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3 March 2022

The West must topple Putin – but it will take patience

The UK government needs to focus urgently on our potential vulnerabilities to a wounded Russia.

By David Gauke

Few would have predicted a week ago that Russia’s advances in Ukraine would be slower than the Western response.

The Russian economy faces calamitous sanctions, Nato has been strengthened, the Ukrainians have resisted heroically and effectively, the Russian military has looked shambolic.

This is all to be welcomed but it is also right to strike some notes of caution. Russia underestimated Ukraine but we should not now underestimate Russia. It still has the overwhelming advantage in terms of military force. It has taken its first major city, Kherson, and others will probably follow. If the major cities cannot be taken, there is every reason to believe that Vladimir Putin will destroy them in the hope that he can bomb the Ukrainian government into making concessions. Tragically, the worst atrocities are still to come.

Our response has to be realistic. It is decent and humane and compassionate to want to intervene to assist the Ukrainians when Russian air superiority puts them at a disadvantage but imposing a no-fly zone would be irresponsible. It means flying planes from Poland to Ukraine to shoot down Russian aircraft. The likely response is that Russia would then bomb Polish airbases. It is all too obvious to see how this escalates.

But our response must also be determined and sustained. The world is inspired by the Ukrainian resistance and we want to play our part by passing resolutions, making announcements, demonstrating our solidarity with a nation that is suffering so much and bearing it with great fortitude. All of that is good and necessary but we must not allow this to be a mere adrenaline rush.

For all of the encouraging news of the last week, this is likely to be a long haul. Putin will fail but it may not be quick or easy. We are going to have to steel ourselves for heartbreaking defeats and disappointments, for economic pain and relearning to live with risks that are much, much worse. Toppling Putin (and the world will not be safe until he is toppled) will almost certainly require patience.

We can make a fair guess at how Putin views the sanctions imposed on Russia. He will see them as Western imperialism but also as a consequence of an emotional spasm, a sentimental response to television images by soft, decadent societies. In his eyes, the West may be bigger economically than Russia but it has neither Russia’s capacity to absorb pain, nor Russia’s ruthlessness in inflicting pain.

As the writer Arieh Kovler has argued, once the battle for Ukraine is over the priority for Russia will be to break the sanctions. This is where the risks for the UK may be at their most acute.

The UK government needs to focus urgently on our potential vulnerabilities to a wounded Russia determined to force us to give up our sanctions. Just as it became our national mission to take on Covid-19, we are likely to need a national mission for a 21st-century Cold War in which our resilience will be tested. Policy options that were once politically, fiscally and environmentally impossible may now become essential.

The biggest vulnerability is energy. The Business and Energy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, produced a helpful Twitter thread this week arguing that the issue for the UK is energy prices not energy security. It is true we have a diverse range of energy sources but the risk of the Russians sabotaging the undersea cables providing gas from Norway cannot be dismissed.

For the West as a whole, security is now a greater priority than net zero. Domestic fossil fuel supplies are certainly not going to be decommissioned any time soon. The net effect, however, may be to accelerate the adoption of nuclear and renewable technology. Ministers should be asking what could be done as quickly as possible. Could we rapidly expand the use of renewables if planning restrictions on solar farms and onshore wind turbines were temporarily suspended? Should we increase subsidies for heat pumps? Is now the time for a massive push on home insulation?

The risk of cyberattacks has increased. We have invested heavily in this area but is there more that can be done to increase both our defensive and offensive capacity? The evidence of recent weeks suggests that the Russians do not have this all their own way but we cannot be complacent. Now that the Russians are out of Swift, the global financial messaging system, it is likely to become a prime target.

Russia is also likely to increase its attempts to sow division in society through its manipulation of social media. A war on the bots is needed from the big social media companies while the mainstream media and politicians will have to be even more determined to expose Russian activity and less tolerant of their fellow-travellers.

Getting the truth to the Russian people will be essential. The BBC World Service is a vital institution in which we should invest but we also need to be innovative in finding ways to communicate with a people in a totalitarian state.

The West has revealed a strong determination to isolate the Russian economy. Its challenge will be to sustain this when the novelty has worn off and the costs begin to hurt. There is one last difficulty. It is possible, after January 2025, that we will no longer have the US with us if Donald Trump returns to office. We need to prepare for that, too.

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