After the terrible drubbing the Russian military has suffered during the Ukraine conflict, Western leaders might be forgiven for concluding that Vladimir Putin no longer has the ability to threaten his European neighbours.
It is not just the devastating loss of tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles that has left Moscow struggling to maintain its “special military operation” against Ukraine. The high casualty rate suffered by Russian ground forces – which the Ukrainian military yesterday claimed stood at a staggering 34,230 war dead – is severely hampering Moscow’s attempts to seize control of the Donbas region.
Russian generals have been forced to cobble together front-line battalions consisting primarily of instructors, trainers and cooks. It has even been suggested that the Kremlin is considering granting an amnesty to prisoners convicted of minor crimes on condition they agree to fight in Ukraine. In short, the Russian war effort in Ukraine is in dire straits, a predicament that one might expect would encourage Putin to adopt a less confrontational tone with his Western rivals. A country that finds itself incapable of winning one conflict would be well-advised to avoid provoking another confrontation with its European neighbours.
Yet, to judge by the constant stream of threats emanating from the Kremlin, Putin’s enthusiasm for intimidating his adversaries remains unabated.
So far this week the Russian autocrat has warned that Moscow will soon deploy its new generation of Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles – also known as Satan II – which can destroy targets in Britain within three minutes of being launched.
With a range of 11,000 miles and carrying between 10 and 15 nuclear warheads apiece, Russia claims the missiles can fly at hypersonic speeds while bypassing existing European defence systems. The missile’s destructive force prompted one Russian television host, commenting shortly after Boris Johnson had made his second visit to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky, to make the charming boast that a single Sarmat missile would be sufficient to destroy Britain “once and for all”.
At about the same time, Nikolai Patrushev, a key figure in Putin’s national security infrastructure, issued an equally menacing threat to the “population of Lithuania” following a dispute over access to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the shores of the Baltic.
Mr Patrushev, a former head of Russia’s Federal Security Service and a high profile member of Putin’s siloviki group of cronies, did not specify what action he had in mind, but indicated that Moscow would not tolerate Vilnius’s recent decision – taken at the behest of the EU – to ban future shipments of steel and iron ore to Kaliningrad.
There are various reasons why the Kremlin is suddenly throwing its weight around. Putin could be trying to distract attention away from his pitiful performance in Ukraine, or he could be attempting to intimidate European leaders into dropping their support for Kyiv. Whatever the truth of the matter, despite its setbacks in Ukraine, Moscow still has plenty more military options at its disposal – something that Western leaders need to consider as they weigh how to counter the Russian threat in future.
Certainly, before the Ukraine conflict erupted, the overwhelming consensus within British security circles was that the prospect of conventional state-on-state conflicts taking place was remote, and that future wars would either involve low intensity campaigns of the type conducted in Afghanistan, or hi-tech campaigns waged by armies of cyber warriors. These conclusions formed the basis of the Government’s defence review published last year which, while increasing investment in the new war-fighting domains of the internet and space, made drastic reductions to the traditional war-fighting capabilities of our Armed Forces.
Even so, as General Sir Patrick Sanders, the Army’s newly-appointed Chief of the General Staff, has warned in his first rallying cry since taking command, British forces need to be prepared for swift mobilisation to eastern Europe and be “capable of beating Russia in battle”.
Sir Patrick is arguing that, for all the investment in new technology, the military needs to reconstitute its traditional war-fighting skills to enable it to undertake precisely the type of state-on-state warfare that is currently taking place between Russia and Ukraine.
There are many in Whitehall, particularly the authors of last year’s defence review, who oppose this notion. When Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, raised the issue of increasing defence spending with Mr Johnson at the start of hostilities in Ukraine, he is said to have got short shrift from Downing Street.
This attitude is short-sighted in the extreme. The reason Putin and his acolytes feel sufficiently confident to continue threatening the West is because they have invested heavily in new warships, warplanes, missiles and tanks. Major powers like Britain must do the same if they are to prevent any further acts of Russian aggression.