Senior Nato analysts have advised the Supreme Commander of the alliance, General Christopher Cavoli, that Vladimir Putin is already carrying out a 10-year offensive to expand Russia’s power across Europe. “We may already be in year two of the plan, starting with the invasion of Ukraine two years ago,” a senior officer close to the group explained.
This chimes with warnings from Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and the head of the UK Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, that British forces could be involved in conflict with Russia in a matter of years. Nato advisers believe Putin is well launched into his plan to make Russia the dominant presence in much of Europe by force.
“Putin has been saying for some time now that Russia is now confronting the West, not just fighting Ukraine,” the senior official added. “Germany, as well as the US, among the allies is really worried — that if Ukraine falls, we are all in trouble.”
The view is that if Ukraine can be defeated, or neutralised, Russia would move to take the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Since all three became full Nato members in 2004, an attack on them would mean that all 31 members of the alliance are bound to come to their defence under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which holds that an attack on any one member is an attack on all. Other Baltic regional neighbours would then be next — Finland, Poland, and now Sweden would be in the target area.
The Cold War was a balance of power — this time Putin is beyond diplomacy
This would be no rerun of the Cold War, but something more unpredictable and dangerous. The Cold War confrontation, lasting almost exactly 40 years to 1989, was a balance of power and calculated mistrust. Treaties on arms limitations of conventional and nuclear weapons worked, and were observed.
At the heart was the Strangelove-like formula of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, by which both sides realised that whoever used nuclear weapons, all sides would lose and face incineration and nuclear winter.
This time Putin is beyond diplomacy, and seems to be turning his back on the management of the world order laid down at the end of the Second World War — principally through the UN and its courts and agencies. His aim is to weaken the West, isolate America and shrivel the capability of European powers like Germany, France and the UK.
His admiration of Stalin’s Soviet Russia is often cited, but his mission goes beyond that. In recent times he has preferred to invoke the great monarchs, Peter and Catherine especially. His speeches on Russia’s greatness , such as the key address of the July 2021 on Russia and Ukraine’s mutual and intertwined destinies, seem political science fiction. But the dreaming is matched with some very harsh political and military fact.
Today roughly 40 per cent of the Russian national budget is devoted to funding defence. The production of main battle tanks has been upped to 200 a year. New factories are being turned to churning out shells and artillery tubes. Iran has been invited to set up its own drone factory in Russia itself. What Russia cannot make is being bought in — drones and missiles from Iran, quantities of shells and rocket ordnance from North Korea.
The Russian economy has been expanding at over three per cent — largely due to the high price of exported oil, earning handsome revenue despite the sanctions imposed after the 2022 attack on Ukraine. Russia’s economy now is somewhere between the size of those of Italy and Spain and has been bent out of shape by Putin’s plan for glory by the weight of arms. In just under two years Russia has lost well over 310,000 killed and injured in Ukraine. It can mobilise hundreds of thousands — but on a declining, ageing, and far from healthy population, the supply of bodies and souls is finite.
This is now a test for the West, not least for Nato at its 75th anniversary in Washington this July. It could be too late by then. Ukraine is in difficulties and needs help — especially as normal infighting factional politics seem to have resumed in Kyiv.
Today the axis of disruption patronised by Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang is driving the constellation of crises — “the polycrises” in Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard’s terms.
As the conjectures of Nato’s counsellors suggest, these matters are urgent — and not to be shoved into the wings as inconvenient to the election campaign fest now consuming more than half the nations of the world.
Mobilising citizen armies for the future won’t cut it. Mobilising serious and original thinking in the corridors of power is a more than urgent requirement.
Robert Fox is the Evening Standard’s defence editor