid or half-hearted intervention can only worsen the consequences of Syria’s conflict - for both that country’s neighbours, and the interests of the West.

Dan Trombly is a student of International Affairs at George Washington University. He blogs at Slouching Towards Columbia.