Russian Bears

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Welcome to the return of the Cold War. The news today takes me back a long time to another life when I was a cold war warrior. What is interesting is that the Russian bombers that I used to chase around in the North Atlantic are the same type of aircraft that British RAF Typhoons are presently chasing around in the English Channel. Presumably, in the intervening years the Russians have spent a bit of cash on upgrading the aircraft although they look remarkably similar. I should also add that my log book is almost as old as these bombers and has been gathering dust in the drawer for a long time so I’m sorry about the quality of the header image! It looked more impressive in the flesh, honestly!

It does seem unimaginable that a war could come to our shores from the East, and it is tempting to conclude that Putin is merely posturing at a time of increased international tension. Putin loves sending messages, and he is rarely subtle so it is probably worth remembering that the Litvinenko Inquiry is still ongoing and it is quite likely that Putin is going to be implicated in the poor man’s murder in some way.

Whilst a full-on war seems most unlikely, Putin’s actions in the Ukraine are destabilizing the international order that had settled out following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I have noticed that the pages of several broadsheets are packed full of comments by Putin supporters, spreading misinformation and painting the man whiter than white. I wonder if the Russian Embassy will venture into our sheep shed to do the same? The key questions to ask these agents provocateurs is how have the separatists obtained some of the latest Russian military equipment including advanced artillery, surface to air missiles and tanks? And if the Russians are not providing men to operate this kit, how did a butcher from Donetsk learn how to operate a missile battery. Oh, you know, the missile battery that he captured from the Ukrainian Army whilst brandishing a meat cleaver! Laughable.

Yes, laughable to us but deeply worrying to those Baltic states that have thrown their hat in with the EU and NATO and whose populations include a sizable Russian ethnic minority that could easily be subverted by FSB tricks straight out of the KGB manual that Putin knows so well as a former colonel. The situation in Ukraine may already be lost. The Eastern half of the country is effectively annexed now and there can be little prospect of any kind of meaningful withdrawal. But in my view Eastern Ukraine should not be lost without a major cost to Putin otherwise he may miscalculate and be tempted to repeat the venture in countries where a NATO response is required by treaty. Sadly, he only responds to power not prevarication.

Since 1989, European NATO countries have rightly run down their forces to gain a peace dividend but this now needs to be reviewed. The Russians have spent billions of petro-dollars renewing and upgrading both their nuclear and conventional forces (notwithstanding the remarks about the bomber earlier). However, to match the Russian build up will take years, and in these times of austerity it will be very difficult to achieve especially as there does not seem to be the political will to re-arm in many western countries. Yet in my view we do have a powerful alternative. It will hurt and there will be great ructions, but it will be cheaper and it could be deployed immediately. It is financial.

When the wall came down, Russia stepped into the capitalist world. Their version may be corrupt, unenforceable by law and oligarchical but it still relies on western finance and capital to operate. So far, Europe has stepped back from meaningful sanctions, largely owing to German reluctance and dependance on Russian energy supplies. But to corrupt a saying from Game of Thrones, Summer is Coming! Proper hard-hitting economic warfare could bring Russian banks to their knees within weeks. The currency would plummet even further, inflation would run rife and the economy would be tipped into the most terrible depression. It would hit Putin right where it would hurt most: in the pockets of his supporters. I’m not proposing incremental measures but a full-on economic first strike preceded by quiet warnings away from the cameras.

Yes, this would hurt us too but nowhere near to the same extent. For sure, German exports and European energy supplies would suffer, and growth would probably turn negative. However, western economies are extremely strong and resilient and would recover soon enough. Most importantly, it would be cheaper than a long arms race, less existentially threatening and nobody would have to lose their life. Which has to be quite a positive for all of us.

Seeing those Russian bears in the English Channel has made me feel all nostalgic! Pass me the hay…