If you want to invade a country, it’s important to call it a liberation. Over the coming weeks and months, that’s what we’re going to see in Ukraine. In fact it has started already. Just look at the Crimea.
Troops in unmarked uniforms have started guarding the region’s main airport. They’re being assisted by some local people. After all, they’re just there to help.
Ukraine’s President Yanukovych, who was ousted only a week ago, is defining himself as a leader deposed in a coup, and the regional government of Crimea, home of a majority ethnic Russian population, is rejecting the new government in Kiev as illegitimate.
At the same time, Russian troops are flying in to help resist what Moscow is calling the ‘Nazis’ who have taken over the government of Ukraine.
This is tragic for Ukraine, for the near-abroad and for Nato not because it is taking us by surprise but because we have expected it for so long and seen it before and yet remain incapable of acting. This is the salami-tactics that Yes, Prime Minister joked about decades ago. Slice by slice, Russia is invading Ukraine and weakening the alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for almost 70 years.
It is a textbook KGB-led operation: the agent provocateur, followed by a self-organised militia, then Russian military protection to defend ‘their’ people. The tactic was used to good effect throughout the Soviet period in Communist coups. It’s what brought down the government of Afghanistan and caused 30 years of war. And again it is unlikely to be resisted.
That’s why Angela Merkel was right to thank Britain for defending Germany throughout the Cold War. The German Chancellor knew what Russian occupation meant and that it was only because our militarily was a force to be reckoned with that the Kremlin thought hard about acting.
But after watching decades of British defence cuts, Moscow feels confident it can act with impunity in territories it considers its own.
But that is not an end in itself. For Russia this is also about rebuilding the buffer. That was the purpose of the Soviet Bloc, which has been eaten away by Nato’s spread East.
Each Russian soldier in Crimea is lessening the chance of a united Ukraine emerging unscathed and without a civil war. They are ‘proving’ to our Eastern allies that Nato is a paper tiger and to our Western friends that this is a pointless struggle. That is President Putin’s real goal.
He has tried it in the past, first with the cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 that closed down the government. At that moment, though, Nato was clearly credible – after all, it was fighting in Afghanistan and off the Horn of Africa.
Then he invaded – sorry, liberated – Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But although Georgia had troops fighting alongside us in Iraq and Afghanistan it wasn’t a member of NATO. Today the victim is Ukraine.
Like Georgia, Ukraine isn’t part of the Brussels-based alliance, but timing is everything.
Today, Russia wants to prevent the spread of Western influence and to protect the home to its Black Sea fleet based in Ukraine’s Crimea region.
For Nato, meanwhile, withdrawing from Afghanistan is raising questions about its future role. What will be the next most important topic when the 28 member states meet in Britain this September? After all, without the kit still in Afghanistan, an already reduced Nato will be greatly enfeebled.
The only realistic way for our combat vehicles to get back is on Russian trains. Pakistan has proved unreliable and flying would take months and cost a fortune. Putin knows that and so does Nato. He’s gambling that most countries won’t want to act.
Putin also watched the US over both Libya and Syria. Obama barely supported Nato’s actions against Tripoli and his ‘red-line’ over the use of chemical weapons was nothing but hot air.
So the next few weeks and months could shape the continent and define the next evolution of the most successful guardian of the peace for almost 70 years.
Russia is demonstrating that the tactics that made Jim Hacker nervous are just as dangerous today. By never giving us a binary choice, the Kremlin is gambling that by the time we realise what’s happened, it will be too late. By giving us the choice of saving our kit or our credibility, Putin has played his hand to perfection.
Tom Tugendhat was a journalist in the Middle East before joining the Territorial Army, and served as military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff. He now runs Lashkar and Co, a strategy consultancy, and is the prospective Conservative candidate for Tonbridge and Malling. Twitter: @TomTugendhat