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16 March 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 11:40am

The West must begin the biggest soft-power operation in history

Nato’s emergency summit in Brussels is the chance for a revolution in geopolitical vision.

By Paul Mason

Nato’s emergency summit in Brussels on 24 March must be the occasion for hard words and fast thinking. If, by then, there is a proposed ceasefire deal offering neutrality to Ukraine, in return for territorial integrity, then for all its losses on the battlefield Russia will have dealt a setback to Nato by armed force.

Ukraine will have suffered half a trillion dollars’ worth of physical damage, and thousands of civilian deaths – because Nato failed to pursue a clear line of action with a country it had turned into a diplomatic client state. The people of Ukraine have a right to demand better.

But there are upsides. Putin’s strategic goal is to disorganise the West; to render the EU fragmentary; to make vulnerable Nato countries and allies, such as Finland, Sweden and Moldova, fear the US will not defend them if attacked. So far he has failed.

But not because of any grand statecraft by Washington. In the critical moments before the invasion the US, together with Britain, struggled to persuade Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz that the invasion threat was real. That was partly because many in Ukraine’s political elite refused to believe it also.

It was not Washington who persuaded key European powers to rush anti-tank and other weapons across the border, but Britain. Only the Brits, the Poles and the Baltic states were thinking “outside the box” at this point.

Likewise, the most dramatic rethink in the immediate aftermath of the invasion was Scholz’s decision to rearm Germany and end three decades of Ostpolitik. Scholz’s bravery unlocked a similar hidden radicalism in the European Commission. As a result, less than three weeks into the conflict, the EU is technically committed to its own strategic autonomy, on food, energy and defence spending.

Meanwhile the Nordic states have undergone a sea-change in attitude. Support for Nato membership is now around 60 per cent in Finland. Finland has an 830-mile border with Russia, was invaded once before, in the winter of 1939, and has armed forces that are bigger than those of Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia combined.

And while Nato membership for Finland and Sweden looks inevitable, the Joint Expeditionary Force – a Nato offshoot involving all Baltic and Nordic countries, plus the Netherlands and the UK, with Britain in the lead – has also come to life as a potential vehicle for improvising supplies, intelligence and other aid to Ukraine.

But these dynamics – of faltering American leadership, European cohesion, the sudden activation of the Nordic states – have to be channelled into an overall strategy. And it’s not clear what that should be. 

There are different geopolitical visions at play. In the first, America calls the shots, deploying more troops, more hardware, more soft power into eastern Europe and the Black Sea, to ensure further attrition for Russia’s forces, diplomatic isolation and the slow strangulation of the Russian economy. The assumption is that European military powers remain aligned with US statecraft.

A second geopolitical vision has it otherwise. 

European strategic autonomy is a concept born in the defence industry ten years ago, over the need to avoid dependence on major US contractors for hi-tech weaponry. Since then, after the eurozone crisis and the election of Donald Trump, it has become a geopolitical goal, with Macron as its strongest proponent. 

In Macron’s vision, the EU moves beyond commonness in its security and foreign policies, to actual sovereignty. It becomes a fourth, major global power alongside the US, China and Russia. And it does so for the reason that the US’s obsessive focus is on its rivalry with China, and also because Europe seeks a different kind of accommodation with Russia.

Macron, right up to the week before the conflict, sought to impose a new security arrangement on Ukraine bilaterally – in the form of proposed “Finlandisation”. He had the space to do so because the US was floundering – spraying the chancelleries of Europe with PowerPoint decks showing Russia’s intention to invade, while insisting that the door to Ukraine joining Nato remain open but mobilising only token troop reinforcements.

There will be a lot of cheering for Zelensky, for Ukrainian soldiers, for grandmas with sunflower seeds, at the Brussels summit. And a lot of satisfaction at the bloody nose given to Russia’s army.

But the basic problem the Brussels summit must confront is of strategic intent. Does the West intend to paralyse Russia with sanctions, from now until it becomes a failed state, dragging Putin to the Hague and conducting Cold War-style asymmetric operations to make life hell for everyone connected to the Russian state?

If it does, it must begin the biggest soft-power operation in history: to prepare an indigenous Russian opposition to seize or inherit power from a collapsed Putin regime. It must write, in line one of the new Strategic Concept being drafted for Nato’s Madrid summit this coming June: “Nato’s goal is the overthrow of Vladimir Putin, followed by a new security treaty to stabilise relations between Europe and the post-Putin state.”

If it can’t say that, it must come forward with a credible plan for self-defence – and not just with an enhanced conventional armed force, deployed from northern Finland to Romania. Nato’s assumptions on nuclear deterrence are no longer credible. Putin announced he was prepared to use a nukes if Nato intervened.

The rapid development of missile defence and hypersonic weapons now seems the only rational answer to these threats – which will cost money, take time and destabilise the global nuclear balance.

We have not even begun to calculate what Europe’s armies may have to look like given the increased threat – nor how to pay for them. Britain’s army in Germany at the height of the Cold War was four times the size of what it now deploys. One thing is certain, however: none of it is affordable under the current fiscal rules, either of the EU or the eurozone.

As for Boris Johnson, he will play a bit part in the twin EU/Nato summits. His geopolitical vision – Global Britain – is in the dustbin, together with his plan to shrink the army and scrap a third of its tanks. As the way opens for massive, integrated European R&D and defence manufacture, Britain will be forced to orient, once again, towards the continent on our doorstep, not the Spratly Islands.

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