In invading Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has brought war to Europe and horror to capitals across the continent and the democratic world. This is a moment that marks the dashing of three decades of Western hopes for Russia and the failure of Western foreign policy, alliances and a recent attempt at deterrence.
The UK government must respond in three ways. It must be part of a Western effort to punish the Russian government’s actions through expanded sanctions. It must give support to the Ukrainian people to respond to the consequences of war and provide reassurance to its allies in central and eastern Europe. And the government must consider the broader implications of Russia’s invasion for European security – the UK’s role in it, and how that security can be maintained.
Britain’s response so far – with sanctions against five minor banks and three figures close to Putin – has been insubstantial. It has fallen far short of the tough rhetoric that Boris Johnson has deployed and has been rightly criticised given the Johnson government’s professed aim of helping the West deter Russia from further incursions into Ukraine.
Britain must now ensure its immediate next steps meet the scale of this affront to international norms. The UK has largely focused on targeted sanctions of individuals linked to the Kremlin or who have played a role in undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty. These have a role, but the most important sanctions will be those that work on a systemic level and target whole sectors of Russia’s economy. The UK must work with the US and the EU to shut Russia more comprehensively out of the global financial system and to shut money from Putin’s cronies out of London. To be effective, these moves will have to be led by the US, but the UK, as a major financial centre, will have an important role to play. The prime minister must be clear with the British people about the costs – from the cost of energy to removing unwanted Russian money from the economy, from cyber threats to the risk of attempts to influence elections – that may follow.
There is still a chance to shape Russia’s further actions in Ukraine, to show that trampling over international law and treaties, and ignoring the sovereignty of other countries, does not go without consequences, and to increase the domestic costs of war for Putin. This is not a popular war within Russia and its people, already alert to the effects of sanctions on their economy and lives, are unlikely to welcome it, despite the blanket propaganda by Russian media about NATO’s supposed aggression. Sanctions do not have a great record of success, and Russia has adapted its economy to protect itself against these over the years, but it remains a globalised country and these steps, even if belated in the UK’s case, will hurt.
The UK’s response goes beyond sanctions. Whether there is a coordinated military response of countries to this action will depend on the US, which has shown no enthusiasm so far for that prospect. But there is a wider aspect to defence in which the UK will have a role. The UK already plays an important role in providing reassurance and support for NATO allies in central and eastern Europe, including the deployment of UK troops in Estonia and Poland. NATO has already announced it will take additional steps to further strengthen deterrence across the Alliance. The UK should also consider where it can contribute development aid, intelligence and military help to its NATO allies.
It should work with the EU more constructively than it has yet managed since Brexit to discuss defence against cyber attacks, security of energy supply, and the refugee crisis that may now follow.
This is also the moment, even before the dust has settled, for a major review of how the West responds to Russia and to international aggression of this type. It puts more weight on alliances – but these have looked strained in recent years. It means acknowledging the threat that Russia presents on many fronts, not wistfully hoping – as in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union – that Russia will naturally evolve into a liberal democracy. It means investing in defence; Europe’s perceived weakness is perhaps one reason why Putin has been tempted to make this move. Above all, it means recognising that a country which was part of the globalised world, in finance, energy and movement of people, has been prepared to shatter international laws and treaties in pursuit of land and regardless of cost. That rewrites the assumptions of three decades.
But while a new approach towards Russia is required for the long term, the next few days and weeks will set the tone for decades to come.