If history has taught us anything, it is that there is still plenty of mileage left in the adage adapted from Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s tract De Re Militari: “Si vis pacem, para bellum”. An effective answer to the events in eastern Ukraine – despite the brief meeting between the new President Ukraine and Putin in France last week and yesterday’s meeting in St. Petersburg between the Russian, Polish and German foreign ministers – than we were when I last wrote these words (in Answer This). Helen of Troy may have had the face to launch a thousand ships but so far we seem only to have been able to launch a thousand hash-tags along the lines of: #something must be done#Ukraine, which doesn’t really cut it.
An exaggeration, of course, but not so far off if the opinion of Senator John McCain is anything to go by as he attacked both the US and EU response to Russian “aggression” in Ukraine while in Poland last week. “If I was in the White House I would give Europe a choice: either you are with us, or you are with Putin,” he told Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. Clearly unimpressed by the limited sanctions and France’s selling warships to Russia, McCain blamed the timid response on Europe’s energy dependency on Russia and business ties. For good measure he also criticised President Obama for doing nothing as each red line drawn by him is crossed by further Russian incursions in the Ukraine, thereby damaging US credibility.
While in Warsaw last week to mark the celebration of 25 years of Poland’s new freedom (please see Freedom) President Obama had called on the US Congress to provide one billion dollars to strengthen the American presence in the region and on Sunday US General Raymond Odierno arrived in Poland for talks with the Polish defence minister and to observe military exercises involving American troops currently stationed in the country. So something is happening but, inevitably, not enough to satisfy Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski.
Speaking at the Wroclaw Global Forum at the weekend he repeated his request for a permanent NATO presence in Poland. “Why is it all right to have bases in Germany, in Britain, Spain, Italy and Turkey and not in Poland? What are the 55,000 remaining American troops Germany defending against? I assure you that Poland is no threat. And I don’t think Denmark wants to attack Germany either,” he said.
Well, cynics would no doubt answer why bother moving the bases to Poland when so many Poles are moving to the countries in which the bases are already located. Of course, the bases are where they are for historic reasons and in a climate of continued reductions in defence spending and base closures it seems that there is little appetite to open new ones. Besides it doesn’t really matter, within reason, where the bases are provided that NATO maintains sufficient men and material and the will to use them.
And therein lies the real problem. The west has effectively lost the will to defend itself. Increasingly unwilling to defend its traditional values on the streets of its own capital cities, it has become increasingly unwilling to spend to defend itself militarily. The Roman Empire fell when Romans lost interest in defending it themselves. Europe has become complacently reliant on the USA’s military which is not sustainable as the USA re-orients itself away from Europe and towards the Pacific and Asia. During the Cold War each side was so well armed that neither dare attack the other for fear of mutually assured destruction. It may have been mad, but it worked.
Since then governments have so drawn on the “peace dividend” that western defences no longer deter the determined aggressor because continued cuts suggest a failure of will. And the military incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have painfully demonstrated – not least for the populations concerned – better the devil you knew. Putin, and others, know this. Scrupulous in not setting foot on NATO territory, he knows that he has little to fear beyond minor inconvenience. Much better to deter the aggressor before he invades than wondering about how to get him out afterwards, not least because once loosed, the dogs of war are not easily re-leashed.
Sikorski and one or two others are alive to the importance of deterrence by demonstrating clearly that one means business but few are listening. The fact that the NATO summit in September is taking place at a golf course in Wales really sums it up.
Be that as it may, as ever the last word to Shakespeare:
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation.
Unfortunately we hear not the dreadful note of preparation but the silence of unpreparedness.