There are so many issues I could write about at the moment I am spoilt for choice. By the time you receive this, we will have had a Spring Statement from the Chancellor, so once I have gone through the small print, I can write a little more coherently about our cost of living challenges. We will also get an ‘energy future’ strategy from the Prime Minister next week – so no point pre-empting that. And we’ve only just had Blackpool’s hosting of the Conservative Party Spring Forum where more commitments were made for Blackpool than you can shake a stick at – and I need to pull all that together.
So I thought now was a good moment to pause and reflect a bit on the stain on modern civilisation which is the present crisis in Ukraine – and I will cover the refugee response as well.
No one likes to watch the scenes in Ukraine. Of course we all want to do what we can to end it and bring peace to that benighted country. But I also believe we have to be realistic about what the UK or a wider NATO force could achieve. Sending our entire armed forces would be a drop in the ocean in the Ukraine – intervention, as in every other land-based war on the continent of Europe, would need to be a multi-national exercise. The Russian/Ukrainian flat and open steppe is not the terrain on which we would have much hope of stopping armed forces (any more than the Polish plains were in 1939 and 1944-5). It is basic military strategy never to fight on the ground of the enemy’s choosing.
A no-fly zone is hard to achieve as it would require NATO to involve itself militarily in the war by shooting Russian planes – I am not sure there is a public consensus for that level of intervention. Indeed, the damage being done to Ukraine’s cities is mostly by artillery and rockets – which a no-fly zone would not be able to stop – and it is Ukraine that is more effectively using air space and has denied Russia air superiority, not least through the use of drones. The UK is also the one setting up the logistics hub in Poland co-ordinating delivery of lethal aid, incidentally, so I think we are contributing disproportionately.
Indeed, social media is awash with videos of Ukrainain troops crying ‘God save the Queen’ as they fire off rockets , as they regard the UK as playing such a leading role.
That is why I believe the intervene/don’t intervene debate is the wrong one to have. Intervention comes in many forms, and that which is the most effective at ending war which should be selected.
It is also important to differentiate between the defensive equipment we are sending now (and are by far the largest donors) and other forms of military assistance which are offensive in nature (i.e. shooting down Russian jets) and would escalate the situation. It is one thing to argue for greater military involvement, but those who advocate this must explain their enthusiasm for broadening the war to the women and children of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who would face bombs and missiles raining down on them almost immediately. It is not UK citizens who would be in the line of fire.
As someone who would actually have to cast a vote in favour of declaring war and sending soldiers to die, it would need to be demonstrated to me that that was the only way to defeat Putin. That is a duty I have to take extremely seriously as I would have to look the families who lost loved ones in the eye. It is not a decision for the UK alone to take, nor in this regard, do I criticise the Prime Minister for seeking an international coalition.
Any unilateral dispatch of British troops would be a very dangerous step in my view in terms of escalating the conflict to a continental or even global war – providing supplies of lethal aid (and we have provided more than any other nation), and intelligence and cybersecurity capability is where we can add much greater value to Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself (in addition to UK military personnel there who are training partisans). Years of underestimating and miscalculating Putin cannot be undone at this late stage, and ensuring his plans are defeated will be a more circuitous task than just military confrontation.
World War II alone suggests to me that military action alone does not lead to victory – it was an economic blockade of Germany and a superior supply chain which eventually ground the Nazis war machine down so it could no longer function. D-Day was some three years in the planning – and time is not a luxury Ukraine has right now.
I respect those who believe the UK should intervene unilaterally. But I profoundly disagree. We can and must act through NATO, as only then do we have the collective weight to make a difference. Sanctions aimed at the heart of the Russian economy are already having an impact and degrading Russia’s ability to sustain its campaign.
There is a very real threat of nuclear escalation – and there is no greater risk in my view. We need moderate voices in Russia to feel under sufficient pressure to force political change and come to the negotiating table to find a face-saving exit. That is the way Ukraine can rise again.
We must continue to deploy economic pressure in the hope that the oligarchs around Putin see their wealth being frittered away and that he is no longer the guarantor of their status he once was.
On refugees, after a slow start (to say the least) Government has picked up the pace. Crucially in my eyes, we have also just reappointed Richard Harrington as a Minister for Refugees, a role he performed very successfully during the Syrian crisis. Sometimes the changes which make the most difference are those which get the least attention, and I think he brings experience and compassion to the role. We have 20,000 Syrian refugees permanently settled here, 20,000 Afghans and 97,000 Hong Kong Chinese – so we can do this!
And that’s before the Homes for Ukraine scheme Gove launched today – whilst there are unofficial matching schemes in other EU countries, we are the only country to actually launch a scheme like this for private citizens to accommodate refugees and receive a stipend from the government for doing so – although it is the general population who are showing the real generosity of spirit, I appreciate.
I don’t doubt there is some public disquiet over the Government’s handling of the refugee problem but I also think there is scant understanding of what it takes to stand up these schemes. I also believe it is easy to blame Ministers, but too often they are given inaccurate information about what is happening on the ground, and make claims that matters are better than they are. I know as an Aviation Minister when Thomas Cook collapsed that finding out what was happening at Malaga Airport proved nigh on an impossibility.
In the meantime, as atrocity piles upon atrocity, we must hope for a negotiated settlement – but one that Ukraine assents to. We saw in Munich in 1938 when the Sudetenland was bartered away without any reference to Czechoslovakia where that can lead. And President Zhelensky has led his nation with distinction, and should not find the West abandons him in Ukraine’s hour of need merely for political convenience.
Paul Maynard MP
Blackpool North & Cleveleys